How to Complete a PhD (in Philosophy)

(Another page explains my research. This post offers advice on each stage of the process.)

How do you get a PhD in philosophy? The short answer is this:

  1. Apply and get into graduate school with a good Phd program.
  2. Work hard to complete all the necessary aspects of the program, but especially to complete a dissertation.

Before discussing how to do these two steps, a prior discussion is whether you want to or should get a PhD. This page discusses all three major questions and offers advice rooted in my own experience. This advice is necessarily limited, but may be helpful to those who can relate.

Do I Want to get a PhD?

This is the difficult discernment decision. Why go to grad school? Some people say you should avoid a doctorate in the humanities. There are almost no jobs in philosophy. Even if you really like philosophy, an earnest desire is necessary but not sufficient. You need both desire and aptitude.

I’ve heard it said somewhere, I think it was by C. S. Lewis, that you should only go to graduate school if you cannot imagine being happy doing anything else but being a scholar. Graduate school takes a lot of time and stress. You will live below the poverty line for at least 5 years. 50% of people drop out. The degree you earn basically qualifies you to become a researcher, teacher, writer. For a lot of people, that end result not worth the time, money, and stress.

For others the process is a joy: the challenge, the abstract thinking, the camaraderie.

And for those who finish their degree, graduate school is an essential gateway into the world of academia. Scholarship can be an incredibly satisfying career. Scholars impact future generations, get paid to think, and can build a platform to share their ideas with the public and the world. Philosophers engage in the highest level of thinking and problem-solving, up in the airy echelons occupied by scientists, psychologists, pastors, and politicians… at least some politicians.

Furthermore, some of those who study philosophy finish but go on to do other things. Some get a B.A. or even an M.A. before going into business, non-profit, or ministry.

The best method is to know yourself: Ask your teachers and mentors to give you an honest appraisal of your current ability and your future potential. Academic philosophy has room for a vast range of interests and abilities. Nevertheless, you don’t want to kid yourself. Ask yourself what you want out of it. Do you just want the credentials needed to become an academic? Or are you likely to enjoy the journey, despite the sacrifices?

1 My story

For me, graduate school was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I enjoyed my colleagues, the classes, the teaching requirements. I didn’t enjoy being poor, but being married helped because my spouse worked. I also worked part-time jobs from the 2nd year forward.

How did I decide to get a PhD? The discernment process was long.

As an undergraduate, I enjoyed philosophy, history, art, and psychology.

While teaching in a classical high school, I applied to a psychology PhD. Though I got in, I never attended. It didn’t feel right.

The next year, I took 3 semesters of philosophy and theology MA coursework at Talbot. This gave me good practice writing rigorous analytic papers and also gave me a reference letter from JP Moreland.

I stopped at Talbot and moved to a 3 year masters in theology.

My wife and I got married in 2010. I decided to pursue graduate work, and had finally settled on philosophy. The main reason was that philosophy doctorates have a broad range of application: philosophy professor, administration, classical educator, writer, and more. I wanted to teach but also continue entrepreneurial endeavors and writing.

I got lots of advice from friends and teachers on how, when, where, to apply. I took the GRE (after some study) and did well. I researched schools and jumped in.

We applied to 14 schools. It cost about $1,400 dollars, all told.

I got 10 rejections, and 4 acceptances. Claremont and University of Chicago offered no funding, no tuition remission; University of Dallas offered tuition with no funding; University of Kentucky offered tuition with funding. U.K. was my top choice anyhow because I wanted to work with David Bradshaw. So, I accepted the offer.

We moved to Kentucky in July of 2012.

2. MA or PHD?

Contrary to popular belief, you can go from graduating college straight into an American PhD program. You don’t need an M.A. That said, there are reasons to consider an M.A. first.

Pro – MAs, in general, leverage you up to better PhD programs (if you do well). The end goal is to learn a lot, hone your writing, get good references (for PhD applications) or move on to your career.

Con – an MA program extend your total time to job market from average 7 years to average 9 years.

What about going straight for the PhD?

Pro – PhDs, in general, get you on the job market in average 7 years. The end goal is to become a professor and/or researcher at a university. They often pay you to teach or research along the way to your degree.

Con – unless your philosophical writing is exceptionally good, you may not be able to reach a more prestigious school without an MA, developed research plans, and good references. When I say “exceptionally good”, I mean in your professors’ opinion, not in your opinion.

For me, the time factor was big. Even though I didn’t have a completed MA, I was able to get in to UK on the strength of my writing sample, GRE score, and good references.

3. How do you best apply?

Your philosophical essay is the most important.

Pick your best undergrad essay (or MA essay), re-write it twice, print it, edit it, re-write it again, and polish it. Only then, send it to your favorite and most generous professor to get their notes. Re-write it again. Consider paying someone to proof-read it for you, then make those corrections. Print it out again and read it aloud with a red pen. Find errors in grammar, typing, or thinking, and re-write it again… When it’s very nearly perfect, include it in your application portfolio.

The GRE is necessary for most schools. I don’t consider it a life or death test, because some schools may not need and some may not require much from it. Philosophers tend to do well on the math, but the math is more important for, say, engineering grad schools. You should study harder for the verbal and writing, as this counts more, from what I have heard.

Personal statements? Not sure how important they are. No one has ever told me they make a candidate; but it seems commonsense that they can break a candidate.

Play it safe – just be calm, be yourself, be frank, and say what you want to study. Your aspirations will change; just state what you want to study today.

4. Making Progress

Getting a degree is your job. Treat it like a business. Better, treat it like your own business. You are an entrepreneur whose sole goal is to make yourself ready for the job market – marketable research, strong publications, a wide base of teaching, friendly connections, and the endurance to press through lots (and I mean lots) of red tape.

At my university – the University of Kentucky (UK) – there were 35 steps from admission to “congratulations Doctor”. So I’ve made a list. You should do the same. I called my list “the Master List.”

A UK, the Master List is 35 or so items, broken into 6 (very dis-proportionally sized) projects:

  1. Complete 12 classes. (2 years)
  2. Complete language, logic, and Comprehensive exams 2-3 years
  3. Complete 5 more classes (1 year)
  4. Write and defend an Area Proposal. (6 months)
  5. Write and defend three Qualifying Exams. (3 weeks)
  6. Write and defend a Dissertation Proposal. (6-12 months?)
  7. Write and defend a Dissertation. (1-3 years? 5 years?)

This list is different for every school. Even at UK, it’s changed since 2012 when I began. You

Find out from your professors, older students, recently finished, and (more probably) from the department administrative assistant what you need to do. Keep everything in one big list. Don’t be fancy and break it down into multiple places.

And don’t lose track, while simply working on courses, of the bigger picture. Getting to “Dr.” requires taking courses and doing well – but it also requires jumping through a bunch of bureaucratic hoops. Deadlines are hard and fast. Missing one could cost you a semester or a year.

Know what’s coming. What do you need to do by year three? By year two? By end of the year? Right now? Treat each course as a learning opportunity but also as checking a box on your master list. Each “A” or “B” is one step closer to “PHD”.

5. Coursework

The first step was to complete my coursework. I took 2-3 classes per semester for 2.5 years.

My approach is to hit hard early, and ease up later. I took three classes (two seminars) the first semester. This was hard, but you adjust to the work load. Manage your time. It’s like jumping in a cold pool head first. You adjust quicker.

I took three seminars the third semester and that got me ahead, which has been nice.

My program requires a “Teaching Pro-Seminar” to help us be good little graduate TA proletariat wage slaves. I did that the first semester too. My professor made a throw-away class something actually useful.

6. Language, Logic, and Exams?

Pick the language in which you will eventually read primary sources: usually either Greek, Latin, French, or German – but of course sometimes Spanish, or whatever language you might be working in. Also, U. Kentucky requires symbolic logic, so I took that my third year.

Comprehensive exams are required at U. Kentucky but the practice is fading. I studied for a whole semester or summer before the test, reading primary sources and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Internet Encyclopedias of Philosophy. Rest well on the day of the exam, bring snacks, pace yourself, and write like the wind.

7. Picking an Area

Naturally, each school is different. Some have you write a Prospectus or Dissertation Proposal rather than stretching the process out like UK does. We do an Area Proposal, then Qualifying Exams, then a Dissertation Proposal, each of which must be written and orally defended before the committee.

My area proposal was the product of much soul-searching. When I applied to graduate school, I had intended to study Plato. However, my favorite themes in contemporary ethics and metaethics kept cropping up. Every semester I wrote a term paper or three for my courses. In these papers, I noticed that I kept gravitating towards attacking or defending metaphysical naturalism, ethical naturalism, and so on.

I asked my advisor if I should go ahead and make the switch from AOS (area of specialty) Ancient Philosophy to AOS Ethics. He agreed. At that point, I started writing-to-discover. I wrote several drafts of potential area proposals for my eyes only. I narrowed down my interests and honed my arguments. I read widely about naturalism in its various forms, and about the controversies between naturalists and non-naturalists in ethics.

8. Area Proposal

I asked several friends for copies of their successfully defended Area Proposals and also downloaded some random examples from the web. They were all quite different. I decided to go ahead and attempt a draft of a formal, complete proposal.

After several iterations, in conversation with my advisor, I had a complete draft. Looking back, I see that it wasn’t very good – I still didn’t have a grasp of how slippery some of the vocabulary is: terms like “objective”, “naturalism”, “metaethics”, and so on have a wide range of nuanced and sometimes competing meanings. But I had the Area, and that’s the point.

Now I was able to begin researching in my area in order to pass the “qualifying exams.”

9. Research

With a proposal in place, I started reading in force. I downloaded articles from PhilPapers or JSTOR and purchased or checked out books by a few of my favorite authors: John McDowell, Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre, Iris Murdoch, Rosalind Hursthouse, Alan Gibbard, Michael Thompson, and so on. I read, took notes, and occassionaly attempted the foolhardy task of writing a whole chapter draft. These drafts were pretty universally junk, but writing them helped me think things through.

10. Qualifying Exams

How do you pass qualifying exams (if applicable)? This is simply a matter of doing the reading in your area. Take notes as you go – quotations (with full citation information or you will regret it!) and sentences or paragraphs in your own words. These many, many notes will serve as raw material when you begin writing exams and chapters.

11. Dissertation

How do you write a dissertation? Start by reading this awesome instruction set from Proffessor Robert Paul Wolff

You should also read this post from Chronicle blog:

Before you write a word, make an annotated bibliography. Begin with your primary text. Read through it a second, third, fourth time, painfully closely. Take copious, discursive notes on everything you find most interesting. Then find the five most-cited secondary sources for your subject. For each one, summarize its theses, extract the five most relevant quotes, and write a brief response. Do you agree? Why or why not? When you’re done, mine the bibliographies in those secondary sources for their most-cited sources, and repeat until you have 10 to 15 sources. Take a deep breath, and flesh that “skeleton” out into your first real rough draft, and then leave it untouched for at least a weekend. Now comes your next opportunity for a Dissertation Simulator: With a fresh pair of eyes, read through your “zero draft” as if you are an editor who does not have to make any of the changes you suggest. Mark up the flaws. Be merciless. Think of the meanest faculty member you have ever known, and put that person’s voice in your head. Does mean-you hurt your feelings? Perhaps make you want to cry?

The plan right now is to write one page per day, every day, 7 days a week, until draft 1 is done. “Done” df = 6 chapters, 40 pages each, 12,000 words each, for 72,000 words total and about 280 pages.

One good structure idea:

  • 4-6 chapters
  • 30-50 pages each
  • 120-300 pages total.
  • 8,000 - 12,000 words or so per chapter
  • 50,000-62,000 words total.

This would look like:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction, thesis, key premises, assumptions, methodology, flow of arguments, and outline of dissertation
  • Chapter 2: Literature review; background on your topic/authors.
  • Chapter 3: Arguments 1
  • Chapter 4: Arguments 2
  • Chapter 5: Arguments 3, etc
  • Chapter 6: Conclusion - Reminder of thesis, summary of arguments.

A bit more detail: Your dissertation will be between 150-300 pages long. It will be minimum 4 chapters, maximum probably 8. Each chapter will be minimum 20 pages, maximum 80 pages. Each chapter will be minimum 10,000 words, maximum 20,000 words. Then you are done.

Example 1 - 250 pages, 6 chapters, 41 pages each, 10,020 words per chapter.

Example 2 - 200 pages, 5 chapters, 40 pages each, 10,000 words per chapter.

Example 3 - 300 pages, 5 chapters, 60 pages each, 15,000 words per chapter.

Example 4 - 300 pages, 8 chapters, 37 pages each, 9,200 words per chapter.

Example 5 - 180 pages, 10 chapters, 18 pages each, 4,500 words per chapter.

Example 6 - 200 pages, 10 chapters, 20 pages each, 5,000 words per chapter

Research Proposals

The University of Kentucky asks graduate students to make three increasingly specific proposals.

  1. The Area Proposal explains the sub-disciplines of philosophy (metaethics, naturalism, virtue ethics) I am to read in.
  2. The Qualifying Exams prove I have read quite a bit in these sub-disciplines and am ready to start researching and writing in that area.
  3. The Dissertation Proposal “pitches” my specific project: to defend an account of virtue, practical reason, and happiness drawing on three contemporary virtue ethicists. (First draft here)

Dissertation Updates

15 Oct 2015

I wrote and re-wrote my dissertation proposal many times. I discussed it with my wife (she has a background in philosophy) and with my advisor. Eventually it was submitted to my advisor.

He said:

Dear Keith, I’ve read your proposal and it looks good. There are numerous small points that need correcting, especially in formatting the references and providing bibliographic information… Congrats on making progress. Once you clean up these details it will be ready to go!

He did have some corrections for me to make, which is normal.

With that I began working in earnest. I started writing in Scrivener.

One page a day, seven days a week was the plan and it worked fairly well for me. I usually wrote 2-3 pages about 3-4 days a week. Many of these pages were merely notes, or comments on what I was reading. Others were “sections”, that is, attempts at creating a building block for future chapters (a chapter being composed of 3-5 “sections”).

Between October 2015 and August 2016

I wrote a lot. Read a lot and wrote a lot and re-read and re-wrote. I kept an ever-evolving checklist of relevant books and articles to read, and kept a long list of notes for each one. I followed the arguments, dropped some research lines, and picked up new ones.

16 May 2016 Boot Camp!

My university began hosting a “Boot Camp” writing retreat. We have a private dorm room on campus, unlimited snacks (both healthy and unhealthy snacks, woo hoo!), an endless supply of coffee and soda, and the comforting presence of a community of 40 or so fellow writers.

The Boot Camp is two weeks long. We each commit to write at least 4 hours a day, Monday through Friday, for those two weeks. It’s a time to write, revise, struggle, get confused, commiserate, write more, take breaks, and break through.

It’s been awesome. Though tomorrow is the last day. Sad!

Here’s what I’ve gotten done:

My process is rather messy. Each chapter goes through a stage: (1) draft, (2) revised draft, (3) polished draft, (4) submitted to advisor and approved or revised again.

Chapters 1 and 2 were already at stage (4), approved by advisor.

Chapter 3 was revised and is now polished. Chapter 4 was drafted and is now revised. Chapter 5 was drafted and is now revised. Chapter 6 was drafted and is now revised. Chapter 7 is drafted and I’m revising today and tomorrow.

After that, I only have one more chapter (plus the conclusion)!

Then I will go back and polish 4-8. Then I will submit 4-8 one by one to my advisor, and revise some more.

22 July 2016 Meeting with Advisor

This morning I met with my advisor. I gave him chapters 3 and 4. He said they were mostly good. He said:

My general sense – I think this is actually shaping up very well. Chapter 2 is very impressive. You draw on this extensive literature. Digging into this literature about teleological realism. You deploy that very nicely to create a space for what you want to go on to do. You’ve successfully scoped it down so that it fits within a chapter. Last time you didn’t close the circle of the argument; this time you did. Chapter 3. In terms of the pacing, and the writing. This is very good. I’m very happy with the direction. Chapter 4 follows logically from what comes before. Seems a natural development.

The biggest problem that he had was about the normative force of neo-Aristotelian naturalism. How ethical is the ethical naturalism? And how naturalistic is the ethical naturalism? This is a good problem to have. That is, his problem is with the premise of the project, not with any detail of my presentation or execution of the project. So that’s happy news.

I asked him about timelines. I have to give him Chapters 5 and 6, and then make the changes to 4 (if they are still needed). The editor I am paying to read and comment on 5 and 6 is still at work on them, but then I’ll make some adjustments and pass them along.

I’m glad I’ve been working on formatting. Now some of that early work is paying off.

Coming soon


The goal is, when I’m finished, to write a post-op. Possible topics include:

  • What was hard
  • What was easy
  • Deciding where to apply


  • How to write a teaching statement
  • How to build a CV
  • First year coursework
  • Second year coursework and comprehensive exams
  • Third year coursework
  • Administrative hoop jumping and paperwork
  • Fourth year research and writing
  • Fifth year dissertating
  • Applying for jobs
  • Finishing and moving
  • Starting new job