We offer both a PhD and a dual JD/MA in philosophy. However, the only degree for which we directly admit students is the PhD. Students who are already enrolled in the JD program at USC Gould School of Law may apply for admission into the joint JD/MA program upon completion of their first full year of law school. For more information on the JD/MA program, see here.
A PhD in philosophy offers students the highest form of training in rigorous thought and analytical writing, and guidance in the development of a productive, active research program, contributing to the advance of the field. Philosophy PhD students at USC also begin to practice and develop as teachers of philosophy and begin to develop the concrete skills that will come in handy in a career as a college or university professor of philosophy.
A philosophy PhD is not for everyone; success as a PhD student in philosophy requires talent and preparation, as well as a tremendous amount of hard work. Successful PhD students are independently motivated, set their own goals and are comfortable working with their own deadlines, and are comfortable working by themselves for significant stretches of time. They also have the patience and dedication to stick to their goals. Nationwide, the average time it takes to earn a PhD in a humanities field, including philosophy, is more than seven years. At USC, it currently takes most students between five and seven years to earn their degree.
And even once you have earned your degree, there is no guarantee that a job will be waiting for you – academic philosophy is a highly competitive field, with hundreds of applicants for every position. Still, USC PhD students have begun to do very well. In 2012-13, for example, our students were among the top five finalists for tenure-track positions at Johns Hopkins, MIT, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of St. Andrews, Carleton College, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Florida State University, the University of Missouri (two students), Texas Technological University, the University of South Carolina, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the College of Charleston, and Flagler University. So a USC PhD can provide preparation for even the most competitive positions.
Many PhD programs, including in philosophy, adopt a ‘sink or swim’ mentality. Students are expected to figure out how to be successful, and those who struggle are assumed not to "have what it takes." We try our best to adopt a different approach. We believe that it takes a large and rare combination of skills, talents, dispositions, and the luck of circumstance and timing for everything to go perfectly in a graduate student’s development. And many people of great talent can easily run into trouble in graduate school due only to a minor weakness, bad timing, or a distracting life event. Our goal is to help students realize their philosophical talent by keeping track of and addressing any weaknesses, and being as supportive of our students as we can, while guiding them in developing all of the auxiliary skills required for success in the profession.
There are three main stages of the PhD program in philosophy, which is described in more detail here. The first stage, the coursework stage, takes place mostly during the first two years. Students take between ten and fifteen graduate courses, with a few specific requirements and some general breadth requirements that can be satisfied in many different ways. The coursework stage of the program gives students an opportunity to explore their interests, shore up weaknesses, and begin to decide the focus of their further studies.
The second stage of the PhD program, the benchmarks stage, is a transition between coursework and the independent work that is involved with writing a dissertation. It involves three main program benchmarks that the student must pass between the fourth and sixth to eighth semesters. Beginning in the fourth semester, students turn in prepared papers representing their best work to be evaluated for the second year review. By the end of the sixth semester, students must take and pass an area exam establishing breadth of knowledge in the area of their intended dissertation research. The final benchmark is to pass the qualifying exam, which is required to take place by the end of the eighth semester, although we use incentives to encourage qualifying in the sixth or seventh semester.
The last and final stage of the PhD program is the dissertation. At this stage, most students still attend graduate seminars of interest to them and participate in reading groups, but their main job is to research and write their dissertation. A dissertation is simply an extended project which demonstrates the student’s ability to perform research at a level that makes a genuine contribution to the field.
Each week on Fridays, students who are working on their dissertations meet to present dissertation work-in-progress. The dissertation seminar gives students an opportunity to practice presenting their work in a semi-formal setting, the chance to get feedback from their peers, and a regular deadline to encourage progress.
We believe that it is an important part of the mission of our PhD program to prepare our students to be effective and reflective classroom teachers. When PhD students begin to TA, in the fall of their second year, they also register for Phil 593: Teaching Practicum in Philosophy. This 2-credit course is designed to support the efforts of our students both to serve our undergraduates in the classroom, and to develop their teaching skills for the future. We also have a program of peer and faculty classroom observations and feedback, and closely monitor student performance for opportunities for improvement. We firmly believe that our PhD graduates are well-prepared to be successful teachers in a variety of institutional and classroom settings.
All students are encouraged to begin presenting their work at conferences starting in the second year, and every year our students present at dozens of conferences, ranging from graduate conferences and regional professional conferences to competitive major international conferences. This helps our students network with other philosophers with similar interests, as well as develop and polish their skills in effectively presenting their research. It also helps develop the same skills that are important for successful publication, which pays off in the many articles our students are now publishing before they complete the degree or apply for jobs. Our students have recently published articles in Nous, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Philosophical Studies, Synthese, Analysis, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, Ratio, and many other journals and volumes.
The department placement committee works with students well in advance to give them the best preparation for all aspects of the process of the academic job search in philosophy. Further details of our placement program are available to enrolled students.