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Questions about these requirements? See the contact info at the bottom of the page. 

Program Overview 

The Department of Philosophy offers programs covering a wide range of fields in philosophy. The department’s graduate program is primarily a PhD program. In addition to the standard PhD in philosophy, the department offers a PhD in classical philosophy in collaboration with the Department of the Classics, a PhD in Indian philosophy in collaboration with the Department of South Asian Studies, and a joint JD/PhD program in conjunction with the Harvard Law School. Below you will find a list of the requirements for each program. The department does not admit applicants who wish to study only for the master’s (AM) degree. The AM may be taken as a step toward the PhD after a minimum of two terms in residence.

PhD in Philosophy 

Graduate Advising 

The department’s arrangement for advising students is structured to correspond to four stages of a student’s progress toward the PhD. These stages include the first year, the second-year paper, reading and research toward a dissertation topic, and work on the dissertation. 

  1. The director of graduate studies is assigned as an advisor to all first year students and continues to meet with all students at the beginning of each term and sign their study cards throughout their time in the program. Their advising role is particularly important during the coursework stage (generally through the second year) because they have principal responsibility for monitoring the student’s progress toward fulfilling the general requirements for the degree: the preliminary requirement and the distribution requirement. In addition, each first year student is assigned an informal faculty advisor.
  2. At the end of the first year, students should arrange with a member of the faculty to supervise the student’s second-year paper. That faculty member will be the student’s advisor during the second year. If necessary, the director of graduate studies is available to assist a student in finding a suitable faculty member. 
  3. At the beginning of the third year after the second paper is completed, a student arranges for a faculty member to be their advisor during the process of exploring areas for a possible dissertation and formulating a topic and a prospectus. This advisor may or may not be the same person as the second-year paper advisor. Normally, a student will continue with this advisor until the topical examination, but change is possible by arrangement among the parties involved. 
  4. When a prospectus is well along, the student should discuss the formation of a dissertation committee with the advisor, the director of graduate studies, and possible committee members. Ordinarily, this committee has three members, two of whom must be Harvard faculty as members; however, the committee may consist of only two members at the time of the topical examination.  Committees may have a fourth member, who may be, with permission of the DGS, a faculty member in another Harvard department or at another institution. This committee conducts the topical examination and after a successful topical will continue supervising the student’s work on the dissertation. Normally, it conducts the dissertation defense when the dissertation is completed. 
  5. During work on the dissertation, change is possible by arrangement with the parties involved and with the approval of the director of graduate studies. At this stage, one member of the committee will be designated as the student’s advisor. The significance of this will vary as the supervision of dissertations is more collective in philosophy, for example, than in many other fields. In some cases, the advisor will be the principal supervisor; in other cases, the role of the committee members will be close to equal and the choice of one advisor is a matter of convenience. 

Preliminary Requirement 

Candidates must pass at least 12 approved philosophy courses or seminars. Ordinarily, these courses are completed during the first four terms in the department. Courses numbered 301 or above do not count toward this preliminary requirement, save that the two required terms of Philosophy 300, the First Year Colloquium, may be counted as two of the 12. Independent Studies (Philosophy 305) may also be used to satisfy distribution requirements but not the preliminary requirement with the prior approval of the DGS. For a letter-graded philosophy course to be considered satisfactory, the candidate’s grade in the course must be B or higher. The average grade for all letter-graded philosophy courses taken during the candidate’s time in the program must be at least B+. 

Courses taken to meet the preliminary requirement must be approved in advance by the department’s director of graduate studies. Students must take and complete Philosophy 300a plus two letter-graded courses or seminars during their first term, and Philosophy 300b plus three letter-graded courses or seminars more in their second term, thus completing five letter-graded courses during the first two terms of residence. 

These courses, like the rest of the 12, should be among those designated “For Undergraduates and Graduates” or “Primarily for Graduates” in the course catalog. At least 10 of the courses must be taught by members of the Department of Philosophy (including visiting and emeritus members). This requirement can be modified for students specializing in Classical or Indian Philosophy. 

All graduate students must complete two terms of the Pedagogy seminar, Philosophy 315hf. Normally this is done during a student's third year in the program, when students begin functioning as teaching fellows. Exceptions to taking 315hf in the third year must be approved in advance by the DGS. 

Students who have done graduate work elsewhere may petition the DGS to obtain credit for up to three courses, which may be counted toward the preliminary requirement. If they are in philosophy (as would normally be the case), such courses will be regarded as equivalent to those taught by members of the department. 

Distribution Requirement 

This requirement, which is intended to ensure a broad background in philosophy is met by completing eight distribution units of work ordinarily before the beginning of the fourth year of graduate study. A distribution unit may be fulfilled (i) by completing an approved course or seminar (which may also be counted toward the preliminary requirement) or (ii) by writing a paper under the guidance of a faculty member, with the approval of the director of graduate studies. In the latter case, the work does not count toward the preliminary requirement. 

The units are to be distributed as follows: 

  1. Contemporary Theoretical Philosophy: Three units in core areas of twentieth- and twenty-first century metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, and the like.
  2. Practical Philosophy: Two units in contemporary or historical ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and the like.
  3. History of Philosophy: The distribution requirement in history is intended to assure that students have knowledge of the philosophical tradition out of which contemporary Anglo-American philosophy has grown, as well as an ability to work though texts whose philosophical presuppositions are different enough from those of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy that careful historical and philosophical analysis is required to bring them to light. 

Three sorts of courses satisfy the requirement: 
A. Courses in ancient Greek, Roman, or medieval philosophy. 
B. Courses in early modern European philosophy up to and including Kant. 
C. Courses on the foundations of philosophical traditions other than contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. These might include courses on traditional South Asian or East Asian philosophy, nineteenth-century Continental European philosophy, early twentieth-century work of Heidegger, and so on. 
A student must take three history courses to satisfy the requirement; at most one of these may be in practical philosophy. Except in the most extraordinary circumstances (and with the approval of the DGS), at least one of these courses must be of category A and at least one must be of category B. Students should verify (with the DGS) in advance of taking a course to satisfy the requirement that the course will in fact satisfy it. 

The first-year colloquium (Philosophy 300a and 300b) may not be used to fulfill any part of the distribution requirement. Philosophy 299hf, the second-year paper, may be used to fulfill a distribution requirement. 

Logic Requirement 

Candidates for the PhD are expected to have mastered the fundamentals of logic and to have an understanding of the elements of logic’s metatheory. Normally, this requirement is satisfied by successfully completing one of the department’s 100-level courses in logic: 140 (Introduction to Mathematical Logic), 144 (Logic and Philosophy), or 145 (Modal Logic). It can also be satisfied by taking an appropriate mathematics course (for example, Mathematics 143, 144a, or 145b). The requirement may also be satisfied by an examination set by the DGS in consultation with appropriate department members or by serving as a TF in a department logic course. 

Second-Year Paper 

Students are required at the end of their second year in residence to submit a paper the length of which is between 7,500 and 12,000 words including footnotes. 

The expectation is not that the second-year paper should constitute a kind of masters's thesis; a better model is that of a journal article: i.e., an essay that sets out a focused philosophical problem, articulates its significance, and makes a significant contribution rather than a mere intervention. Given this goal, the second-year paper may, under no circumstances, be over 12,000 words, and generally will be significantly shorter. Students must annotate the paper with an accurate word count. 

By the end of the first year, students need to have a faculty advisor who will supervise the second-year paper. Together, the advisor and advisee will write a plan of study for the summer and the first term of the second year and submit it to the DGS. This plan of study will specify a schedule for submitting work and receiving feedback and will also specify a benchmark to be met before the beginning of the second term. 

A preliminary draft of the second-year paper is to be submitted by the end of the spring vacation of the second term, and a final draft is due by June 1. Under extraordinary circumstances and with the written approval of both advisor and the DGS, the final version of the paper may be submitted after June 1, but no later than August 1.

Once the second-year paper is submitted to the advisor, the advisor forwards the paper to the DGS, who selects a faculty member to act as the paper’s reader. The author, advisor, and reader meet in a timely manner to discuss the paper, after which the examiner in consultation with the advisor awards the paper a grade. This grade will be recorded as the student’s grade for their two terms of 299hf. 

Ordinarily, a student is not allowed to participate in a dissertation workshop until they have submitted their second-year paper. 

The Third Year

In a successful third year, graduate students do two things: they acquire pedagogical skills and confidence as teachers; they make enough progress on isolating a dissertation topic that they are able, at the end of that year or by the end of the first term of the fourth year, to write a prospectus and have a successful topical exam. 

Normally, at the end of a student's second year, the student's 2YP advisor and the DGS consult and then assign a pre-prospective advisor to the student. The pre-prospectus advisor need not, and often will not, be someone who specializes in the area in which a student expects to write a dissertation. Rather, the advisor is someone with whom the student is comfortable discussing philosophy and who can advise about directions of research. In many cases the pre-prospectus advisor may be the 2YP advisor since the student has formed a working relationship with that faculty member. 

The student and pre-prospectus advisor should meet before the end of spring exams. The meeting's purpose is to discuss the student's general area(s) of interest for a dissertation and, if the student is ready, to devise a tentative list of articles or books that the student will read and reflect on over the next 12 months. 

Third year students meet with their pre-prospectus advisor in the first days of the fall term. The aim of this meeting is to give the student a manageable set of concrete tasks to complete toward settling on a prospectus topic. In this meeting, advisor and student should decide on: a collection of at least six articles or book chapters to discuss at meetings; a schedule for meetings during the fall (the norm being a meeting roughly every two weeks); and the written work the student commits to doing in advance of each meeting. This work need not be elaborate—it might, for example, be a few pages of critical summary and discussion of the reading for the meeting. 

Until a successful defense of a prospectus, students register to that section of Philosophy 333 associated with their pre-prospectus advisor. 

The norm is that in the fall term of year three, students do research in the area in which they expect to write so that they can fashion a fairly specific topic for the prospectus; spring term is then devoted to writing a prospectus. 

Students normally aim at having a prospectus and a topical before the beginning of classes in the fourth year; the expectation is that students have done a topical by the end of the first term of their fourth year. 

Students who have completed their second-year paper are required to enroll each term in one of the two dissertation workshops: Philosophy 311, Workshop in Moral and Political Philosophy, or Philosophy 312, Workshop in Metaphysics and Epistemology.  In an academic year in which a student is actively seeking post PhD employment, they are not required to enroll in a workshop.   

This is a requirement for the PhD; it is only in unusual personal circumstances that students may fail to enroll in a workshop.  Permission not to enroll in a workshop must be granted by the director of graduate studies.

G-3s are not  required to present more than once a year in a workshop, and it is understood that their presentations may consist of such things as (constrained) literature reviews, overviews of the particular area in a sub-discipline, or drafts or presentations of a prospectus. 

Prospectus and Topical Examination

When the prospectus is complete, a candidate must pass an oral topical examination on the prospectus. The examining committee consists of at least two Philosophy Department faculty members. If the topical examination is not passed, it must be taken again and passed by the beginning of the winter recess in the year immediately following. Ordinarily, students have a successful topical by the end of their fourth year in the program.  

Requirements for a prospectus are set by a student's dissertation committee and may vary with committee membership. That said, in many cases a good default model for a prospectus will simply be a list of clear, straightforward answers to the following five questions: (1) What question(s) do you intend your dissertation to answer? (2) Why do you consider these questions to be important? (3) What is a good summary of what you consider to be the most important contributions to these questions in the literature? (4) Why, in your view, do these contributions leave more work to be done? (5) What is your tentative plan of attack (including a list of sources you anticipate using)? Think of your answers to these questions as building a case for why your dissertation project needs to be done, along with a sketch of how you plan to do it. Finally, limit  your paper length to about 5,000 words.  

Although called an examination, a topical (which is approximately 90 minutes in length) is in fact a conference on the dissertation topic, not an occasion on which the candidate is expected to produce a complete outline of arguments and conclusions. The conference is intended to determine the acceptability of the topic on which the candidate wishes to write a dissertation, the candidate’s fitness to undertake such a dissertation, and the candidate’s command of relevant issues in related areas of philosophy. A dissertation on the proposed topic may be submitted only if the topical examination is passed.  

Application to take the topical examination must be made to the director of graduate studies at least two weeks in advance. At the same time, the candidate must submit copies of a dissertation prospectus to the director of graduate studies and members of the student’s prospective committee.  

Financial Support, Travel and Research Funding, and Teaching 

Financial Support 

Beyond tuition remission, PhD students normally receive the following financial support from the Graduate School. 

  • A full stipend for their first two years. During this period, students do not teach. 
  • A full stipend for their third and fourth year. During this period, students are teaching fellows; the normal load for a teaching fellow is two sections a term. 
  • A student who announces their intention to complete a dissertation in an academic year is normally awarded a Dissertation Completion Fellowship by the Graduate School, which includes a full stipend for that academic year. 

In addition, various University fellowships (for example: Term Time and Merit Fellowships, Fellowships at the Safra Center) are available on a competitive basis. 

The department makes funds for professional development available to graduate students.

For details see: Funding | Department of Philosophy (

Dissertation and Dissertation Defense  

Once the topical exam is passed, the examining committee (which must consist of at least two faculty members of the Philosophy Department) normally becomes the dissertation advisory committee.  One member of the committee is the dissertation’s primary advisor (a.k.a. the dissertation director).  It is expected that a student will have a committee of at least three members within a few months of the defense; the committee must have three members at the time of the defense.  It is possible, with the approval of the primary advisor and the DGS, to add a faculty member from another institution.  Ordinarily, a dissertation committee has no more than four members; larger committees must be approved by primary advisor and the DGS. 

The primary advisor has primary responsibility for supervision for the dissertation.  The norm is that the student and the dissertation committee set out in advance how often the student will meet with and receive feedback from advisors.  The expectation is that the committee and the student will meet as a body once a term to discuss progress on the dissertation. 

At least three months before a final defense of the dissertation can be scheduled, the candidate must submit a draft of the dissertation or at least a substantial part of it to the committee.  Until this is done, a defense of the dissertation cannot be scheduled.  Assuming the committee approves scheduling a defense, the candidate completes a draft and circulates it to the committee. While it is a matter for the committee and the candidate to decide, the expectation is that the complete draft of the dissertation, which will be defended will be circulated to the committee at least three weeks before the date of the defense.  

Dissertation defenses are public and may be attended by department members and other interested parties. They are normally two hours in length and begin with a brief summary by the candidate of what the candidate has accomplished in the dissertation, followed by a conversation between the candidate and the committee. The purpose of this conversation is not so much to test the range and detail of the candidate’s knowledge as to judge the candidate’s skill in presenting and discussing matters considered in the dissertation as well as the candidate’s ability to meet friendly but searching criticism. 

PhD in Classical Philosophy 

The departments of the Classics and Philosophy collaborate in an interdisciplinary PhD program in classical philosophy for students registered in either department. Candidates whose major field is philosophy are expected to take the proseminar for graduate students in the classics, as well as attend seminars or other courses in classics relevant to their interests. With the approval of the director of graduate studies, students in the classical philosophy program may be permitted to count an appropriate course in ancient philosophy toward the distribution requirement in metaphysics and epistemology and one (in addition to the one already required) toward the requirement in history of philosophy. 

Language requirements:

Candidates who plan to write a dissertation in Classical Philosophy are expected to have learned at least one of the classical languages (Greek or Latin) before they are admitted. Depending upon the level of fluency they have reached before entering the program, they may be asked to take additional language or reading courses. If they have not previously studied the second language, they will be required to reach the level of one year of college coursework. This can be done either by taking courses or by passing a language examination. In addition, candidates will be expected to have acquired a reading knowledge of German sufficient for reading scholarly literature and to pass a departmental examination on a suitably chosen text. The rules and procedures for the dissertation will, in general, be those established for candidates in philosophy. 

PhD in Indian Philosophy 

The departments of Philosophy and South Asian Studies collaborate in an interdisciplinary PhD program in Indian philosophy for students registered in either department. Candidates whose major field is philosophy are expected to take advanced language courses in South Asian studies and pass AM qualifying examinations. Candidates whose major field is South Asian studies are expected to fulfill the requirements of students in philosophy, including distribution and logic requirements. With the approval of the director of graduate studies, students in Indian philosophy may be permitted to count appropriate course in advanced Sanskrit or Tibetan toward the distribution requirement in metaphysics or epistemology and one toward the requirement in history of philosophy.

Language Requirements:

Candidates who plan to write a dissertation in Indian Philosophy are expected to have learned at least one of the relevant classical languages (Sanskrit or Tibetan) before they are admitted to the program. Depending upon the level of fluency they have reached before entering the program, they may be asked to take additional language or reading courses. In addition, candidates will be expected to satisfy the specific language requirements of their home department. The rules and procedures for the dissertation will, in general, be those established for candidates in philosophy. 

For more information please see the PhD in Indian Philosophy section

JD/PhD in Philosophy and Law 

A coordinated JD/PhD in Philosophy and Law is available. Students wishing to obtain the coordinated degrees must be admitted separately to both programs. Students admitted for the coordinated degrees must begin either with the first full year of law school or the first two years of philosophy; after that they may alternate terms as they choose. The program in Law may be completed in five terms. The requirements for philosophy are the same as for regular philosophy graduate students. For more information please see the JD/PhD Coordinated Program section

The Master of Arts (AM) in Philosophy 

The department does not admit students for degrees other than the PhD. Students who have been admitted for the PhD and who have completed all course requirements for the degree may apply to be awarded an AM in Philosophy. 

Harvard PhD students from programs (such as African and African-American Studies), which require PhD students to take courses required for an AM in another program, are not required to take the first year colloquium required of Philosophy PhDs. (Students from these programs who wish to the take the colloquium must consult with the DGS.) Students from these programs who have completed 10 philosophy courses, which satisfy the course requirements for a PhD and who have satisfied the distribution requirements for the PhD, may apply to be awarded an AM in Philosophy. 

A student who is pursuing an ad hoc degree administered in part by the Philosophy Department may petition to receive a master of arts degree in philosophy.  To receive this degree, the student must have taken a total of 10 courses in philosophy at the level of 100 or higher. At least two of these courses must satisfy the graduate distribution requirement in metaphysics and epistemology; two must satisfy the practical philosophy distribution requirement; two the history distribution requirement; and one must be a logic course.   All must be passed with a grade of B or better.  Students may receive this degree only when the department has voted to support their petition.   

Secondary Field in Philosophy 

Much work in philosophy speaks directly to one or more disciplines that have Harvard PhD programs —literature, physics, statistics, science, mathematics, linguistics, and economics, to name a few. A secondary field in philosophy gives students from other disciplines an opportunity to step back and look at the big picture in their discipline, putting students from discipline X in a position to do "philosophy of X" as part of doing X, thereby helping them both to understand their field more deeply and to open a path to developing it in innovative ways. 

Graduate students may apply to the Philosophy Department to do a secondary field after their first term as a graduate student at Harvard. Secondary field students normally begin the secondary field in the second or third semester at Harvard, normally taking one or two courses a term until they have completed the secondary field requirements. 

Applicants should contact the philosophy DGS before applying to do a secondary field in philosophy. Applications must include a brief statement explaining what the applicant hopes to achieve with the secondary field, including a brief summary of the applicant's background in philosophy; a copy of the undergraduate transcript (this can be a copy sent from the student's home department at Harvard); and a brief letter from a Harvard faculty member of the student's home department discussing how a secondary field in philosophy would contribute to the student's work in the home department. 

To complete a secondary field in philosophy, a student completes four courses in philosophy at the 100 level or higher with a grade of B+ or better. One course must be in the area of one of the department's PhD distribution requirements: moral and political philosophy; metaphysics and epistemology; logic; history of philosophy. A second course must be in another of these areas. At least one course must be a graduate seminar. In principle, an independent study with a member of the department may be used to complete the secondary field. A capstone project is not required. Courses are counted toward satisfying the secondary field requirements only when approved to do so by the philosophy DGS. 

A student completing a secondary field in philosophy is assigned an advisor from the Philosophy Department, normally the DGS. 

Contact Info 

Philosophy Website

Director of Graduate Studies
Department of Philosophy
Emerson Hall
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA 02138

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