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Apply this semester, or take a year off?


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Hi all, 

So, I suppose I should start by giving you a bit of info about my academic background. I'm a senior at a fairly large private university that's well-ranked in the large national rankings of universities, but isn't elite or even top-tier by any means (a good school to compare mine to would be BU, or something similar). Our philosophy department isn't particularly well-known, and is largely continental (I say this only because my interests are squarely on the analytic side of things, in phil. mind and phil. lang). So, I'm not coming from any sort of prestigious institution.

My academic career has been mixed. I started out majoring in something entirely unrelated to philosophy. I finished my freshman year with about a 2.8 GPA, which only got lower in the Fall semester of my sophomore year, in which I failed a class. During my freshman year, I took one philosophy course and got a B-. During the Spring of my sophomore year, however, I turned things around a bit and switched my major to philosophy. Since then I've taken about 17 classes and received 15 As and 2 A-s. Only one A- was in Philosophy. So, I've gotten my overall GPA up to 3.5, and my phil GPA up to 3.88. 

I've become sort of a top student in my department, so I've also received a few awards and interesting positions: I won a department fellowship, a university-wide internal fellowship (both for projects in phil mind), and am scheduled to TA two classes in the fall. I'm also the president of the philosophy club. 

However, because I've gotten a bit of a late start in philosophy, one thing I lack is a strong writing sample. I have a few papers that were extremely well-received by professors, but that I consider to be deeply flawed. I'm not sure how strong or polished the papers I'll be competing with will be - they, too, will be undergrad papers, after all - but I certainly don't consider any paper I currently have to be strong enough to submit as a writing sample. At least, not without extensive revision which will require extensive research. I also haven't taken or really prepared for the GRE. I'm not too worried about this, but I will have to do quite a bit of review in math, as I haven't taken a math course in college other than the one I failed. I did well in two semesters of Calculus in high school, however, so I'm sure I'll pick it back up. 

So, my question is this: is it even worth applying to any sort of graduate programs this Fall? Given that I lack a strong writing sample and that I haven't taken the GRE, I'd have to devote a lot of time in the Fall to preparing my application. This spreads my efforts pretty thin, as I'll be working on my thesis, taking a few courses, and TA'ing two other courses at the same time. On the other hand, if I don't apply this Fall, I can devote even more time to my thesis (read: eventual source of writing sample), and can prepare for the GRE over the course of the coming year.

So, viewed in this way, it seems that I should wait another year to apply. But I'm not sure that's the right move. Perhaps waiting a year looks fishy to admissions committees, or might otherwise detract from the strength of my application. I also don't know what I'd do during the 2016-2017 school year. Ideally, I'd like to find some sort of philosophy-related job (perhaps my department could help here; I'm not sure). If not, lack of money will not be an issue for me, but I wouldn't like to spend a year outside of the academy. There's always travel and such, but I doubt this will be conducive to my preparing for grad applications in Fall 2016. 

Any advice? Much appreciated.

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I'd probably wait a year, solely because of wanting to have a stronger writing sample. I also don't think any adcoms will think it's weird that you're taking a year off. Anecdotally, a lot of people seem to be surprised that I'm continuing straight from undergrad. 

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Take a year off. Don't travel, don't stay at home. Get a job, and preferable one that has nothing to do with philosophy. Try to get a job in a field that you are interested in, and see if you like the work. Use the year to strengthen your application materials as much as possible, but use it also to test the waters in other areas and gain valuable experience. You may just like the work enough to not want to go back to grad school, or if you do decide to go to grad school and find yourself unable to snag an academic position afterward, it will be helpful to have some non-academic professional experience on your resume. 

As far as I know, schools do not look down upon taking a year off before going into grad school. In fact, on a Leiter thread a while ago (I can't find it at the moment), many DGSs said those who took a gap year before entering grad school were more mature, had a better sense of what they wanted, were more motivated and usually ended up being better students. All in all, taking a gap year certainly does not hurt you, and may even help you, in several ways.

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You might consider going to a terminal MA first. Even if you take time off to polish the sample, coming from a continental school without much background in analytic is going to hurt you. You might look into Georgia State, NIU, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Western Michigan, Houston, University of Missouri-Si. Louis among others. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

Philstudent1991 has an interesting suggestion. I agree with it, unless you think that *after* producing the writing sample, etc., you'd have the application you need to do well (well enough) in PhD admissions.

Here's another way to put Philstudent's point (possibly): If you're going to jump to an MA before the PhD, might as well apply now to MA programs, because they tend to be less selective than PhD programs anyway. Maybe you won't need a perfect sample to go somewhere solid for an MA. That's probably not exactly what Philstudent meant, but I think it's a decent point.

But to the bigger question: You're better off taking a year to polish a writing sample. Actually that might be the *best* thing you can do. It may be that you really don't need the MA, but that you simply need a year to prepare an application. No admission committee will worry about your year off. In fact, I think it's perfectly legitimate to explain that you took the year to prepare applications. They know how difficult this is.

The writing sample, letters, and academic pedigree are really helpful. It's helpful to have attended a legitimate, known school with a serious philosophy department (more than a few philosophers). It's not quite as important that the school be high-ranked. The writing sample is crucial. It must be not just great, but also impressive in order to gain admission to a "top" PhD program. It has to be fantastic. And the letters almost have to be from known philosophers who can say very good things about you in great detail. Known, understood pretty broadly. Chances are that if you're at a legitimate, larger institution and have won an award there (as I understood you are, and you have), you'll be OK in the letters department! So what you need now is a year to produce an amazing writing sample with the help of a trusted professor.

I actually think you're in great shape. The numbers are strong, with the 3.88. Sounds like you have great potential. Good luck to you.




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