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Some excellent advice from philosopher Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame), who kindly invited me to share it:
It is Prospective Visit season at PhD programs, and I know many prospective students are a bit unclear about how they ought to approach these visits. There are also, unfortunately, lots of rumors floating around about different departments that can have an undue influence on one's decisions. I thought it might be nice to open a thread (as there has been in years past) on particular pieces of advice for students going on these visits. Here are my five, for what they are worth:
(1) Be sure to talk to a broad sample of faculty, graduate students, and even spouses and partners of faculty and graduate students. Get a very broad sample of data. Don't be afraid to email faculty or graduate students to get answers to your questions.
(2) Ask them how they like being a member of the department and how they view social aspects of departmental life. But ALSO be sure to ask them somewhat specific and probing questions about department and the graduate training it provides.
For faculty some questions like this might be: How much time do they spend advising PhD students on a given week? What is the typical structure of dissertation advising with that faculty member? How do they typically get matched with advisees? What graduate courses have they recently taught and what are they planning to teach? What do they see as strengths and weaknesses of the graduate program? How do faculty spend their time when they are not working with graduate students? (What you should look for: faculty who are highly active in the field, but still able to meet regularly with students, provide
advice on research topics, and---for dissertation students---provide useful feedback on written work.)
For graduate students the questions might be: How much time do they spend on coursework in a given week? (I think it should, in a good department, closely resemble the workload of a fulltime job). How far does their funding stretch in the city where the grad program is located? If they are at qualifying exam or dissertation phase: how did they pick their advisors/committee? How often do they meet with advisors/committee? What typically happens at a meeting?
(3) Ask about placement. And be a little bit near-biased. In the past five years, how many students have been placed in TT jobs or long-term postdocs? Where were those jobs? What were the AOSes of students placed in those jobs? Who was on their committee? How long did it take them to finish the PhD? What is the department's placement process like? What is their long-term strategy for making sure their PhDs are successful at finding employment? (You should be looking for a program that has a clear plan for getting students through the PhD and good recent track record of placement in the areas of philosophy you anticipate working in. )
(4) Look closely at current and past course offerings in the department. Will this program support and nurture the areas of philosophy that interest you? (Realizing that your interests might change quite a bit in the course of your PhD, and that can be a good thing!)
(5) Be kind, polite, and professional to everyone in the department, but especially the admin assistants, director of graduate studies and the graduate students working to coordinate your visit. People have put a lot of work into the admissions and recruitment process. And one way or another, all of these men and women are going to be your colleagues now that you are entering this field. Treat this visit like your first professional activity.
I'm on the road right now, so can't moderate comments, but I think all of this advice is very good and wanted to get it out there while it is still timely.
UPDATE: See also Professor Pigden's advice for students looking at PhD programs outside North America.