Considering Graduate School

Does the idea of studying philosophy at the graduate level interest you? If so, here are some things to consider.
Associate Professor of Philosophy Rebekah Rice meets with philosophy majors

Teaching Philosophy

That’s usually the career goal of someone who wishes to pursue philosophy at the graduate level. In fact, most doctoral programs accept only students who wish to teach philosophy. So the following comments assume that teaching philosophy is your career goal.

If you do not have an interest in teaching philosophy (or aren’t sure you do), but you do want to study philosophy at the graduate level, you should probably consider master’s degree programs — in which case you may wish to move directly to point (C) below.

A. There is some kind of work you can do with enthusiasm, with joy, and that’s the type of work you want to be doing in the long run. How sure are you that teaching philosophy is something you can do with genuine enthusiasm, with your whole heart, with joy?

B. There are some hard realities to face as regards the goal of teaching philosophy. These are mentioned here not to discourage anyone, but to promote clear understanding.

  • A scarcity of jobs in philosophy. Philosophy is seldom taught at the high school level. So, the primary market for jobs is in college- or university-level teaching. But for many years there have been more people with PhDs in philosophy than there are teaching positions. Put simply: Seeking a career in teaching philosophy is a risky proposition — there is no assurance of a position even after earning a doctorate in the field.
  • It is not easy to get into a good PhD program. The difficulty of philosophy (both the issues and the texts) tends to attract bright, diligent people. Hence, the competition for admission into good programs is intense. Not surprisingly, then, those who get into good programs stand out among their undergraduate peers and receive strong letters of recommendation from their undergraduate teachers. Note: If you get into a good program in philosophy, you will almost certainly receive quite substantial financial assistance in the form of scholarships and/or assistantships (i.e., paid work as a teaching assistant).
  • On average, it takes a long time to earn a PhD in philosophy. On paper, programs may appear to be doable in four years, but the average time it takes is about seven years. Are you willing to spend that much more time in school?

C. How does one prepare for graduate school? Of course, it’s important to get the most out of your undergraduate training. This includes: Working hard in all your classes, doing readings beyond those required (simply because you’re interested!), taking “extra” classes in philosophy (beyond what’s required for the major), and becoming very good at philosophical writing.

In applying for graduate school, you will need to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), you will also need a sample paper, and you will need two or three letters of recommendation from your undergraduate philosophy teachers. A word is in order about each of these:

  • Preparing for the GRE. Prepare for this exam well in advance. Typically the exam is taken in the fall of the senior year; so ideally, you would prepare for the exam during the summer after your junior year. Any good bookstore carries manuals designed to help those preparing for the GRE. The manuals contain sample exams that will help you become “test wise.” Some math and vocabulary review may also make a significant difference in your score.
  • Sample paper. Usually this is a revised version of the best philosophy paper you’ve written as an undergraduate. Ask one of your philosophy teachers for advice on how to make the paper better. Do plan to revise this paper thoroughly.
  • Letters of recommendation. You will need very strong letters of recommendation in order to have any chance of getting accepted into a graduate level program. Keep in mind that those who write the letters have to provide accurate, useful information to the recipients: Letter writers must make comparative evaluations (e.g., “one of the two best students among our majors at this time”), comment on how well you write, how good you are at logic, how diligent you are, and how interested you are in philosophy. They must also say something about your personal qualities — What’s it like to have you in class? Do you get along well with others?

D. Your philosophical interests. If you want to study at the graduate level, you should be ready to give brief, to-the-point answers to these questions: “What areas of philosophy are you most interested in? What sorts of philosophical issues grab you? Which philosophers do you most like to read?” Remember that different graduate programs have different strengths. In making decisions about admission, the faculty members are looking for students whose interests match the strengths of the program. Thus, many programs demand a brief written statement about your philosophical interests.

E. Locating good programs. For information on both PhD and MA programs, go to Resources for Philosophy on this website. Click on “A Ranking of Graduate Programs in Philosophy.”

F. MAs and PhDs. If one gets into a doctoral program in philosophy, one typically gets an MA “along the way,” after completing two years of course work and some comprehensive exams. But a fair number of graduate programs offer the MA as their highest (terminal) degree. Completing these programs normally includes writing a master’s thesis. If you aren’t sure whether you want to teach — just want to study philosophy at a more advanced level, or if you feel you need more preparation before applying to a doctoral program, you might want to apply to one of these MA programs.

Again, look under Resources for Philosophy, then “A Ranking of Graduate Programs in Philosophy” for a list of top MA programs. Incidentally, SPU philosophy graduates have recently completed (and highly recommend) the following programs: The MA in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at Talbot School of Theology (Biola University) and the MA in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee).

Naturally, if you are interested in studying philosophy at the graduate level, it would be a good idea to discuss these matters with your advisor in the near future. 

“Beauty, whether moral or natural, is felt, more properly than perceived.”
David Hume