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I do not think that GRE scores level the playing field more than anything else. First, I have seen friends raise their scores substantially on the verbal section on a retest, studying vocabulary books. Second, it is far more likely that families with money will pay for their children to take the prep courses. I did not take such a course; the child of a professor in my cohort did. She got scores in the 99 %ile.
No one is getting into the high end programs on PEDIGREE alone. Anyone who says that is either ignorant or just bitter. Granted one's pedigree gets one's file looked at with care. But there is such a surplus of deserving applicants that no school, and certainly not one in the highest ranks, needs to take a weak student.

Chris Stephens

I thought I'd say something from a Canadian perspective.

1. I think the most important factor (for my school (University of British Columbia) - at any rate) is the writing sample, with grades and letters also important (though who the letter is from matters less - sometimes letters from "big names" at large schools don't especially help a student: those professors write a lot of letters and they'd can't (reliably) say every year: this is one of the best students I've had in years...)

2. Another issue for Economic Diversity: attracting students from other (especially less well of economically) countries.

In Canada, we get fewer applications from prestigious private schools, in part because there aren't really private schools like the Ives, etc. here. Many of the very best students go to public school close to home. I assume most of my colleagues in the US are aware that this happens (though to a lesser extent) in the US as well.

3. At UBC we have eliminated GRE scores for admissions (well, we've never required them). I agree with "Sure" that these can be "gamed" as well. Students with more financial resources can hire tutors, etc. Also, students at some Universities get a lot of help with writing samples; others, not so much. Sometimes undergraduates at the same University get very different amounts of help. It's hard to know!

4. I agree that less emphasis should be put on where the applicant went to school.

5. Students who went to schools like UBC are also at a small advantage as far as evaluating grades goes: we print the class size and class average for every course on the transcript, which helps make clear whether the professor is just an easy grader. It cuts down (to some extent) on grade inflation. Some professors make up for this lack of information on transcripts by making explicit comparisons in their letter ("She was one of the top 2 students in a class of 25", etc.)

6. Some places (apparently) do care about GREs for the reason you mention. Since you did so well on the GREs but didn't get admitted, I wouldn't underestimate two additional factors: (a) fit (b) the number of applicants.

(a) Fit can make a big difference. In addition to the obvious - we're not likely to admit a brilliant looking student who wants to work in areas we don't specialize in- we don't want to admit a class full of everyone doing the exact same area - in some years the applicant pool is better in one area than another.

(b) There are a lot of applicants! Many excellent students get shut out even when they apply to 15-20 places. If you're serious about going: apply again (improve you writing sample in the mean time) and consider MA programs if you haven't already. It is still the norm (though not required) for Canadians to do an MA before a PhD. This means most Canadian graduate programs have robust, funded MA programs, even if they also have a PhD program.

As far as the "oddity" that in the UK, but not US programs require MAs (I don't know if that's true everywhere in the UK) - this may be partially explained by the fact that there is often less (or no!) coursework for the PhD in the UK.

Marcus Arvan

Sure: You may be right that no one gets into PhD programs on the basis of pedigree alone.

Still, I wonder what you make of Eric Schwitzgebel's 2011 study [http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2011/10/sorry-cal-state-students-no-princeton.html ] indicating that when it came to Leiter top-10 programs, the vast majority of grad students in those programs came from highly ranked universities. Eric found that in the Leiter top 10,

[1] (29%) [of grad students] come from just eight universities: The US News top 10 National Universities, excluding MIT and CalTech (Chicago, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale)."

[2] "Another seventeen (18%) come from the universities ranked 11-25 (Berkeley, Brown, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Rice, UCLA, USC, and Vanderbilt being represented)."

[3] Ten more (11%) come from universities ranked 26-50. And of these ten, seven are from universities with elite graduate programs in philosophy: Three from NYU (Leiter ranked #1 in the U.S.), 1 from Michigan (Leiter ranked #5), 2 from UNC Chapel Hill (Leiter ranked #9), and 1 from Tufts (Leiter ranked as the #1 master's program in the U.S).

[4] Only three universities ranked 51-100 are represented: Two students from Rutgers (whose PhD program is Leiter ranked #2), one from Northeastern (though this student took an MA from Minnesota first), and strikingly four students from Colorado (which has a mid-ranked PhD program: Leiter rank #26).

[5] "Many of the remaining students are from elite schools in the US News category "National Liberal Arts Colleges"."

[6] "Only eighteen students (19%) come from all the remaining universities in the United States combined."

[7] "not a single student on this list [came] from the two biggest public university systems in the country: the Cal State system (412,000 students) and the SUNY system (468,000 students, but that number includes students in two-year colleges and technical institutes)."

These findings don't show that people are getting into high end programs on pedigree alone--but, all the same, they do seem to me to suggest that the deck may be stacked against applicants who, perhaps due to socio-economic background, attend large state schools. Although I agree with you that "no school, and certainly not one in the highest ranks, needs to take a weak student", I cannot help but find it interesting that not a single student in the massive CAL or SUNY systems got accepted into and attended a Leiter top-10 program during the time period in question.

Anyway, I'm curious what you would say about Eric's findings.


There are many things to say.
First, there is such a great surplus of qualified students - many with BAs from elite schools - so it is not a surprise to see the elite PhD programs are loaded with students from elite undergraduate programs.
Second, I think pressure on Grad programs to report completion rates have probably exacerbated things. This is an unintended consequence of the request for such information to be made public. But now programs have incentives to admit "sure thing" candidates (and candidates from Ivy League schools have a track record of success ... that is why they did their BAs at an Ivy).
Third, many elite schools are concerned about diversity, but they merely mean diversity with respect to gender and race. I have seen it in the schools I have visited. I do not want to give details.
Let me be clear. I am concerned with this issue. I am the child of a teenage mother. I am not a likely person to be in the Academy. I know how challenging it is to navigate through the system.

Marcus Arvan

Sure: Your remarks all sound plausible to me. However, they also seem, at least at first glance, consistent with the overall thrust of Anonymous' post--which is that, given the challenges that one's socioeconomic background can pose for getting into good philosophy PhD programs, programs [and perhaps the APA] should adopt some strategies or other for increasing economic diversity within them, given the surplus of good applicants.


As I said, I am concerned with the issue. It is telling, though, that the Anonymous poster said they benefitted from Leiter's blog/rankings. Note, Leiter is not the APA. I have little confidence in the APA doing this sort of thing in a reasonable way. I would have more confidence in Leiter. That is not to say I do not value the APA. It should stick with hosting and organizing conferences. When it gets political, it risks running off the rails. And it no longer represents the full range of its members (as it should).
I think some elite schools take race as a proxy for lower SES. That is very telling. Obviously, as many can see, the minority students at many elite schools are as upper-middle class+ as the white students that attend these school.

Just a Guy

To Sure's point about completion rates and departments wanting "sure thing" candidates, it seems that if true this would give applicants holding the MA a leg up. Maybe MA applicants do have an advantage over the average applicant, but certainly not as great an advantage as undergrads from US News top ten schools, as Marcus notes. So I don't think that programs are using pedigree as some kind of proxy for likelihood to complete the program, and if they were they should be favoring students who already have a graduate degree in hand, but they don't seem to.

Additionally, Sure suggested that prominent bloggers like Leiter might be better suited than the APA to handle the task of a tip sheet for applicants. This is an interesting idea, but it seems like Anonymous is probably more plugged in than perhaps he lets on, since he presumably knew who Leiter was and what the PGR was for. This requires at least a basic awareness of the culture of professional philosophy. Plus, Leiter is a controversial figure. Some of the actions of the APA of late have been polarizing too, but it does seem that there's something to be said for a putatively nonpartisan organization handling this sort of project.

I do agree with what I take to be the general sentiment of the post that underprivileged students are far more likely to attend state schools, and students from state schools face all kinds of barriers, at least some of which are put up not by society at large but by the internal power structures of academic philosophy. And that's bad. Since pedigree has a major correlation with family wealth, it is not a stretch to identify pedigree favoritism as a sinister, discriminatory force and I am surprised more academics don't take it more seriously. Perhaps most folks in a position to make impactful decisions benefited from pedigree advantages themselves(a look at where most faculty got their PhD and BA shows this is obviously true), and are consequently motivated to not see anything wrong with the system.

Sara L. Uckelman

It does seem odd to me that the US has not adopted the standard of the UK in making an MA a prerequisite for a PhD.

It is because a US PhD starts off with 3-4 years of full time course work, before the student even thinks about researching and writing their dissertation. In the UK (and much of Europe), there is no course work requirement, the assumption being that you got it when you did your MA.

Current PhD Student

One thought regarding the prerequisite to have an MA prior to applying to a PhD program: this may in some cases work against economic diversity. An MA in the US usually costs a significant amount of money (rarely are they fully-funded like PhD program, although there may be opportunities to obtain scholarship or work-study funding). Often an MA requires 2 years of out-of-pocket tuition and livings costs while going to school full time.

I applied to PhD programs in philosophy as a career change, having come from a decade working in a non-academic sector. I was grateful to not have to go through several years of an MA prior to starting my PhD work at this later stage in life, and if I had to do this, I wouldn't have been able to afford stop working and pursue the MA degree anyway. My department was able to select me as a diverse candidate in many respects (age, background, gender, etc.)

One benefit for MA programs is they delay starting a PhD program until a student has a little more work and life experience to build upon. The idea that one's likelihood of success in a PhD program (and in the career beyond) is based on having gotten into a top-tiered undergrad institution and that admission is based in all sorts of socio-economic factors about that person's experiences from approximately ages 14-18 don't seem to be the right determinants of success in a competitive graduate school or in academia more broadly.

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