Students who are considering pursuing philosophy as a career path are likely to wonder what to expect when pursuing a graduate philosophy degree in the US. Both students who have an undergraduate degree in philosophy and those who do not are welcome in graduate programs, but in both cases, students are likely to encounter some surprises when actually pursuing the degree. Graduate school is rigorous and students should collect as much information about their school, department, and discipline as possible.
Since each graduate school in the US is different, the information provided here is just a general concept of what to expect while pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy in the US. First, it is important to note that if a student hopes to teach on the university level in philosophy in the US, he or she must acquire a PhD. It is nearly impossible to acquire fulltime work in philosophy with less than a PhD, and jobs are exceptionally competitive. A master’s degree in philosophy will help a student obtain other jobs in law, ethics, or secondary school education, but will do little for university work.
Most PhD programs are four-year programs that culminate in a doctoral dissertation. Students studying philosophy on the graduate level in the US should expect to spend the first two years completing a Master’s degree on the way to the PhD. Upon graduation at the end of four to six years, the student will have both a Master’s degree in philosophy and a PhD. The length of time it takes to graduate is usually dependent upon how long it takes the student to finish the dissertation. The first two-years of the degree are generally the same for every student culminating in a comprehensive series of exams in order to complete the master’s level component. The final two or more years are spent focusing heavily on the material for the dissertation.
Students studying philosophy on the graduate level should expect to become formidable experts on a particular piece of a branch of philosophy. The student should choose a school based on both funding offered by the school and the focus of the philosophy department. The application can be a rigorous process and the student should collect as much information about application as possible. Graduate school can be extremely expensive. If a student has a choice between attending a higher ranked school that offers no funding and a lower ranked school that does, it is generally advised to attend the school that offers funding, even if it is the lesser ranked option. However, the student should attempt to attend a school that ranks highly in his or her field of interest.
Philosophy is broken into many fields and different universities in the US excel in different fields. Some schools, for instance, hire professoriates that are experts in metaphysics while other schools higher professors who are experts in ethics. Therefore, students should not just seek to study philosophy, but to attend a graduate school that focuses its philosophy in an area of interest to the student. If the student is interested in metaphysics he or she should attend the first school as listed in the example above.
In order to get a general idea of which school excels in what field and what to expect when pursuing a philosophy degree in the US, consult the “Philosophical Gourmet Report.” This website is peer-reviewed and provides a ranking breakdown of different schools by field. A school which ranks very high in metaphysics may not rank high in ethics as well. If a student is interested in studying ethics, or any other specific field, as a philosopher, he or she should take the gourmet’s rankings into account when deciding which school to apply to.
Graduate students should expect to write many large papers every semester. In addition to comprehensive exams and course exams, most courses will require that the student write at least one large, well-researched paper every semester. Students are expected to do this to learn the material as well as prepare for their future of adding to the body of published philosophical knowledge. Graduate students should submit their papers to conferences and student journals in order to receive feedback on their work and practice philosophy as a profession. Most university philosophers are expected to publish and present their work regularly.
Students are also expected to participate in the conversations in class. The discussions in the class will focus on the field of philosophy to which the course pertains. On the graduate level, the discussions are expected to be high-level and insightful. Although very few students feel prepared at the beginning of the program, they succeed through participation in the process. Much of every graduate student’s career is simply a matter of learning professional terminology. So students should not feel insecure if they do not feel competent when first entering the graduate program.
Philosophers study some of the most difficult questions which humanity has been able to conceive. On the graduate level the study of these questions becomes very rigorous and often difficult. Those who are impassioned to understand the nature of the universe and human existence will find the process very rewarding. Depending on the program, students may focus on understanding the nature of the universe, the existence of freewill, the nature of morality, the means by which knowledge is conveyed and many other open-ended questions, in depth.
International students may wonder what to expect when pursuing a graduate philosophy degree in the US when it comes to linguistic barriers and whether the writing or conversational requirements will be too rigorous. Although these requirements are rigorous, international students need not be concerned. Philosophy is primarily concerned with the content of ideas, as opposed to the presentation. As long as students are thinking deeply, working hard and struggling to understand the work of great minds, they will do well. International students are often very welcome in philosophy departments, despite any language difficulties, because they provide new and exciting perspectives on philosophical questions. Upon admitting an international student, the department is likely to provide the student with any necessary assistance in writing or tutoring.
The fundamental requirement for all PhD programs in philosophy is a doctoral dissertation. Doctoral dissertations are large, well-researched documents produced by PhD students that demonstrate the student’s deep understanding of a particular piece of a philosophical question. Students usually take at least two years to write their dissertations, which may be over five hundred pages long. The dissertation usually answers a particular philosophical question in fine detail. Students are not expected to tackle whole questions such as, “Does God exist?” but, instead, the fine points of those questions such as, “Does St. Thomas Aquinas’s argument concerning the nature of God’s existence take into account all modal possibilities?” While that particular question may seem obscure, the student will choose his or her own specific question, become an expert on it by reading every resource possible on the topic, and do the best he or she can to answer the question.
The student, upon completing the document, will present the document to a committee and answer their questions about it. It is very rare for a student who reaches this point to fail to complete his or her degree, though he or she may be required to make revisions to the dissertation. A dissertation seems like a daunting task, and it is, but it is also produced over many years, with the support of the student’s graduate advisor and the faculty. The student should expect to succeed, if he or she works hard. The goal of graduate programs is to admit students who have the capacity to succeed; student should never expect the faculty to leave them without assistance. Students should investigate the schools they are interested in attending and only attend those schools which seem personable and helpful. Although most schools do all they can to assist their graduate students, some do not.
Upon completing a degree after four or more years of rigorous studying, former students should expect to be an expert in their chosen field in philosophy. The great joy for most philosophers is the realization that even upon reaching expert status, that he or she still has a tremendous amount to learn about philosophy and so the learning process never ends. Those who want to know what to expect when pursuing a graduate philosophy degree in the US should expect to work extremely hard, write a tremendous amount, think deeply, and come to a much deeper understanding of the deepest questions humanity has ever asked.