From Math to Philosophy

Every once in a while, I get asked by students with a background in math (usually with an interest in logic) what they should do if they want to get into grad school in philosophy. I know there’s quite a number of accomplished philosophers who started out as math majors and then went on to top PhD programs in philosophy–but I don’t know what they did to get in. It may well be that you can take one upper-level logic course at MIT and get a letter from one of the philosophy profs there that’ll get you into a top philosophy PhD program. But if you’re not a math major at a top US school, how much philosophy should you have taken, and what kinds of courses, to stand a chance? How many letters from philosophy profs would it take? How technical can your writing sample be? And what if you’re in some other discipline (CS, physics, psych, etc) and you want to switch to a philosophy graduate program?

6 thoughts on “From Math to Philosophy

  1. I think if one wants to switch subjects – no matter what they are – one should have a solid background in the new one. For the PhD program, I guess one should be aware of what one wants to do for the dissertation and why particular departments or supervisors would suit to accompany this project.Personally, I do not think that one needs a full record of completed courses. A solid background, even if it is acquired by private reading, should be enough.I do not think that having done only math with no idea of philosophy at all enables one to start a PhD in the latter. Posted by Popscherl

  2. The answer is simple: come to UC, Irvine. If you are good enough, we’ll take you, no matter how much (or how little) philosophy you have. We can teach you all the philosophy you need. Posted by Aldo Antonelli

  3. When asked, “what is hard”, Thales is said to have responded, “to know thyself”. When then asked, “what is easy”, he replied, “to advise others”.The former answer is something no institution can provide, nor authorize. And the latter is promised by everyone (and their second cousin’s charm school to boot… ). So is the real question actually about philosophy? Or degrees? Or what? In fact, this post has motivated me to re-read my Aristophanes… Posted by A Scott Crawford

  4. One senior prof at a top 5 school in the US told me that they didn’t like to admit anyone who hadn’t done philosophy before because they “get sad and leave.” There were meant to be two reasons. The first was that, never having taken a course in metaethics, or Kant, or metaphysics, they were – understandably – lost in the graduate seminars. 1st year at grad school is hard enough without lacking the basic background that a lot of your peers have, so they got demoralised. But secondly, never having taken a course in metaethics or Kant or what have you, they had no idea what they were letting themselves in for and so came to realise that it wasn’t what they were interested in after all.So I think an important consideration is: if you didn’t study philosophy, how do you know that a philosophy phd is what you really want to be doing?  Posted by Gillian Russell

  5. Is it easier to teach a math major philosophy (e.g. condensed into two years) or is it easier to teach a philosophy major logic (e.g. condensed into two years). I’m inclined to believe the latter. In fact, I do (believe the latter). Posted by lumpy pea coat

  6. One of my colleagues studied math and then switched to philosophy – he did it by getting an M.A. in philosophy first. This also might be a way of answering Gillian’s question about whether you are really interested enough in philosophy (and not just, say, logic) to do a Ph.D. Also, most M.A. programs have much more flexible admittance policies…I have had a few friends who were in graduate programs in math and switched to philosophy – some of whom ended up happy, and some unhappy. A lot depends on which philosophy program one goes into (see Aldo’s comment). Posted by Chris

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