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My approach is to tell everyone that they have a miniscule chance of getting in anywhere, which is why it makes sense to apply widely and to apply to MA programs and to have a backup plan. I emphasize how many apply to program X, how many get in per year, etc. I tell them how many programs I applied to, and how about 80% of them rejected me.

This manages (hopefully) to simultaneously be tactful because I emphasize that this is something I tell everyone, regardless of what I think of their abilities.

At the end of the day, it's up to the student to decide what they want to do, and we can't make that choice for them. Plenty of my students - after having multiple versions of "the talk" with me - have gone on to apply to only 1-2 very highly ranked PhD programs, and gotten into none of them.


Some other tips: Tell them to read about the admissions requirement for each program and know what each department expects. Then look at the publications by previous or current grad students at those schools to get an idea of what kind of writing level they should be at to be considered.


I'll echo anon's suggestion of telling everyone the same thing about the odds of a successful application (and then completing the PhD and then getting a TT job etc. etc.) from a different angle.

One reason for that approach is that it's easy for biases to creep into our evaluation of who has good or bad odds. Bias along gender and racial lines are two possibilities often discussed, but there are other categories of students we--or to own, it, I--might wind up treating differently in subtle ways. And too, students from certain groups may be very sensitive to whether their membership in these groups impact their assessment (stereotype threat).

So if I give every single student the same speech and tell them that I do this, then hopefully they won't infer that they're getting this advice because of some irrelevant characteristic. And, in fact, given the randomness of the selection process, I am not overly confident in my ability to judge which of my students will or won't get accepted to what programs.

And I also agree with Evan about having the students look at advice/requirements for themselves. Forming an accurate assessment of your own abilities is a skill, and a useful one to start cultivating as an undergraduate. Telling the student that their abilities aren't up to par is less effective than showing them what they need to be doing and having them recognize where they are lacking.


I had a prof who told me he didn't think my writing was there yet in my third year (I was applying to MAs but he knew the goal was a PhD). I was glad to hear it, because it meant I had some time to work on it--and I did. A lot. And he was kind enough to note the improvements I made.

But it was also a little frustrating because I didn't have a clear sense of just what he meant. And, TBH, I think it took years more before I did.


This talk would also need to address the larger question of an absolutely horrific job market. Right?


My advisors recommended that I not even consider an MA, nor any other offer that wouldn't be fully funded, because the job market was so terrible that going into debt to get a PhD was really unwise. If I couldn't get a fully-funded spot in a PhD program straight out of undergrad, I should take that as God's way of telling me to do something else with my life.

I remain grateful for that advice; I don't think it's responsible to encourage a student to go into debt to get an MA in a field they probably won't be able to get a job in.

I guess you could modify as appropriate if the student happens to be independently wealthy?

Current PhD Student

I would like to add that it would be helpful to let the student know how common elitism among top-10 admissions committees is. I am at a top-15ish ranked school right now, and myself and I believe most of my cohort got into several schools while being handily rejected from the top-10 places. This is anecdotal, but can be backed up by Eric Schwitzgebel's research on the matter that can be found here: https://dailynous.com/2019/07/02/elite-philosophy-phd-programs-mostly-admit-students-elite-schools-guest-post-eric-schwitzgebel/

Those really elite programs just end up getting enough people with two degrees from Stanford and four years working at a human rights organization while speaking six languages and having seven publications that it's basically impossible to stand out when coming from a good-but-not-great school (unless your writing sample is truly outstanding- which it sounds like is not the case here).

Also, I think most of my cohort applied to something like 15-20 schools, with at least half of those being not top-10 schools, so just something else to think about if they are only interested in applying to a few top programs.

I came from a good-but-not-great school, with basically all A+s and stellar letters, including one from a famous philosopher who thought my writing sample was good enough to be published in a top journal. I got waitlisted/accepted at around 70% of the non-top-10 schools I applied to, and was rejected from all of the top-10 schools. I also got into all of the funded MA programs I applied to. Again, this is anecdotal, and I ended up at a good program that I am very happy at (hooray!!), but sometimes sharing these narratives can help set realistic expectations for students' chances of getting into a top program.

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