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05/21/2021

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Assistant Professor

My experiences is that graduate programs want to see promise. The OP can show more than promise, they show demonstrated achievement in the field even prior to graduate school - which is impressive and certainly demonstrates future promise regardless of early undergraduate record. (Honestly, now that I teach undergraduates, I would not think that someone's ability to get good grades is the measure of their future promise as a philosopher - those skills might be different in kind.)

The same advice I would give to any grad school applicant I would give to this one: tell a coherent narrative in your statement about why graduate school and why the particular program (yes, tailor ALL your letters). I would apply widely in type of program but encourage you to have an clear reason for each program to which you apply that you can articulate in your letter (something beyond prestige of program).

As someone who applied to graduate school with zero philosophy training prior, I still got into nearly every program to which I applied and have a good job now. In my applications I was able to tell a story about why philosophy, why grad school, why those grad schools, and why I thought I could do it despite my background. And it turns out I could, so it was a true story that I told.

As a note: being a professional philosopher is more than getting good grades and writing publishable papers, so it might be helpful to think about overall trajectory/goals for your career and speak to those - and also use those goals to help identify which programs would be the right fit.

Good luck!

GradAdCom

I've been on both sides of this: I've served on several graduate admissions committees and I too was an "unusual" applicant, in that my early undergraduate grades were horrific.

From the first side, I don't think bad undergraduate grades suffice to put you in the bin immediately. The trouble is that they're a 'black mark' on your record. Graduate admissions committees, particularly at elite programs, will have enough 'spotless' applicants to fill a cohort. So they will have to choose between you and one of those. Unfortunately, these committees tend to err on the side of caution, which will work against you. It seems to me that you'll need someone on the committee who believes in you enough to argue that the publication success more than outweighs the grades. That could very well happen. It's just a dice roll who's on the committee.

From the other side, I tried and failed for two cycles to get into an elite program with my sub-sub-par GPA. Through a series of fortunate events, I managed to get a second BA at a different institution and earned a sterling GPA. That got me into a 'leiterrific' program, which I'm convinced got me my present job. YMMV. It will likely be easier to succeed if you contribute to demographic diversity in the cohort.

Tom

I was in a similar situation applying to MA programs from undergrad. My undergraduate grads were subpar and all over the place. I graduated with a 3-year BA because I didn't know what I was doing. Eventually, I went back and upgraded to an honours BA in philosophy. The last year and a half of philosophy courses my grades were very good. I ended up being accepted into all the MA programs I applied to and attended the top institution in my country. The reasons I was successful, I believe, are the following:

1. In my final year and a half while upgrading my degree, I developed very strong relationships with several faculty who were impressed enough to write me strong letters of recommendation. strong letters are very important.

2. Despite my poor grades in the past, I showed promise and motivation by getting very good grades when I returned to upgrade my degree.

3. I had a decent writing sample from doing a directed reading course. Sounds like you already have a decent writing sample so that's good!

So, I would agree with the previous comment above. In my experience at least, departments are just as interested in you if you can show promise and demonstrate to them that you are motivated, serious, and have made significant achievements.

I would also suggest addressing your poor grades in your application letter. That's what I did. But don't make it the focal point of your letter. Just write a brief paragraph at the end explaining why there is such a discrepancy. Don't belabour it. Don't tell a big sad story or try to garner sympathy. Be matter of fact and focus on the positive aspect and what you have done/are doing. And also fill your letter writers in on this.

One other thing I would recommend is that you write your letter in such a way that you do not come off as arrogant and close-minded. Not saying that you are. but it is unheard of for undergrads to have good publications. The temptation is to think highly of oneself, and come off as knowing everything. But you are applying to grad school, where you will be expected to learn a great deal about philosophy broadly speaking. So, committees want to see that, in addition to your specific interests, you are also open-minded and willing to learn and willing to explore new ideas and areas of philosophy. If your letter comes off as too narrowly focused, they may decide that you are not sufficiently 'teachable' and willing to learn.

However, given that your grades across the board aren't great, and you're not confident that you will get exceptional letters of recommendation, that might be a wrench in the works. It's hard to say. I wouldn't assume that you will get strong letters. You should talk to your letter writers about this openly. You can always try and see what happens. What you might have to do is go back and do a few more undergrad courses, build up your grades and relationships with faculty- if doing that is possible for you.

I hope that helps. Good luck!

Postdoc

Publications matter a lot less on the job market than I used to think with things like prestige and connections and demographics having the biggest impact. You may find that those publications don’t matter for PhD admissions as much as you hope they will. I don’t really know. It’s just a guess.

David Kovacs

I was in a similar situation 12 years ago when applying to programs. I was about to finish a graduate law degree in a solid but internationally unknown Hungarian state university. My grades there were mediocre and I had no formal philosophy education, but I had a forthcoming paper in a top-20 journal.

I got into some top20 programs and almost got into a top10 one too (though I applied to only 5 programs in North America). My sense is that the publication arms race picked up since then so that a decent pub from a grad school applicant is a big plus, but far more common than it was at my time. But it's probably still rare enough to help.

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