Updated on Friday 1 March 2013
Those who seek to become professional philosophers generally pursue studying philosophy on the graduate level. Although the pursuit of philosophy itself requires no degree, a PhD is usually necessary if one wishes to work as a philosopher. Job openings in philosophy are scarce meaning admission into graduate programs can often be fierce. It is important for potential students to know how make their applications as appealing as possible when applying to philosophy graduate schools in the US.
Like undergraduate programs, graduate programs in philosophy welcome international students and accommodate those who do not speak English as their first language. Philosophy is a study that draws knowledge from all over world. It is common for philosophy students to study Greek, Latin, Chinese, German and French to understand the readings studied in class. For this reason, philosophy programs often welcome international students who can offer new and different perspectives.
Applying to philosophy graduate schools in the US is often a very different process from applying for an undergraduate degree. Undergraduate philosophy programs are often willing to accept many students, even those with no philosophy experience. Graduate programs, however, can be far more selective. Given the often rigorous nature of graduate programs in philosophy, students applying for a graduate degree should know why they are applying and what they hope to accomplish with the degree. It is important to note that unlike an undergraduate philosophy degree, there is little one can do with a graduate degree in philosophy outside of the philosophy field. The primary focus of philosophy graduate programs in the US is to produce professional philosophers who have extensive knowledge in a particular field in philosophy.
This is not to say that the only job opportunity for students with a graduate degree in philosophy is teaching on the university level. Under most circumstances, a PhD in philosophy is pursued by students who wish to study philosophy professionally, who hope to teach students philosophy, and who will add to the body of philosophical literature through publication. However, students may pursue a specialized Master’s degree in philosophy that does not prepare them for university work, and instead prepares the student to work in a practical field of philosophy.
Students who do not wish to teach and publish on the university level may save money by only pursing their philosophy degree through to the Master’s level. Although most PhD programs are structured so that the student earns his or her Master’s degree while in the process of earning their PhD’s, some programs offer students focused Master’s degrees. A student pursing a Master’s degree in philosophy may, for example, earn a degree in applied ethics. A student who earns that degree may work as an ethicist for a corporation, hospital, or ethics board. Students should be aware that without a PhD, acquiring a job in philosophy, particularly teaching philosophy on the university level, is very difficult.
Generally, students who are applying to philosophy graduate schools in the US should be aware of not only why they wish to study philosophy, but also what particular field of philosophy they hope to study. Each philosophy program in the US offers a different focus. For example, a student who hopes to study ethics would not be well suited for a program that focuses on the philosophy of mathematics. Each philosophy department hires philosophers who are well published in the department’s area of focus. Students applying to philosophy programs should be aware of what area of philosophy the school excels.
Students applying to philosophy graduate schools in the US should research the ranking of philosophy programs as well as their philosophical discipline ranking in the US. The philosophical discipline ranking is often based on the expertise of the professoriate in a specialized field, a program that is lower ranked in general, may be one of the best in a particular field. For example, a school may be ranked 95th in the general report, but also be ranked 2nd in the field of Metaphysics. Students, therefore, should apply to schools that rank high in their area of interest, and not concern themselves as much with the general ranking of the school.
Once a student has isolated between five and ten schools, the student should visit each school’s website to access the application criterion. Most programs will require that the student submit GRE scores, or in the case of international students TOEFL scores, a letter of intent, a ten to twenty page writing sample, and three letters of recommendation. The departments will often use the test scores to help narrow the pool of applicants. Most schools require that international students produce on average, a score of 20 in each component part of the TOEFL. Depending on the philosophy department’s focus, different scores on the various sections may be required. Schools that focus on philosophy of math and logic will require higher scores in mathematics, while more literature or continentally oriented programs will seek students with higher scores in reading and writing sections. Both kinds of programs welcome international students.
The letter of intent should, under most circumstances, be kept simple and to the point, especially when applying to schools that are analytically focused. The student should indicate only what field of interest he or she wishes to pursue and which professor he or she hopes to work with. So, for this reason, it is essential that the student knows what area of philosophy the department excels in, and which professors focus on which philosophical areas. All of that information can be found on the school’s website.
Letters of recommendation should come from philosophers that the student has worked with or those that are currently working in philosophy at the University level. It is important that the student only seek letters from those professors who are confident that they can give an excellent letter. It is also beneficial for the student to request that the recommending professor speak to the student’s abilities in his or her particular philosophical area of interest. Letters need not always come from actively teaching philosophers, but are preferable.
Important to most departments is the student’s writing sample. It is imperative that the writing sample be of the highest quality possible. The student should provide the department with a writing sample that demonstrates high-level critical thinking, philosophical aptitude and familiarity with the student’s particular area of philosophical interest. Students should be sure to have at least two competent proof readers provide feedback on both content and grammar. Preferably, the student should have one of his or her recommending professors read the work and provide feedback. International students should demonstrate through their writing sample that even though English is not their first language, they are capable of writing good philosophy and utilize necessary resources like tutors, peers, and proofreaders to overcome any linguistic difficulties.
When applying to philosophy graduate schools in the US, international students should keep in mind that what is most important is a deep interest in philosophy. Students should demonstrate through their application a willingness to work hard and engage in intellectual rigor. Graduate school can be very difficult and very rewarding. Students who pursue graduate degrees should do so knowing that the end result will not necessarily be acquiring a full-time position immediately upon graduation. The student’s primary goal should be to become the best philosopher possible and indicate through his or her application that philosophy is his or her foremost deep and driving passion.
The application process, although simple once clarified, requires the utmost seriousness. Prospective students should be sure to apply to numerous schools and obtain the highest standardized test scores possible, retaking the test numerous times, if necessary. Three letters of recommendation are required by most schools, and students should be sure to request the letters as early as possible. If any component of an application is missing, the student will be denied entrance without review. Most importantly, visit the school and meet the professors if possible. Graduate school is a significant financial and intellectual commitment, students should only attend schools that inspire and support them.