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!