Those blessed with peripheral vision will notice that I've recently been admitted to graduate school in philosophy. Now that the application process is over and I can breathe again, I'd like to share a few of my thoughts on the experience of applying to graduate school. I'm not sure if what I have to say is necessarily relevant to those applying non-philosophy PhD programs (or even if it's relevant to them!) but, as a blogger, I'm inclined to share those thoughts anyway. I suspect that a fair percentage of my readership (if there is such a thing) is enrolled in graduate school already (that's just the kind of person this subject matter attracts), so this will be particularly irrelevant to them. Again, though, I'm going to write this post anyway; hopefully it will at least be cathartic for me--and really, what's the point of having a blog if you can't occasionally use it to vent?
First, I want to say a little bit about my particular background, as I think it's at least tangentially relevant to the topic at hand. I did my undergraduate at UC Berkeley, and graduated with a respectable (if not stellar) GPA of 3.55 (3.7 in philosophy). I double majored in philosophy and peace & conflict studies--a hand-wavy sounding major, I know, but think of it mostly as international relations with an emphasis on studying war. Most of my low grades were in lower division classes (I did poorly if I thought the class was boring) which, though not as good as having no low grades at all, is apparently preferable. I didn't work terribly hard in college, and mostly got by on good writing skills and an affinity for making clever arguments. I'm not terribly proud of this, but apparently feeling that, on the whole, the whole undergrad thing could have gone better is not uncommon for recent graduates; as one of my friends said, "When I finished college, I sort of just wanted to ask 'So....can I get a do-over on that whole thing or something?'" Again, I suspect this is a rather common sentiment--students often don't begin to really focus until near the end of college, which can hurt GPAs somewhat. I had good letters (perhaps most notably one from John Searle), and a really solid writing sample. I did well on the GRE, especially on the verbal and analytic writing sections.
My overall point here is that I was a pretty strong applicant (decent grades, good undergrad institution, good letters, good writing sample), though by no means stellar; I expected to be rejected from most schools, and admitted to a few. Because of this expectation, I applied to ten schools (shotgun method!), 8 of which were in the top 10 (as ranked by Leiter), and 9 of which were in the top 15. Assuming that NYU doesn't miraculously decide to accept me--I'm still waiting to hear from them, but I'm not holding my breath--I got accepted to exactly one of those ten: Columbia.
I'm certainly not complaining; I'm glad I got in anywhere, quite frankly--and Columbia is a great school--but the whole experience I've had with applying and whatnot has left me with the overwhelming feeling that the whole process is so damn arbitrary as to actually reflect very little on me or my abilities. For one thing, I got accepted to Columbia (ranked 10 on Leiter), and rejected from the University of Washington (ranked 38 on Leiter). I can't think of any possible explanation for this other than that student admissions/rejections are strongly tied to something much more than student merit; what that something might be I do not know. I know that graduate student admissions (especially for PhD students) are significantly more complicated than undergraduate admissions--for one thing, a university taking a PhD student is, usually, making a significant financial commitment (in the form of a grant or fellowship), rather than receiving a significant financial commitment (in the form of tuition), so an admission committee needs to be damn sure an applicant is worth the investment. Additionally, graduate students are going to be working closely with professors, so individual interests and personality come into play a lot more than when the only professor/student interaction is for 10 minutes per week during office hours. I understand all that, but my mind is stuck on that "accepted to #10 with full funding and summarily rejected from #38" thing. I don't know--it just seems strange.
All in all, I think the best phrase to describe the experience of applying to graduate school is "cluster fuck" or maybe "cluster skullfuck." Yeah, it's that bad. I thought applying to undergraduate was nerve wracking, but this was 100 times worse; the pressure is higher, the competition is tougher, the applications are more expensive and longer, and the writing samples need to be much more polished. I lost a lot of sleep, spent way too much money, and nearly had a nervous breakdown on at least two separate occasions. There are no words to describe the absolutely soul-crushing humiliation of working your ass off on applications, then getting seven generic rejection letters in a row. It's just kind of a bad scene all around, and I'm very glad it's over.
I suppose my advice for current undergraduates thinking about applying would be this: start early, and I don't just mean on the applications. Numerous sources I've read advise thinking about grad school as the start of your career, and not just "Undergraduate Redux." Though I haven't actually started attending yet, this seems like pretty sound advice, and I wish I'd encountered it earlier. By the time the end of your Sophomore year in college rolls around, you should have a pretty clear idea about what you want to do if/when you graduate--at least in a general "grad school/law school/get a job" sense. If grad school is even on the table, take it seriously from that early on. Take the idea of getting in as seriously as your business major buddy takes landing that awesome entry level job at the prestigious accounting firm, because that's exactly what you're doing: landing your entry level job. Go after those letters of recommendation--I suspect that having letters from non-philosophers hurt me significantly, even though all my writers are well respected in their fields, so go after philosophy professors with particular gusto--take the GRE early enough to retake it if you're dissatisfied, and try to shine as much as possible in your philosophy classes.
Even if you do all that, though, you'll probably still get rejected from most of the places you apply. It's a crapshoot.