Graduate School in Philosophy?

Here you will find advice if you are considering applying to graduate programs in philosophy.

Is It A Good Idea?

Applying to graduate programs in philosophy is not a step to be taken lightly.  There are two key questions.  The first is whether you have the necessary academic potential.  Before you take any other steps, ask a couple of the professors in the Department who know your work best for their candid opinion on the matter.

The second question is whether you want to take the risk that, after four to eight years as a graduate student, you find yourself unable to obtain an academic position in a college or university.  This is not a remote eventuality, but a serious danger; academic positions in philosophy are scarce and competition for them is intense.  Generally speaking, the more prestigious the graduate program you can get into, the better your chance of employment; but admission to a top ten program is very difficult indeed, and in any case no guarantee of employment.

You should also have a realistic idea of what life as a philosophy professor is like.  You are very unlikely to end up with a job as good as one in MU’s Philosophy Department.  You are much more likely to end up teaching significantly less well prepared students in a small and remote town in a part of the country that you would not otherwise want to live in.

Preparing a Strong Application

The most important components in your application (typically due on dates in December or January of your senior year) are your letters of recommendation, your GRE scores, and your writing sample.

You need letters of recommendation from well-regarded members of the philosophy profession who know your work well (and who like it!).  So try to take at least two courses from three such members of the Department’s faculty. 

Prepare thoroughly before you take the GRE.  Practice is essential, and a good test preparation course may be advisable.

If you are eligible to do so, then major in philosophy with Departmental Honors, so that you write an Honors thesis.  Take PHIL 4998 in the Spring semester of your third year.  This will permit you to complete the thesis in the Fall semester, in time to submit polished work from the thesis as your writing sample.  If you don't major with Honors, then, in the fall of your senior year (or during the preceding summer), start revising one of the best papers you wrote for a course.  Ask the professor for whom you wrote the paper to work with you in revising it.

Other Advice

To strengthen your undergraduate record in philosophy, take as many 4000-level courses as you can in demanding areas of philosophy—and excel in them, of course.  The university permits students working toward a BA to take up to 40 credits in their major.

Consider submitting a paper to an undergraduate philosophy conference or an undergraduate philosophy journal; fliers advertising both are regularly posted around the Department.

Your application will require a "Statement of Purpose/Interest", and such statements are very difficult to write well.  So ask one or two professors for their reactions to drafts of the statement.

Which Programs?

You will need to choose which six to ten graduate programs to apply to.  Before doing so, consult widely.  Visit with the Director of Undergraduate Studies, who will be happy to advise you.  Seek advice from the philosophy professors you first approached regarding your academic potential.  And read The Philosophical Gourmet Report, edited by Berit Brogaard (University of Miami) and Brian Leiter (University of Chicago), which is a reputational ranking of graduate programs in philosophy in the US, Canada, UK, and elsewhere.  It is controversial, for various reasons, and should be used with caution (as Leiter himself advises), but it is still indispensable.