Advice on applying to grad school?

Reader K writes:

This is really out of self-interest (though I’m sure there are other readers who would also appreciate this), but I was hoping that since it’s application season, you might open up a thread on graduate school? It would be fantastic to hear from people who read this blog ideas for what programs are friendly to women in philosophy, what programs are good places for those whose areas of interest include feminist philosophy, etc. There are suggestions on pasts posts, but this can change over time with retirements/hires/etc.

Unfortunately, my philosophy professors who have been giving me advice fall into two categories: “I can’t believe affirmative action didn’t get you into a grad program last year” and “Why don’t you study X area of philosophy instead?” so I’m a little short on help in this area.

26 thoughts on “Advice on applying to grad school?

  1. The MA program at the University of Houston has an excellent representation of senior (in position!) women faculty in the program; two of which specialize in feminist philosophy. It’s an excellent program as well, and very women friendly, in my experience.

  2. Michigan State University is a good place to study feminism (a number of faculty work explicitly in feminist theory) and also has emphases in bioethics, ethics and development, and social justice.

  3. Thank you for this thread!

    When visiting grad schools, is there any general way to tell whether a particular place is friendly to women? Of course I can tell how many women are faculty or grad students, but is there any way to find out more about what it’s like to be a woman studying philosophy there? It’s not the sort of question you can just ask out of the blue. Are there any telltale signs of a toxic environment for women, or for a good environment?

  4. I am one of the senior women at the University of Houston’s philosophy department who has a specialization in feminist philosophy.

    I also have a postion in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. I have found my colleagues in Engineering and other cognitive science departments to be very supportive. I think they are wonderful people and very talented scientists.

    My experience of the phlosophy department has been different. I am very glad that E’s experience of the philosophy department was in contrast to mine.

  5. MIT and University of Western Ontario are two places that come immediately to mind.

    There are some web resources on this topic:

    I think there is another list of women-friendly philosophy departments on the web, but I can’t immediately remember where it is.

    Julie Van Camp maintains this updated list of philosophy departments, with percentages of women faculty:

    @Metatwaddle: I think it is the kind of question you can ask openly when you are visiting graduate departments (especially after you have been accepted, but, really, even if you are making exploratory visits). If people are unhappy about being asked such a question, that is probably a sign that it’s not the kind of place where you want to study. You might even ask, when planning your visit, whether it would be possible for you to have lunch or coffee with a group of female grad students.

  6. I would like to think that my department — Simon Fraser University — is female friendly. (I am the Chair.) We certainly have an active group of women MA students, and there are currently three women research faculty and one woman Senior lecturer. To be honest, there have been on occasion male grad students with, ahem, issues, but the department has responded proactively to complaints.
    The easiest way to find out whether a department is female friendly once you are admitted is simply to ask the grad students, and even faculty, directly.
    If you had trouble gaining admission to a PhD program last year, as many of the comments imply, it might be a good idea to apply to MA programs this year (along with PhD programs) as a back up.

  7. Vanderbilt University’s philosophy department is very amenable to feminism, and has a good representation of women faculty and graduate students. The faculty includes two senior feminists (both of whom hold named chairs), some junior feminists, and feminist faculty from other disciplines (poli sci and theology) who teach cross-listed courses in philosophy and serve on philosophy dissertation committees. Because of its decent number of feminist scholars, the department also supports work in feminist theory in a variety of philosophical traditions (i.e., Continental, American Pragmatism, Analytic).

  8. If you really want the dish about what a grad program is like, ask the students. In my experience they have been less invested in faculty/institutional politics, so they’re more honest and forthcoming. If there are any recent alumni who either work in your area, or are female, ask them about their experiences. Also ask junior faculty if they feel they can get tenured on feminist work, or if they fell pressure to do other work to build their tenure dossiers…That will help you gauge what sorts of projects (thesises, dissertations) the faculty will accept.

  9. The regular faculty at Penn is nearly half women (6 out of 14) and there are others on the “affiliated” faculty as well. A bit more than a third (12 out of 30, I think) of the grad students are women as well. So, it seems like a place open to women. (Of course, you’d want to speak to the women themselves.) I don’t think that any of the women faculty see themselves as working especially on feminism, but at least one works significantly on women in the early modern period and some others are open to it, as are some of the men. (One of my good friends when I was a grad student there successfully wrote a very good dissertation on feminist political philosophy and found a very nice job.) The women graduate students seem to have done pretty well on the job market as well, so, for a female student with the right philosophical interests I’d think it’s certainly a place worth considering.

  10. I’m another of the feminist philosophers at the University of Houston and also the current chair. Please feel free to write to me if you have concerns or questions about possibilities for graduate study in our department. I have directed several theses by women students, including topics in feminist philosophy ranging from feminist epistemology to Baudrillard and Mackinnon on pornography. I also regularly teach Feminist Philosophy and am affiliated with our Women’s Studies Program (and was its founding director). There is a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies and a graduate seminar on feminist theory which includes quite a few readings from philosophers. I can put you in touch with past or current women graduate students so you can ask them directly for an honest opinion.

    Good luck in your future studies,
    Cynthia Freeland

  11. I was looking for the same thing when I went into grad school. I’m going on the job market right now, and it’s a little scary for someone who specializes in in feminist philosophy, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.
    I definitely think a good way to get honest information is via other graduate students. I’m at Purdue and the philosophy department itself doesn’t have any kind of feminist-related focus, but there are interdisciplinary programs that blend my interests. So that’s something you may want to look into as well, as too often feminist philosophy remains on the margins of “real” philosophy.
    I wish you all the luck in the world!! Feminist philosophers, unite!

  12. Following on my discrete/cryptic remarks in #4 above, I would be happy to discuss the problems I have encountered at the University of Houston. My email is:

    I’d also be happy to put you in touch with others, including students, who have some experience of the department.

    I think it could be problematic to describe the department as a whole as either feminist- or woman-friendly.

  13. I did an MA at Simon Fraser University a few years ago. (I’m a woman.) In general, my experience was a happy one. There are some wonderful people on the faculty there, male and female. That said, I detested several of the male graduate students I studied with. I felt excluded from social activities and talked over in seminars. I shared an office with two men who often talked as if I wasn’t there. It also bears mention that a certain senior male faculty member is well-known for his affairs with female students and that the departmental administrator goes out of his way to make things unpleasant for female graduate students. So far as I know, neither of these men has ever been in danger of losing their jobs.

  14. This is so tricky. Not every place that has a good percentage of women in the department or has feminists ‘on the books’ is at all healthy for female grad students. It is almost impossible to tell until you arrive and talk to people and get a feel for the general level of morale. Also your two questions may not have the same answer – a place that is good and healthy for women may not be especially strong in feminist philosophy, and vice-versa.

  15. Let me point out that grad students and non-tenured faculty have reasons for concealing their true views. I do know of at least one case where negative comments from a grad student to a visitor got back to the chair, who was not happy.

    One of the great things about getting tenure is that one can say what one thinks, but even here the price can be quite high. People don’t necessarily get happy at what one says when one has tenure.

  16. If you’re applying to an MA program, keep in mind that there is a very rapid turnover of students, and so the social environment of an MA program is likely to change dramatically from year to year. Of course, the faculties at MA programs are fairly stable (although in this respect, too, there is generally faster turnover than in most PhD programs), but if you are a student, your fellow graduate students arguably determine at least 50-70% of your social experience.

  17. I encourage X to contact me directly with her particular complaints from her time at SFU. This is not the forum to engage the specific cases mentioned in her post. I can only suggest that things have changed. Since I have been chair (for about 2 years now, and a year prior to that a 5 month stint as Acting Chair) I have not been approached by either graduate or undergraduate students with any complaints around sexual harassment or gender bias. I would like to think that the department’s appointing a female chair signals a change in culture — that is a change for the better. Potential applicants with questions should feel free to contact me at I would also be happy to direct you to some of our current female MA students.

  18. I’m the feminist philosopher who originally compiled the wikispace list, and at the same time, the APA Committee on the Status of Women was developing its own list. The most recent copy of it is here:

    Click to access GradPrograms2009.pdf

    Our methods were different; mine for the wikispace list was entirely to draw from solicitations on SWIP and FEAST, completely self-nominated, which is how even programs I personally would not have listed (including my degree program, UW-Madison, an excellent program but not one that is a famous home for feminism, Claudia Card’s presence notwithstanding) were on the list. After all, if students and teachers felt like nominating their programs, I figured, that’s their affair.

    Regarding ‘how to ask,’ I cannot ditto enough the recommendation that prospectives just ask the current grad students!! This was actually really helpful for me, knowing that I was entering a program that didn’t center feminism, and further helpful for other prospectives. I’ll never forget the one who visited Wisconsin and said she wanted to do French postmodern feminism, to which I responded, “With WHOM???” She went elsewhere and today, we’re both happily employed professors. :-)

  19. I agree, too, with the suggestion that talking to current grad students can be helpful. But when I applied in the early 90’s “talking” meant talking on the phone (not via e-mail, which was not yet widely used). I wonder if current grads are likely to be less honest about their own views when responding to a prospective student by e-mail (i.e., leaving a written record of their comments). I recall grad students at a couple of programs who were brutally honest with me about how awful it was to be a feminist in their departments, which I doubt they would have shared in writing.

    I think I found these students’ names (and got their numbers) by asking someone–maybe even the administrative assistant in the department–if I could have the names and numbers of grad students in the program who were working in my area of interest (feminism). That worked well for me–much better than just randomly talking to a few grad students.

  20. helenesch:

    No disagreements here, just a couple of thoughts to add from my own perspective.

    I certainly can’t speak for others, but the prospect of a written record wouldn’t deter me from brutal honesty (it certainly didn’t when I was asked to email a prospective my impressions of my previous department/program; as for my current department, I’m still honeymooning and without anything brutal to say): as a student myself, I don’t have too much of a vested interest in whether someone else attends my school or not. I might, however, be more interested (so to speak) at the prospect of a student coming who will be desperately unhappy here, since that unhappiness will be reflected in all of that student’s interactions with me and with others–especially down the road, when that person’s opinion has a more direct impact on my degree’s reputation. Of course, as someone who posts all over the internet, I probably don’t have much of a reputation left to worry about anyway.

    Although most departments are happy to put you in contact with current grad students upon request, I would worry that sometimes there’s something of a pre-selection bias at work, and only the students who are likely to leave a good impression are selected for response. Since most departments provide some sort of grad student contact information on their websites, it might be best to simply email students directly (if/when possible), specify that the email address was obtained through the department’s website, and ask whether they would mind answering a few questions.

  21. Reader K: Pay careful attention to Ben’s comment #16. I’m not a grad student, but I’m a mature undergrad student at a university that ranks high on all the lists, including this one. My experience here was SO horrid I actually started to wonder if I smell bad or something. Other people don’t seem to be having the problems I’m having. Maybe they only send their “rate your student experience” questionnaires to students who have an extra 10k/year to fork over for a residence placement? (No I’m not at Simon Fraser–I’ve actually heard good things about them.) And no, I won’t breach this site’s courtesy policies by telling you all where I am. I’ve come to respect a few of the higher ups here, including one who is very visible on several philosophy blogs.

    I’m just saying that it only takes 2 or 3 obnoxious people to ruin what could have been a really good thing. “Grapevines” spring up for a reason. Try to make use of them if you can.

  22. adding to what michael x says in 20, it’s probably also the case that the students who do have trouble in a department don’t hang around volunteering to do things like talk to prospective students. in my experience, when one has trouble in a department, one tries simply to keep one’s head down and stay the hell away from the department as much as possible.

  23. I am sorry to hear about the negative experiences X had at Simon Fraser University. I am fortunate to be able to report that I shared the positive experiences of X in that department without also having the negative experiences. The students and faculty that I met during my time at Simon Fraser were very supportive and encouraging, and I am still in touch with a number of them (male and female).
    The advice given by many here to contact current graduate students (emphasis on the plural) is especially important since it is clear that the experiences of women in a department can vary so much. I spoke with a number of students about such issues when I went on my visits, and found such conversations to be very helpful.

  24. I am the Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Missouri. I would be glad to answer questions about our program, and also to put prospective applicants in touch with women who are already here.

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