If you are considering grad school in philosophy, you first need to think strategically about the goal you are trying to achieve. Do you simply want a deeper understanding of philosophy, or are you seeking a career as a university professor? If you simply want a deeper understanding, then you do not need to get into a great PhD program. There are many good programs around, and (if you are in a city) there probably is one not very far away. The cheapest way of attaining this goal is simply getting a library card, and devoting your time to the task.
Indeed, you should bear in mind that the world needs philosophically-minded professionals more desperately than it needs more philosophy professors. There is a lot of good someone can do in law, editing, medicine, banking, and insurance, as well as in most fields, and the truth is that having some education and some continuing interest in philosophy will help someone to do some good in these fields. Being a philosopher does not necessarily mean being a professor of philosophy.
But, if after thinking through all that, you still are interested in seeking a career as a philosophy professor, then you need to know how competitive the job market is. IT IS VERY COMPETITIVE. There are always many more people with PhD’s seeking jobs than there are jobs. So, if you want a job, you need to have everything going for you. This includes getting into a well-respected grad program, shining like a star as a student, and then a fair degree of luck when it comes to job interviews and getting hired.
The best generally-available rankings of grad programs can be found here:
The rankings are general, and also broken into rankings in each of the main subfields of Philosophy. This page also offers astute observations about graduate study and the availability of jobs. The whole site should be read closely and taken to heart.
The top-20 or -30 programs are intensely competitive. You might send out a “hey, why not try?” application, but the chances are very slim that you will be admitted unless you have excellent GRE scores (that’s “Graduate Record Exam”), a brilliant writing sample, and are graduating from an excellent undergraduate institution. These schools receive so many applications that GRE scores are often used to make a “first cut” and eliminate many applicants from the start.
Your chances of gaining admittance to a lower-than-top-30 program are better, of course, though the top-50 programs still turn away far more applicants than they admit. At these schools, as a general rule, your GRE score is less important (unless it is bad!), and your writing sample and your statement of purpose tend to carry more weight in your application.
Let me say a bit more about these documents. In a statement of purpose, admissions committees are not looking for your life story, or your heartfelt memoir of learning Plato at your momma’s knee. They are looking for evidence that you are a professional, that you know what you are getting into, and that you are mature enough to handle graduate study of philosophy. They will determine if you are making a sensible choice in applying to their program, given your area of interest and the specialties of their faculty. This means that you need to think about what you want to do in philosophy graduate school, and apply to the schools that are the right fit for that choice. It would be good to read some articles or books by the faculty at the schools, so you have a better grasp of what interests them, and whether you would like to work with them.
Your statement of purpose should indicate the area in which you expect to work – for example, in ethics in ancient philosophy, or philosophy of mind, or political philosophy, or epistemology, or Spinoza’s metaphysics. Stronger statements might even indicate the particular problems or figures you want to study. Generally, being as specific as you can is good, though never ever try to sound like you know more than you do. Again, you are trying to build a case which convinces the readers that you really do belong in their program, that you will succeed, and you will bring welcome recognition unto them.
Your writing sample should be in the 15-20 page range (~4500 to ~6000 words). It should read like an article you would find published in a professional philosophy journal: extreme clarity, sound organization, objective and judicious handling of arguments, objections, and responses, on an interesting topic. You want to show off your philosophical ability. The topic need not be the same as the specialty you intend to study (but why wouldn’t it be?). As a practical matter, realize that beleaguered admissions committee members are reading a lot of these essays, so making it an interesting read doesn’t hurt; but don’t lose your objective cool.
By now you may have gotten the idea that you should be reading contemporary articles and books aimed at professional philosophers. YES. The Journal of Philosophy, Philosophical Review, Ethics, Journal of the History of Philosophy, and Philosophy & Phenomenological Research are all journals you should be checking out and reading or at least flipping through. This kind of reading will help you to get a better idea of what you are getting yourself into, and whether you want to spend your life doing it. In fact, you should start doing this as early as possible. Reading contemporary books and articles along with your professors can help you figure out what you want to do in graduate school, and with whom you would like to work.
In going through the application process, it is wise – no, essential – to get help from a dedicated professor in putting together your applications. Your statement of purpose and writing sample should be written in multiple drafts, with critical feedback and suggestions at each stage. You need to draw up a list early on of the schools to which you will apply, and think strategically about them and about your chances. Doing all this on your own pretty much guarantees that you won’t get admitted anywhere.
I should also add that there are good schools that don’t make it into the top-50 rankings. There are good professors at not-top-50 programs whose names and reputations can help open doors for you. Again, it is important to seek advice on this matter from your professors, as well as doing some research on your own to see how active and prominent the faculty are at the school to which you are thinking of applying.
A number of us counsel students not to go to grad school if they have to pay for it themselves. Getting a Teaching Assistantship or a Research Assistantship is a department’s vote of confidence in your ability. If you don’t get that vote of confidence, then maybe you don’t show much promise. Then, if you keep shelling out tuition, you may end up having spent thousands of dollars for a degree that still won’t get you a job, and that would be truly unfortunate. Now this advice may not always be sound: if you get into a great school, it might make sense to pay for it for a year or so, in order to give yourself the chance to prove to the faculty that you indeed are a shining star. But if you take this route, listen carefully for discouraging remarks, and take the hint.
If you are not in a really solid undergraduate school, you should consider applying to some good or very good terminal MA programs in Philosophy, in order to springboard your way into a good PhD program. Students are often confused about this, so let me explain how these degrees work. Once you have a BA or BS, you can enter either a MA program or a PhD program in Philosophy. You do not need to get an MA before applying to a PhD program. If you are pursuing a PhD, somewhere along the way (typically after you finish your coursework and before you start your dissertation) you will be granted a MA. For this reason, it usually makes the most sense to simply plunge into a PhD program. But, again, you might want to enter a good program that only grants MAs (“terminal MA program”), and not PhDs, if that will help you get accepted into a good PhD program. There is a listing and discussion of MA programs at the philosophicalgourmet site mentioned above.