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

After a mandatory orientation about the formal requirements and informal expectations governing the graduate program, entering PhD students meet with an assigned faculty advisor to discuss coursework. They subsequently check in with that advisor 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. Once a student begins work on their Preliminary Essay, they are assigned a new faculty advisor who will also serve as one of their two Preliminary Essay supervisors. Faculty on their dissertation committee become their de facto advisors after that.

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 twelve 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 three areas of contemporary philosophy: (1) value theory; (2) philosophy of science, philosophy of language, and logic; and (3) epistemology and metaphysics). They must also take a total of at least three courses course in two areas on the history of philosophy (Ancient or Medieval Philosophy; 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 course credits from another PhD program.)

Language Examination

All students must pass an examination in French, German, Latin, or Greek by the end of spring quarter of the fourth year or before their Topical Examination, whichever comes first. Students can discuss language exam procedures and protocols with their advisors.

Preliminary Essay

In the spring quarter of their second year, all PhD students register for a two-quarter (spring quarter of their second year and autumn quarter of their third year) Preliminary Essay Seminar, taught by the current Director of Graduate Studies. The primary purposes of this seminar are to discuss general issues associated with writing the essay and to provide a forum in which students can present their ongoing work in a seminar-environment, discuss it with their peers, and receive additional oral feedback.

During spring quarter of their second year, all students define a proposed topic for the Preliminary Essay and, with the Graduate Program Committee, form a committee of two faculty members, each of whom has equal responsibility in directing the project. Once the Graduate Program Committee approves a finalized topic, students consult their committee regularly and over multiple essay drafts. The final essay should be no longer than 8,000 words and is due early in winter quarter of the student’s fourth year in the program.

The aim of the exercise of the Preliminary Essay is to enable the pre-dissertation student to learn about (1) improving a piece of philosophical prose by subjecting it to many rounds of revision and (2) working with a committee of faculty advisors. Writing the Preliminary Essay also lets students test out possibilities for a dissertation topic and dissertation advisors. After completing the Preliminary Essay, students are utterly free to change (one or more of) their faculty advisors, their topic, or both.

Dissertation “Chats”

Following the Preliminary Essay, students begin work toward their dissertations. During the winter and spring quarters of their third year, they meet with various faculty members to discuss and refine possible dissertation topics and dissertation committees. By mid-spring 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 the sketch and preliminary meetings is to provide some faculty guidance for the more independent research that begins over the summer. After the dissertation chat the student should submit to their committee a document that describes the work toward formulating a dissertation project and lays out a plan of research for the summer that will lead to a Topical Examination by the beginning of the winter quarter of their fourth year.

Topical Examination

At the beginning of the following fall (fourth year), students again meet with their advisors to discuss progress and to make concrete plans for the Topical Examination later that quarter. Those plans will include: (1) a determination of the dissertation committee and (2) the expected character of the materials to be submitted by the student on which the Topical Examination will be based. Though the details will vary (depending on the subject matter, the state of the research, etc.), these 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. Our expectation is that students normally advance to candidacy by early 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 its non-credit, student-run Pedagogy Program.

In return for receiving an initial five-year fellowship package, PhD students are obliged to teach in the University’s undergraduate program. Normally, PhD students are required to serve four times as an instructor—usually three times as a course assistant and once as an instructor of a stand-alone “tutorial” course. They usually complete one teaching assistantship in their third year (following completion of their Preliminary Essay) and two in their fourth year. Students then lead a tutorial in the fifth year. 

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 sections. 

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.

Philosophy PhD students can do more and different types of teaching after their initial teaching during their five-year fellowship. At this point, many additional teaching opportunities will open up to them.

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, two of whom must be departmental faculty. Often, however, students have faculty in other departments, or at other institutions, as dissertation committee members. 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. 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.

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.