Advice for PhD applicants interested in feminism?

We’ve had a query from a reader who sent a writing sample on feminist philosophy off to all the PhD programmes she applied to and didn’t get into any. I know anecdotally of other such cases, including one who sent a writing sample that had actually been published in Hypatia. (He tried again the following year with a mainstream writing sample, and had a nice choice of programmes to choose from.) I’m wondering what others think about this sort of issue? Should people send feminist writing samples? Even programmes which do have feminist philosophers might not have them reading the writing samples in question, so I suspect that even seeking out such programmes doesn’t give a sure way around the problem. (Certainly it didn’t in the case of the Hypatia author, who did send his feminism writing sample to departments with feminist philosophers, though not only to those.) I’d hate to think that we should be advising our students to play down the feminist philosophy when they apply to grad school, but if that’s true then it’s the advice we should give.

One (admittedly imperfect) way of finding programmes more receptive to feminist philosophy is the CSW Women and Feminist Friendly Department List. Those SWIP UK has recognised as women-friendly are also likely to have some good things going for them.

21 thoughts on “Advice for PhD applicants interested in feminism?

  1. I understand that some American universities see their grad admissions in terms of their research priorities. In fact, grants may differ according to the student’s chosen areas and whether it is in one of the department’s priority areas.

    That would suggest to me that if you don’t apply as someone in a main area, you might find you have less competition, but you might also be much less interesting.

    Given also that, as one very well-known feminist philosopher relayed at the Hypatia conference, other faculty may be telling students it’sa mistake to take feminist classes, and you may be in for a roughtime getting admitted.

  2. Looking at what I just wrote, I’m wondering how dismal its implication are. Perhap if one wants to be a feminist philosopher, one has to put up with being a shape-shifter, prepared to adopt a numger of disguises. Except in, of course, a few genuinely exceptional depts.

  3. Several recent posts on this blog are beginning to make me suspect that I have a charmed existence but my writing sample for grad school was an excerpt from my senior thesis which focused on the exclusion of women philosophers (most specifically Charlotte Perkins Gilman) from the pragmatist cannon. I didn’t do it on purpose but (apart from Dewey and James in the background reading) every single one of my sources was female. I applied to four universities, all in the UK, two with very prestigious reputations, one with a very good reputation that’s getting better and one with no particular repute for philosophy and was accepted by one of the first two and the third. One of the two from whom I had acceptance letters was my first choice, so I withdrew my application before I had heard from the last two but I feel safe in assuming that I would have been accepted by the ‘safety’ school on the list. One of the two acceptances I had was from a university acknowledged by SWIP to be women-friendly, the other does not have a reputation for being particularly women-friendly or unfriendly. I don’t write all of this to brag on myself but just to say that I have had a different experience: accepted on a feminist writing sample, never subject to sexual harassment, very much included in the informal discussion network, always positive conference experiences and all while having long hair, wearing contact lenses, skirts and heels and specialising in analytic philosophy. I have no idea why my experience has been so different from what I often read reported on this blog. I also don’t mean to imply that I never run up against sexism or discrimination in philosophy or philosophers: I have seen it go on, I have experienced it in subtler ways, I have seen other women come up against it. Neither do I doubt that what everyone else reports is true. I just wonder why my experience differs to such a degree.

    This really doesn’t constitute advice; please accept my apologies for straying from the topic. It seemed worthwhile, though, to share a different lived experience even if I don’t quite know what to make of the difference.

  4. I think we should be careful about the use of anecdotal evidence here. It’s extremely difficult to get into PhD programs these days (not that I need to tell anyone that!) and it’s a crapshoot in many ways. So knowing a few people who didn’t get in one year with a feminist writing sample and did the next year with a non-feminist writing sample does not a problem constitute.

    This isn’t to say that there isn’t a problem– there may well be one.

    There are so many factors that go into admissions decisions. One of them, in my department and I assume in others, is worrying about loading too many students onto a single faculty member. Some years, the department will make an effort not to accept students who express an interest in working with a specific faculty member, because that faculty member has too many advisees. I suppose some people on the admissions committee might read into the writing sample as an indicator of who the student wants to work with, but from talking to those in my department (I am not saying this is true in every department, or even across the board in my department), it seems the personal statement is taken much more as an indicator of who the student wants to work with.

    I’m not entirely sure, though, why this is a problem. My department has a prominent feminist philosopher who many applicants express interest in working with. It seems only fair to her, the current students, and the prospective students that she not be stretched so thin that students can’t get attention from her and she can’t pay attention to her own work.

  5. I’m a grad student (at a department where no one works in feminist philosophy). A sizable minority of the applicants who were accepted over the past couple years submitted two writing samples. I get the sense that may of the people who submit two samples are interested in history, and they send one historical paper and one contemporary one. I can think of several reasons this might be beneficial: It demonstrates broad interest (which might be especially important for historians or feminist philosophers, given that some faculty may be turned off by their work). It also means that you can send a sample on your primary area of interest while still sending something that you can expect the committee members to feel comfortable assessing and not to be put off by.

  6. Anon grad– the two writing sample suggestion is an excellent one. So simple, and yet it hadn’t occurred to me. Thanks!

  7. Generally, I suppose my recommendation would be for interested graduate students to directly contact the person they want to work with and (if possible) arrange a meeting. Sometimes one is rejected because supervisor x simply cannot take on more students. Otherwise, it might be helpful to flag your interest well in advance: this way you can potentially have someone in the department looking to support your application. Plus, you can get a heads’ up on the likelihood of success.

    Other than that, I’d recommend those unsuccessful in the US to seriously consider studying in the UK. It was one of the best things I’ve done.

  8. I’m extremely cynical about grad admissions; keep that in mind when you read the following.

    Sending two writing samples could easily backfire — I’ve heard semi-regular complaints from the faculty on our grad admissions committee about the workload, and I suspect that they wouldn’t take kindly to someone adding even more to read.

    Given the profound lack of power applicants have in this process, it’s probably `best’ to just play along with the system, as dysfunctional as it is, and submit a mainstream or non-feminist writing sample when the odds are mainstream or non-feminist philosophers are going to be reading it. A strong interest in feminist philosophy can be included in the statement of purpose.

    Also, I’d echo Thom Brooks’ first suggestion, and encourage applicants to contact faculty with whom they’re interested in working, and the directors of graduate students for the programs that house those faculty. Depending on the rules that govern the admissions committee, both may be able to give you advice on what sort of paper to write (ie, whether a feminist paper would be well-received by this year’s committee) and, if they find your email promising, nudge the highly subjective process a little further in your favor. Similarly, if your undergraduate advisor has any contacts in a program or department that especially interests you (went to grad school with some of the faculty, works on the same issues and the person you want to work with, that sort of thing), see if they’re willing to use those contacts to your advantage.

  9. If the US won’t have you, try Canada. There are some very good schools here. Mind you, they might have the same problems with non-mainstream philosophy.
    I always recommend to students to contact potential advisors ahead of applying. It is a must in order to boost your chances.

  10. Katherine, there’s a certain irony in our spam filter’s chucking your comment into the spam box! I’d like to think that in fact your experience is not all that unusual for young, very bright, attractive young women. The trouble with that hypothesis, though, is that if it applies generally to such women, we have to suppose there are very few of them, as opposed to many young, very bright and at least ‘acceptable’ looking men.

    I do think it is worthwhile that you share this, and I have the sense from what you are saying that you don’t have much trouble with men ‘respecting your boundaries’ (I’m not sure what the non-therapist-speak for this is). That is, you don’t find yourself getting men angry at you becaue you’ve rejected their advances??

  11. jj- was that (end of comment 1) meant in the sense that undergraduate courses in feminist philosophy could hurt, or an admonition against taking them in the graduate level?

  12. Kathryn, I was really just thinking about using a feminist sample. I just wasn’t thinking at all about courses.

  13. jj – I haven’t had a problem with men (or women) respecting my boundaries and haven’t had any issues about rejected advances (at least, I haven’t had such a problem at university or in a professional capacity though I have experienced them in other parts and at other times of my life). No faculty member has ever said anything inappropriate to me, either, thankfully.

    I really do wonder about this – I would like to think that I can count on my past experience to continue largely positively in the future. At the moment, though, I don’t know what to ascribe the difference to and, of course, if it’s down to luck or chance, then I certainly can’t count on it. I hope that it is instead indicative of larger positive change in attitudes towards women but at the moment I don’t have a particular reason to think that that is the case. Reading about other women’s lived experiences is part of the reason I like this blog so much, so perhaps over the course of time I’ll be able to draw a better conclusion based on a broader survey.

  14. I wonder if any faculty on here have tips on how they might like to be contacted by a prospective student; it seems like applicants might find it a bit intimidating or worry about annoying people they would like to work who are surely busy by e-mailing them. Or am I being paranoid?

  15. Just as an FYI- the “friendly department” list for the US is out of date to a pretty large degree now, with quite a few departments having lost (and so, of course, other gained) the listed “friendly” faculty. People should be sure to check the department web pages (though some departments are also oddly bad at keeping these up to date, too, and they may not reflect in-progress or planed moves.)

  16. Actually, I’m not sure that it’s typically a good idea for prospective students to contact professors before being accepted (or waitlisted) to a program.

    Professors at competitive programs might well be disinclined to meet or talk with students who have not yet been accepted. There are many applicants, the vast majority of whom will not get in. A professor might feel that “random” applicants have no claim for her time and attention. Or he might variably respond, depending on his sense of whether a particular applicant has special circumstances. The potential downside for prospective students is that advance queries can come across as indicating a high maintenance personality or as an effort to game the system.

    In general, there is no mystery to getting accepted: an applicant must be either obviously extraordinarily good; or very good and fortunate; or good and very fortunate. (There might also be an issue of fit.)
    –Strong recommendations are very important.
    –A strong writing sample is important.
    –If one’s primary writing sample is in a marginalized area, yet one might want to go to a program that doesn’t take such work seriously (or whose admissions committee might not), include a second writing sample in a more mainstream area. (This is no real burden to an admissions committee: they will read whatever they feel motivated to read.)
    –If there are clearly problematic aspects of one’s application, they should be directly addressed in the personal statement. Otherwise, a concise, straightforward, confident but understated personal statement is best. (The letters can attest to your greatness.)
    –Stronger scores are better than weaker scores. Some places don’t or hardly care about scores; other places continue to view them as real indicators of intelligence. In any case, try to avoid “red flag” scores (say, below the 50th percentile).

    IMHO, ceteris paribus.

  17. I was the reader with the query… As background, my overall GPA is 3.81, my philosophy GPA is 3.97. My GRE scores were: quanitative, 800, verbal, 720, writing, 5.0. My writing sample in it’s original form I gave two presentations on, and revised it with the help of a faculty member. The department I’m in now, is, overall, not friendly towards feminist philosophy so given that my writing sample was fairly well received here, I just didn’t think about the possibility that would play out differently in the graduate admissions process, and I *thought* it was strong. Perhaps I aimed too high, or overestimated the quality of my application.

  18. Anon.applicant: I don’t know whether I’d be furious at such results or heart broken or what – probably a lot of things in succession. I do know someone who was grad director at a highly ranked grad school; he said he regularly admitted 50% female students, but that many of his colleagues at other places only admitted men, despite the fact that they saw the same excellent female candidates. Of course, we’ve been asking how this sort of discrimination occurs in people who are not consciously opposed to women. I don’t think you can discount this.

    Another factor might be your original school, so it might be worth looking at where it does send students. You might also consider one of the strong MA programs; they often help get people into better schools, while at the same time supporting them with TAships.

    Katherine, also commenting on this post, reports a very different experience, but there are various ways in which the English system may vary from the US. E.g., at least at one time, Oxford and Cambridge admissions were to colleages, not to the philosophy faculty. That’s quite a different scene, if it is still like that.

  19. My reaction has definitely been a mix of both but I’m really trying to have a constructive attitude and focus on what I can do better next time. At least two of the programs I applied to (and one of those was an MA) I know students from my institution have gotten into before, but perhaps there were other factors at play there.

    Obviously, I’ll revise my writing sample again before I submit my next round of applications, I’ll try and figure out other programs students from my school have gotten into in the past, I’ll ask more of my professors where they have connections and see if that might be helpful. Any other advice would be much appreciated.

  20. My opinion for what it is worth is that this is one of those issues where there is a lot of diversity. I am sure that in some programs, in some years, a feminist writing sample raises the bar quite high (or won’t get you admitted) whereas in others or even the same program with different committee members it will be no problem at all. If the program to which you are applying has one or more identifiably feminist professors (as ours does) it is less likely to be a problem for you.

    Having sat on a graduate admissions committee for several years I think the “submit 2 samples” advice is good, as long as the samples are not too long. Two readable length samples both of which are good from different areas (whether or not one is feminist) looks good to a committee, and one good sample with one weaker sample isn’t bad (we figure that few applicant have more than one or two samples). For very high status programs the story might be different.

  21. The more I’m thinking about this, the more I think sending two writing samples is a good idea. As Dan noted too, it could backfire; but overall I think the possible benefits seem to outweigh the risks. The other sort of insurance option is to rewrite the sample so it appears less feminist, but I’m hesitant to do that. Call it idealism or naiveté, but that seems like compromising my principles to play to an admissions committee. Giving them a more multi-dimensional view with two samples I think might accomplish the same end, without hiding my feminist propensity.

    By the way, thanks for the post Jender!

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