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Doesn't make sense

This sounds very odd. The result may just be extraordinary bad luck. If op gains additional insight into this, please update here. I am curious and want to know more.


I've helped many applicants with getting into grad school, and I have to say, I'd never tell any of them that they "should" get into a program, or that there's some sort of threshold of goodness of application which should guarantee a certain result. It's just much too random to say things like that.


This sort of thing happens to applicants every year. (In days past, you would have found a number of them on the GradCafe forum.) It's hard not to take it personally, but I really think you shouldn't. Try again in the next cycle. And think about prioritizing a few of your applications, so that you spend some time in your statement of interest showing how well you would fit into a given department.

As for publications: don't even give that a second thought. Almost nobody applying for a PhD has them, and they're in no way expected.


Maybe it has to do with your recommendation letters. Given that letters are confidential, I don't know how you would figure this out, but assurances from the writers themselves won't be sufficient.


Here's something to consider. You may be underestimating the increase in competition from the MA level to the PhD level. When I applied to MA programs, I was accepted by all of them. They were good program too. And I didn't come from a top undergraduate school. But when I applied to PhD programs the first time, I was rejected by all of them. Looking back, the reasons are clear to me. PhD programs are far more competitive than MA programs. And I was overly confident and cocky in my abilities. In reality, my writing sample sucked and my letters of recommendation probably weren't very good because I hadn't known the faculty that long (it was a 1 year MA program). You have a fairly confident self-abasement of your application materials. Though you probably already are, I would challenge you to reassess. A person's philosophical development after an MA just isn't that far along. Is your writing sample really that good? Are your letters really that good? You should rethink all of this, take a year and regroup, and try again. In a year from now, maybe even two, you'll be surprised at how much you've matured and developed in your philosophical ability.

On the other hand, it's probably not entirely a matter of your 'ability'. Plenty of people get into good grad programs who maybe shouldn't be there. It can be a bit of a crap shoot.

Don't give up!

cecil burrow

One thing I want to mention is that whatever the problems were with this person's application (if there were indeed problems), the lack of publications certainly would not have been one. Even the strongest undergraduates coming from the strongest institutions almost never have publications; I've actually only seen publications from people who ended up being weak candidates. The typical undergrad - even a very good one - is not in a position to publish, and no-one thinks otherwise (as far as I can tell.)

naturalised Australian

This may or may not be helpful, but if you haven't, consider applying for something in Australia. You may have to have a research proposal in hand, and find someone who is willing to take you in though.

good luck!

Echoing others, I would say that it is *highly* unlikely that the problem concerns a lack of talent as the OP fears. PhD application selections have little, perhaps almost nothing, to do with talent. Of course, I haven’t seen OP’s documents, but here are some thoughts:

The students admitted to PhD programs in philosophy are those who say to admission committees what they want to hear. These are typically students who have been groomed from a young age to talk this way (e.g., through elite education institutions from an early age), or whose documents were simply written for them by their professors. Academia is deeply classist, and upper-class students just know how to write in a way that signals their class status and on which admissions committees pick up, with all this typically happening unconsciously.

Increasingly (and this part is a good thing), admissions committees are looking to diversify their department in terms of race and gender, if not typically class or native-language status, and admit on this basis.

So the admissions decisions are determined by applicants’ saying the right things in the right way, and only secondarily by “that spark of genius” shining through their materials (which I’m increasingly convinced is something it can’t really do in PhD application materials given where students are typically situated in terms of philosophical maturity when applying).

So I encourage OP to keep at it, rather than chalking this up to an alleged lack of talent. Revising documents many, many times and with reference to the documents of successful applicants would help. If the OP really trusts any faculty members, it could be good to have the faculty member look at the recommendation letters to make sure they’re any good. Publishing is, I think, unnecessary and likely an unrealistic goal, but if the OP is in the position to work with a faculty member to make something publishable, then such a development wouldn’t hurt (though it’s not the best use of time). Good luck and don’t let the unconscious biases of academia drag you down!


Consider that given how insanely competitive philosophy is that what you're experiencing is just the norm in philosophy. If you do eventually get into a PhD program, you can look forward to rejection being a pretty normal part of your life, even if you're "successful": rejection from journals, from conferences, and from job after job you apply to. If you don't like all the rejection, get out while you can.


I was an assistant for my department's hiring committee a few years ago. We are unranked by Leiter and received 175 applications for 6 slots. The previous year we had over 200 applications.

It's not you. This is just how it is. And the job market is worse!

mark wiley

> The students admitted to PhD programs in philosophy are those who say to admission committees what they want to hear. These are typically students who have been groomed from a young age to talk this way (e.g., through elite education institutions from an early age), or whose documents were simply written for them by their professors.

I think this is basically completely false (having been on admissions committees for several decades at famous and non-famous places.) There are lots of things to complain about in the world of philosophy without making fabricated claims like this.

good luck again

@mark wiley, as the poster of the claim that admissions processes are entirely classist, I wonder why you think it is “basically completely false,” which you state but do not defend.

For example, I taught as non-TT faculty at a state school with a high Leiter-ranked PhD program for a number of years. I saw the students admitted to my home program and the basis on which they were admitted, while working with undergraduates from my state institution who were struggling to get into grad school. This left me with insight into the classism of the admissions process: what the admitted PhD students had that my students didn’t have were BAs from fancy schools (typically elite SLACs), and sense of how to play the game honed from a lifetime of upper-class training, including being taught the vocabulary to use, ways to conduct oneself in the room and show that they were “one of us,” etc. My undergraduate advisees had passion for philosophy, good ideas, and a drive to succeed, but had not been trained from a very early age to speak the lingo and hence could not catch the attention of admissions committees. In other words, they lacked the cultural capital, and hence they struggled to be admitted.

Those among the lower-class students with whom I worked who were admitted did fine, and at least two (of whom I’m aware) built good professional careers in philosophy. This, I think, says it all: admissions committees are not omniscient seers of who has talent and who does not in their applicant pool, but instead select on the basis of their own biases. And my sense of this has been reconfirmed by every admissions process into which I’ve had insight.

I would love to be dispelled of this “basically completely false” view and shown why admissions processes reflect genuine potentiality and not class privilege, but I’m afraid that my own experiences are entirely to the contrary and I would need to read more to see where I’ve gone wrong.

mark wiley

I don't see why the burden of proof lies on me to refute the claim that people are applying to grad school with materials 'simply written for them by their professors'. I've never even heard of this happening.

As for the idea that the elite are 'grooming' their children from a young age to become philosophy professors, that doesn't seem particularly plausible to me on any sort of level. In my experience, even at elite institutions the overwhelming majority of graduate students have middle class backgrounds, and were not 'groomed' in any way for anything. (If they were groomed for anything, it surely would be nothing but an act of spite to then go on to philosophy grad school!)

good luck again

@mark wiley, I’m not sure about a “burden of proof,” as I’m just trying to understand your “basically completely false” assertion, as opposed to burdening anyone. And it seems that some of my claims in my posts weren’t clear, which surely was my fault. Let me try again.

First, the claim is that in some cases, applicants have had extensive, to an extreme, help in crafting their application documents, while others are completely without mentorship or guidance. That documents are “written for them” might admittedly be a bit hyperbolic, but I think it captures the spirit. I’ve certainly met newly admitted PhD applicants who were not in full mental possession of the claims they made in their application materials. These students almost always come from elite undergrad programs, and I sometimes recognize the voices of colleagues who are professors there in what they are saying.

Second, no one is being groomed to be a philosophy professor. The claim is much simpler and less conspiratorial: academia is classist and favors applicants from certain class backgrounds, class begins to be developed at an early age, and class backgrounds are more determinate of success in applications, not in building philosophy careers.

And last, I suspect we are working with different conceptions of what “middle class” entails if the claim is that elite PhD programs typically admit middle class students. Surely by this you mean “upper-middle class.”


Somewhat contrary to others:

Unless you only applied to the most absolute top 25, not getting even a waitlist says something about your package. It might not say that you don't have the talent for philosophy. But it says something.

If you still want to pursue philosophy (and I think there's no reason why you shouldn't), it might be helpful to seek out opportunities for interacting with philosophers outside your immediate region. See if you can go to summer schools abroad or establish some connections online. I don't mean that if you want to go to Michigan for grad school you should go to the summer school hosted by Michigan, though that of course helps. I just think there might be something in how you present yourself that is systematically misunderstood, and having an outside perspective might help you identify that.

Humean Nature

Something is almost certainly askew with your application package. Either your letters say something bad about you, your writing sample isn’t as good as you think it is, or your statements of purpose were too generic, or… something. I came straight from a no-name undergrad institution, and of the 5 programs I applied to, I got 2 acceptances and 3 waitlists. All 5 programs are ranked, and one of those acceptances was from a top-5 overall (according to the flawed but informative PGR) program. Everyone else that I know who was accepted somewhere was also accepted or at least waitlisted at a few other places as well. Going 25/25 on rejections is just too extreme of a result to be chalked up entirely to random noise in the process, against what most of the commenters here seem to be saying. I’m not telling you to give up though - far from it. Hit the drawing board, revise your applications, and go get it next year.


What K said. There may be something in your application that is small but creating an issue. It's very hard to say but sometimes a little something can make a difference in what's coming across. I know the first time I applied to grad school years ago I applied to very highly rated programs (8 of them) and got rejected by all. The next year I went down the list a little farther and again applied to (8) very strong schools (with a stronger writing sample) and got into one school and was waitlisted at another. Things worked out for me but it's always a bit of a crapshoot.

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