A student applying to graduate school this fall writes:
I was hoping you could post something on the Leiter Reports asking the readers (particularly the philosophy professors on grad schools admissions committees) what they expect from a student's personal statement. As a prospective student, this often seems to be the most elusive part of the application, and unfortunately most programs don't provide much guidance on their websites - and if they do, it isn't extremely helpful. With the GRE's, your gpa, and your writing sample you do the best you can, and hope that it is enough, but what the content of personal statement should be is a little less self-evident.
Obviously the personal statement should say something about why the student wants to get a graduate degree in philosophy, and what areas interest him most, but how in depth should it go? Should the student just explain his broad areas of interest, or should he describe
particular problems that have intrigued him? In other words, should a student do a little philosophy in the statement?
Also, it is clear that the student shouldn't wax poetic about the wonders of the philosophical life, but should simultaneously express the fact that she can see herself doing philosophy as a career. Do your readers have any advice on striking a balance between, on the one hand,
expressing an appreciation and desire for doing philosophy, and on the other, convincing the admissions committee you are a serious candidate?
If a certain part of the student's applications is sub-par, e.g. low GRE scores or a significantly lower gpa during the first one or two years of college, should the student attempt to provide some justification? Or would such a situation be better taken care of in a letter of recommendation? Should students mention particular faculty members they would enjoy (or even be honored) to work with? If so, how can they do this without groveling?
My own views (having done PhD admissions four or five times in the last decade) are as follows: (1) the personal statement should make clear what the student's philosophical interests are (at present) and how those interests make the program to which the student is applying a sensible choice (in this context, mentioning particular faculty can make good sense, and show that the student has given some thought to why he or she is applying to a particular program); (2) one can't really "do philosophy" in a personal statement, but one can certainly offer examples of particular philosophical problems (e.g., mental causation) or topics (e.g., Stoic ethics) that convey both the depth of undergraduate preparation and complement the explanation of why the candidate is applying to a particular program; (3) deficiencies in GRE scores or GPA are most persuasively addressed by your faculty recommenders (students ought to discuss the issues candidly with their advisors), but it is certainly not inapprpriate for the personal statement to address these kinds of issues--but statements of the form, "I am a much better student than my undergraduate GPA would suggest" are useless; more pertinent is factual information--e.g., "my overall GPA was dragged down because I was an engineering major my freshman and sophomore years; but when I switched to philosophy, my GPA rose to a 3.8" or "my junior year grades fell significantly when my mother died unexpectedly; I believe my sophomore and senior year grades are more indicative of my philosophical ability."
The personal statement may certainly say something brief about the student's professional and personal goals: most commonly, a career as a college teacher of philosophy, or sometimes personal edification and enrichment. I would not spend much time on this: presumptively, those who apply for PhDs in philosophy want to teach the subject. The items noted above (1-3) are generally more important for an admissions committee: i.e., what is the student interested in, and does his or her interests fit with what our program has to offer.
Comments are open. No anonymous comments; students need to hear from philosophers with experience on admissions. Please post only once; I will try to approve comments in a timely way. I would, in particular, invite British, Canadian, and Australasian philosophers to remark on pertinent differences in expectations for the personal statements for their programs.