How to Choose the Best Philosophy Ph.D. Program

Factors to Consider

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Choosing a Philosophy Grad Program. Danita Delimont / Getty Images

Choosing a philosophy program can be extremely difficult. In the U.S. alone, there are over 100 well-established schools granting graduate degrees (M.A., M.Phil., or Ph.D.) in philosophy. Needless to say, Canada, the U.K., Australia, France, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Germany, and several other countries have advanced degree programs that are well-regarded, too. How should you decide which program is best for you?

Length of the Degree and Financial Aid

One of the most important factors to consider when choosing an academic program is the length. When it comes to Ph.D. programs, U.S. departments typically require a longer period of study (between roughly four and seven years) and usually offer multi-year financial aid packages. Other countries have different systems, and in the U.K., France, Germany, and Spain, it is more common to find three-year Ph.D. programs, some of which offer financial aid.

The financial aid aspect can be a decisive factor for many students. Fresh graduates of philosophy Ph.D. programs can expect to face more challenges in the job market than graduates of law school and medical school programs. Even for graduates fortunate enough to obtain an academic job after completing their degree, it can be difficult to pay off thousands of dollars in loans. For this reason, it is not recommended to begin an advanced degree in philosophy without first securing proper financial aid.

Placement Record

Another important characteristic of an advanced degree program is its placement record. What sorts of jobs have the graduates from the program secured over the last few years? The placement record can be an important indicator for prospective students.

Keep in mind that placement records can improve or weaken on the basis of changes in the reputation of the faculty members of the department and, to a smaller degree, of the institution.

For instance, the philosophy departments at New York University and Rutgers University significantly transformed their reputations since the early 2000s, and in 2017 their graduates were among the most sought-after on the market.

Specialty

It is, however, important to choose a program that suits the interests of the prospective student. In some cases, a relatively less-known program may actually be a student's best choice. For instance, for someone interested in phenomenology and religion, the University of Louvain in Belgium offers an excellent program. Ohio State University offers a top-notch program for students interested in the philosophy of mathematics. Because Ph.D. programs take years to complete and require a great investment on the part of the student, it is important to find a school where the student can engage intellectually with other students and faculty on the subjects that most interest them. That may be, in some cases, a prestigious name-brand school. It may also be a smaller school that happens to be less prestigious.

Location

Enrolling in a Ph.D. program often requires relocating—to a new country, a new city, a new neighborhood. Before making this drastic change, students should consider the location of the school and ask themselves whether they believe they can thrive in that environment.

A sleepy college town may be the perfect study-zone for some students. Others may be more comfortable in a crowded city.

Prestigious Departments

Which schools have the most prestigious philosophy departments? It depends on how you measure prestige. Programs are always changing, and star faculty sometimes move from one program to another. Nevertheless, there are a number of schools that are known for the strength of their philosophy programs. They include Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, University of Pittsburgh, M.I.T., University of Pennsylvania, U.C.L.A., Stanford University, U.C. Berkeley, Columbia University and the University of Chicago.

Department Rankings

For more detailed information about how different schools compete, students can consult department rankings.

The most influential ranking is probably the Philosophical Gourmet Report, edited by Professor Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago. The report, based on the evaluations of 300 faculty members, also contains a number of useful additional resources for prospective students.

More recently, the Pluralist’s Guide to Philosophy Graduate Programs has offered an alternative perspective on the strength of various philosophy departments. This guide focuses on a number of research areas that are not as prominent in Leiter's report.

Another ranking that deserves some attention is the Hartmann Report, edited by graduate student John Hartmann.