The program of studies leading to the doctorate in philosophy provides subjects and seminars in such traditional areas as logic, ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, aesthetics, social and political philosophy, and history of philosophy. Interest in philosophical problems arising from other disciplines, such as linguistics, psychology, mathematics and physics, is also encouraged.
Before beginning dissertation research, students are required to take two years of coursework, including a proseminar in contemporary philosophy that all students must complete in their first year of graduate study. Students are also required to pass general examinations and demonstrate competence in the following areas: value theory, logic and the history of philosophy.
Interdisciplinary study is encouraged, and candidates for the doctorate may take a minor in a field other than philosophy. There is no general language requirement for the doctorate, except in those cases in which competence in one or more foreign language is needed to carry on research for the dissertation.
Below is a detailed description of the philosophy Ph.D. program. For information about applying, see our admissions page; we have also compiled data on placement, retention, and average completion times.
1. Your Advisor
When you join the Department you will be assigned a faculty advisor who will supervise your course of study. Your advisor must approve your program at the beginning of each term, and you should keep them abreast of your progress and problems. When forming a Fifth Term Paper committee the chair of your committee becomes your advisor. Similarly, when you form a dissertation committee.
Your teachers will write comments on your performance in subjects which you complete. These comments will be placed in your file in the Department office (your file is open to you), and they will be discussed at a meeting of the faculty at the end of each term. You should see your advisor at the end of each term to review your progress.
You may change your advisor at any time. Similarly you may change the composition of your fifth year paper and dissertation committees, as well as adjust the topics of those projects. To make a change first ask the relevant faculty if they are willing, then notify the Chair of the Committee on Graduate Students (COGS).
The current composition of COGS is: Brad Skow (Chief Cog), Alex Byrne, and Justin Khoo. There is a separate committee, the Committee on Department Life (CODL), dealing with the departmental weather/climate. CODL consists of Kieran Setiya (Chief Codler), the Chief Cog, and three graduate students.
2.1 Overall Course Requirements
Students must pass (with a grade of C or higher) at least 10 graduate subjects in philosophy (unless you earn a minor, in which case see section 4 below). At least 7 must be subjects at MIT.
Students may petition COGS to use undergraduate subjects at MIT to satisfy the overall course requirement (except: in the case of an undergraduate logic subject more advanced than 24.241, no petition is needed).
Students must take at least 2 subjects in philosophy at MIT during each term of their first year, and at least 1 subject in philosophy at MIT during each term of their second year. Normally, students take 4 subjects during their second year.
2.2 Teaching Requirement
All graduate students must acquire some teaching experience. This requirement is normally satisfied by serving as a Teaching Assistant in an undergraduate subject in philosophy at MIT.
2.3 Logic Requirement
The Department has a standing committee which is charged with administering the logic requirement; the requirement may be satisfied in one of the following ways:
(a) by auditing Logic I and completing the work (Logic I may not be taken for graduate credit);
(b) by successfully completing a logic assessment set by the committee;
(c) by successfully completing an alternative or more advanced subject in logic at MIT (for example, modal logic or Logic II) approved by the committee.
(d) by being exempted from the requirement by COGS. Such exemption does not affect the overall course requirements (2.1 above).
The level of knowledge of logic expected for exemption, or tested on the examination, is what is covered in Logic I at MIT: proof procedure and semantics for first-order predicate logic with identity, and some acquaintance with standard metalogical results (for example, those concerning completeness, incompleteness and decidability).
Students are normally expected to satisfy the logic requirement by the beginning of their second year.
2.4 Distribution Requirement
All first-year students are required to complete the two-semester sequence 24.400-24.401, Proseminar in Philosophy. The first semester is an intensive seminar on the foundations of analytic philosophy from Frege to roughly 1960. The second semester is an intensive seminar on highlights of analytic philosophy from roughly 1960 to the present. The two-semester sequence counts as two subjects.
2.4.2 History of Philosophy
Students must complete two graduate subjects in the history of philosophy. For the purposes of this requirement, the history of philosophy means philosophers or philosophical schools that flourished before 1879.
A subject that spends a substantial part of, but not all of, its time on history counts toward this requirement provided the student’s term paper focuses on the history part. If there is doubt about whether a subject qualifies, consult COGS.
History subjects designed for a mixture of graduate and undergraduate students, like 100-level courses at Harvard, also count.
COGS permission is required in order to satisfy this requirement by taking two subjects on the same philosopher. (COGS will likely reject using two subjects on Descartes’ Meditations to fulfill the history requirement; COGS will likely approve using two subjects on Kant, one focused on ethics, the other on metaphysics and epistemology.)
Students wishing to fulfill this requirement by some other means should contact COGS.
2.4.3 Value Theory
Students must complete one graduate subject in ethics or political philosophy or aesthetics.
Students wishing to fulfill this requirement by some other means should contact COGS.
2.5 Fifth Term Paper Requirement
By the end of a student’s third term (usually fall of the second year) the student should select a paper topic for their Fifth Term Paper and form a committee to advise them on their work. The committee will consist of two faculty members (a supervisor and a second reader). The proposed topic and names of committee members should be submitted to COGS before the end-of-term meeting.
During the student’s fourth term, the student, in consultation with the committee, should assemble a reading list on the chosen topic. As a guideline, the reading list might consist of roughly twenty papers or the equivalent; the faculty recognizes that lengths of lists will vary. The final list must be approved by the committee and submitted to COGS by the end-of-term meeting.
During the fifth term, the student will write a polished paper on the chosen topic, roughly 25 pages long, in consultation with their committee. After submitting a final version of the paper that the committee deems satisfactory, the student will sit for an oral examination with the committee on both the paper and, more generally, the paper’s topic, as defined by the reading list.
Students must pass the oral exam by the end-of-term meeting of their fifth term. Satisfying these requirements constitute passing the written and oral general examination requirements imposed by MIT’s Graduate School.
A student may petition COGS to waive a requirement in light of their special circumstances.
3. Independent Studies
While in the normal case a student’s 10 graduate subjects will be seminars, students may also take an independent study with a faculty member. Students wishing to register for 24.891 or 24.892 must obtain permission from the Chief COG. After talking with the faculty member they wish to supervise their independent study, the student should write a proposal describing how often they will meet, how long the meetings will last, a tentative list of readings, and the amount of writing they will do. The Chief COG will approve an independent study only if the amount of work proposed equals or exceeds the usual amount of work in a seminar.
Students can minor in a field outside philosophy of their choosing (for example, linguistics, psychology, science technology and society, physics, feminist theory…). To earn a minor in field X a student must (i) pass 3 graduate subjects in field X, (ii) pass one graduate philosophy subject on a topic related to field X, and (iii) obtain COGS approval. (It is best to seek approval before all 4 subjects have been taken.) A student may receive no more than two minors; in the case of two minors, a single philosophy subject may (in rare cases) be used to satisfy clause (ii) for both minors.
Students who earn a minor need only pass 8, rather than 10, graduate philosophy subjects (7 must be taken at MIT). The subject used to satisfy (ii) counts as one of these 8.
Our faculty uses pluses and minuses, but the grades on your official transcript will be straight letter grades. Here are the meanings that MIT assigns to the grades:
A Exceptionally good performance, demonstrating a superior understanding of the subject matter, a foundation of extensive knowledge, and a skillful use of concepts and/or materials.
B Good performance, demonstrating capacity to use the appropriate concepts, a good understanding of the subject matter, and an ability to handle the problems and material encountered in the subject.
C Adequate performance, demonstrating an adequate understandingof the subject matter, an ability to handle relatively simpleproblems, and adequate preparation for moving on to more advanced work in the field.
D Minimally acceptable performance.
When the faculty determines the status of a student in the program, it does so on the basis of a review of the student’s total performance, which includes weighing the strengths and weaknesses of the student’s whole record. Thus it is in principle possible to redeem a weakness in one area by excellence in others.
An Incomplete (a grade of I) indicates that a minor part of the subject requirements has not been fulfilled and that a passing grade is to be expected when the work is completed. The grade I for the term remains permanently on the student’s record even when the subject is completed. In subjects in which the major work is a term paper, students may earn an I for the subject only if they submit a draft to the instructor(s) by midnight on the day before the end of term meeting. If a student does not hand in a draft by midnight on the day before the end of term meeting, the instructor is required to give the student an F. (The end of term meeting is shortly after the beginning of exam week.)
Any uncompleted incompletes on registration day of the following term will be converted to an F.
6. Ph.D. Thesis
A student is normally not allowed to begin work on a Ph.D. thesis until they have completed all of the requirements listed above. Students must complete all of those requirements by the end of their fifth term; exceptions will be made only after petition to COGS.
Once a student has completed the requirements listed above, there is the option of taking a terminal Master’s Degree instead of the Ph.D. This requires completing a Master’s thesis — students should consult COGS for more details.
The Ph.D. thesis is a substantial piece of original and independent research that displays mastery of an area of philosophy. A student may plan to write a sustained piece of work on one topic; they may instead plan to write three or more papers on connected topics. By the second month of the student’s sixth term they will submit to COGS a short (three to five pages) description of the projected thesis.
When the plan is approved, COGS will appoint a thesis committee consisting of a thesis supervisor and two additional readers, who shall be members of the philosophy faculty chosen by the student and willing to undertake the responsibility. The student will then meet with the members of the thesis committee for discussion of the material to be dealt with in the thesis. COGS approval is required if the student wants to include a non-MIT professor, or an MIT professor who is not on the philosophy faculty, on the committee. COGS approval is also required for a committee whose members include fewer than two MIT philosophy faculty (and this will be approved only in exceptional circumstances).
The student will meet regularly with their thesis supervisor throughout the writing of the thesis, and will provide all members of the thesis committee with written work by the end of each term. This requirement holds for nonresident as well as resident students.
The following rules govern completion of the thesis.
6.1 Final Term
The student will meet with their thesis committee during the first week of the term to assess the feasibility of completing the thesis during that term. The student and the committee will agree on a schedule of dates for meeting the following requirements; a copy of the schedule should be given to COGS.
6.1.1 MIT Deadline
MIT requires that the completed thesis be delivered to the Department office by a date set by the Registrar for all Departments. (Early in January for February degrees, early in May for June degrees.) The Department regards this requirement as met by delivery to the thesis committee by that date of what the student regards as the final draft of their thesis.
6.1.2 Private Defense
The student will meet privately with their thesis committee to defend the thesis and to discuss any needed revisions. This meeting will be deemed to be part of the thesis defense.
The private defense must be scheduled for a date which will leave time for the student to make revisions before satisfying requirement 5.1.3; the committee may wish to schedule the private defense before the MIT deadline.
6.1.3 Delivery of Thesis to Department Office
One week before the public defense, the student must place one copy of the revised version in the Department office for examination by members of the Department. At this time, a copy of the abstract should be given to the Academic Administrator for distribution when announcing the public defense to the Department.
6.1.4 Public Defense
The public defense is open to all members of the Department and their guests; it is chaired by the thesis supervisor, and normally runs for an hour, starting with a twenty-minute presentation by the student of the main results of the thesis. The public defense is the one occasion on which the entire Department has an opportunity to learn about and participate in the student’s work, and is a central part of the Ph.D. program.
The public defense is deemed to be the final part of the thesis defense. The decision whether to recommend award of the Ph.D. degree is made by majority vote of the philosophy faculty members in attendance at it.
The public defense must be scheduled for a date which will leave time for the student to make any needed revisions, and for the thesis supervisor to confirm that the revisions have been made, before satisfying requirement 5.1.5.
6.1.5 Final Library Copy
The final library copy, signed by the student, the thesis supervisor, and the Chairman of COGS, must be given to the Departmental representative to MIT’s Committee on Graduate School Policy (CGSP) by the day before that committee’s end-of-term meeting at which it approves the final degree list.
6.2 September Degrees
Students who will be unable to complete their theses during the spring term may wish to petition COGS for consideration for award of the degree in September. Such petitions will be granted on condition that an appropriate thesis committee can be constituted to work with the student during the summer. A schedule analogous to that described under 5.1 — including the scheduling of private and public defenses — must be given to COGS by the end of the spring term. The final, signed, library copy of the thesis must be given to the Departmental representative to CGSP by the day before that committee’s September meeting at which it approves the September degree list.
7. Policies on Satisfactory Progress and Good Standing
7.1. Satisfactory Progress
Where a graduate student is not making satisfactory progress towards the completion of the PhD, the faculty will discuss the matter at an end of term of meeting. (If any of the student’s advisors are not present, they will be consulted before any action is taken.) If the faculty conclude – on the basis of the work the student has produced, or failed to produce, so far, and the progress it represents – that there are serious doubts about the student’s prospects of completing the PhD, which includes writing a thesis that meets the conditions in section 6, the student will be issued a written notice that they are at risk of receiving an official warning from the Vice Chancellor. The notice will explain how the student’s progress is unsatisfactory, what the student should accomplish in the following semester in order to avoid an official warning, and what steps the faculty will take to help the student accomplish these things. If a student fails to meet the conditions of the notice by the end of the following semester, as determined by the faculty, the student will receive an official warning from the Vice Chancellor. This warning will explain why the student’s progress continues to be unsatisfactory, what the student should accomplish in the following semester in order to continue in the program, and what steps the faculty will take to help the student accomplish these things. If the student is in a position to receive a terminal Master’s Degree, the conditions for doing so will be detailed. If the student fails to meet the conditions of the warning by the end of the semester, as determined by the faculty, the student will be denied permission to continue in the program.
7.2. Good Standing
A student is in good standing so long as they have not fallen behind on any deadline mentioned in this document. The most salient of these is the deadline for the 5th term paper.
If a student is not in good standing, they will be unable to use their travel funds, and will be unable to get a letter from the chair saying that they are in good standing. These are the only consequences of failing to be in good standing.
Failing to be in good standing is neither necessary nor sufficient for failing to make satisfactory progress in the program.