More on the Math GRE for PhD Students

I’ve written to friends today in response to the helpful pushback I received in the comments on my original post. Here’s what I’ve learned, in a kind of executive summary:

1. I was wrong to say that the GRE Math score doesn’t matter in philosophy. In departments that stress the analytical (rather than the continental) mode of philosophy, the Math part of the GRE counts–as so much of analytical philosophy is conducted in a quasi- (and sometimes not-so-quasi) mathematical manner.

Still, there is something lazy, I think, and even perverse about leaning on a test that requires master’s students in philosophy to blow the dust off their high school math books and bone up on the finer points of basic calculus and algebra in order to get entrance into a philosophy doctoral program. Students should be working forward, not backward. (None of my philosophical colleagues disagreed with me on this point, and basically shook their heads and said, “But that’s the way it is.”)

To take seriously the Math GRE also strikes me as the bureaucratic default position of taking the easy way out: “Well, the Educational Testing Service has this test, and it’s sorta kinda what we’re looking for, so let’s use it. Too bad for the graduate students who literally waste weeks of their lives learning stuff for the test they will never use again.” I really hate that kind of thing in the academy and I’m embarrassed that it’s still going on.

2. Schools that are trying to better themselves naturally look for whatever indicators they have at hand that they’re doing better–better than they did before, and better than their competition. GRE scores are ready to hand for this purpose, and some of them trumpet the composite GRE scores of their applicants and students the way many colleges do the same with SAT scores. I myself think that’s pathetic when it comes to the many forms of humanities training that don’t require mathematical prowess at all. It’s like saying, “Our literature students can run faster than yours. And they play the piano better, too.”

It also strikes me as a bureaucratic mistake in the genus of “what we can count is what will count.” To be sure, as a colleague at an Ivy League school wrote to me today, a disastrous Math score is likely a bad omen for philosophical ability. But to make a big deal about small differences in GRE scores in math for philosophy programs seems to me worse than silly: It seems weirdly lazy.

3. Using the GRE scores to decide who gets how much funding seems to me especially egregious, and that happens at all but the most elite schools, it seems. I can guess that doing so solves certain vexing problems and particularly two: (a) no more intradepartmental or interdepartmental battles over whose grad student got which funding, since it’s now just a matter of numbers; and (b) no threat of lawsuits from aggrieved students since, again, it’s just a matter of numbers.

But it seems to me once more that a bureaucratic mindset–and I mean this in a strictly Weberian way–has make this kind of decision “rational” to the point of absurdity, since I doubt anyone really thinks that a few points’ difference on a GRE is truly the mark of a superior or inferior student, writing sample or research proposal or previous grades or letters of reference notwithstanding. I thought we all knew better, after decades of critique of such “standardized” testing, but apparently not all of us do.

4. The most elite places generally don’t take the math scores seriously (unless they’re truly terrible). My experience has been at the University of Chicago, and I polled friends previously at other elite places who confirmed my sense of things–although at Duke and Notre Dame I learned that verbal and writing scores did, in at least some departments, form part of the basis of doling out financial aid.

Today’s most recent poll of friends confirms my original advice sense: in religious and theological studies at [UPDATE: Harvard added] Harvard, Yale and Chicago, the math score still doesn’t matter enough for applicants to spend any time studying for it. But what I have learned today also is that if you’re aiming at a second-tier school or below (such as Notre Dame or Baylor), you’d better pay attention to GRE scores in Math as well.

Now, I think you shouldn’t have to. In fact, I think it’s outrageous that you should. (Philosophy departments, make up your own test that can tell you want to know: Don’t take the easy, lazy, wasteful way out by requiring students to do high school math all over again!)

And let me also make clear that I have no personal animus here. Immodest as it is to say, it is simply a matter of fact that I competed on my high school’s math team, I completed two first-year college courses in math with A’s, and I did quite well on the GRE Math test by merely walking in and writing it, six years after I had looked at a math book. My resistance to counting the Math test, I can assure you, has nothing to do with me and everything to do with what truly matters in sorting out applicants for Ph.D. work.

But my saying that schools shouldn’t require the Math test is certainly not the same as saying students shouldn’t study for it. Apparently, alas, many of you should. And I’m sorry that I was so categorical in advice that needed much more nuance.

P.S. If you haven’t seen it, you might find this page helpful regarding Ph.D. studies.

0 Responses to “More on the Math GRE for PhD Students”

  1. Joel

    Racing for admission? I kind of like that idea. Or maybe just a general talent show. There’s even the makings of a bad reality tv show in there somewhere.

  2. Ally

    The thing I don’t get is requiring a GRE from within the last 5 years (or at the very least, the fact that the GRE people won’t keep or send them past 5 years) is the worst part of it for me. I’ve already taken it once. Why should I have to take it again? By the time I’m looking at phd programs if I decide to go on further, I will have completed two masters degrees – if the GRE is supposed to be a signifier of whether you will do well in graduate school (as I was told it was), shouldn’t my two degrees count for that? Why should I have to take it again to apply to phd programs?

  3. Emily

    Dr. Stackhouse,

    This is somewhat tangential to the present conversation, but I wanted to let you know that your counsel on this blog regarding Ph.D. programs (especially discernment of one’s readiness and how to prepare for the application process) has been very important to me. I am now a third year Ph.D. student in theology at the University of Dayton and I think I’ve really flourished here. (I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant or self-promoting.) Of course, the program comes with plenty of challenges, particularly since I’m married with two small children (one I gave birth to in my second year!), but overall it has been a wonderful experience. If everything goes as planned, I’ll be ABD by next Christmas and will be underway in writing my dissertation.

    I’m grateful to you for your wise counsel, as well as your vocal support for evangelical women in ministry and higher education.

    Grace and peace,
    Emily McGowin

  4. Tran Tran

    Hello Pro. John:

    I’m a junior majoring in Philosophy at uc Berkeley. I’m considering going for graduate schools after graduating. I really want to get into the 1st tier programs. That’s why I have to take GRE seriously. As a philosophy major, I’m a little scared of quantitative part of the test, so I’m thinking about minoring in Math with the hope it will help me with the quantitative part of the GRE test, and at the same time it will equip my brain with well rounded skills, verbal and quantitative. Yet, the problem is, you may vaguely recognize it from my writing but I hope not, that English is not my mother-tounged language. This ofcourse will challenge me in getting high score in the verbal part. As a solution for this, I think, I should minor in Linguistics. I’m in favor of Linguistics because I’m more into humanity. But, I cannot over the worrisome about my quantitative skills, not only for the test but also for life. I know I am being too greedy, but I believe I should make the best use of my education now. (I came to the U.S 3 years ago, and I think I will study Education after graduation from Berkeley). Thank you for following until now this long and a little personal, irrelevant reply. I would appreciate any piece of your opinion. 🙂

    • John Stackhouse

      Talk to the professors in your Philosophy department about what you should do. Someone in particular should be the “graduate studies chair” or “graduate studies advisor.” It is, I’m sorry to say, obvious that English isn’t your mother tongue, but only first-tier schools can tell you what they will make of that in your application. And whether Linguistics will help you be a better reader and writer of English more than some other department of the humanities or social sciences is, I think, doubtful. Study one of the humanities that interests you most and will require you to write a lot–and be evaluated regularly and well.

  5. U of Chicago PhD Student

    As a current PhD student at the same elite school you attended (University of Chicago), I must protest the message of this post and its predecessor. In the Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations Department (from which many students study the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, whether in a joint program with the Divinity School or not), both verbal and math GRE scores matter a great deal. I am less sure whether writing GRE scores matter; I have not heard the department administrators and professors discuss them.

    While I’m at it, let me dispute the universality of another GRE myth I heard when I was applying. I scored lower on the verbal than I did on every practice exam I took, so I considered retaking it, but a few people told me something to the effect of, “Schools just use GREs to weed out students. Once you have 700 each on math and verbal, your scores don’t matter.” Since I still made the cut, I didn’t retake the GRE. I subsequently learned that some of the elite schools care very much about your precise scores in the 700-800 range; indeed, I likely would have received a better funding package at the University of Chicago had I retaken the GRE.

    Let me also defend the practice of using the math GRE, even if it is imperfect. First, though, let me clarify that unless things have changed since I took it, there is no calculus on it. Basic math like that found on the math GRE is often required in humanities scholarship. I confess that basic probability and statistics would be more useful to the typical humanist than trigonometry as he/she weighs evidence, but unfortunately probability and statistics are (wrongfully, in my opinion) typically given short schrift in high school math curricula and thus not featured prominently on the math GRE. More importantly, one’s math GRE does correlate very closely with one’s ability to think logically, a skill that is greatly needed (and at times is lacking) in humanities scholarship. Of course, I would like to see a section on the GRE that tests logical thinking directly, but lacking the power to effect that change, I would pay attention to the math GRE scores if I were accepting students.


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