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I think that attending a program where *nobody* works in your desired AOS is a mistake. That guarantees that you will have little support if you plough ahead (and probably also makes it likely that you'll just switch to an area with support).

The tradeoffs, I think, are real. On the one hand, a really elite PhD program's halo effect is real, and can make a significant different to your post-PhD opportunities. On the other hand, having a supervisor in your AOS makes it a lot easier (1) to get pertinent advice and feedback, (2) to take relevant courses and be guided through the literature, and (3) to be inducted into your relevant professional association (it's almost certainly *not* the APA!) and its research network, and introduced to scholars of all ranks in that association. You can definitely do all of that on your own (I know plenty who have!), but it's hard, and it's a lot of work. It's a lot easier when you have help, and when you aren't starting at a disadvantage relative to those who have that help.

Striking the balance between overall reputation and subfield reputation is tough. But I wouldn't advise anyone to attend a program where *nobody* works in their AOS. I've known a few who did, and they were miserable--in fact, I think they've all left academia. Your interests may change, and that's OK, but don't set yourself up for a hard time in the first place. Attend a program that can support your current interests (including your interests outside your desired AOS).

I chose a program extremely strong in my desired AOS, and strong in my desired complementary areas. It wasn't an elite program overall by any stretch. Although my complementary areas of interest changed--to areas the program was not very strong in!--my AOS stayed the same.

My subfield is a low-status one, and not usually represented at all in R1s and R2s (that said, it's not actually "small"--our professional association has around 700 members!). My market experience was pretty rough. I have a permanent NTT job (it's roughly equivalent to a TT job, but there's no tenure system here), but I sent over 100 applications every year (for all kinds of jobs) for five years and got 0-1 first-round interviews every year, despite an increasingly excellent publication record.

And I'm far from unique: pretty much every junior scholar I know in this subfield was in the exact same situation, regardless of their pedigree. It's really, really tough out there if you're in a subfield with an average of 0-1 dedicated jobs a year. My impression is that you basically can't publish enough to make up for that fact. I'm pretty sure that virtually no amount of prestige does, either, although I might be wrong about that as far as, like, NYU is concerned.

If you're going into a similar situation to the one I'm describing, then my advice is to spend a lot of time developing a higher-prestige, higher-demand second AOS which is also well-supported in the program you choose to attend. Publish regularly in that second AOS, and integrate yourself into its research networks. But know that doing so for one AOS is a lot of work, let alone for two! Do yourself as many favours as you can, and try not to add to your workload by entering a program where a major research interest of yours is largely or totally unsupported.


Related question. Marcus, you describe having changed your AOS during your grad program and, as such, are advising that applying narrowly in an AOS isn't always the best move. Can you or anyone else comment how to indicate openness to this in grad applications?

My understanding is that one's stated research interests are given heavy weight by admissions committees. I have a well developed research interest, but it is quite narrow and not a primary interest at many of the larger programs I am wanting to apply to. I have many secondary interests which I'd be happy to swap into (especially for MA programs), but no real developed research questions in those areas.

Thus, I feel I'd fit in well to programs that don't specialize in my primary area, since this primary area just happens to be where I've got the most developed research question, but by no means the only area I'm capable or interested in. How do I indicate this? If I apply with a few vague research interests, that won't look good, but if I apply with an overly specific interest, I'll "specify" myself out of some potentially great programs due to lack of fit.


Yes interests can change. I’ve always been an ethics, political/social/legal philosophy, linguistics/semantics type of person. But now I’m very interested in epistemology because 1) I see so many epistemological issues that were and are taken for granted, 2) my own experience of being intellectually gaslighted, 3) I like the challenge that comes with a new study, and 4) it’s fruitful field that can benefit others.

I was first introduced to epistemology in my feminist philosophy class when we were going over standpoint theory. My graduate student instructor briefly introduced us to it. I neglected it for the rest of my years at university until recently because of my own struggles with epistemic injustices and in general. I felt a responsibility to do something about it. I think it is a field that needs more people to engage in and by engaging in it others and I will hopefully offer a fresh, different, and fruitful contribution to it.

Marcus Arvan

Related: good questions - I hope some readers in the know chime in with some helpful answers!


Related -

I've been on our admissions committee for a number of years (but obviously its an open question whether my thoughts generalize to other Universities), but we don't quite put "heavy weight" on research areas in the way you're worried about. Your stated research interests do matter to some extent: if you say that you're primarily interested in X but no one in our department does X (or the only person that does is about to retire, etc.), then this will count heavily against you, no matter how wonderful your writing sample, etc. are.

However, those are extreme cases. It is OK to have vaguely stated interests (I'm interested in ancient philosophy or philosophy of mind, etc.) as long as you have a strong writing sample in say, ancient philosophy or philosophy of mind. It isn't great if you have a writing sample in mind but research interests in ancient. However, if the sample and the rest of the file are strong, such students can still get admitted.

It is true that some applicants do have detailed research proposals. But it is also true in my experience that students rarely end up pursuing those proposals years later when actually writing their dissertation (this is primarily for the reasons Marcus mentions: people's interests drift. After two years of coursework, it is unlikely that you'll end up pursuing the same research proposal - you might not even be in the same area (see Marcus' story).

It is especially true if you're considering MA programs - we don't expect detailed research proposals at all. Just some indication that your interests fit with the department's.

Much more weight is given to the writing sample as evidence whether you can do good philosophy. If your writing sample is in an area that no one in our department specializes in, that will probably count against you.

the situation is different if you're applying to a program in the U.K., for instance, where you won't be doing coursework and are expected to start right in on your research. In that case, you should indeed have a detailed research proposal that fits with the department.


It is my understanding that admission committees don't necessarily focus on the applicants' desired AOS because they know that AOS changes. I think admission committees care more about how promising you are as a philosopher. In fact, I've heard many faculty express that it is the purpose of the grad program to mold you into a philosopher in their image (this is why, for example, programs have required core classes and even if you transfer in from another Ph.D. program, they will require you re-take the core classes anyways). I think most top US Ph.D. programs do a very specific style of philosophy - you always know when someone came out NYU/Rutgers/Princeton. What people come in thinking they will do will change after the initial years of course work and being exposed to different things.

I would recommend students to go to the better-ranked program. Others have already stated some pros of doing this. One thing going for top programs is that they tend to have better coverage of different areas of philosophy and the departmental life will be more full and interesting than smaller/less known departments. By this, I just mean the number of external speakers, conferences, and events that are more frequent at top programs. Having access to this larger intellectual community is really important if as a grad student, you take full advantage of it.

The one big caveat is if the top program is against your philosophical style, then don't go there. If you are more interested in continental philosophy, for example, then going to an analytic department will make you miserable. If you are more interested in doing history of philosophy, you may find a department with little to no coverage in history of philosophy to be stifling. But if you agree with the general style of the philosophy, then finding someone to advise a dissertation that adjacent to their own AOS isn't the end of the world (for example, you might be super into philosophy of action, but end up with an ethicist as your advisor).

I agree with the previous comment here about the importance of the writing sample.


Part of it depends on how much a given program's strength in an area is due to one or two people, or to more. Would you go to Indiana to work on Kant if Wood left? Probably not. Would you go to CMU to work on formal methods in philosophy of science, if their best person left? Yes, absolutely, because they're going to maintain that area for the foreseeable future. So I think there are times to prioritize area over Leiter ranking. But it needs to be a case where you're not too vulnerable to departures, retirements, deaths, etc. of a single faculty member or two.

Sorry if I'm repeating anyone.

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