David L. Hildebrand, Ph.D., Philosophy

Going to Graduate School--Some Questions and Considerations

Select, important considerations in deciding to go to graduate school or not:

What is your main motivating reason for going?

Intellectual curiosity and self development? (Why is this the way to that?)

Professional advancement? (Do you seek a career in academe? What are the prospects?)

Some other reason?

Opportunity costs

  • Ph.D. Programs take a  long time
  • Hard on relationships, hard on self
  • Average student takes 8.2 years to get a Ph.D.; in education, it’s 13+ years
  • 50% of students drop out along the way—dissertation writing is the major stumbling block
  • At commencement, typical Ph.D. is 33 (an age when peers are well along in their professions)
  • 12% percent of graduates saddled with more than $50,000 in debt

Source: New York Times, October 3, 2007, “Exploring Ways to Shorten the Ascent to a Ph.D.

Test your resolve: read and respond to questions posed in Thomas Benton’s 2009 essay in CHE: “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go”

Job prospects

What will the knowledge and skills gained in graduate school enable you to do?

Can you list a variety of professional directions enabled by your graduate education?

Choosing the right program

Using rankings

Sizing up program strengths

  • Faculty—what areas are covered? How many in the area of your interest? How close to retirement are they?
  • Course offerings—broad based enough? In area of interest?
  • Intensity of graduate preparation (comps, languages, etc.)—will you be pushed to accomplish something difficult?
  • Placement record and strategies—get honest, detailed answers from department placement officers
  • Faculty stability—is this a revolving door department? Is it fledgling? Is it dysfunctional?

Making contact

With professors—Don’t be shy. These are the folks you’ll be saddled or blessed with for many years. Size them up.

With other graduate students. Call them. Visit them. Meet as many as possible.

Visiting and attending sample of classes

Treat this as a research thesis. It is a huge investment—make phone calls, write emails, visit people and ask them tough questions. Be prepared to fall out of love.

Questions you might ask others about their path to a Ph.D.:

  • When and why did you choose to go to graduate school in philosophy?
  • Did you get your MA and PhD in one place or not?
  • How long did you take to finish graduate school? How did you finance it?
  • What was the biggest change from undergraduate life that you encountered as a graduate student?
  • How did you choose the school(s) you went to for graduate school? Where did you get the information? Did you make the right choice, in retrospect?
  • What do you think made the most difference in your application to admission for graduate school? GRE? Essay? How did you make sure you were submitting the best possible application?
  • Did you ever consider using your PhD for anything but a career in academia? What?
  • What other career paths did your undergraduate or high school friends choose, other than academia? Are they happy now?
  • Assessing location
  • Proximity to other grad programs, conferences—is the school in the middle of many other schools or relatively isolated?

Assembling an effective dossier

Do well on the tests—GRE’s etc.

Send the right writing sample—and make it perfect.

Get the right letters—ask for letters from professors who know you and for whom you did excellent work. We do damn with faint praise.


Last updated Apr 03, 2011 02:55:PM