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).


Wollstonecraft Vindication

All students should have an advisor who is responsible for advising them on their progress in the program and reporting to the department on their progress. Students will attend a mandatory orientation about the formal requirements and informal expectations governing the graduate program in the week before the official start of their first year. Entering PhD students are assigned a faculty advisor with whom they meet to discuss coursework at that time, and subsequently check in with at least once a quarter for the first two years to make sure they are on track and conforming reasonably to program expectations and requirements. Students may change advisors with the consent of the new faculty advisor. During their third year in the program, students meet with faculty for dissertation “chats” in preparation for the Topical Examination, and students may elect to choose one of these faculty members as their advisor (or may remain with their original assigned advisor). Once a student has passed a Topical Examination and has a dissertation project, the dissertation chair becomes their primary advisor.

Course Requirements

All first-year PhD students enroll in the two-quarter-long, faculty-taught First-Year Seminar, which introduces entering PhD students to some of the fundamental texts and issues of analytic philosophy. 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 some intellectual solidarity among the members of the cohort by stimulating the regular exchange of philosophical ideas between them, and (3) to create a philosophical framework for a series of short written assignments that introduce students to philosophical writing at a graduate level.

In addition to the First-Year Seminar, students must complete eleven graded graduate courses with passing grades (at least ten of these courses must be in Philosophy) in their first two years in the PhD program. Students also have to satisfy distribution requirements by taking at least one course in five separate areas. Three of these areas are in contemporary philosophy: (1) value theory; (2) philosophy of science, philosophy of language, and logic; and (3) epistemology and metaphysics. Students must also take a total of at least three courses course in two additional areas on the history of philosophy: (4) Ancient or Medieval Philosophy and (5) Modern Philosophy from the 17th through the 19th centuries. The program also has a logic requirement, which students can fulfill either by passing a graduate logic course in the department or by having passed a course equivalent.

Courses must be completed in a timely manner so that they can count as requirements and students can move on to the next phases of the program. (Note that work done in a masters program elsewhere is not counted toward satisfying course requirements here, but students may consult with faculty about transferring up to two course credits from another PhD program.)

Revision Workshop

In the spring of their second year, all PhD students register for 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 then be submitted to the department late in the spring as a sample of their best work. The final essay should be no longer than 8,000 words. The department will then review the paper as part of its evaluation whether the student has sufficient promise to proceed from coursework to the next stage of the program.

Topical Workshop

In their third year, students will take a Topical Workshop, which meets intermittently in both Autumn and Winter Quarters. In this workshop, students present and discuss materials they will use in their Topical Examination, such as dissertation proposals and chapter drafts. The purpose of this workshop is to help students pass their subsequent Topical Examination and advance quickly to PhD candidacy.

Dissertation “Chats”

During and following the Topical Workshop, students continue to work toward defining a dissertation project. During the autumn and winter quarters of their third year, they meet with various faculty members to discuss and refine possible dissertation topics and dissertation committees. By Winter Quarter of that year, each student meets with a prospective committee for an informal "dissertation chat," based on a short "dissertation sketch" submitted to those faculty and to the Graduate Program Committee. The point of this meeting is to help establish expectations for what will be required to advance to candidacy, and to further advise the student on issues such as the overall direction of her research and the composition of the dissertation committee. Preparation for the Topical Examination then continues during the Spring Quarter and, if necessary, over the summer.

Language Examination

All students must pass an examination in French, German, Latin, or Greek before their Topical Examination. Students can discuss language exam procedures and protocols with their advisors.

Topical Examination

During their dissertation chat in their third year, and if necessary a second dissertation chat at the beginning of fourth year, students will establish, with their prospective dissertation committee, concrete plans for the Topical Examination. Those plans will include: (1) a determination of 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.), 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, a detailed abstract (or outline) of the whole dissertation, or whatever the committee as a whole agrees upon.

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 complete it within a reasonable amount of time. 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--including passing their Topical Examination and their language examinations(s)--by the end of third week of their 11th quarter (normally the 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 on campus. Here is the department’s pedagogical training plan.

In return for receiving a fellowship package, PhD students are obliged to teach in the University’s undergraduate program. Normally, PhD students are required to serve six times as an instructor—usually five times as a course assistant 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 usually teach twice as course assistants in departmental courses (but see below for exceptions to this).

Types of Required Classes Taught

The first teaching opportunities 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 pedagogic methods. The professor responsible for the course in which a doctoral student serves as an assistant monitors the student’s teaching progress in that course and mentors her on the art of leading discussion section. Students also prepare for serving as course assistants through Chicago Center for Teaching programs and departmental workshops

Once a PhD student has proven herself as a teaching assistant, she 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 related to their own research. This affords the student an excellent opportunity to hone her ability to teach material drawn from her 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 consults with the student about her work as a solo instructor. Prior to teaching their tutorial, students take the Chicago Center for Teaching’s syllabus design course.

Philosophy PhD students can have different types of teaching experiences as part of their required teaching, usually during the sixth year of their fellowship. Some teach once as an instructor of a class of their own design if they win a Stuart Tave Teaching Fellowship. Others may work in the undergraduate program as a year-long preceptor for college students who are writing BA theses.

Building a Teaching Dossier

Over the course of a doctoral student's career, that student together with the department builds a teaching dossier containing the syllabi of the courses that she has taught, written reports by faculty teaching mentors on her 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 her 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 director, a second reader, and a third reader. Two of these members, including the director, must be department members. External committee members (either outside the department or outside the university) are permitted in addition to this, or alternatively can count as the second or third reader. For joint-degree students, the requirements of the composition of their committee will be determined by both departments and may differ from the requirements just outlined.

Individual committee members meet regularly with students to discuss ideas or drafts of sections or chapters. The dissertation committee as a whole meets in person at least once yearly (and often more) with the student to discuss the overall argument, chart the intellectual trajectory of the work, and set guidelines for its completion. Committee members will also meet with the student individually. 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 “three (or four) 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-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 revisions (if necessary) 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 final revisions.