I completed a BA in philosophy, but then my interests changed and I did a BSc in mathematics. I am currently finishing my MSc in mathematics and applying for a PhD in maths. I have the following questions:

  1. Does the fact that my very first degree was in philosophy put me at a disadvantage in terms of applying for a PhD? Could it potentially be interpreted as a sign of indecision or inadequate motivation?

  2. Should I refer to my philosophy degree at all in my personal statement? Does my change of academic interests call for an explanation, or is it better to leave it out?

3 Answers 3


The way I see it (but I am not in any admissions committee), the career choice that you did being 18 should have very little impact now. At that age, most people are immature.

For me, having those two degrees tells me:

  • You have had the persistence to finish the Philosophy degree, even knowing that that was not your cup of tea; and then pursue your real desire.
  • You have the flexibility to work on very different intellectual environments.
  • Your experience is broader than most people that start their Maths degree at 18. Also, you are in Mathematics after a concious decision, and it was revalidated when you pursued a MSc, and now applying for a PhD.

In any case, I think you should absolutely mention it, otherwise you would have a 3 years gap to explain. Having been studying is definitely better than doing nothing.


Let me add on to Davidmh's answer above. The major issue is that you're not switching from philosophy to mathematics at this stage; you already made the switch a long time ago. As far as the graduate schools are concerned, you will be evaluated as a mathematics major would be.

If you believe your study of philosophy will help make a case for your admission as a mathematics graduate student, then you should mention that in your statement of purpose. However, you need not obsess over it; no one will say that you're unable to pursue graduate studies in math just because you started out in philosophy.


I must say I find this question quite odd in light of the two undergraduate degrees you have: philosophy and mathematics. They have been linked for thousands of years, and some of the most prominent mathematicians of the past two hundred years were philosophers. And some of the most prominent philosophers were also mathematicians. They have gone hand-in-hand for a really long time.

George Boolos, author of the textbook on mathematical logic, Computability and Logic (I'd be surprised if you hadn't used it during your undergraduate studies), started out with a degree in mathematics from Harvard, did a masters at Oxford in philosophy and mathematics, and particularly the philosophy of mathematics, and went on to do a PhD in philosophy at MIT.

People like Hilary Putnam, one of the most famous philosophers alive, have made major contributions to mathematics even outside of the philosophy of mathematics. Putnam published major works on the Boolean satisfiability problem and Hilbert's tenth problem, for instance.

Another prominent mathematician, Solomon Feferman, is also a philosopher.

While certainly there are not a lot of Fields or Abel winners who are philosophers, there is no doubt that the two fields compliment each other immensely.

More relevant is the fact that there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that there is no way having an undergraduate degree in philosophy could somehow negatively impact your application. It can only improve it in universities where they understand the links between the fields, and in departments where it doesn't, it's going to have no impact at all given you also have a masters in mathematics.

I must say that I am surprised, however, that someone considering doing a PhD in Mathematics would be so oblivious to the obvious, though.

  • Thank you for your answer. I suspected that having a degree in philosophy would not be a problem. But I was more concerned about the way I should talk about it in my personal statement. Another concern I have is that a lot of my fellow math students seem to have been interested in and focused on math since they were teenagers so I was worried I might come across as atypical - which might be a good thing, though. Sep 7, 2014 at 8:45
  • @Balerion_the_black The fact that you're wanting to do a PhD already makes you atypical among your fellow math students! (Though, of course, not atypical among the math grad students you want to be your fellows in the near future.) Sep 7, 2014 at 14:45
  • Most people who have been active in both philosophy and mathematics have worked set theory, logic and the theory of computation. Since those areas tend to receive minimal attention in undergraduate mathematics, it doesn't surprise me at all that the asker would be unaware of them and the suggestion that they are "oblivious to the obvious" is unnecessarily insulting. I suppose that the interpretation of quantum mechanics is another are where philosophy and mathematics interact but somebody focusing on pure mathematics could easily avoid exposure to that, too. Sep 7, 2014 at 14:51
  • @DavidRicherby I actually did take logic and set theory courses as part of my philosophy degree. That's one of the reasons I became more and more interested in mathematics. I am aware that some people with a mixed maths/philosophy background end up working in logic. I did consider this as a possible path for myself, but ultimately focused on representation theory and number theory. Sep 7, 2014 at 16:12
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    @Balerion_the_black Well then, I think in any application or interview, it would be well worth playing up your philosophy degree, even if the areas you want to pursue in your PhD are not typical philosophy/mathematics intersections. If philosophy led to your interest in mathematics, this makes even more sense, and you can say your philosophy degree changed your thinking and gave you a different perspective. It definitely can't hurt! Sep 7, 2014 at 16:26

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