PhD Program Requirements

The following is a general overview of Department of Philosophy PhD program requirements. Current PhD students who want comprehensive details about these requirements should consult the Graduate Student Wiki (students must have a current UChicago CNET ID in order to access the Wiki).


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Throughout the entirety of their time in the program, all students will have a faculty advisor who is both responsible for giving them guidance and advice and regularly reporting to the department on their progress through the program. In the week before the official start of their first year, students will attend a mandatory orientation about the formal requirements and informal expectations governing the graduate program. Entering PhD students are assigned a faculty advisor with whom they will meet to discuss their coursework options and subsequently check in with at least once a quarter for their first two years in the program to make sure they are on track and conforming reasonably to program expectations and requirements. Students may opt to change advisors with the consent of the new faculty advisor. During their third year in the program, students will enroll in the Topical Workshop where, under the supervision of the current Director of Graduate Studies, they will be advised as to how best to prepare for their Topical Examination and will begin to meet with the various faculty members who are most likely to serve on their dissertation committee. Once a student has passed their Topical Examination and has an approved dissertation project, the chair of their dissertation committee becomes their primary advisor.

Course Requirements

All first-year PhD students enroll in the two-quarter-long, faculty-led First-Year Seminar. Its purpose is threefold: (1) to lay the groundwork for a philosophical lingua franca among the members of the first-year class, (2) to foster intellectual solidarity among the members of the cohort by stimulating the regular exchange of philosophical ideas among them, and (3) to have students undertake a series of short written assignments that introduce them to philosophical writing at a graduate level.

During their first two years in the program, PhD students are required to complete a variety of graduate-level courses. Such coursework is meant to provide students with the general breadth of knowledge that will serve as the foundation upon which they will carry out the more specialized task of writing a doctoral dissertation.

Starting with students who enroll in the PhD program in 2022-23, students must enroll in courses for one of two different kinds of credit:

  1. (Q)uality Credit: To receive a Q-credit for a course, a student must complete all the requirements for the course and be awarded a quality grade (B- or higher).
  2. (P)ass Credit: The requirements for receiving a P-credit for a course are established by the instructor. At a minimum, a student must register in the class and attend regularly, but they need not be required to submit a paper for the course or do all of the coursework that would be required to assign to that student a quality grade.


This separation of course credits into Q-credits and P-credits is meant to provide students with the flexibility to construct for themselves a course curriculum that allows them to both broaden their horizons by exploring a diverse array of topics that may be of only peripheral interest to them, while, at the same time, affording them adequate time to devote focused attention to those specific courses that most directly support their main lines of research.  

PhD students are required to complete 8 courses for Q-credit, all of which must come from the Department of Philosophy's course offerings. In addition, students must complete 8 courses for P-credit, up to two of which can be awarded for classes offered in other departments (this can include courses in which the student has received either a grade of P or a quality grade of B- or higher). In a typical quarter, a student will enroll in three classes and, at some point during the quarter (the timing is flexible), will choose either one or two of those classes to complete for Q-credit. 

In addition, the courses in which a student enrolls must satisfy certain area distribution requirements. In particular, students are required to take at least one course for Q-credit in each of the following four areas: (1) Contemporary Practical Philosophy; (2) Contemporary Theoretical Philosophy; (3) History of Philosophy: Ancient or Medieval Philosophy; and (4) History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy (up to and including the first half of the Twentieth Century). Students must also satisfy a logic requirement, usually by taking a graduate course in logic.

Revision Workshop

In the spring of their second year, all PhD students must enroll in the Revision Workshop, taught by the current Director of Graduate Studies. In this course, students will present, discuss, and revise one of the papers they have written in their first two years in the graduate program. This paper will be submitted to the department late in the spring as a sample of their best work. The department will then review the paper as part of its evaluation as to whether the student has made sufficient progress to proceed from coursework to the next stage of the program. In addition to its evaluative function, the Revision Workshop also provides students with a first opportunity to reflect critically on work that they have already produced and to practice revising and improving a draft paper in response to feedback, both of which are crucial skills that a student must develop in order to write a high-quality dissertation and go on to produce professional-grade philosophical work.

Topical Workshop

In their third year, students will take a Topical Workshop, which meets regularly in both the Autumn and Winter Quarters, and which is taught by the current Directory of Graduate Studies. In this workshop, students develop, present, and discuss materials that they plan to use in their Topical Examination, such as dissertation project overviews and preliminary chapter drafts.  The main purpose of the Topical Workshop is to help students establish expectations for what will be required for them to advance to candidacy, to advise students on issues such as the overall direction of their research and the composition of the dissertation committee, and to initiate regular conversations between students and the faculty members who are most likely to serve as their dissertation committee chair.  While preparation for the Topical Examination may continue during the Spring Quarter and, if necessary, over the summer, at the conclusion of the Topical Workshop, students should have a clear sense of the subsequent steps that must be taken in order for them to pass their Topical Examination and advance to candidacy in a timely manner.

Foreign Language Study

There is no official foreign language requirement that all PhD students must meet. Nevertheless, many students will want to acquire competence in one or more languages other than English, depending on their area of specialization. Moreover, if it is deemed necessary, a student's dissertation committee may impose upon a student a formal requirement to demonstrate linguistic competence in a foreign language. For example, a student intending to write a thesis on Ancient Greek Philosophy or Hellenistic or Roman Philosophy will likely be required to pass the University's foreign language exam in Greek or Latin, respectively. Therefore, all students should consult with their faculty advisors (or the Director of Graduate Studies) as to which linguistic competencies may be required for their planned course of study. Students are encouraged to discuss language exam procedures and protocols with their advisors.

Topical Examination

During their third year, in connection with the Topical Workshop, students will establish, with their prospective dissertation committee chair, concrete plans for the Topical Examination. Those plans will include: (1) a determination of the faculty members who will serve on the dissertation committee, (2) the expected character of the materials to be submitted by the student on which the Topical Examination will be based, and (3) the expected date of the Topical Examination. Though the details will vary (depending on the subject matter, the state of the research, etc.) and are largely left up to the discretion of the committee, the materials must include a substantial new piece (around 25 double-spaced pages) of written work by the student. This could be a draft of a chapter, an exposition of a central argument, or a detailed abstract (or outline) of the whole dissertation.

The Topical Examination is an oral examination administered by the members of a student's dissertation committee with the aim of evaluating the viability of the proposed dissertation project and the student's ability to execute that project within a reasonable amount of time and at a sufficiently high standard of quality to merit awarding them a PhD. Students will be admitted to PhD candidacy only after they have officially passed their Topical Examination. The Department's normal expectation is that students will have advanced to candidacy by the end of the third week of Winter Quarter of their fourth year.

Required Teaching

The Department of Philosophy views the development of teaching competence as an integral part of its overall PhD program. Different types of teaching opportunities gradually prepare students to teach their own classes. The department also helps train its doctoral students to become excellent teachers of philosophy through individual faculty mentorship and the year-round, discipline-specific pedagogical events offered through (1) the mandatory and optional elements of its non-credit Pedagogy Program and (2) additional events from the Chicago Center for Teaching and Learning on campus. Here is the department’s Pedagogical Training Plan.

As part of their pedagogical training, PhD students are required to teach in the University’s undergraduate program. Normally, during their time in the program, PhD students will serve six times as an instructor—usually five times as a course assistant to a faculty instructor and once as an instructor of a stand-alone “tutorial” course. They usually complete one course assistantship in their third year and two in their fourth year. Students then lead a tutorial in the fifth year. In their sixth year, they teach twice as course assistants in departmental courses. (For further details, see the department’s Pedagogical Training Plan.)

Types of Courses Taught

The first teaching opportunities for doctoral students come in the form of course assistantships. Course assistants work with a faculty instructor, generally for College courses. Specific duties vary depending on the course but usually include holding office hours, leading discussion sections, grading papers and exams, and training in pedagogical methods. The instructor responsible for the course in which a doctoral student serves as an assistant monitors the student’s teaching progress in that course and mentors that student on the art of facilitating productive philosophical discourse and encouraging student participation in the context of their discussion sections. Students will also receive further pedagogical instruction through Chicago Center for Teaching and Learning programs and departmental workshops.

Once a PhD student has gained experience as a teaching assistant, that student is permitted to lead a tutorial. These tutorials allow undergraduate philosophy majors to work intensively on a single topic or text and to improve their oral discussion skills in an intensive discussion-format setting. Each year, graduate students teach stand-alone tutorials on a topic of their choice, typically related to their own research. This affords students an excellent opportunity to hone their ability to teach material drawn from their dissertation. In these cases, the design of the syllabus of the course is developed in consultation with a member of the faculty, who monitors the student's teaching progress over the duration of the stand-alone course and offers counsel and instruction relevant to that student’s work as a solo instructor. Prior to teaching their tutorial, students take the Chicago Center for Teaching and Learning’s syllabus design course.

Building a Teaching Dossier

Over the course of a doctoral student's career, that student together with the department will gather various materials containing the syllabi of the courses that that student has taught, written reports by faculty teaching mentors on that student’s work in those courses, and, last but not least, undergraduate evaluations of those courses. When a PhD student prepares to go on the academic job market, one of that student’s faculty recommendation letters will document and survey the highlights of her teaching career at the University of Chicago.

Dissertation and Defense

Dissertation Committees

Dissertation committees work with PhD students to conceptualize, draft, revise, and publish their dissertation work. Each committee will have at least three members: the chair, a second reader, and a third reader. Two of these members, including the chair, must be departmental faculty members. External committee members (either outside the department or outside the university) are permitted, and may either serve on the committee in addition to the three departmental committee members, or alternatively can serve in place of a departmental faculty member as the second or third reader. For joint-degree students, the requirements of the composition of their committee will be determined by both departments in which the student is enrolled and may differ from the requirements just outlined.

Dissertation committee chairs and other committee members meet regularly with students, on an individual basis, to discuss ideas or drafts of sections or chapters. In addition, the dissertation committee as a whole meets in person at least once yearly (and often more) with the student to discuss the overall argumentative structure of the thesis, chart the intellectual trajectory of the work, and set guidelines for its completion. Writing a dissertation is an arduous process, and departmental faculty provide rigorous feedback to dissertation-phase students in order to keep them on track to graduate with their PhD in a timely fashion.

Forms of Dissertations

The PhD dissertation is the last and most important piece of writing that a doctoral student completes. Historically it has typically taken the form of a sustained argument developed over a number of chapters, running roughly between 150 and 250 pages in length. A variant form which is increasingly popular in philosophy departments in the English-speaking world is the “3- or 4-paper dissertation,” consisting of several interrelated papers developing aspects of, or perspectives on, a single theme.

The overall length and form of a dissertation should be a matter of discussion between the student and their committee. Since the dissertation is a main source for the first publications that a student will produce (either before or after receiving the degree), it is advisable for the dissertation’s chapters to take the form of pieces of work that are suitable to be turned into journal articles, both conceptually and in length (bearing in mind that many journals in the field set length limits of between 8,000 and 12,000 words, with the higher limits more typical in journals in the history of philosophy). Because the dissertation is also the primary document that will establish a student’s expertise in their area of specialization, it is important that, even if a student chooses to write a 3- or 4-paper dissertation, it should be sufficiently unified to substantiate such a claim to expertise.

Dissertation Defense

Students consult with dissertation committee members months in advance about when to schedule their defense. The defense is a public event: along with committee members, other faculty and students, family members, and the general public are welcome to attend. The exam starts with students giving a short, formal presentation about their dissertation: its major claims, intellectual aims, and intervention in the field. Then committee members, faculty, and students ask questions, and a discussion ensues. At the end of the defense, committee members give the student advice about their performance at the defense, improving the project, and publication.

After the defense, students make any necessary revisions and reformat their dissertation before submitting it to the university’s dissertation office. The final granting of the PhD degree is conditional upon the completion of these revisions and the submission of the final revised version of the dissertation to the university.