Would it be rude to ask a professor for a potential list of other professors?
January 19, 2011 7:15 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the process of looking at graduate schools in philosophy, which is a difficult task when trying to match up my niche specialty with potential professors. I've been able to track down five different professors, but I was wondering if it would be rude to ask if they had any suggestions on where/who to look. I'm located in the United States, but this academic community is 99% located outside of here, and browsing the associated journals and conferences hasn't been too helpful because the names I'm coming across are graduate students and names that aren't popping up on Google.
posted by anonymous to Education (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
In science at least, it is completely usual for professors to offer suggestions of other potential mentors unbidden. I can't imagine anyone I work with being offended at someone asking for suggestions. After all, you are reminding them that they are a trusted expert on this topic.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:32 AM on January 19, 2011

There are a lot of questions I would like to ask you, but since this question is anonymous I will do my best with what you have given us to work with. First of all, if you do not yet have an MA, you shouldn't assume you have the expertise to have a niche specialty just yet. You're not an advanced student. You are probably looking too narrowly.

Of course, there are some fields that are not as robust in the US. It would really help if you could post a followup question to tell us what you're looking at.

There's no harm in e-mailing the graduate students. They are probably better positioned to help you than venerable old professors. Tell them what your interests are and ask where the best schools are for your field. And remember to follow up their replies with a thank you e-mail. I remember spending time on e-mails like that from strangers and it pissed me off when I never heard from people again.

As for contacting professors, I don't see any harm in that. Before you do though, familiarize yourself with their work so you can at least refer to it in your e-mail. Describe your interests and ask if you would be a good fit or if they could recommend an advisor who would be a good fit.

Since you are just getting started, and (my hunch is that you are looking way too narrowly at niches) I wouldn't blow my contact professors wad just yet.

Why not post your field of interest here in this thread so that people can suggest schools that may be good fits or good places to find that kind of information?

I am in the humanities but not philosophy.
posted by vincele at 7:40 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

My first instinct is no - you should contact those professors to introduce yourself and see if they think you would be a good fit for their program and ask questions about the school - but if you are really early in the process asking if they know of other people in the field or places to look might not be the worst thing? If it is that small a niche, they probably know (or at least know of) each other.

The other people to ask are the professors who are going to be writing academic references for you. Even if they're not directly involved in the specific niche you are looking at, they will probably at least know some stuff about the field.

On preview: vincele's advice in re: contacting grad students is also good.
posted by SoftRain at 7:43 AM on January 19, 2011

I did this while looking at graduate schools in the sciences. I was contacting professors I thought I would be interested in working with, and I asked each of those professors if they had any suggestions on who else to contact/apply to. None of them seemed put off by the question, so I think it's totally normal at least in the sciences. I don't know if anything is different in philosophy.
posted by pemberkins at 7:44 AM on January 19, 2011

I agree with a robot made out of meat - in science, potential advisors often inquire about the other mentors with whom you are interviewing, and offer suggestions of additional people who might be appropriate. Typically I found that people want you to see you end up in the situation where you are getting the most out of your graduate education by working with the most appropriate person.
posted by scrambles at 7:47 AM on January 19, 2011

Who will be writing recommendation letters for you? Ask them for suggestions, as well. (Note that recommendation letters are much more effective when the reader and the writer are acquainted.)
posted by philokalia at 7:56 AM on January 19, 2011

Two other things come to mind:

1) Are you sure your niche is taught in the philosophy department at the graduate level in the US and not math, Classics, or something else? That might be why you can't find it.

2) Advisor-student relations in the sciences vs. humanities are very different at every step of the way, I think, due to the way graduate studies are funded in the US in elite universities. Since advisors in the sciences usually pay their grad students out of their own grants, they have a greater stake and interest in their grad students. The advisors are more like managers and mentors rolled into one.

But in the humanities in most cases grad students bring their own funding from outside awards or are funded from a general pool of university money. That manager relationship is absent. The humanities professor takes on grad students out of interest, or as part of their requirements as a faculty member.

There's no great need for the humanities professor to take on a grad student, and from what I've seen the relationships are for both better and worse in the worlds of science and humanities are very different from courtship through marriage to divorce.

What this means for anonymous is that they should not take lightly the step of contacting potential advisors. The professors will not bother to respond to casual e-mails and will remember them when it comes time to review applications.

Definitely letter writers should be involved in this process, like the others in this thread have said.
posted by vincele at 8:10 AM on January 19, 2011

I agree with most of the above, in my experience. Don't ask them right off the bat, but once you get a conversation going with a potential supervisor it's entirely appropriate to ask them about other options. Just say "who else is doing good work in this field?".
posted by auto-correct at 8:46 AM on January 19, 2011

Are you sure your niche is taught in the philosophy department at the graduate level in the US and not math, Classics, or something else? That might be why you can't find it.

The other possibility that comes to mind is that your imagined niche doesn't exist as a hireable specialty. There are lots and lots of interesting niches in the world of ideas that are never, or nearly never, made the primary subject of specialization for a faculty hire; in order to get a faculty position in philosophy (like everywhere else), you'll ultimately have to sell yourself as fitting one of the existing fields of specialty first, before working on all your other interests. (I'm not trying to defend this intellectually, just explain — this is a fact of the academic career that it took me a long while post-undergrad to begin to comprehend.)

I'd be wary of asking potential mentors or faculty contacts for advice about other places to apply as part of your first few contacts with them, primarily since they couldn't possibly know you well enough to give good advice at that point. But neither does it seem like a major faux pas if you find it necessary. It may be more tactful to frame the question as "I'm trying to get the lay of the land; where are the other strong scholars, mentors, and programs training students in this field" rather than as personal advice about your own case.
posted by RogerB at 9:22 AM on January 19, 2011

Where do you want to live when you're 45? Is it in the US? If you can't find any people who work in your niche in the US right now, there is a good chance you will not be able to get a job doing that in the US when you are done with the PhD.

good advice above, RogerB's point that your imagined niche may not be a path to a job is very much worth thinking about. Talk with your faculty mentors at your undergrad about this. Take a look at the specialties of philosophers working at a selection of say 5 or 10 departments where you would like to live when you're 45. (Say you'd like to live in the western US, or in France, or whatever - find several philosophy departments there and see what their faculty specialize in.) This will give you a sense of regional variation eg between France and Hungary.

Another approach is to look at the Leiter report (the "philosophical gourmet report", which I imagine you've seen) and see what specializations he lists - these are the slots job candidates will need to fit into. Take a look at job listings at the APA website if you're a member - they list areas of specialization that are things like philosophy of science, metaphysics, history of modern, etc. To get a faculty job, you will need to be able to teach classes on these fairly broad things. Most of your teaching will be on the more "core" subjects, not your own specialty (this is true of every specialty), so you want to go to a grad school where you'll get prepared for that.

A further thought is about publishing. To advance in academia you need publications, and to advance at a good place you need publications in mainstream prestigious journals. Are there journals that serve this role for your topic? You may not know right now, but you want to find out. This is a question to ask your faculty mentors. Also you can look at the webpages of your potential future mentors and see what journals they publish in, and ask your faculty mentors about those journals.

I am guessing you're thinking about either some area of what's called "continental" philosophy (which, in the US, is done at a few big philosophy departments and otherwise is done in literary studies departments) or a "regional" philosophy (eg Chinese philosophy). Leiter lists a few places and key faculty members for these areas, that would be my starting point.

Once you identify someone who's working on stuff you like, you can email them and say this:

I'm a recent grad from School X in Location. I am interested in pursuing graduate work on [specialization], and I have found your work to be [very interesting, in line with my thinking, helpful, whatever article of praise fits]. I wonder if you would be willing to answer a few questions for me. Do you have many students who work on [specialization]? Would you be willing to put me in touch with some of them? Have you or your colleagues worked with a student from the US, and were there any difficulties with funding or visas? Finally, is there anyone else working in the field that you think is doing especially interesting or good work these days?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:49 AM on January 19, 2011

Questions you want to ask grad students are different:

How is it to work with [faculty member]? [How is the situation for women/minorities/etc at your department?] How is the rest of the department? How is it to live in [city where the school is]? If you're a foreign student, have you run into any problems? Who are some other important figures in this field whose work I should be looking at? Finally - do graduates of your program get jobs, and if so, where?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:54 AM on January 19, 2011

General advice for grad school in philosophy:
-Unless you are independently wealthy, be realistic that this is a trade school, not a voyage of personal enrichment. The cost to get a PhD, in money and years of your life, is VERY high. You should only go if you need the degree to get a job you want. If you're not sure, you can always postpone applying for a couple of years.

-Good schools in the US (that is, prestigious schools that have better job placement into desirable jobs) will "fund" their PhD students (that is, pay their full tuition and give them a small living stipend, often in exchange for teaching). Don't go unless you get funding at a good place.

-Finally, be realistic about the hiring situation for philosophy and for your specialty. There are very few jobs compared to the number of qualified people, and those jobs are often not in places most people want to live. Would you be happy moving to East Nowheresville State U? (There are not enough good jobs for all the very good people, by a factor of 50 or more - if someone told you that 49 out of 50 cars of a certain type would suffer brake failure, you would not think "it won't happen to me". Think about the likely realistic outcomes.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:20 AM on January 19, 2011

IIAPP. Listen to LobsterMitten. Both about e-mailing professors in the area, and also about the fact that this may not be a "legit" area that will lead to a future in the profession. Can you tell us what it is?
posted by kestrel251 at 11:56 AM on January 19, 2011

What you're describing wouldn't be rude at all, although I agree with others that you may want to think about expanding/editing your interests. It could be you just don't quite know where to look yet, or it could be that emphasizing this interest on your applications will get you turned down at a lot of places just for practical reasons. (Suppose you say, "I'm interested in studying the implications of potato references in the history of German philosophy," and the department's graduate studies director goes, "Oh, so-and-so focuses on the history of German philosophy, but certainly doesn't do anything about potatoes -- another for the rejection bin!")

I agree with a few others that it may be a better idea for you to contact the graduate students you've found. First of all, if they're attending conferences on the subject, someone must be teaching them! Second, grad students are probably more likely to respond to you than an older, established professor -- if your e-mail is clear, to the point, and obviously not spam, it'll probably be really exciting and flattering for the grad student to even receive it. If all you know is the student's name and graduate program, you can also send a polite e-mail to the department's office manager, asking to be put in touch. Again, this will likely flatter the grad student and get you results.

It may also help you to focus on a department's "strengths," broadly speaking. If you're interested in potato references in German philosophy, for instance, you may find it very hard to find someone working on exactly that, but you may come across a lot of schools with strengths in the history of philosophy or German philosophy -- those would give you professors to work with who could help you develop your niche field, even though it's not their exact specialization. In short, you may not want to try to find a school that has THE! ONE! PROFESSOR! who specializes on potato references (especially since that one professor may be a total jerk, or retiring, or maybe has already committed themselves to too many projects and won't have time for you), so much as you want to find a school that has multiple professors who work in areas somehow related to your niche.

Note: Don't know why I chose potatoes, but I am hungry now.
posted by meese at 2:26 PM on January 19, 2011

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