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09/21/2021

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Current PhD Student

Disclaimer: I'm a grad student and I've never served on an admissions committee. But, here's my two cents anyway.

Some analytic philosophers have written widely on continental figures while maintaining their analytic style of writing and inquiry. Robert Brandom comes to mind, so maybe Pitt would be a good spot to apply. Generally, I think it will be hard to predict whether a writing sample like that will play well or not. A drawback that I anticipate is that, if you submit to departments without faculty who are familiar with the figure you wrote on, they might think "I can't evaluate this. I just don't know," and then opt for applicants whose work they can confidently evaluate. My advice for applicants is to submit a sample that is mainstream enough for non-specialists to read with some familiarity.

I've also heard other advice from an adcomm: don't submit a sample on Nietzsche. Apparently it's common, and adcomm's can get a little burnt out on those papers. (Although, if you want to work on Nietzsche, it would make sense to submit a Nietzsche sample, right?)

Associate Prof

Here's the advice that I give to our undergrads about writing samples:

1. Don't submit a paper from one of your classes. These can be the starting point for a writing sample but papers written for a class usually have a different structure and different goals than a good writing sample should have.

2. A good writing sample should demosntrate that you understand the difference between good undergraduate wrting (whose purpose is usually to demonstrate understanding) and professional writing (whose purpose is to expand upon, apply, or in some way contribute to an ongoing intellectual conversation).

3. A good writing sample should not (sometimes I go as far as to say should never) consist entirely of primary texts. Make contact with secondary literature, ideally relatively recentish secondary literature (again the goal is to show that you understand what sort of writing you'll be asked to produce in graduate school)

4. Keep it to bewteen 3,000 - 5,000 words

5. Get feedback from more than one professor specifically about your potential sample's suitability as a writing sample

6. Present at conferences (undergraduate or graduate if applicable) if at all possible to further refine your ideas

7. If you're an undergraduate your writing sample doesn't need to have any connection with your intended area of study as a graduate student. If you're coming from a Masters program your writing sample probably should be on the area you're applying to do more research in.

L. Harris

OP here. I want to add that I'm applying to MA programs instead of trying to go straight into a PhD. My main goal in an MA will be to strengthen my knowledge of analytic philosophy generally before specializing in an area of interest (probably philosophy of language). This will be reflected in my statement of purpose. I wonder if committees look at writing samples for MA applicants any differently than those for PhD applicants? My impression is that for MA applicants there is less expectation that you will already be knowledgeable in your AOI(s).

Tammo

I've never been involved with grad admissions either, but I do have a few thoughts about this anyway... take them with a grain of salt, of course:

1) In my experience, there is a real appetite for work that crosses the "divide" between analytic and continental, and many analytic philosophers appreciate work that dissects "continental" work with analytic clarity. So, submitting the work OP describes as a writing sample seems fine to me.

2) Based on the accounts given by people who have worked on admissions, I think it is not all that crucial that the writing sample aligns with the research interests stated elsewhere. The attitude (which I think is correct) is that only very few grad students end up writing exactly the dissertation they thought they would write when applying for grad programs. Given that, it would be best to submit a writing sample that shows one's skills as a writer (structure, creativity, etc.), because that's what the adcomm will really look for.

3) In response to Current PhD Student, I slightly disagree that one should be worried about whether the people in admissions can evaluate one's work. Admission committees usually consist of 3 or so people, and they see a lot of work out of their core areas. True, they won't be able to evaluate whether you got the exegetical details right, but that's true often enough so that they won't care.
(I agree with the advice about Nietzsche though: there is a stereotype of a bad undergrad paper with the thesis "Nietzsche was right all along, and nobody after him really recognized that!!!" If you submit a paper about Nietzsche, it may be important to avoid that impression.)

Another Current PhD Student

This may not be the most welcome news if your heart is set on mainly applying to PhD programs, but I think it would be very wise to consider focusing applications towards funded and prestigious MA programs in philosophy, as it can seriously help not only craft you into a well-rounded philosopher, but also with a really solid writing sample that will have broad appeal with adcoms.

Sadly, it is painfully difficult to get into a mid-top ranked PhD program if you come from an unknown or non-prestigious program without any analytic philosophers (not to assume you are at an unknown institution, it's just that most of the "prestigious" phil departments are super analytic), and I imagine most of those exceptions occur when someone has an absolutely knockout writing sample on some relevant topic in analytic philosophy that the admissions committee simply can't ignore. Unfortunately, if your institution does not have at least a few solid analytical faculty, that will be very difficult to do if you will be applying to more analytic-leaning departments.

On the other hand, MA programs like Simon Fraser and Texas Tech are much more forgiving of these matters, as they are often designed to work with talented students who simply didn't have the chance to take a bunch of courses in analytic philosophy to really prepare them to thrive in an analytic department. Of course, these programs can be quite competitive as well, but if you clearly have the potential and talent then I think an MA adcom will be much more likely to take a chance on you than a PhD adcom.

I'm not saying to only apply to MAs, but I would highly recommend adding some (or all) of the following programs: Simon Fraser, University of British Columbia, UW Milwaukee, Texas Tech, and Georgia State. I believe those are the ones with the best funding, though I've heard San Francisco State is very good and they have some okay funding as well.

insight

I am inclined to think such papers as the OP describes do not play well with committees. I worked for yours trying to help students apply to grad programs in the USA - working at a typical 4-year state college. It was near impossible. One student was going to use a paper that juxtaposed Aquinas and Hobbes on political theory. I was constantly working against other faculty who were giving students stupid advice. With that said, I did have success helping a few. Further, I think it is unrealistic for the OP to write a paper on their own. I have seen those as well. They are usually very ill-informed. You need to send in your best (revised) course paper.

Juan Pineros Glasscock

Hi,

I teach at one of the programs mentioned by 'Another Current PhD Student'. I'll just second three points that seemed to me most important given my (brief) experience in admissions:

1.I agree that if you're coming from undergrad, your writing sample doesn't need to be in your area of interest, but I recommend that you explain why it is not on your letter of interest (do this briefly: it is common). But also say why you think the specific program you are applying to would help you.

2. I also agree that this is specially true for MA programs, where we try to identify excellent students who may not have gotten the opportunity to develop their full potential or get the recognition they deserve due to the nature of their undergrad institution.

3. As associate professor said: a regular undergrad paper is not the best for an application paper. You should submit a paper that shows that you can make a contribution to a subject. I will, however, disagree with the point about secondary literature. If it is a sample on the history of philosophy, it can be a close reading of a text that focuses on it, so long as the interpretation presented displays the ability to read insightfully (often, the student won't be in a position to tell if the insights presented are original. That takes a lot of years of engaging with the literature).

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