Applying to Graduate Schools in the US/Canada

Where to apply: If you put together an application for grad school in North America, you should consider applying to several schools. The materials requested are more or less the same in all places. So once you have everything, it’s not a huge deal of extra work to mail out several applications. Doing so increases your chances of acceptance, and you may even be in a position to choose. However, schools charge rather high administrative fees and you’ll also have to pay the postage, of course. So the more schools you apply to, the more expensive it gets.

You should discuss where to apply with your supervisors/ professors who know you, to identify departments that suit your interests and that you have a chance getting into. Departmental web pages usually contain a lot of information that may be helpful in figuring out whether a department’s profile fits your interests.

To arrive at a preliminary list of schools you’re interested in, you should look at Brian Leiter’s ‘Gourmet Report’. This webpage offers an overview of good graduate programs in the US, informs you about their specialties, and gives a ranking of the quality of departments. Generally speaking, it will be the more difficult to gain acceptance to a programme the higher up it is in the Gourmet Report. If you want to enhance your chances of finding acceptance somewhere, you should apply not just to schools at the very top of the list, but include some that are a bit further down. Depending on what you want to work on, even a school that is not at the very top of the Gourmet list may still be very good for your interests.

The Gourmet Report measures the strength of the faculty of a department in philosophical research. It does not measure how strongly a department is committed to ensuring good supervision for graduate students or to helping graduates to find a job. One indicator of such commitment is a department’s ‘placement record’. A placement record gives information on how many of a department’s graduates found academic jobs and on where they found those jobs. It is therefore advisable to check the placement records of the departments that you are thinking of applying to (these are usually available on a department’s webpage).

Funding: Most American and Canadian Departments offer funding to their PhD students, i.e. admission to the programme will usually go along with a guaranteed scholarship and/or the opportunity to earn money working as a teaching assistant (who grades papers and gives tutorials). But the level of funding differs from institution to institution. In deciding where to apply (or, if you’ve been very successful and have gained offers from several departments, in deciding which offer to take) you should compare the funding packages offered by different departments.

There are two factors that are relevant here: how much funding you can expect to receive overall, and how much work you will have to put in as a teaching assistant. Ideally, you get enough to live on without having to spend an inordinate amount of your time grading undergraduate papers. And to have enough time to do your own research, needless to say, is going to make it easier to write a good PhD-thesis and find a job after graduation. You therefore have reason to prefer a department with a better funding package, other things being equal.

M.A. students frequently aren’t funded. But here there’s the opportunity to apply to the Fulbright Commission.

You should be aware of the fact that Schools in Britain don’t usually offer guaranteed funding. So this is a major reason to apply in North America.

Materials: Of course, the authoritative source of information on exactly what to send is each department’s webpage. There are some minor differences in how schools handle things. So you should definitely read each department’s instructions very carefully, and you should follow them slavishly.

You should under no circumstances send more materials than are explicitly asked for. If a department specifies word limits for statements of purpose or writing samples you should under no circumstances violate them, etc.

Typically, American departments will require the following materials:




Statement of Purpose

Letters of Recommendation (typically two or three)

Writing Sample

Timeline: The deadlines for receipt of applications are usually in December or early January (for taking up study in the coming Fall). If you intend to apply to a programme in order to start in Fall 2010, your application deadline will be in December 2009/ January 2010.

Many schools do not allow you to submit (all) your materials online. You may therefore have to send off your materials a few weeks in advance of the deadlines by snail mail to make sure they arrive on time.

GRE and TOEFL may have to be arranged well in advance of the deadline. You need to register for these tests, and you may have to wait for a few weeks to get to take the tests. You may also want to familiarize yourself with these tests. So this is something you cannot start to think about doing in October or November.

You should also give your letter writers enough time (at least a month).

Finally, it is very difficult to put together a good writing sample and statement of purpose in a short time. You should give yourself a few months at least to work on these.

The Bottom Line: You should start to prepare your application as early as possible. Think about a possible writing sample, try to start to think about what schools to apply to, what professors to ask for references, and prepare to take the GRE/TOEFL. If you don’t give any of this any thought until September, when the term starts, it’s going to be very difficult to put together a good application.

The Process: Schools typically receive a very large number of applications, and the first order of business for a committee is to throw out most of the applications rather quickly (and probably without studying your writing sample carefully).

At this first stage, things like your GPA, the quality of the letters, the prestige of the institution you come from, play a large role. When people look at your grades, they are probably going to give more weight to your philosophy courses than to your grades in other courses. Your statement of purpose can hurt you if it’s really bad, but it’s probably not a major factor in deciding between those who are otherwise regarded as strong applicants. Apparently, GRE scores are often not given a lot of weight, even though they are usually required. For the TOEFL, there is typically a specified minimum score you have to meet.

If you survive the first screening, people will start to look at your writing sample very carefully and the writing sample is going to be the most important factor for deciding among those who are considered strong applicants. In order to be successful, you absolutely need a strong writing sample.

The writing sample is supposed to demonstrate that you have philosophical talent. People look for a well-written, well-argued and interesting paper. A mere literature-survey or a purely exegetical piece will not go over as well as an argumentative paper. It is very important that the sample be highly polished and it should be free of grammatical mistakes and errors in spelling.