How to Earn an Undergraduate Degree in Philosophy

Studying philosophy is fun and interesting. You get to engage with some of the biggest questions: how ought we live? Does God exist? How do we know things? Studying this as an undergraduate lets you explore these questions in a structured way that will help you grow intellectually and perhaps personally by allowing you to join the 2,000 year tradition of reasoned dialogue about the most fundamental matters of human life and experience.


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    Study widely before college. If you want to study philosophy, a comprehensive education will be an advantage - so study widely and in fields where you can show your intellectual strengths. Much contemporary philosophy is written with a strong focus on logic and mathematical clarity. Study of formal logic and mathematics will be useful, as will study of physics, biology, computing, psychology, social science and so on. Similarly though, humanistic study will also be useful in reading and interpreting texts and placing them within historical context: history, literature, politics and law, social sciences. Study academic subjects, and look at the subjects required by universities for entrance to guide your choices at school.
    • Some countries offer philosophy in schools: studying at the high school level lets you sample philosophy before making a commitment to study it at the undergraduate level. In the United Kingdom, most people enter philosophy from religious education - but be sure to check that your school offers an A-level religious education curriculum that covers the ethics and philosophy of religion modules. Some schools offer courses in critical thinking, critical reasoning, ethics and other topics which would prepare the way to study philosophy.
    • Philosophy requires clarity of thought and expression, so ensure that you are able to write clearly and read well.
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    Try to find out if philosophy is right for you before applying. Read some philosophical books - there are a variety of philosophical primers intended for the ordinary reader - or go online and sample philosophical podcasts and videos like the Philosophy Bites podcasts series or the Philosophy Talk show.
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    Apply. You ought to apply widely to a lot of different universities, and take the time to learn something about the departments. Different departments have different interests and staff, and will offer different course options. If you have a particular interest, try to find a department that offers lots of opportunity to study that.
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    Make the most of lectures and seminars. If you are studying philosophy, you'll get out exactly what you put in. Be sure to attend lectures and to participate in seminars. Seminar participation is essential for passing some courses, but even if it isn't, philosophy is a subject which requires you to actually practice thinking about the topics studied, and to do that you need to try to discuss your intuitions and reason in a collective seminar setting.
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    Read carefully and precisely. When reading, try to critically evaluate what you read - when you are reading a book, ask yourself whether each of the assertions the author makes is a reasonable one and is backed up by evidence. Keep track of your reasoning process while reading a book, and make notes of this reasoning, especially if you disagree in a non-trivial way with what is being said.
    • Be sure to have something philosophical to read wherever you are, even if it isn't directly related to what you are studying in class. You'll eventually start seeing links between the different topics.
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    Write frequently and do old exam papers. You'll have to write essays, but remember these are not the same kind of essays you'll have to write for examination. Examinations in philosophy can be daunting as unlike a subject like history or some branches of science, adding more facts doesn't necessarily get you any further in answering the question. Knowing the theories under discussion is important, but you need to be able to independently reason about them rather than remember the exact year that Hegel was born. Most universities will make available previous exam papers for modules - sometimes online, sometimes you'll have to get them from the library or from the module tutor.
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    Make the most of your tutorials. Some universities give you the opportunity to benefit from one-on-one or two-on-one tuition - if you can get this, it'll help tremendously. You'll learn much more about how to improve your work and to get better results in examination if you can
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    Attend events. Universities often have a philosophical society. While this is less fun than the scuba diving club, lacrosse or jujitsu, you can often hear some top-class philosophers presenting their work. Keep an eye out on the departmental noticeboard or online to learn about conferences, workshops, seminars and other events. Some of these may be oriented towards graduate-level students, but they do have an important purpose...
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    Write a dissertation. Not all courses require this, but many do require a dissertation, a "long essay" or a series of essays that form a coherent project. Hopefully, if you've been attending events, reading widely (including things not on the reading list), you'll have some interesting questions that you can work on. If you've been attending lectures and tutorials, you will know staff you can approach to supervise.
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    Graduate. While philosophy graduates are often the butt of jokes about unemployment, philosophy graduates are often highly employable in a wide variety of fields. Some people enjoy philosophy so much that they decide to carry on and study at master's or Ph.D level. Philosophy graduates can get jobs in a variety of different sectors: the legal profession, management, computer programming and technology, journalism/writing, entertainment, engineering, the public or charitable sectors, politics, the clergy or many areas of business.
    • Some well-known philosophy graduates: Ricky Gervais (creator of The Office), Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons), Wes Anderson (director of The Royal Tenenbaums), Carly Fiorina (former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, now political candidate), Michael Frayn (playwright and novelist), Rudy Giuliani (former New York City mayor and Republican politician), Phil Jackson (basketball coach), David Souter and Stephen Breyer (justices of the Supreme Court of the United States), Oliver Letwin (British Conservative politician), William J. Bennett (Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Education), Paul Martin (former Canadian Prime Minister), Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, Ben Goldacre (science writer), Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia), Studs Terkel (Pulitzer Prize winning writer), Jonathan Dimbleby (British television presenter) and many more.


  • During examinations, take a few minutes before you start writing to read the questions thoroughly and try to work out what sort of answer you'd give. One way to do this is to go through the examination paper and next to each of the questions, rank them from one to five - with one being a question you'd find difficult to answer and five being a question you'd find easy to answer. Then pick out the questions with fives or fours next to them and answer them first. (This is obviously dependent on the format of the paper and what questions you are required to answer.)


  • Philosophy will reward the open mind and punish the closed. Learn about the principle of charity and observe it carefully.

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Categories: College University and Postgraduate