Graduate Study in Philosophy Primer

Philosophy professor Lawrence Cahoone offers a primer for students thinking about pursuing graduate study in philosophy.

If you are thinking about graduate study in philosophy, the best thing to do is to speak to several professors, including me. Each of us knows different programs and has had different experiences. Mix them together and distill what is most relevant to you. But in the meantime, below is some minimal information to start you off.

  1. While anyone can hire a Philosophy Ph.D. for any job as they see fit, institutionally speaking a philosophy Ph.D. qualifies you to be a college teacher of philosophy. So, if you have done well in your philosophy courses and are considering graduate work, but not sure if you are suited to it, ask yourself: When I’m done with my education, do I really want to spend my days doing what philosophy professors do, that is, reading, talking, teaching, and writing about philosophical ideas and questions? If the answer is yes, you might want to go for your Ph.D. If the answer is no, you probably shouldn’t. If you don’t know the answer, you might want to go for an M.A. degree in philosophy to help you decide (more about that below). 
  2. Doctoral programs in philosophy, leading to the Ph.D., generally involve:
    1. 2-3 years of course work past the BA degree;
    2. then passing some kind of comprehensive exams independent of the coursework and
    3. demonstrating an ability to read a language other than the language of instruction (or more than one, if it is needed for your dissertation);
    4. then getting a proposal for a dissertation accepted by a committee of professors; and finally
    5. writing the dissertation and defending it before the committee.
    The time this takes is variable; very few finish in less than four years, the U.S. average is probably six to seven years, and some take longer.
  3. Financially, there is more aid to attend graduate school than undergraduate. It is common for Ph.D. students to get five years of both tuition remission (free tuition) and teaching assistantships (being a professor’s TA or even teaching your own course) of $10,000-$18,000 per year.
  4. By the way, you do not need actually to be granted an M.A. on your way to the Ph.D. After two to three years of a Ph.D. program you pass the “master’s level.” Nobody awards you anything, but if you quit, you are given the M.A. on the way out.
  5. Programs terminating in the M.A., usually requiring two years of course work and a thesis, come in two kinds. Some are in philosophy departments that also grant the Ph.D. (so, probably at a big or major university). Such programs give you access to prominent Ph.D.-granting faculty, but sometimes the M.A. students are treated as second class citizens, and worse, there is often little financial aid (the M.A. tuition is funneled to support the Ph.D. program). There are however a small number of colleges with large, well-funded M.A. programs in philosophy (well-funded means they give lots of teaching assistantships), which actively try to place their grads in Ph.D. programs. In either case, applying to a Ph.D. program with a completed M.A. will get you one or more years of course work credit, in addition to greater expertise in the subject matter and help in deciding if you really want to go for the Ph.D.
  6. Philosophy programs have different philosophical orientations. Some are more “analytic,” some more “continental” or European, some more historical, some very good in philosophy of science, others in ancient philosophy, or ethics, or contemporary philosophy of mind, etc. This depends on who is teaching in an area and how many professors teach in that area. So you should go to their departmental websites to see who is teaching, find out where the authors of your favorite contemporary philosophy papers or books teach, and ask your philosophy teachers about programs they are familiar with. You will also want to know about their assistantships, how many applicants they accept, what the atmosphere of the department is, etc.
  7. Besides departmental websites, a useful source is the “Directory of American Philosophers,” or the “International Directory of Philosophy and Philosophers,” available in some libraries and in our department office, which lists all philosophy professors by school/department, and all Ph.D. and M.A. programs. (Both of these, published by the Philosophy Documentation Center, are going online soon.) It is also useful to attend a philosophy conference if you can, where you can see other aspects of the profession and meet professors from multiple schools. Check with us, or online, to see if any conferences will meet nearby anytime soon.
  8. Once you know where you are applying, you need to:
    1. ask 3 or more professors (some, but not necessarily all, philosophers) to write recommendations and get the professors the information and/or forms (mostly online forms now) they will need;
    2. take the Graduate Record Exam (if the programs you will apply to require it, which some probably do);
    3. figure out which of your philosophy course papers to use as a writing sample (you may want to revise it);
    4. get Holy Cross to send out your official transcript; and finally,
    5. fill out and submit the applications. Applying to more, rather than fewer, schools is a pain, but it can make for a better spring.
  9. Graduate study in Philosophy may seem intimidating. Certainly you have to be verbally and conceptually smart to get a philosophy Ph.D. But achieving the Ph.D. is more about effort and work than brilliance. As in most professions, the difference between you and your professors is less a matter of brains than of many years of reading and learning and thinking.

—Professor Lawrence Cahoone