picture of books from Nick Byrd's series on getting a PhD in philosophy.

Grad School | Part 3: The Basics of a PhD In Philosophy

Most philosophy programs in the US seem to share the same general model. So no matter where in the US you get a PhD in philosophy, you can expect a few things. Before we get started, here’s the outline of the series, in case you want to jump to another post.

Part 1 | Part 2 | … | Part 4 | Part 5

1.  Timeline

All US philosophy PhD programs have roughly the same timeline:

1st year: teach/research, take seminars

2nd year: teach/research, take seminars

3rd year: teach/research, finish coursework, qualifying paper/exam

4th year: teach/research, work on dissertation

5th year: teach/research, finish dissertation, defend dissertation, apply for jobs

Many programs will offer students another (funded) year if needed, so there is some flexibility in this. Which is a good thing given how bad the academic philosophy job market is (Part 2). [Jump to top]

2.  Classes

Programs will vary in their overall credit and topic distribution requirements, but graduate courses will no doubt be difficult. Generally, the expectation is that you will do lots of reading, contribute to the class discussion, and write papers that attempt to say something original and important — even if only modestly so.  [Jump to top]

3.  Teaching

Teaching assistantships vary widely. Being a teaching assistant can range from something as simple as grading papers for a handful of students to teaching your own course. Grading is fairly simple, but it can be time-consuming depending on how many students are enrolled in the class and how many assignments the course requires. 

Teaching a course on your own can be extremely time-consuming and fatiguing — especially if it your first time teaching the topic and/or if it is a large class.

But don’t underestimate the benefits of teaching. I never learn a topic as well as I do as when I know that a class full of bright people will be asking me about it. And I find that some students are often clever. They are not yet steeped in the dogmas and orthodoxies of your field, so they are particularly well-poised to ask really good questions (that are often difficult to answer). Further, some students are just inspiring. So teaching can be as edifying and thrilling as it is demanding. [Jump to top]

4.  Research

Research assistantships can also be interesting. But — you guessed it — this also varies widely. Some research assistantships involve the exciting academic research: perusing the literature on the topic of your supervisors’ forthcoming book, commenting on your supervisors’ manuscript, translating a text for, designing/running experiments, data analysis, etc. Other research assistantships involve more mundane tasks: writing an index and/or bibliography for your supervisors’ book. And then there are research assistantships that don’t involve research of any kind: build/maintain your supervisor’s website, shuffle papers, etc.  [Jump to top]

5.  Qualifying Paper & Exams

I take this to be a prominent source of stress among graduate students. Qualifying papers are usually submitted to the department between the 2nd and 5th year of one’s tenure. The bar for qualifying papers is usually very high — say, “something publishable.” The purpose of the qualifying paper is to make sure students can produce high quality work in their area. Typically, students can receive one of three grades on these papers: pass, revise and resubmit, or fail. Some departments have an additional option: “pass with distinction.” A graduate student can only fail so many qualifying papers before they are dismissed from the program.

Some programs issue exams instead. Their purpose and outcome is similar to qualifying papers. They are designed to make sure graduate students are familiar with the material in their proposed area of specialization. The format of these exams varies. Some are oral examinations (e.g., Harvard). Other exams are written. Failing an exam might be grounds for dismissal, but it might only result in a delay in your progress until you retake the exam at a later date. Again, a graduate student can only fail so many times until a further failure results in dismissal from the program.  [Jump to top]

6.  Dissertation

Dissertation requirements vary by department (and maybe even by advisor), so there is no one accepted way to think about dissertations. Nonetheless, there are a few general features of a dissertation. A philosophy dissertation

  • is at least 100 pages.
  • dedicated to a particular topic or puzzle in philosophy.
  • provides a systematic review of the literature related to this topic or puzzle.
  • contributes something original and valuable to that literature.
  • is defended orally in front of a committee (and sometimes the general public).

I have witnessed several dissertation defenses. They involved the following: a student summarized their dissertation to everyone in attendance for about 10 minutes — the committee had already read the dissertation. After the summary, the committee raised questions about the dissertation and the student responded. After an hour or two of this, the student and the audience were asked to leave the room while the committee made a decision. After a moment, the student was invited back into the room to receive a final decision (and perhaps some final comments). Celebration ensued.

From what I hear, it is unlikely that a student will fail their dissertation defense. It is not clear whether this rarity is the result of the high quality of dissertations, the forgiving nature of dissertation committees, or the prescience of advisors (e.g., perhaps an advisor will not recommend that a student schedule a date to defend their dissertation until the advisor is confident that the student will pass). Maybe it’s some combination. I’m not going to speculate further.  [Jump to top]

7.  Peer Reviewed Publications

Before my time, university teaching positions did not require a publication record — and before that, they they didn’t even require a PhD. Now it seems that academic jobs require 4-5 publications in seemingly prestigious journals. So many grad students try to turn their coursework into publishable papers. Seemingly prestigious journals, however, have very slow response times (sometimes more than a year) and very low acceptance rates. And — in philosophy, at least — you cannot have a paper under review at more than one journal at a time. This means that publishing 4-5 papers in just a few years time (and when you’re only starting to master part of your field) is very challenging. I should add that most PhD programs provide no formal training or guidance about publishing. So grad students might feel like they are on their own when it comes to publishing. This is where the final element of a PhD in philosophy comes in. [Jump to top]

8.  Supervision, Mentorship, etc.

David McNaughton (rightly) reminds us of a key part of a PhD in philosophy: a grad student’s relationship(s) with supervisor(s), mentor(s), etc. You can glean a lot from these relationships! Practical advice, insider perspectives, networking, and much more. In some cases, these relationships turn out to be more valuable and lasting than any other part of one’s PhD in philosophy. Indeed, it is not an accident that academics take the time to say things like “So-and-so was my PhD supervisor”. The relationship is so meaningful that students often treat is as part of their identity: “I studied under So-and-so.” And this shouldn’t be surprising: you might meet with your supervisor on a regular basis for years before you complete your PhD. Spending that much time with anyone could easily result in a significant relationship.

NB: relationships with supervisors, mentors, etc. vary drastically from place to place and person to person; so it is difficult to say anything general about such relationships other than this: they have the potential to be very good (and perhaps also to be very bad). [Jump to top]

Next up…

That covers the basics of getting a PhD in philosophy. If you’re familiar with the rest of this series and you are still planning on going to grad school, then you’ve got just one more thing to think about: contingency plans. That’s the topic of the final part in this series: Part 5.


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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

2 thoughts on “Grad School | Part 3: The Basics of a PhD In Philosophy”

  1. NO formal training about publishing is a bit harsh. But maybe your stress is on FORMAL. More helpful, surely, is individual assistance with your proposed submission.

    1. That’s fair. All I mean is that philosophy departments do not (as far as I know) offer courses in the process of publishing (like, say, psychology courses offer courses in analyzing data). So I suppose my emphasis was on ‘formal’.

      I’m glad that you’re bringing this up though since I didn’t menstion — among other things — that most departments probably offer loads of informal training (in more than just publishing) via the various informal venues like supervision, advice, mentorship, etc.

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