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I have a master's degree in computer science, and have been working as a software developer outside of academia for about a decade. I'm considering trying to transition into academic philosophy with the ambition of having an academic career, as far fetched as this may be. I'm evaluating the following two options:

  1. Pursuing a ~1-year MA degree in philosophy first (e.g. at Birkbeck College), followed by a PhD.
  2. Trying to apply directly for a PhD (in Europe, which officially means 3-4 years of study) in a somewhat related subfield (philosophy of technology and science).

Option 2 is something that was mentioned to me as a realistic possibility only recently: apparently, people do get directly accepted for philosophy PhDs with e.g. a math background, and no formal philosophy education. However, I'm not sure if skipping a relevant MA could hurt me in some way.

  1. Would it be a faux pass if I, with my lack of formal philosophical background, tried asking individual professors about the possibility of doing a PhD under their mentorship? I fear that this could earn me a black mark with them and impact my chances for future collaborations (after obtaining an MA). I have a pretty good idea about a topic I would want to work on, and have studied extensively on my own, but I have zero relevant publications. I do have some publications in other scientific disciplines, though.
  2. Even if I were accepted to a PhD program directly, would not having an MA in philosophy worsen my chances when competing for academic posts after having finished my PhD? My intuition tells me that in most case, not having an MA would be negative (I'm no prodigy and am not going to produce some ultra-extraordinary publication record that would outshine everyone else).
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    I retagged it to add Europe since this would be different elsewhere (such as US).
    – Buffy
    Aug 31, 2022 at 22:58
  • @voidptr Just a question: Will people who are in philosophy be writing your LOR's or it would be by people from CS background?
    – user157501
    Sep 2, 2022 at 18:49
  • @XZYZ that would be CS and natural science people. Which obviously doesn't bode in my favor without any other formal qualification.
    – voidptr
    Sep 3, 2022 at 0:12

3 Answers 3

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This really depends on how much accompanying self-learning in philosophy you have already done prior to starting a formal program. Unless you have a substantial amount of self-learning already in philosophy, it seems to me to be premature to do a PhD program, having come from a background in computer science. At a minimum, PhD candidates in philosophy would be expected to have learned undergraduate-level material in metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, aesthetics and political philosophy. If you have already covered those through self-study then you might have the necessary preparation, but if you haven't then you are probably behind the expected level for an incoming PhD candidate. (And if there are any of those terms where you need to look up the meaning, then you don't have the required background yet.)

It is true that there would be some overlap in your computer science background and aspects of the field of logic and foundations of mathematics/computing, but this is only one branch of philosophy, and even there the overlap would be relatively small unless you have already done a substantial amount of self-study going beyond your field.

Unless a university has a policy to the contrary, there is nothing wrong with making preliminary inquiries with academics in the field to get their advice on whether you know enough to enter a PhD program, and if so, whether they would be interested in supervising you in a topic of interest. In order to avoid looking silly, I recommend you begin by making some tentative inquiries to see if the academic in question believes that you have sufficient background for a PhD program, or if you should do an MA program first. If it is the latter, you can still flag your interest in future PhD study under their supervision and then come back to them in a year or two when you're ready for that program. You aren't necessarily expected to have publications on intake to a PhD program, but some applicants will, and this is an aspect of the competition for places (which is another advantage of doing an MA first --- you might get a chance to write some publications before applying to a PhD program).

Unless you can demonstrate having a reasonably well-rounded background in undergraduate-level philosophy through self-study, I doubt that you will be admitted directly to a PhD program in philosophy. In the unlikely event that this were to occur, you would find that there is an early period where you are behind your peers and have to rapidly learn material that they learned as undergraduates. This harms your chances of successful completion of the PhD candidature, but if you were to complete it successfully, it would not worsen your chances of competing successfully for later academic posts.

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Not a European philosopher, but....

Would it be a faux pass if I, with my lack of formal philosophical background, tried asking individual professors about the possibility of doing a PhD under their mentorship?

Like most things, it's all about your tone. It is certainly not a faux pas to humbly ask questions when you are well-informed but open about your weaknesses. Though even given this, your response rate may be somewhat low.

Even if I were accepted to a PhD program directly, would not having an MA in philosophy worsen my chances when competing for academic posts after having finished my PhD?

No one cares about your MA (or lack thereof) when you have a PhD. However, skipping this step would likely reduce the amount of interesting things you have published by the time you apply for post-PhD positions. Even if most students in your field don't publish during an MA (not sure), they will likely be able to "hit the ground running" faster than you will be able to.

as far fetched as this may be

You certainly know already how long the odds are (and how low the salary is if you succeed!). I would just ask you this: if you were 100% sure that you would not get a philosophy faculty position, would you still go down this road? Or would you just study philosophy in your spare time as hobby? In the latter case, I would think very carefully before proceeding.

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    Thank you for confirming my intuitions. "[I]f you were 100% sure that you would not get a philosophy faculty position, would you still go down this road?" - I have been trying to talk myself out of this for about a decade, and it only resulted in misery with severe consequences for my wellbeing. Studying as a hobby has failed to meet my needs, and a regular job takes away too much time and energy. So yes, this is something I'm willing to try, even though I realize the chances of ending where I'd like to be are practically zero, something I've been warned about constantly.
    – voidptr
    Sep 1, 2022 at 5:03
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Coming in very late on this and you may have already made a decision but… I recently returned after a 35 year gap to do an MA in Philosophy (Exeter Uni) having graduated in Pholosphy originally. I struggled for about a term before finding my philosophical feet again. One of my colleagues graduated in English two years ago and moved to philosophy. She has struggled more. The primary reason is the mass of basic concepts, schools of thought, philosophical methods etc that are taken ‘as read’ even at MA stage.

A lot of are instilled by debate, lectures and colloquiums with very good philosophers who will knock all your rough edges off and point you in the right direction when you stray down paths that aren’t going to help you. Without this kind of experience, you may struggle.

Take for example the ability to compare different methods such as conceptual analysis, phenomenology, historical epistemology and XPhi. There’s a lot of philosophy to read and understand to get this basic toolkit.

Without the toolkit a PhD would be like trying to make a table with wood but no saw: you might fashion something but it would be hard to sell as a table.

Sorry if this sounds hard but it’s how the PG world tends to work and why it may be difficult.

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