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Speaking from a U.S. perspective -

I haven't served on graduate admissions, but I'd think that what stage a student is applying from would matter quite a bit in answering this. That is, someone applying from an MA might be expected to have a sample at least fairly close to their interests, while someone applying out of undergrad (particularly since programs expect students' interests to be shaped by grad coursework, etc.!) I wouldn't think would be expected to have a writing sample directly in their topic of interest. I think perhaps style/methodology would count (e.g., a paper in formal, analytic phil language would seem odd from someone applying to do continental historical work), but the subfield would matter less.

Santa Monica

Unless one is applying to a program that has no coursework (pre-dissertation) portion, I suspect that the correct answer is as follows: you don't know what your dissertation will be on yet, and so your writing sample should just be your best work on what you're most interested in (and, obviously, be very good philosophical work). Full stop. I hope this helps!


Just a similar perspective here—I was on a PhD admissions committee and it did count against a person in one instance. Like “this is a fine writing sample but it is entirely unrelated to their interests” … and we rejected the person. But it was VERY different. Like it was an analytic-y historical paper and the person wanted to do contemporary political-continental. We wouldn’t blink at OP’s “difference”—interests are rarely that fixed or fine-grained coming in. But if you are interested in history we want to see solid historical work—preferably in the same era (eg ancient) as your interests. Same goes for analytic, continental, etc. but there is a lot of freedom within those broad categories.
It may also depend on the school. Ours isn’t particularly competitive but I imagine at schools that are top-notch in a certain area, they might be more picky about the sample.

also worth considering

In my experience on admissions (at an R1), all the materials students submit paint a picture of who they are, and the writing sample is one of the elements that speaks the loudest. So, if you submit a paper in ethics, people will inevitably think of you as falling into the group of possible ethics admits (and in taking into account cohort balancing considerations and things of that nature, you will be treated as an ethics student.) This doesn't mean that once you're admitted, you have to stick with the area of your writing sample, but during the admissions process, I think faculty can't help but consider your writing sample as representative of your research interests.

A related consideration is the following. If you're applying to a program with, say, the very best philosophy of physics faculty, and you submit a philosophy of physics paper, it is going to need to be very very good (because all the other really good philosophy of physics students will be applying there too). And if you apply to a program that has no one working in phil physics and submit that same paper, that program might worry that you're not a good fit. So, in a variety of ways, your choice of writing sample interacts with particular programs' strengths. And this influences admissions decisions.

Original poster

Thank you very much for the feedback — very helpful advice!

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