Choosing a Philosophy Graduate Program: Advice to Australians

by Mark Colyvan

Introduction

There are competing pressures when choosing where to go to pursue a PhD in philosophy. You want a good philosophy program in a good university. And you want a program with recognised strength in your chosen area of research, and with a good, internationally-respected supervisor who is interested in your research topic. There are also personal pressures such as wanting a university in a good location, with a nice climate and somewhere that's not too expensive to live. Of course all these factors can push in different directions and none of the standard academic rankings does justice to all the pressures involved in selecting a graduate program.



Australia or Abroad?

For many Australians, the first issue is whether to stay in Australia or to go abroad. There was a time when all the best philosophy students were encouraged to go abroad for their graduate work. But things have changed quite a bit in the last 20 years or so. While the top few philosophy graduate programs are still outside Australia, the best Australian programs are not far behind, and the latter warrant serious consideration from even the best students.

According to the latest (2011) The Philosophical Gourmet Report, the best philosophy graduate programs in Australia are among the best in the world. ANU and Sydney are both in the top 50 programs in the English-speaking world (ANU equal 15th, Sydney equal 45th). Monash and Melbourne are not too far outside the top 50. In my view, The Philosophical Gourmet Report systematically under-rates the Australian universities, for reasons probably related to US parochialism. It is interesting to note that in previous reports (when the relevant data was published), the local (Australasian) assessors gave the top Australian universities considerably higher scores than the combined scores. For example, the most recent local scores would probably place ANU in the top 10 and Sydney in the top 30. I'm inclined to think that local scores are a better reflection of the standing of the Australian programs than the overall scores given by The Philosophical Gourmet Report. For a start, in the past locals seemed to pick up on recent changes and new hires, whereas there's quite a bit of inertia in the overall rankings.

In speciality areas the top Australian universities again rank among the best in the world. For example, The Philosophical Gourmet Report lists ANU as equal best in the English-speaking world in philosophy of mind and in philosophy of biology. Sydney is equal best in philosophy of biology. Australia's best philosophy programs are listed as having many other specialisations: Monash is listed as having 3 areas of recognised international specialisation, Melbourne has 4, Sydney has 10 (including philosophy of biology), and ANU has 14 (including the two listed above).

One nice feature of US graduate programs is the course work component of research degrees. The course work ensures that those coming through graduate programs know quite a bit about philosophy outside the narrow topic of their thesis. Having this course work under one's belt can also make the transition into teaching easier, because having done graduate-level courses on a topic makes teaching that same topic at undergraduate level relatively painless. There are things that Australian universities do to compensate for this. At the University of Sydney we have a course-work component to research degrees—not as extensive as the US universities, but better than nothing—and most places with a healthy research environment will have regular postgrad and staff reading groups. I'm of the view that serious postgrad students in the Australian system need to organise and actively participate in reading groups away from the topic of their thesis. They also need to regularly attend conferences (especially the annual Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference) and their departmental seminars. All this goes a considerable way towards closing the gap on the advantage resulting from the US coursework system.

So it is not really a question of Australia or abroad, but, rather, it is a question of which of the programs under consideration (both in Australia and abroad) that best meet your needs. If you are fortunate enough to be accepted into one of the top 10 programs in the world (all other things being equal) you would do well to pursue a PhD with the program in question, but it is not clear that you're better off in the US or the UK if you do not get into one of the top 10. And depending on your intended area of research, you could well be better off at one of the top Australian universities.

If you decide on a US program, you should familiarise your self with the application process and timeline. (See the links below for more information about applying to overseas programs.) Applications are usually due in December or January of each year. You typically hear whether you've been accepted around February or March and term usually starts in August. It is also worth noting that money isn't too much of a problem if your're accepted into a good US program: most offer student assistantships, which help pay the bills. (More information about the US application process can be found in the relevant link below.) Similar timelines apply to UK programs, although in some cases the deadline for applications may be a little earlier. In all cases, check the details of the application process and timeline with the institution in question. From here on, I will mostly focus on Australian programs.



Choosing an Australian Philosophy Graduate Program

There are several good philosophy graduate programs in Australia. Besides the top 4—ANU, Sydney, Melbourne, and Monash—there are others such as La Trobe, Macquarie, and Adelaide. Although the other Australian universities are perfectly respectable, they are not as strong or as internationally-respected as the top 6 or 7 (in my opinion, of course).

It is important to enrol in a program with recognised strength in your area of interest. To this extent, you need to look very carefully for evidence of strength. A university website claiming "excellence" in some area is not enough—many universities make all sorts of (sometimes outrageous) claims about their areas of research strength (often confusing undergraduate teaching capabilities with research strength). Look at who they have working in the areas in question and what these people publish. If their publications are not listed, wonder why. If they haven't published anything lately, wonder why. See if The Philosophical Gourmet Report agrees with the alleged research strengths. (Of course The Philosophical Gourmet Report is not the final word on such matters, but it does paint a fairly accurate picture of the international reputation of programs and their specialities.)

Make sure you have the latest information. Staff are much more mobile these days, so make sure that the place in question is not well thought of because of people who are no longer there. Recently one major Australian graduate program went tumbling out of the rankings as a result of several staff leaving. You should also talk to some of the current graduate students. In particular, talk to the current graduate students of your potential supervisor. And don't judge a program just by the "big names". Sure it's important to have some internationally-recognised people, but it is also important to have some younger staff around—especially young research-only staff, who will have time to talk and hang out with postgrads. So see whether the program you're interested in has any postdocs. This can also serve as an indication of the health of the program: the leading research programs are better at attracting research grants from which postdocs are hired. And such programs are often able to find funds for employing graduate students after they finish.

You should also look at graduate placements. The best graduate programs make this information freely available on their website. Make sure the information provided is complete (or at least that there has been a serious attempt at making it complete); selecting only the success stories is not terribly useful. A good placement record is an indication that the program produces high-quality graduates. It also suggests that the program makes some effort to groom their graduates for the job market and tries to place them in suitable academic positions. These things are very important. It is interesting to note where various Australian philosophers received their PhDs. A quick survey of the top 3 philosophy programs shows that of the current staff with Australian PhDs, the greatest number of them came from ANU, followed closely by Sydney and then Melbourne.



Choosing a Supervisor

Choosing a graduate program usually goes hand-in-hand with choosing a supervisor and much of the earlier advice carries over. Talk to your potential supervisor. Talk to his or her graduate students. Ask around and find out how active the person in question is as a researcher. You might even try to find out how long their students typically take to complete their theses. (Recall that in Australia, PhDs are supposed to be completed in 3–3.5 years.) Be wary of a potential supervisor who claims to have expertise in areas they have not published in: teaching undergraduate students in an area and supervising a PhD in an area are two very different things. You should also be flexible about your topic. Sometimes academics agree to supervise a topic that they don't have great expertise in because the student is so keen on the topic in question. This, in my view, is very often a mistake. It is much better to take advice about the topic from your supervisor. After all, a good supervisor will direct you towards a topic that is interesting, manageable, and is attracting contemporary attention. The latter is important for your employment prospects. Unfortunately, not all topics are created equal: some topics are thought to be more central and important than others. A PhD in what is seen as a peripheral area or on an idiosyncratic topic can be a big mistake. (I'm not suggesting that all philosophical research should be directed towards safe and fashionable areas, just that straying too far from such areas in your PhD can be a mistake. Do the esoteric stuff after you've got a job!)

Make sure your supervisor is someone you feel comfortable with. You don't have to become best friends (although often that does happen), but you will end up spending quite a bit of time with this person—at least you should end up spending quite a bit of time with them! For what it's worth, I think the supervisor–student relationship, when it clicks, is one of the most rewarding personal relationships you'll ever encounter. It's not all plain sailing, though. There will be occasional disagreements, regular criticism, and frequent paternalistic/maternalistic guidance. You'll officially be with your supervisor for only a few years, but there's a sense in which you carry each other around for the rest of your lives: you'll always be the student of your supervisor, and you'll always be the supervisor of your students. So choose your supervisor carefully, for supervisors are like parents, except this time you do get to choose.

Many universities encourage students to have a second supervisor or even an advisory committee. This is generally a good idea and in my experience works well, so long as there is one person who takes the prime responsibility for the student in question. You don't want to be in the situation where each supervisor does not give you much attention because they think that the other(s) is(are) taking care of you. You also need to make sure that the two supervisors don't try to pull you in different directions. This can be sorted out by getting everyone together early on so that the whole team has a good idea of where your research is supposed to be heading. But so long as you avoid such problems, having a supervisor and an associate supervisor means that you have two people looking out for you, reading your work, and giving you critical feedback.



Funding

While working on your PhD, you will occassionally need to eat, and if you are particularly fussy, you will want somewhere warm and dry to sleep. These and other luxuries require money. The first option for funding your research work is a PhD scholarship. There are two kinds: university scholarships and government scholarships (the latter are called "Australian Postgraduate Awards" or "APAs"). These offer a tax-free income of just under AUD 23,000 per year. They also come with a HECS scholarship (the waiving of tuition fees). You apply for these scholarships with the application for graduate admission at the particular university. You usually apply for both kinds of scholarship simultaneously and which you are awarded, if any, depends on where you are ranked in the list of candidates—the APAs usually go to the higher-ranked candidates. (These being a little more prestigious and are transferable to another institution, if the need arises after a year or so, whereas the university scholarships cannot be transferred.) Either kind of scholarship is very hard to secure—there are a small number of them and they are competed for across all disciplines at each university. You should thus apply for graduate entry and scholarship at more than one university. If all goes well, you may get more than one offer and get to choose the best. The applications for both scholarship and graduate entry in Australia are usually due in late October each year, and there is sometimes another mid-year round with a deadline around mid-June (although check the individual university rules for the exact dates). October, in particular, is a very busy time for honours students, so those doing honours need to get organised in advance. Talk to your honours supervisor or the department's honours coordinator about your options, and get in touch with the relevant graduate schools in advance.

The above scholarships are limited to Australian citizens, Australian permanent residents, and New Zealand citizens, for study in Australia. Foreign students wishing to pursue a research degree in Australia will need to apply for various foreign student scholarships. Some of these can be sought in your home country while others are Australia based. There is a link at the bottom of this page to where some of the Australia-based foreign student scholaships can be found.

There are also various "top-up" scholarships for working in priority areas or for working on specific projects. These are about AUD 7,000 on top of the usual scholarship and are not available to those without a scholarship. These top-ups are relatively rare in philosophy but there are a few around, so keep a look out for them. You should note that these top-ups almost always come with strings attached, such as requiring you to work on a particular topic or on a particular project, but if the topic or project in question is what you want to work on anyway, it's money for nothing. Similar to these are enhanced scholarships. These are scholarships that simply pay more than the usual APA and university scholarships. One example of these is the Vice-Chancellor's Research Scholarships at the University of Sydney. These are worth AUD 35,000 tax free and are awarded to the best applicants in the APA and University of Sydney scholarship pool (see the link below to the University of Sydney Postgraduate Scholarships page).

You might also ask whether you can expect to get some tutoring work during your candidature. While the pay for such work isn't great, it is nice to be paid for work relating to your study and for doing something you love. It's better than digging ditches. And, of course, getting some teaching experience is very important for your later job prospects.

Scholarships for graduate study overseas are also available. These too come in two main forms: the university scholarship, and various general scholarships. The former are fairly straight-forward in that you apply for a scholarship at the particular university. You will find all the relevant forms and information on the graduate-school website of the university in question. The other kind of scholarship are scattered all over the place. There are a lot of them but you need to hunt around on the web to see what's available. Some are very specific, for a specific kind of study, for a minority group or to study in a particular country. Others are more general. There's a link at the bottom of this page which will take you to some of these. I'll try to post further details when they come to hand.

The final option for funding is going it alone: doing a PhD without a scholarship. This is tough, but a lot of people manage it. It usually involves tutoring work for your department, part-time jobs outside the academy, or perhaps some private tutoring work. If you find yourself in this situation, you need to be careful that you leave sufficient time and energy for your research.

If none of the above suggestions works out, there's always the life of Diogenes: doing philosophy, living in a barrel and begging for food.

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Reasons to Give Serious Thought to Graduate Study in Philosophy at the University of Sydney

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Last updated: 16 March 2018 © Mark Colyvan 2007–2018

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