graduate admissions process undergrad degreeAn interesting Inside Higher Education article discusses the role of undergraduate pedigree in graduate program admissions decisions. This was written in reaction to a provocative blog post from University of California-Riverside philosophy professor Eric Schwitzgebel in which he analyzed the undergraduate institutions attended by graduate students accepted into the top philosophy PhD programs.

Prof Schwitzgebel concludes that a significant bias exists in his field towards accepting those applicants who possess an elite undergraduate pedigree. The expansive comment section of the blog piece includes a number of testimonials, all apparently from within the philosophy community. Some of these offer affirmation whereas others prove to be exceptions to the rule.

In a more broad view, the vibrant dialog is worth reading by anybody considering applying to PhD programs, irrespective of the discipline. Because this discussion provides some insight into how seats in PhD programs at research universities are a limited resource, and the processes and thinking that goes into handing them out. For a nice round figure, aggregate doctoral program application acceptance rates hover in the 20% range, with some variance depending upon academic field and type of institution (see this Link (large pdf)). What this indicates is that entry into PhD programs is quite competitive, and one can readily surmise it is substantially more competitive for those programs that are perceived as top-rated in their disciplines.

I don’t doubt that pedigree doesn’t factor into admissions decisions, but from my own experience would think it speaks less of elitism and more reflects the decision making that goes into distributing a limited resource. For graduate programs receiving large numbers of applications, pedigree can become an important distinguishing factor if there aren’t enough seats in the program for all the highly qualified applicants. What is perhaps more important for aspiring PhD students to recognize is not the relative merits of pedigree and performance and aptitude, but how these admissions decision are being made. The Inside Higher Education piece hits the mark, in this regard:

Joanne Canyon-Heller, senior director of admissions at Roosevelt University and president of the National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals, said that the key thing about admission to Ph.D. programs is that “it’s really faculty-driven, and because it’s faculty-driven, they are going to be looking for their own goals, their sense of the mission of the program.

Program faculty make these admissions decisions, developing unique standards differing from one to another. Applicants should strive to gain some familiarity with the overall graduate admissions culture within their academic field (eg, is a master’s degree essential or can one directly enter a PhD track?), and some additional insights into what the specific programs that interest them look for in their applicants. The earlier one begins this process of discovery, the better prepared they will compete for a coveted slot.
And if discovers in looking at a pedigree-weighted program that he didn’t make the correct undergraduate college decision as a high school senior, with that knowledge at least he can save himself a $75 application fee.
What can be more important than a PhD applicant’s pedigree, performance and aptitude is knowing how each graduate program weight these factors in their admissions decisions.