PhD in Philosophy


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Program Description

McMaster’s Doctoral Program in Philosophy offers courses of study leading to the degree of Ph.D. in philosophy. The program is designed so that students may quickly enter into the excitement of their own research, while steadily building a solid foundation of comprehensive knowledge.


Admission to the Ph.D. program requires an M.A. in Philosophy or an equivalent degree. There is also a possibility for students enrolled in McMaster’s M.A. program in Philosophy to be accepted into the Ph.D. program without completing the M.A. degree, subject to their satisfying certain conditions for excellent progress in their first year. Selection is made by the Ph.D. Program Committee of the Department of Philosophy, and any student admitted comes under the general regulations of McMaster University.

Any applicant whose first language is not English and who has not completed a degree within an accredited university in a program whose primary language of instruction is English must submit evidence of proficiency in English.

Ph.D. Program Timeline

The Program is designed to be completed within four years. Full-time Ph.D. students in the Program are guaranteed funding for four years, provided they make satisfactory progress. Over the last few years, the department has been able to extend full or part funding to all full-time fifth and six-year students in good standing. The department is committed to continuing this practice, but it cannot guarantee full funding to students beyond the fourth year. The following timeline summarizes the Program’s expectations for student progress:

Year One

First Term

  • Meet with the Ph.D. Advisor before the start of term, or as soon as possible after classes begin, for advice about courses and meeting area requirements and to have your course selections officially approved.
  • Take two or three courses.
  • Apply for external scholarships (SSHRC and OGS) by means of a single common application, if you are eligible.
  • In consultation with the Ph.D. Advisor, arrange for a thesis supervisor.
  • Determine with your supervisor whether you will have to establish competence in logic or one or more languages other than English before your Qualifying Examination. If you intend to write a thesis on a philosopher who wrote in a language other than English, you will probably have to demonstrate competence in that language. If so, consider whether you should begin the formal study of that language now. Graduate students can audit, or take for credit, undergraduate language courses at no extra charge.
  • With the Ph.D. Advisor and your Supervisor, arrange for the other two members of your Supervisory Committee.

Second Term

  • Take the remainder of your five courses other than the Ph.D. Research Seminar (make sure you meet the Area Requirements).
  • Your Supervisory Committee should be completed by the end of February.
  • Ask your course professors or Supervisor if any papers you have submitted for courses would be appropriate for reworking for publication.

Summer Term

  • Schedule your annual supervisory committee meeting, to take place in May, with your Supervisory Committee, the Ph.D. Program Officer and the Graduate Administrator. Here is where you will be told definitely whether you need to demonstrate any special competencies. Also, you will have a chance to discuss your plans for the summer and what you propose to do in your dissertation.
  • Begin or continue to study for your language or logic exam, if one is required.
  • Begin preparation of your dissertation proposal.
Year Two
  • Take the Ph.D. Research Seminar (September to April).
  • Complete any other remaining coursework (you need six courses in total, including the Ph.D. Research Seminar).
  • Apply for external scholarships (SSHRC and OGS) by means of a single common application, if you are eligible.
  • Continue study for your language or logic exam, if one is required.
  • Write your Qualifying Examination document (QE document). Submit a draft of your QE document to your Supervisor by the end of your 17th month in the Program (typically January of your second year). Expect to prepare several drafts and to run them past your Supervisor before your proposal is accepted for the Qualifying Examination.
  • Take your language or logic exam, if required. The Ph.D. Program Officer will arrange this at your request.
  • Schedule your annual supervisory committee meeting, to take place in May.
  • Take your Qualifying Examination (QE), at which you will defend your thesis proposal (see the section above titled “Qualifying Examination” for details). This normally takes place in May. You may retake the exam once. However, absent special circumstances, you must pass your QE by the end of August to remain in the program.
  • Begin writing your thesis once you have passed your QE.
Year Three
  • Apply for external scholarships (SSHRC and OGS) by means of a single common application, if you are eligible.
  • Work on your thesis. The usual procedure is to submit a chapter at a time to your supervisor for comments, which you accommodate in a revised version. Expect several cycles of comments and revisions. Ordinarily, the other members of the Supervisory Committee do not see a chapter until the Supervisor has accepted it. This pattern varies and should be negotiated in advance with your Supervisory Committee.
  • Arrange an annual meeting in May with your Supervisory Committee.
Year Four
  • Apply for SSHRC and OGS if you are eligible and expect to be back for the fifth year.
  • Complete your thesis. A good target is to have a finished draft by January of year four. This gives time for revisions, for nomination by your Supervisory Committee of an external examiner, and for the external examiner to read and prepare a report.
  • Defend your thesis. (If you do it soon enough, you will not need an annual meeting in May with your supervisory committee.)
  • Throughout, you should be trying to produce work that merits publication in a respectable journal. The publication helps your employment prospects and starts your research career. Whenever you have work that you think is of sufficient quality, show it to your supervisor (or other faculty) and receive their opinion as to its suitability for publication. Your supervisor or other faculty members should be able to advise you on appropriate places to send it.

124264_photo-1505664194779-8beaceb93744.jpg Giammarco Boscaro / Unsplash

Area Requirements

Ph.D. candidates are required to demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of the central areas of philosophy by demonstrating competence in 5 areas of philosophy from the 2 lists below. No more than three areas may be selected from one list:

  • Ancient and Medieval Philosophy.
  • Modern Philosophy 1600 to 1800.
  • Continental Philosophy from 1800.
  • British and American Philosophy from 1800.
  • Ethics and Value Theory.
  • Metaphysics and Epistemology.
  • Social, Political, and Legal Philosophy.
  • Logic, Philosophy of Language, and Philosophy of Science.

Competence in a given field may be demonstrated by completing two graduate (one term) courses with at least a B+ (or equivalent) in each course. Graduate courses completed before commencing the Ph.D. program can be counted towards satisfying the area requirements. The Ph.D. Advisor will determine which of these areas of philosophy each course falls. Normally the following are recognized as equivalents of two one-term courses:

  • A three-hour written examination on selected primary texts in the field. The examination may be repeated only once.
  • A successful M.A. thesis defense.
  • A successful Ph.D. Qualifying Examination.
  • A published paper, subject to approval by the Program Committee, provided that it appear in a peer-reviewed professional journal in philosophy (graduate-student edited journals are specifically excluded).


Ph.D. students take six courses in total: five one-term courses, plus the Ph.D. Research Seminar in their second year. In special circumstances, this load may be reduced, but all candidates must take at least four courses. Graduate students may select from Philosophy graduate courses at McMaster, Wilfrid Laurier University, and the University of Guelph.

Satisfactory performance in course work requires no grade lower than B-minus (or equivalent). A student receiving a grade lower than B-minus (or equivalent) shall be considered to be making unsatisfactory progress.

Ph.D. Research Seminar

One of the candidate’s six courses is the Ph.D. Research Seminar. Its objectives are to foster constructive dialogue amongst students and faculty and to encourage students to formulate their research in a philosophically sound manner. The Seminar is offered under the direction of one faculty member, although all interested faculty and students are informed of the schedule and invited to attend. Supervisors are expected to attend when their supervisee is presenting.

The final grade for the Seminar is pass/fail. (NB: Failure of the Ph.D. Research Seminar amounts to unsatisfactory progress and may result in withdrawal from the Program).

Demonstration of Competence

Students in the Ph.D. The program may be required to demonstrate competence in one or more skills which their Supervisory Committee decides, in consultation with the Ph.D. Advisor, to be necessary for their thesis (e.g. logic or a language other than English). The Supervisory Committee will normally decide on the type and level of competence required formally, at its first annual meeting with the student. However, the student should meet with his or her Supervisor as soon as possible after initial registration to determine which competencies, if any, the student is likely to be asked to demonstrate. Normally the student will demonstrate the required competencies before being allowed to proceed to a Qualifying Examination.

Qualifying Examination

The purpose of the Qualifying Examination (QE) is to ensure that the candidate has a viable thesis proposal and the background to carry it through successfully. In order to be eligible to take the QE, the student must have achieved (by the end of the 20th month in the program) a GPA on courses taken towards the Ph.D. of at least 9.5. The QE is an oral examination of the QE document that the student prepares in consultation with her Supervisor and the other members of her Supervisory Committee. This document must include the following:

Statement of Preparation: A 250-500 word written a statement explaining how their courses, area selections, language proficiency, and other relevant knowledge (for instance in logic or other academic fields relevant to the proposed research) have prepared them for their thesis research. This statement should be appended to the Thesis Proposal.

Thesis Proposal: A written thesis proposal of no more than 3000-5000 words (not including bibliography) addressing the following points:

  • The philosophical importance of the research and the candidate’s anticipated contribution to the subject.
  • A description of the insufficiency of alternative positions in the current literature.
  • A clear statement of the problem that the dissertation proposes to treat and the proposed strategy for addressing it (where possible, students should sketch the argument of the thesis).
  • A working table of contents with a sketch of what each chapter contributes to the overall argument of the dissertation.
  • A working bibliography of the primary and secondary literature.

QE Timeline

Doctoral students are expected to submit a draft QE document to their supervisor no later than the 17th month of enrollment in the Program (typically, the end of January of the second year). Students who are unable to meet this expectation must notify the Ph.D. Advisor via e-mail. To remain in the Ph.D. Program, the student must pass the QE by the end of the 24th month of enrollment (typically the end of August of the second year). Any student unable to meet this deadline due to medical or personal emergencies is advised to consult the Ph.D. Advisor to discuss the possibility of petitioning the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) for an extension. Note that SGS’s discretion to grant such requests is strictly limited to exigent circumstances.

A student who fails her first QE may attempt the QE a second time, but only if there is adequate time to do so before the end of the 24-month deadline for passing the QE. To ensure adequate time for a second attempt, the student is advised to schedule her first QE by the end of the 21st month of enrollment (typically May of the second year). Students who fail the second attempt will not be allowed to remain in the Program.

Criteria for Examiners

The Supervisory Committee’s task at the QE is to assess the viability of the thesis project and whether the student is adequately prepared to undertake it. Specifically, examiners should determine:

  • Whether the candidate is adequately prepared, including familiarity with basic and current research trends.
  • Whether the proposed thesis is likely to make a significant contribution to the literature in its area.
  • Whether the thesis as proposed will be of appropriate length, complexity, and difficulty.
  • Whether the proposed strategy is cogent.

The examiners will make their judgment as to the success of the examination on the basis of both the written document and the candidate’s performance in the oral examination. The outcome of the QE is reported to the School of Graduate Studies as “Pass with Distinction”, “Pass”, or “Fail”

Thesis and Defense

The student prepares the thesis in consultation with the Supervisor and the other members of the Supervisory Committee. With the approval of the Supervisory Committee, the finished work is submitted to an external examiner. Upon approval by the external examiner, the thesis is defended before members of the Supervisory Committee and one additional examiner, who is either the external examiner or an “internal-external” examiner from another McMaster University department. A thesis that exceeds 90,000 words (including appendices, bibliography, and notes) will not be accepted unless permission is granted by the Ph. D. Program Committee on the recommendation of the Supervisory Committee.

For more information, please see the link below to McMaster's 2019-2020 Graduate Academic Calendar:

Last updated Jul 2020

About the School

McMaster University is located in the city of Hamilton, in the province of Ontario, Canada. We are one of the top 75 universities in the world (Times Higher Education World Rankings 2019), ranked 2nd ... Read More

McMaster University is located in the city of Hamilton, in the province of Ontario, Canada. We are one of the top 75 universities in the world (Times Higher Education World Rankings 2019), ranked 2nd in the world for global impact (Times Higher Education Impact ranking, based on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations), and we are the #1 research intensive university in Canada. McMaster is known for our teaching model: a student-centered, problem-based, interdisciplinary approach to learning, a model that has been adopted world-wide. Read less