Applying to Graduate School
Philosophy majors pursue many different professional and career paths after graduation from Northwestern. One option is to pursue graduate study in philosophy, which provides the opportunity to study more philosophy, in greater depth, among others who are equally interested in discussing philosophy, for one to two years (in a terminal M.A. program) or five to seven years approximately (in a Ph.D. program), and which can lead to a career in academic philosophy. If you are interested in this option, you should discuss it with your advisor and/or with professors in areas of philosophy that are of particular interest to you to find out about programs to which you might want to apply, specifics about the nature of graduate study, and so on. They can also advise you about what you can do now -- which courses to take, fellowships to apply for -- to make your application stronger.
The application procedure for programs in the U.S. proceeds roughly as follows (you may also wish to investigate the possibility of graduate study abroad, the application procedure for which varies from country to country, and among institutions).
Graduate School Application Timetable
[Note: this timetable tracks the timing of applications made in senior year. Many students take a year out before applying, which is not a bad thing and will not count against you in your application process. If you do decide to take a year out, however, it would be wise to mention your plans to the professors whom you would like to ask for letters of recommendation, so that they can keep you in mind, or even write the letter in advance while they still have a vivid memory of you and your work.]
Prior to (and during) early fall of senior year: Preparation and Decision to Apply
1. Considering whether to go to graduate school, and planning to make your application as strong as possible, including:
- Consult with faculty about which courses would be good preparation for which future courses of study
- Consult with fellowships office concerning possible graduate fellowships for which to apply [note that there are also a good number of fellowships for which you can apply in sophomore and junior year; these are not just good opportunities but will also look good on your cv when you apply to grad school]
2. Deciding where to apply
- Research strengths of departments: aim to find a balance between a strong department in general and department that has strengths in the area(s) in which you would like to study; read writing by possible teachers/advisers to see if you find their work exciting, interesting, and "in tune" with your approach to philosophical questions; it is generally a good idea to look for departments where there is more than one person with whom you could study.
- Consult with faculty here in relevant fields for recommendations of departments to consider.
- Other aspects of programs to consider (if they are important to you): the structure of the program (Too many requirements? Too little structure? How much training is provided, and for what?); their job placement (which should be listed online); the kinds of support systems offered for graduate students, women, and minorities; would a masters' program be suitable for you, to provide further training/background in philosophy before applying to PhD programs?
- Generally, applicants apply to 5-8 programs, though the number depends on how many programs are available in the areas in which you want to study, how flexible you are about where you want to live for the next 5-10 years of your life, and so on.
Fall (to winter) of senior year: Preparing your Applications
The earliest application deadlines tend to be in early December; many are due also in January or even early February.
3. Ask for letters of recommendation – at least ONE MONTH before first deadline
- You may wish to provide supporting materials to recommenders, including some of the materials listed under 5 and/or papers you have written for their courses
4. Sign up for and take GRE test (at http://www.ets.org); note that you must sign up at the time of taking the test for four places to which you would like your scores sent (you can then ask for additional score reports to be sent later, at extra cost).
5. Put together your application dossier, typically including: Personal statement (c. 1-2 pp. single-spaced); Writing sample (c. 15 pp.); Letters of recommendation; Transcript; GRE scores.
- Note: You may wish to ask faculty to read and comment upon your personal statement and writing sample (this is a good idea and not unreasonable at all to ask faculty to do this); again you need to allow time for faculty to read/comment and for you to revise in light of these comments (at least a month lead time is appropriate here as well)
- Note 2: All of these materials should be absolutely free of typos, grammatical mistakes, and so on; these elementary mistakes will look very bad in your file.
6. Sending off the dossiers:
- Many programs now ask for you to apply on-line on their own specific sites.
- For those that don’t, you may wish to use Interfolio (an on-line document service, which sends out your entire dossier for you, including letters of recommendation, for a fee) or the University Career Services at Northwestern, which provides a similar service.
- Whichever of these methods you use, you should make the procedure(s) clear to the professors who are writing letters, and furnish addressed, stamped envelopes for any letters that they have to send by USPS.
Spring of senior year: deciding where to accept
Most acceptance deadlines are April 15
7. Deciding where to accept, on the basis of:
- Clearly, you will have ideas about which departments are most attractive to you.
- Most programs invite prospective students to visit the department, which gives you an opportunity to meet faculty, get a sense of the department and university, and so on; often the university will pay entirely for this visit. If at all possible, you definitely should visit the program, to get a sense of what it is like "on the ground." Though it is of course important to get a sense of the faculty with whom you might work, the single most important and informative source about the program is graduate students: they can tell you about the experience of being a grad student in the program, which professors are helpful or not, what the drawbacks and advantages of their situation is. If you can’t visit, you should still make every effort to contact graduate students in the program to ask them about their views about the department.
- Because the academic job market can be difficult, monetary support offered by programs is an important consideration: you do not want to exit graduate school with a lot of debt. Most universities offer tuition remission as well as a yearly stipend, sometimes associated with teaching/TA’ing duties. Competitive graduate fellowships are (again) useful, as they allow you more flexibility (most are applicable at any graduate program).