Plato's Academy - Mosaic at Pompei

Is studying philosophy beyond an undergraduate degree worth it?

I’m fortunate enough to be getting steady tutoring work in philosophy at my institution. In Australia, teaching isn’t tied to graduate funding the way it is elsewhere, so not everyone has the inclination to do it. One of the things I like about teaching is getting to know my students. Some students tend to just coast through, which is fine – they were curious and found philosophy isn’t for them. Others think it’s a good way of rounding out their arts degree, perhaps with an eye to studying something else later. Others still come into philosophy, find they love it, and in their surprise over this find they’re not sure what to do. Sometimes these students come to me for advice on whether they should pursue philosophy beyond their three-year undergraduate degree. Recently I’d had one of these sort of conversations with a few students, so I thought it’d be worth sharing in case any of my readers were also on the fence.

Before I go on, my advice is very Australia-centric, and I know the degrees are organised in different ways in various places. The advice I have to give is also quite idiosyncratic – I think you’ll probably get as many opinions as you have philosophy grad students in any given room. My hope is that some of these things apply more generally and will be useful to anyone still on the fence.

Honours

I’m unsure if there is an equivalent thing to this outside of the UK or Australian education system. Here, Honours is a 4th year added to your Bachelor’s degree, during which you write an extended thesis in the field of your major, along with some coursework. Usually it’s intended as a stepping stone towards postgraduate study, and in Australia it’s a requirement. I think this extra year is worth the effort, even if you don’t decide to study philosophy further. Firstly, it’s a taste of what real research is like – you do a lot of very focused work on a topic, you end up knowing more than your supervisor might, and it’s a great way to finish off your arts degree. From my experience doing honours in philosophy makes the whole degree worth much more – it polishes the writing, researching, and critical thinking skills you get through studying philosophy to a really high degree, and if that’s where your adventure ended, you’ll have gotten the most of the opportunities a BA can provide. Secondly, if you have doubts about whether you want to do more philosophy, honours will help you resolve them. It’s a really tough year – the amount of reading you have to absorb and understand is just huge, and it can be tremendously stressful, much like graduate school is. You’ll meet some awesome people though, and the classes you can take are way more fun then the undergrad classes. So I absolutely recommend it – it was my favourite part of my arts degree.

Masters

People are divided on this. In Australia, you typically only need honours to be able to do a PhD, and some people go that way, and they do very well. In the US and elsewhere, the MA is sometimes included as part of the PhD program. If you do just an MA, it’s sometimes called a “terminal master’s”. I did one, partly because my grades weren’t strong enough to get me a scholarship for a PhD, and partly because I didn’t feel ready. As for the grades, the MA is your make or break moment – you can do really well and then more easily get into a PhD program of your choice, or you can decide it’s ultimately not for you and finish your education at this point.

I did well, and tried applying in the US, but the competition there is ridiculous so I ended up staying at the same school I did my BA and MA. The thing I got out of the MA is that it gave me all of the skills and habits I need to do well in my PhD – I’ve been to a few conferences, I tried publishing some papers (still trying on those..), I have teaching experience, my writing is at a pretty high standard, etc. All of these will be things that you’ll need to do as a PhD student. So given that I knew I’d wanted to do a PhD, I think the MA was a very good choice.

PhD
I love philosophy, so I knew since before my honours year that this is where I wanted to be – and my end goal is working in academia (more on that later). I’ve been at it for a few months now, and so far it’s great – quite similar to the MA in many ways, but I’m much better at doing the work (experience helps) and the stakes are higher. The good thing about both the MA and PhD (and to a lesser degree Honours) is that you get to pick your topic. While you have more guidance with honours, and somewhat less with an MA, the PhD is all you. It’s super independent, and the best preparation is to start thinking early what you want to commit yourself to. I applied with a pretty well worked out proposal already in hand, and was able to hit the ground running. In general though, I think I shouldn’t say too much about whether it’s worth doing a PhD in philosophy yet – I’m only about 8 months into one.

Overall, I think there is a second part to this topic – one about job prospects after doing some postgraduate study in philosophy. I’ve had a non-academic job for about a year and a half between my MA and the start of my PhD. It left me feeling very positive about my options for non-academic work if that’s where I were to end up. It’s not a topic I’m ready to write about too much though, especially since there are lots of really good resources on the topic already. Either way though, I think studying philosophy beyond an undergraduate degree is pretty awesome, that is if you are so inclined, and if you have the sort of temperament to survive.