Advice for Incoming Grad Students

Many of you reading this blog will have been getting letters from various philosophy departments telling you that you’ve been admitted and/or wait-listed for different departments. If so, you may now have a very big choice ahead of you – which school to choose. You’ll get a lot of advice from various sources; here’s my contribution.

IGNORE Leiter rankings.

I think the Leiter rankings are incredibly useful, especially for foreign students. But their usefulness is in deciding which universities to apply to, not which universities to go to. By the time you make the decision, you should have much more information than the voters in the Leiter rankings, and much much more information about the fit between you and various departments. You should care about the things that influence Leiter rankings, like faculty quality, but not the rankings themselves.

NOTICE placement records.

I think you should spend a lot of time looking at the placement record of different schools. Think of all sorts of questions to ask about the placement record. What’s the third best job students from that school got any given year? What’s the fifth best? Does the school place its students reasonably equally, or is it more of a ‘feast or famine’ model, with the best students going to top 10 schools, and many others getting nothing? Or perhaps is it one way for students in one discipline and another in other disciplines. How many years do students spend at the school before getting jobs? (If the school generally places well, but only after you’ve spent 8-10 years there, is that something you’d prefer to a weaker placement record that nevertheless gets most people jobs after 5-6 years?) Does the school seem to support its students who get unattractive jobs out of grad school, then move somewhere else at (or even before) tenure?

Remember that these things change, and records from only 1-3 years may be a very small sample size to generalise from. So reading these records takes some care, but it’s worth spending time thinking hard about. The PhD is, at the end of the day, a professional degree, and you should think about what it will do for your standing in the profession.

IGNORE negative campaigning.

Everyone will have horror stories about their rivals. Trust these about as much as you trust RNC press releases about Barack Obama. To be fair, some of the stories will be related in some loose way to the truth. Perhaps when they say that things are like X at school Y, that will mean that in the late 90s, things were kind of like X there, at least among the unhappy students. But in my experience these stories are typically out of date (ask yourself – how much time has the person telling me the story spent the school in question in the last 24-36 months?), and based on lazy stereotypical thinking.

NOTICE who your classmates will be.

You’ll spend more time with your fellow grad students than with faculty members over the next five years. They matter. A lot. In recent years students seem to have started paying a lot of attention to who will be in the incoming class with them. That’s important, though not much more important than who will be in the other classes. A student body that is smart, engaged with current debates, active (in terms of setting up reading groups) and supportive of each other’s work is very valuable. At Rutgers some of the student readings groups are run at a higher level than some seminars. (Well, at least than my seminars.)

And don’t just look at the individual students – look at the culture. This can be tricky, because cultures can change. But they tend to change slowly. A culture where everyone is competing to be the best student, and denigrating each other along the way, is going to be a bad place to be at grad school, and it will stay that way. On the other hand, a culture where everyone is trying to help everyone out will, in all probability, keep being a fun place to work for many years.

ATTEND as many campus visits as possible.

You can’t get a sense of what the grad students at a school are like without being there. So attend these visits, and talk to the grad students. If there’s something wrong with a department, they’ll say so. You’ll be told about what the culture is like, and you’ll have a chance to check what you’re told against what you see. And you’ll get to meet your incoming classmates. This is all incredibly valuable information.

I hope to see many of you at the Rutgers visit!

5 Replies to “Advice for Incoming Grad Students”

  1. This is all excellent advice.

    I’d like to add corresponding advice to recruiting departments: don’t go on about your Leiter ranking, be open about placement records, avoid negative campaigning, give prospectives a good chance to meet current students, encourage prospectives to visit as many departments as they can and don’t pressure them to make a premature decision.

  2. I think all of that is good advice. There is one important thing that I think you’ve missed though, namely, how likely students are to finish.

    I am a 4th year student, and so far the number one thing that has got in the way of getting a good job for students in my year is, well, not finishing. Of course, for some people this is the right decision. However, it is worth noting that retention rates can vary wildly based on gender, area of interest, and other factors. This is something that you can ask about as a prospective student. My institution, for instance, has about a 90% retention rate for male students, and a much lower (30% in my year) retention rate for female students.

    It’s not always easy to figure out whether a prospective department is a place where you are likely to be able to finish, if that’s what you decide you want to do. A few things to consider are the climate among graduate students, as Brian points out, the department’s (or your potential supervisor’s) willingness to help students strike a good work/life balance (especially for students who may start families during their time in graduate school—this applies particularly to longer programs), and whether the city where you would be located is a pleasant place to live. I’m sure that depending on what’s important to you personally, you can think of other things that are likely to be dealbreakers for you.

    I mention this mainly because recently students who started in our program this fall have been asking about retention rates, and have been surprised by the numbers. I think this is something that incoming students should find out about up front.

  3. Hi Brian,

    I think this is great advice. Here’s another suggestion to add to the list:

    ASK many meaningful questions.

    At many of your visits you’ll have formal meetings with faculty and many more informal meetings with current graduate students. You might think to ask the usual conversation-y questions: “Are you happy here?” “Where’s the good coffee?” and “What are the prospects for structural realism?”

    But be sure to get some useful data for your decision too. Ask graduate students whether or not they have an advisor. If they do, ask them precisely how often they meet with him/her, how the last meeting went, how often the communicate about ideas or progress on work, how often faculty respond to drafts of papers, and how often students are able to share work in some venue or other around the department. And make sure you get a broad sample— every department has a few Debbie Downers and Pollyannas, but many more students are willing to be quite honest about their experience.

    The most important factor for success in graduate school will be finding a research area you are passionate it about and finding faculty and other students who will help you do your very best work in that area. This process sometimes seems like magic, but it isn’t. Good departments will have specific evidence of how their support structure for grad students works (or doesn’t).

  4. Let me chime in with another piece of advice:

    TALK TO ADVANCED STUDENTS, in their 5th year and beyond. Visiting students tend to be overexposed to enthusiastic 1st and 2nd year students. 1st and 2nd year students often want to recruit you. They are in the glow have having recently been admitted themselves, and they are doing coursework, which is easier and more familiar than writing a dissertation. They don’t have years of bitter experience with bad advising. 5th year students don’t care whether you come, they have seen every part of graduate education, and they know the dirt.

  5. Super post.

    One small point – my guess is that prospectives may not fully realise how much randomness there is in the job market… so if any school has placed poorly in the last year, this should be taken with a pinch of salt. This also compounds the problems of a small sample size. My hunch is that roughly similar placement records can be regarded as the same. That qualification aside, I think that placement is one of the most important things to look at. Some schools placement records are clearly not roughly similar.

    I also reiterate the importance of asking about faculty availability. This varies a surprising amount between programs.

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