I left a Masters' program (philosophy) nearly a decade ago, after completing all coursework (and doing well in it), but without having completed a thesis, partly because I wasn't in line with my department's approach, and partly because of a life change (having children).

Lately I've been considering pursuing an advanced degree in philosophy again. Am I correct to assume I would need to start by finishing up my long delayed thesis? It isn't the easiest thing to do outside of an academic program, but my old department has indicated they wouldn't be entirely closed to the possibility of me completing it, even at this late date. Conversely, would it be possible for me to just start fresh, even with the incomplete degree on my record? (I'm still not much in line with my former department's approach.)

Note: There are some similar questions here, but I don't think they address the advisability of finishing the old degree first.

  • Re: "nearly a decade," many institutions in the United States have a ten year rule for transferring credits. Act fast!
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jan 5, 2017 at 23:33
  • @BobBrown I'm less worried about the credits, and more about whether having an unfinished degree in the same field is a demerit in the admissions process. Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 3:58
  • Yes, it will weigh against you, but the farther in the past it is, the less will be the weight. After some period, the weight will be negligible. Briefly address your life change in your application letter or statement of purpose, but don't make a big deal about the incomplete degree.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 20:08

1 Answer 1


Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything that would stopping you from starting over fresh in this case - you can retake every course, restart your thesis, etc. if you so desire. (That being said - I'm not an administrator.)

That being said, it's also probably worth your time to get a copy of your old transcript (if possible) and talk to any prospective universities about transferring old credits. It may or may not be possible for every course, but I'd be surprised if absolutely zero of them transferred.

The advantages to this approach are numerous, to say the least:

  • It's most likely cheaper.
  • You'll almost certainly complete your degree faster.
  • You can skip ahead to the parts of the program that most interest you without having to worry about prereqs.

As always, however, you'll have to check with your institution of interest as to what their specific rules/procedures are. Beyond that, I imagine it's hard to say with any certainty what to expect.

That goes for returning to your old university too -- they'll know best what your first steps will be.

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