What is It All About? Some Reflections on Applying to Graduate School in Philosophy from Outside the USA.

APP Editors’ Note:
L_E is a 20-something philosophy PhD student at a public university somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere.

This post is mainly about my experience as a non-traditional student applying to graduate school in philosophy in the USA, from outside the US. Before I proceed, a few words regarding my background might be helpful. I recently graduated from a non-English speaking school and applied for a few US graduate programs last Fall. I am in my early-twenties and had planned both financially and personally for this application season since about 2012, when I was in my sophomore year. Bluntly put, going to graduate school in the US was my dream for the past three years.

I started studying philosophy back in high school when I was the equivalent of a US senior in high school years. I did read a few classics back then, from Machiavelli, Descartes and Hume to Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. I did not understand much of what I was reading, but I was perplexed at how much I did not know (and did not understand) and yet how I kept reading all over again those apparently unintelligible lines. Although I did not understand much, I felt there was something important in those books.

My relationship with philosophy lasted only a few months. After graduating from high school, I started college in physics rightly after*. I knew that many great physicists were also great philosophers, and I thought that in physics I would be able to study both physics and philosophy. This didn’t turn out to be true, and I left college aiming for a new degree either in law or in philosophy. I spent a year working in a temporary job and decided to independently dedicate myself to philosophy to see whether I was really entitled to spend four years of my life reading those old and apparently unintelligible books. I ended up going for a philosophy major and graduated in 2014.

But what was it all about? I didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect from a philosophy major. The only thing that I really expected was to understand something about those books. In my first semester, I took an Introductory course and eagerly read the works of Descartes and Berkeley, as well as some contemporary philosophers. That’s when I discovered that there were living philosophers advancing their own ideas at the same time that I was starting to effectively read my first philosophy books. It took no time deciding that I wanted to do that too!

But here is when things start to get messy. I realized that being a real philosopher nowadays requires going to graduate school, and more importantly, to learn English and preferably attend a prestigious English-speaking university. This was at the end of my sophomore year (late 2011), and I’ve been preparing for my applications ever since.

I spent the rest of my undergraduate preparing for my applications, and given my non-traditional background, I tried to gather as much information as possible to see whether I really wanted to pursue a philosophy career outside my country. I started my research on Google, and that’s when I came across what we may call “professional philosophy”. I spent countless hours reading things about my prospects of being admitted, what to do to improve my chances and things like that. I did this for the three remaining years of my undergraduate degree.

It wasn’t a pleasant time, since I was virtually the first person from my country to go through this path straight out of undergrad. The very few who went to graduate school in the US had done this years ago, so I had almost no paradigm to compare with. Thanks to the internet, I could contact some great people (both in my country and in the US) who have supported me in some way or another throughout the entire process. I’m really indebted to all of them.

After struggling with such a hard decision, I ended up applying for graduate school. I could afford only seven schools (six of them “ranked” in a famous ranking in the profession, and one “non- ranked” school). I was rejected by three schools, wait-listed at two and admitted by the other two (one of which is “ranked” school, and the other of which is a “non-ranked” school). I had finally made my way to a first-rate “ranked” school, and thus I would be able to go forward in my career as a professional philosopher.

But there was a problem. I had finally accomplished my dream, but I wasn’t really happy. Here is why.

After applying, I joined an online community with other applicants where we could share our experiences and discuss topics related to philosophy. Although I met very interesting people there, the overall experience was profoundly disappointing.

The reason is that only then I could realize that being a “good” philosopher was often confounded with being a “good” academic. During the application season, I’ve experienced many discussions that I simply didn’t believe were the case. I’ve seen people engaging in really long and serious conversations about whether a 2% or 3% change in placement records should play a role in your final decision. I’ve seen people discussing how you should address a person in e-mail, and more importantly, if doing this way or that way would increase your chances. I’ve even seen students discussing who had the most contemporary topic of research. The more contemporary the literature, the better the paper is. Having a writing sample with a bibliography from the 90’s onwards was seen as a huge advantage.

As I mentioned, I was really disappointed by how frequently those discussions came onto scene. But here is the dramatic part. The few months during which I directly encountered the world of academic or professional philosophy almost killed any interest I had in the subject. I now think that I know something about those old and apparently unintelligible books, but my will to understand them even more had, and has, almost vanished. Applying to graduate programs in philosophy made me begin to hate what I loved.

I soon realized that if I were to attend graduate school, these things would probably get worse and worse, since the next step would be competing in the job market. After giving it much consideration, I decided that I did not want that for my life, not for the time being.

That’s why I declined my offer of admission at the “ranked” school and decided to attend the “non-ranked” school, which is outside the US. I knew that by doing so I would place a great burden on my career prospects, but that was the time to ask all over again what was it all about.

I did not want to go to graduate school to become an academic – at least not primarily –, but rather a good philosopher. I had to make a decision based on a limited range of information, but attending the “non-ranked” school seemed like a better option for the moment. I thought that only by distancing myself from professional philosophy that I could maintain my eagerness to understand those old and apparently unintelligible books of high school.

The sad truth is that I now live in a moment of hope: I am expecting that by going to graduate school I can regain my full interest for philosophy.

To conclude, a word of advice for those who are planning on applying in the future: learn how to separate the “professional” aspects and the “intellectual” aspects of philosophy. It is easy to mix them altogether, and you might end up believing that failure to engage with the professional life inevitably means that you have failed as a philosopher. This is not necessarily the case. You don’t need to cite only ten-years-old or so works to be a philosopher, in just the same way that Descartes, Leibniz or Nietzsche didn’t.

Professional philosophy is full of “do’s” and “don’t’s”, and sometimes your best interests in philosophy might fall under the “don’t” category. We are often misled by our judgments regarding our own historical period and this is not surprising coming from a discipline that is inherently historical and has so many practitioners who are very dismissive of this history.

So my advice is don’t take too seriously what the profession has established as “acceptable philosophy”. As Etienne Gilson once wisely remarked: “philosophy always buries its undertakers” (I would add that it buries its rule-makers too), and we are not in any privileged position to create intrinsically good rules of what is inherently good philosophy. We never know what is to count as good philosophy in ten or fifty years. All I know, though, is that if a topic is important for me, it has the potential to be important for someone else too. Whether it is professionally important is merely an accident.

The bottom line is: it’s not the case that being a good academic makes a good philosopher and vice versa. If going to graduate school is your thing, don’t let arbitrary and non-philosophical aspects of the profession kill your passion for philosophy. In the long run, we run the risk of forgetting what going to graduate school and eventually working as a professional philosopher is all about; but bearing in mind from the outset that doing good philosophy does not equate with doing professional philosophy might be a first step towards a change in this situation.

*In my country, you have to choose your major prior to your enrollment.