Guide to Graduate Study
Advanced training in philosophy of science has been around as long as there have been graduate programs in philosophy. Given, moreover, that throughout its career, philosophy of science has advanced in conversation with both the sciences and with other disciplines that have taken science as their topic of intellectual curiosity (history of science, sociology of science, etc.), programs specializing in philosophy of science have taken various forms and have different foci. Most important for those considering graduate work in philosophy of science is the fact that some programs with strength in philosophy of science are philosophy departments whereas others are specialized programs or departments in history and philosophy of science, science and technology studies, or similar interdisciplinary pursuits. In addition, there is a variety of intellectual traditions within which one can pursue philosophy of science and recently there has been a reinstitution or reinvigoration of philosophy of science graduate programs in Europe.
There are many guides to choosing graduate programs in philosophy available online and a number of sources of advice for prospective graduate students about how to decide what programs to apply to and/or attend if admitted. There are also many rankings of graduate programs, including subject-specific lists of programs with particular strength in the philosophy of science, as well as in the philosophy of particular sciences, mathematics, etc. We recommend drawing information from a variety of sources, including others besides this guide. But below we provide some advice and suggestions of our own, including many intended specifically for those considering work in the philosophy of science, in the hope that this will be useful to prospective graduate students in deciding which graduate programs to apply to, what program to attend, and how to get the most out of campus visits.
Perhaps the most general issue an applicant must decide upon is whether to undertake PhD- or Masters-level training. There are relatively few dedicated masters programs in philosophy in the USA but there are such programs in Britain, the Commonwealth countries, and throughout Europe. The existence of such programs means that PhD study in those countries often proceeds from the expectation that in-coming PhD students will have a masters degree. (For example, Canadian PhD programs often require fewer courses than US PhD programs do.) Since the specific questions a potential applicant must bear in mind are, however, quite similar for both masters- and PhD-level study, this guide does not separate out the two levels for separate consideration.
Keep in mind that the overall strength of a given graduate program may ultimately matter less to the quality of your graduate experience than whether the program is strong in the particular area(s) of philosophy or philosophy of science in which you have a specific interest. In deciding whether to apply to a given program, start by visiting the program's webpage and reading the descriptions given by individual faculty members of their interests and recent work. You should also look for recent courses taught by various faculty members, titles and/or descriptions of the dissertations of current and recent graduates of the program, and other useful information that will help give you some sense of what that department is like and what sort of work most regularly goes on within it.
In addition, virtually all graduate programs in philosophy encourage students to visit before deciding what program to attend, and we strongly recommend that you do so if possible. These days many top programs host group visits of admitted prospective graduate students, and there are sometimes even funds available to help cover some of the travel costs for such visits. Much of importance about the intellectual culture of a program and the experiences of its graduate students can only be gleaned from actually visiting that program in person and talking to current graduate students as well as members of the faculty. While visiting, try to envision yourself in working relationships with members of the faculty who conduct research and advise students in the area(s) of greatest interest to you. Also try to talk to as many different graduate students as possible, and keep in mind that any one person's experiences will be idiosyncratic. Make sure, however, that you talk extensively with graduate students who work in the philosophy of science -- ideally those in any specific subfields in which you have a particular interest -- because their experiences will often be a better guide to what yours might be like than those of other students. Find out how many students are in the area(s) that interest you most -- in graduate school you will often learn as much from your fellow students as you do from the faculty—and find out how many faculty are in that area or those areas. If there aren't any existing students in the philosophy of science or in the particular subfield that interests you, find out why not.
A Note Concerning Placement
One of the most rewarding things about graduate education and/or academic employment in philosophy is the chance to join an intellectual community whose members are sincerely engaged with the deepest and most fundamental questions they can find. For this reason among others, graduate education and/or employment in philosophy is not simply a job like any other or just another part of the rat race—instead, it is a mildly incredible fact that some people are lucky enough to be able to actually make a living by thinking, reading, writing, and teaching about the things that interest them most! All that said, keep in mind that in addition to joining such an intellectual community you are also preparing yourself to try to enter a tough, competitive business in which there are no guarantees: most academic jobs involve considerably more teaching and less research than those held by faculty at top research institutions, and every year it seems that some talented, hardworking graduates of good programs wind up without permanent academic employment at all. This should not discourage you from pursuing graduate education in philosophy if it is something you truly love and are prepared to commit to, but you should be aware that probably not everyone who does so will ultimately enjoy an academic career. It should also encourage you to pay at least some attention to the information available regarding the placement record of any graduate program you consider attending. Find out what the department's recent placement record is like (including for students who weren't the absolute stars of their cohort or year). To what extent does the department seem to think of itself as responsible for placing their students as opposed to helping students place themselves? How much assistance and guidance do students get in preparing themselves for the job market? What services does the department provide for graduate students to help them get jobs, and for how long can a graduating student expect those services to continue, if necessary? If the department's placement record seems to be improving or deteriorating in recent years as compared to previous ones, be sure to try to find out why people think this is -- investigating may uncover useful information about a program whether or not it has anything to do with recent changes in its placement record. If you are considering studying abroad but would like to have a serious possibility of job placement back in your home country, do investigate the department's understanding of and willingness to help with job placement back in your country of origin.
Culture of the Department and Intellectual Community
What is the culture of the department like generally—is it collegial, competitive, supportive, or something else altogether? Are people around the department and/or in their offices a lot of the time? Are there many departmental events or just a few, and what are these like? Is it nerve-racking or enjoyable (or something in between) for students to spend time socially with members of the faculty? Do students routinely go out for coffee or a drink with members of the faculty or does faculty/student interaction tend to be more formal? (Note: There is a wide range of levels of formality in departmental culture, ranging from department-wide parties, intramural sports teams, and poker games to departments in which untenured faculty members are expected to attend graduate seminars taught by more senior faculty!) What is morale like generally among students in the program? How diverse is the department -- both faculty and graduate students -- in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, country of origin, sexual orientation, disability, etc.? Will you feel comfortable in this group? What is it like to be a female (or member of some other easily identifiable group to which you belong) graduate student in this program? Bear in mind that there will most likely be significant resources (women's centers, international students' centers, etc.) at any university; is the department working with such organizations to build a welcoming environment? Find out what convinced current students to choose the program and whether anything surprised them after they showed up. Ask people what the worst thing about the program is, and in what ways they see the department as most likely to be different in five years than it is right now.
Make an effort to find out what members of the faculty are like not simply as scholars, but as teachers, advisors, and mentors. How available are members of the faculty generally to students? How quickly can a student who wants to talk to a given faculty member about an academic matter generally do so? Sit in on a meeting of a graduate seminar if you can, but keep in mind that it will reflect the teaching style of just one person, and this will vary quite a bit between faculty members. How quickly do faculty members read and respond to student work, and is their feedback useful? How much guidance and input can students expect from the faculty in trying to pass milestones like qualifying exams, papers, or defending a dissertation prospectus? In what ways and how often do faculty members seem to interact with students who are writing dissertations under their direction? (Be aware that this too often varies widely between faculty members in a given program.)
More generally, do interactions between faculty and graduate students tend to be friendly, paternalistic, adversarial, or what? Do the faculty seem to think of themselves more as working with students or as instructing them? Do they seem engaged in a common intellectual enterprise with students? To what extent and in what ways do faculty members involve students in their own programs of research? Do students feel that faculty members are automatically committed to helping them as members of the program, or do students feel that they must "earn" the attention of members of the faculty by producing work that impresses and/or interests them? Do the faculty genuinely seem to have the students' collective best interests at heart? Does the department provide help in areas like language instruction if you are studying in a language that is not your native language?
What is the position of philosophy of science like in the department? Are there members of the faculty who are hostile to it? How broad is the department's expertise in the philosophy of science? If a student arrives interested in one area of the philosophy of science, but discovers that she is really more interested in another (or some other part of philosophy altogether), are faculty members' attitudes and expertise broad enough to enable her to explore widely and/or change areas of study easily? Find out how interdisciplinary projects or those that are hybrid between philosophy and other fields seem to be viewed in the department.
Does the program admit students with undergraduate backgrounds in the sciences, mathematics, etc., in addition to those with academic backgrounds in philosophy? If so, how many current students arrived with such backgrounds? If you have a similar background, be sure to talk to those students. Find out how strong other departments on campus are that might matter to you, like those in particular sciences in which you have an interest and/or in other fields that study scientific inquiry, like the history of science or the sociology of science. Have any current students taken courses from faculty in those departments? Have any members of those departments served on dissertation committees for graduate students in the department you are considering? Make an effort to find out how much interest in (or patience for!) the philosophy of science is possessed by faculty members in any other departments in which you might expect to do a significant amount of coursework or whose members might ultimately be a useful resource for you at the dissertation-writing stage.
Don't forget to consider intellectual resources not directly on campus. Are there other strong departments nearby? If so, are there patterns of regular interaction? Do students take classes at these other institutions, either formally or informally? Do faculty from these other schools ever serve on dissertation committees in the department? Are there regular regional conferences or reading groups? Especially in some urban areas (e.g. New York, London, Boston, southern California), these connections can expand, and enrich, your intellectual community significantly.
Prospective Advisors and Dissertation Directors
Some students are already well aware of which faculty members at a given program are those with whom they would be most interested in working. If you are not, you may get some ideas from exploring the webpages of individual faculty members. In addition, the department's website may include information about which students are currently writing dissertations with particular faculty members and on what subjects -- this can often be found by checking the online profiles of existing graduate students in the program. If you visit the program in person, be sure to meet with any faculty members under whose direction you think you might ultimately write a dissertation, but also meet with other faculty members in the same or similar areas: it is quite common for a person to choose a graduate program because of interest in the work of one faculty member but wind up writing a dissertation with another. Given that this is the case, it is good to consider whether there is more than one person you could imagine working closely with.
When talking to a prospective dissertation advisor in this way, try to get a general read on your compatibility. Find out what sorts of projects that faculty member thinks wind up being the most successful dissertations and what sorts of students wind up being the most successful in the program. Try to get an understanding of why she thinks (if she does!) that you are an attractive candidate for the program. Find out what she most wants to improve about the program (this can be a sensitive subject, so tread carefully and tactfully). Ask if she yet knows what the subject of the next graduate seminar she teaches will be, and find out what recent graduate seminar she most enjoyed teaching. Do not be afraid to let a particular faculty member know that your interest in the program substantially depends upon her presence within it and to verify that she does not already have plans to relocate elsewhere, or retire, in the near future. Of course you should keep in mind that particular faculty members might themselves be genuinely uncertain about their own immediate futures. In addition to direct conversations with faculty members, it can be well worth considering someone's track record of mobility.
If you do know whom you might hope to have as a primary advisor or dissertation committee chair, make an effort to find and talk not only to that faculty member but also to her existing students. And if a faculty member with whom you are interested in working has no current graduate students, find out (politely!) why not -- there are lots of perfectly innocent reasons for this, and some less so. Try to find out how much guidance and support individual students can expect to receive during the dissertation-writing stage. Does that particular faculty member seem to interact regularly with students who are writing dissertations under her direction, or does she instead send students off to write dissertations more-or-less on their own? (Be aware that students' individual styles of philosophical inquiry vary, too, so talk to more than one person about any or all of these matters if possible.)
Coursework and Instruction
Are required courses taught frequently enough to make deadlines for satisfying course distribution requirements realistic? Are such requirements appropriate to the needs of students working in the philosophy of science? Are there further program requirements (like comprehensive exams or other conditions that must be satisfied before advancing to work on a dissertation) and are these structured in a way that is helpful and useful for students in the philosophy of science? Do any faculty in the program have strong relationships with those in science departments, particularly those in which you have a special interest? Also find out how supportive the department is of students taking courses outside the department itself and/or their primary field of graduate study. Is it easy to take courses in science departments or others besides the one to which you have been admitted? Has this actually been done in the area of your particular interest (and how recently)? There is considerable variation in this respect: some departments have strict limits on the number of graduate courses taken outside the department that will count towards a student's degree progress, while others strongly encourage students to take relevant courses outside of philosophy (especially in the sciences themselves) and will, for example, even make provisions for students to take additional time in the program to complete an MA in a related field.
Program Completion, Funding, Teaching, Housing, and other Practical Matters
How long does it take most students to complete the program? What percentage of those who start the program complete it, and why do those who drop out do so? What is the level of available financial support like generally? For how long can students expect to be funded and in what ways? How does the typical funding package, or the specific one you have been offered, compare with the typical time to complete the program? Currently (2012), funding packages for philosophy PhD programs in the United States typically provide 4-6 years of guaranteed support for students making good progress. Funding in other countries varies considerably and can take forms quite different from the US norm. Some packages include summer funding and other perks. Most require some teaching, though how much varies widely. Be aware that students who teach most terms during graduate school will likely require more time to complete their programs than students with significant funded time without teaching obligations. As you compare programs, the number of years of support you can expect (and the form this support will take) is an important factor, but intellectual excellence and fit are obviously the most crucial considerations. Is there competition for funding among graduate students, and if so, how does this affect the culture of the department? Is there support available for graduate students to attend conferences and other academic travel? (Conferences can be especially important for those considering programs with few or no other students in philosophy of science.) Are there many conferences nearby? Are there funds available from national granting competitions and, if so, are those funds tied to citizenship or residency requirements? You should be wary of taking on considerable debt in order to finance graduate school for the simple reason that your salary afterwards, unlike those of your friends in law and medicine, will not be sufficiently large to pay off debt easily.
How much teaching do graduate students do, and how enjoyable and/or intellectually productive is that teaching? Are graduate students able to teach courses of their own at some point in the program, and, if so, how often does this actually happen? Are most Teaching Assistant (or equivalent) assignments in courses that are taught by faculty in the department? How often are students able to serve as Teaching Assistants for courses in their own areas of interest and/or specialization?
What do most people do for housing? Will the university help find housing, and does the housing office seem like it’s on the side of students? What sort of transportation is needed? Are there teaching or other employment opportunities outside the university? Does the department offer summer support? What do most graduate students do over the summer months? More generally, your life over the next several years is not just within the department but in the city or town in which the department is located. Students who are miserable, terrified, bored to death, unable to communicate effectively with the locals, and so on, do not generally do very well in graduate school. Without being overly precious, do give some thought to your compatibility with the places you are considering living. If there are social, cultural, athletic, or artistic activities that are important to you, find out what is available. What do graduate students do with their free time? What neighborhoods do they live in, and what neighborhoods do they wish they lived in? Are there significant safety issues around the campus or the city? Now is the time to ask.
A Final Thought
Finally, be sure to ask each graduate student you talk to what else she wishes she had asked someone when she was in your position!