Best Philosphy Departments for Ph.D study in the US or UK?
December 9, 2004 4:14 AM   Subscribe

Which would you consider to be (or have heard to be) the best philosophy departments (for a Ph.D. tentatively on "Husserl, Time and Love") in the U.S. or the U.K. in a pleasant, interesting, social and cultural environment? [More inside.]

I'm sorry it's such a subjective question but one of my daughters graduates this year and asked me for help in choosing a good philosophy department for her Ph.D. Although I am a former professor of political philosophy (BA and Ph.D. in Manchester, U.K.), I left academic life almost 15 years ago and am now hopelessly out of touch. Thing is, my daughter - though she was top of her year - wants to go somewhere attractive and interesting, with life outside the university, as she's very outgoing and curious.

I could only really recommend Oxford - where I did a post-doc, was Visiting Fellow twice, etc - but she's naturally wary it might be too "ivory tower", no matter what methods and examples I employ to reassure her it's not. Or wasn't.

At the moment, after the effort of five years to graduate, she seems more interested in going somewhere "fun": her choice at the moment is Barcelona and she's learning Catalan. However, having checked out the philosophy department there, she knows it isn't absolutely top-notch and is worried because not only are there pre-set "themes" for doctorates - which is bizarre for someone used to the Anglo-American tradition - but all lectures (there are lectures too...) are in Catalan, a lovely language but one she can barely understand and is naturally not widely spoken in the world. The department seems to me to be mildly nationalistic, which isn't very encouraging, specially if you're not Catalonian.

Her initial idea for a Ph.D. was on Husserl, Time (and possibly) Love - and it was approved by Lisbon University. For Barcelona, she's tempted to ditch this personal research interest of hers and, from the "menu" at Barcelona, is prepared to choose something about the aesthetic of Gaudi, though agreeing it's not exactly what she'd work on if it was left to her...

If I can come up with a university that has a good philosophy department but situated somewhere "fun" where she can get away from philosophy when she needs to, she says she'll gladly give up on the Barcelona idea, as she does love philosophy and agrees that Barcelona isn't one of the pinnacles.

I'd be very grateful for any up-to-date recommendations - or links to independent, graduate-produced assessments (or from an undergraduate's point of view). Thank you very much - and sorry for the length!
posted by MiguelCardoso to Education (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
UCL still has a very good philosophy department. I believe she may find something in London that qualifies as 'fun'. When you say graduates, do you mean Bachelors or Masters? If it's the former, she will need to do the latter before she gets onto a PhD course in the UK...
posted by humuhumu at 4:45 AM on December 9, 2004

Response by poster: Great suggestion, humuhumu - thanks! London is definitely "fun". She's a Bachelor in British terms (though in Portugal you're a bachelor after passing the first three years and "licenciado" after an extra two), but she can do as I did - apply for a MA then, after a year's work minimum present her thesis and have it "converted" or prolonged into a PhD, allowing her to complete the thing in 3 years - though we all know it always takes longer... That's how it used to be in the early 80s anyway.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:49 AM on December 9, 2004

I can recommend Leeds, in the north of england, as a great place to study. The city is much cheaper than London and a more manageable size - whilst it's a big city, with a huge student population (2 universities of over 30K students each) you can still walk home. It's very popular - some surveys rank it as the UK's favourite city. It has the nightlife and cultural life you want as a student, but it also has easy access to some remarkable countryside and a relatively low cost of living.

I know the philosophy department here, and the way things seem to work is you see if anyone's got interests in your area (homepages here), contact them, then get in touch with the admissions tutor if you seem to be getting along. If you come with funding, then I think it is possible to go from bachelors to phd without a masters. If not it is a more complicated matter. Drop me an email if you like - I did a taught masters in philosophy here a few years back.
posted by handee at 5:32 AM on December 9, 2004

Maybe what your daughter really wants (whether she realizes it or not) is a year off--and then to hunker down somewhere for grad school? Just a thought.
posted by availablelight at 7:00 AM on December 9, 2004

If she hasn't already, she might check out the rankings at the the Philosophical Gourmet, which are generally (but not unanimously) considered to be good.

Perhaps the best part about it is that it seconds your own opinion: Oxford is ranked first in "19th C. Continental Philosophy after Hegel" and second in "20th C. Continental Philosophy."

There's a lot of good info there about picking grad schools in the English speaking world. Of course she still has to weed out the boring places.
posted by miniape at 7:16 AM on December 9, 2004

I second the use of the Philosophical Gourmet and wish I had such a report for my primary discipline, but think that availablelight may also be on to something worthy of consideration. She could apply and then defer, or better take that year off and give it a little structure of its own before she goes off to study.

The New York area is clearly an option -- unless fun also must include great weather year round. It's not bad here all the time though. I also thought immediately of Berkeley based on your description of location and school, but it's gourmet rank is not outstanding for her specific project (I think, but would love to hear otherwise). I've heard good things about University of Texas, Austin both as a school for philosophy (and specifically in the areas that would interest her) and as a place to be, the city, it's certainly warmer there too.

The University of Chicago is a great school, but isolated on the southside from the City itself. Think of that as a cautionary tale about some Schools and their respective cities. It can still be fun there though (depending on your/her definition).
posted by safetyfork at 7:34 AM on December 9, 2004

Pardon these errors: The choice was meant to read between applying then deferring OR taking the year "off" but applying for the following year.

And, finally "...its gourmet rank..." (not it's, sigh).

On preview: I still found it psychologically isolating being on the southside, in a near police state, but not without merits in the fun department. Don't get me wrong, loved the school, liked the location. Still felt alone.
posted by safetyfork at 7:41 AM on December 9, 2004

Looking at this from a different angle... places in the UK which have "good" universities and which are generally thought of as "fun": Bristol, Sussex (Brighton), Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle. All biggish cities with lively nightlife etc. London is in a class of its own - I wouldn't live there if you paid me but know lots who enjoy it. Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter, Warwick, to a certain extent, Kent and Durham and York are all good universities but in smaller towns with fewer social opportunities.
posted by handee at 7:53 AM on December 9, 2004

Currently, I am undertaking a part-time undergraduate degree in philosophy at Birkbeck college in London. Birkbeck generally scores 'solidly' across a range of philosophical areas and is situated right in the middle of London. In addition to the attractions of central London, London university social activities are generally combined across colleges, so there is huge opportunity there.

As has been mentioned elsewhere, choosing a college / department in which to study for a PhD should take into consideration the person with whom you will be working (under) for the duration.
posted by daveg at 7:59 AM on December 9, 2004

Response by poster: Wow - how amazingly helpful you've all been! You have no idea of how this question was/is troubling me and how empty-handed and outdated I felt before I had all these real leads. Thank you so much!

availablelight - Of course - what does it say about a father who, to be absolutely frank, never even thought of what is such a common way to solve these sorts od riddles? Not nice things. But I still have time, thanks to you. It just shows that AskMe answers gain by not being linear - sometimes what's obvious to all is hidden to one.

A carefree year in Barcelona and, by then, she just might be aching for the acute hardships of serious philosophy - at least for long enough for it to be too late to turn back...

Nah, it's just she rarely asks for my advice (does very well on her own, unfortunately) and all of a sudden I'm experiencing the neurosis and stress of being a father again - I really don't want to persuade her of my own choices, but present her with an intelligent and varied menu of hypotheses that somehow manage to reconcile her two demands.

Thank you all again! :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:13 AM on December 9, 2004

I second availablelight's suggestion. It seems quite odd to me that someone would choose a grad school primarily based on a "fun" location; when I was making that choice, it was based entirely on the quality of the department and how I felt I would fit in there. I did in fact find the city (New Haven) quite a bit of fun, but only after I quit the PhD program; when you're actually doing grad work you don't have time for anything else, including fun. (At least in a serious department.) If she's primarily focused on the Fun City aspect, maybe she needs a year off (which is probably a good idea anyway -- I wish I'd done it).
posted by languagehat at 8:17 AM on December 9, 2004

UChicago poached a couple of people doing work in Husserl / Heiddeger. Abe Stone (new, don't know 'em) and John Haugeland (awesome) are two possibilities.

Department course search.

Chicago is a great city, though, in line with above, the campus of the UofC is isolated from the city center. However, as a graduate student, living on the Northside is possible and, from me, encouraged. It's a short and relatively easy drive down for classes, and parking is getting better. She'd probably need a car, however, if she wanted to pursue this -- without a car, it's a bit of a hop, skip, and a jump to campus (1 or 2 trains and then a bus / shuttle. Then a walk.).

Congrats to your daughter!
posted by zpousman at 8:42 AM on December 9, 2004

I'd third the vote to take a year off and then hit the books. I did. Twice, really. -- between undergrad and masters and between my master's and my (impending) PhD program.
posted by zpousman at 8:44 AM on December 9, 2004

Second the notion of taking a year off and second the University of Chicago. It's a well-rounded school and a top-ranked program.

One has to be careful with the Philosophical Gourmet. The rankings are done on the basis of faculty reputation, which is importantly different from a) faculty quality and b) faculty's ability/desire to teach graduate students. It's having some potentially disruptive effects on the discipline. See here for some of those problems.

For fun places (not a good criterion to choose a program by, but sometimes necessary) you can try the Philosophical Gourmand Report which bills itself as "A Ranking of Philosophy Programs in the English-Speaking World in Terms of Dining, Nightlife, and Culture".
posted by ontic at 9:22 AM on December 9, 2004

Never underestimate the power of a year off. I took a year off (to work and travel) between high school and college and it was the best decision I ever made.

But she should come to New York or Chicago. We'll even wine and dine the both of youse.
posted by Vidiot at 9:27 AM on December 9, 2004

One thing to be aware of about the University of Chicago is that very few classes are taught by graduate students. In the philosophy department, the junior & senior tutorials for undergraduates enrolled in the honors curriculum (which, IMO, is a waste of time and not actually necessary for departmental honors) are the only two that I'm aware of. Other than that TAships are the closest to classroom experience she'll get. If your daughter wants to pursue academia as a vocation, that may hurt her in the job market. And people have been complaining about the health insurance, but I don't know what the status of that is.

Also, what everyone said about the isolation, even if only psychological, of Hyde Park is right on. Going downtown isn't so bad but if you want to go to the near north or northwest sides (which is where I, at least, found myself wanting to go far more often than downtown), it's rather a hassle.

There used to be a parody of the Philosophical Gourmet that ranked historical programs too, to help you decide between the 18th-century University of Edinburgh and the Lyceum, for example.
posted by kenko at 10:27 AM on December 9, 2004

I would definitely second the recommendation for Leeds. I went there and loved it. The philosophy department there is small and welcoming. The University itself is huge, but the way the departments are split, it's very welcoming and easy to get to know the staff.

The night life is extremely varied, and there's always something on and it's full of students. There's the three universities, as mentioned, then the Northern school of Dance, the Music college and art college too.

York is a beautiful city, with some nice bars, but there's not really much else there. The trains to Leeds don't run all night and the coaches used to stop at around 1am. Durham is great, too and close to Newcastle if she wants somewhere 'fun', but the train station is in a really awkward place in Durham, and transport out isn't the best.
posted by lemonpillows at 1:49 PM on December 9, 2004

Continental philosophy isn't my primary area of interest, so I'm not sure what universities are especially strong in it. However, it seems to me that if it's what she's primarily interested in, she'll appreciate European university environments more than American ones. American universities on the whole tend to be highly analytic and skeptical of continental thinkers -- but there are, of course, some departments that you daughter could find amenable. Husserl does tend to straddle the line between analytic and continental anyhow, so I'm not sure exactly where your daughter's sensibilities lie. Brian Leiter, the man who compiles the Philosophical Gourmet report, keeps an excellent blog that often discusses issues devoted to graduate study in philosophy. Many past discussions have top-notch philosophers weighing in and could be worth checking out. The philosophy blogosphere is really quite substantial, and contains lots of gossip about the quality and atmosphere of different departments. It's all to be taken with a grain of salt, and is very analytically biased, but there's information out there to be had.

Barcelona is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I imagine that doing a dissertation on Gaudi there would be a mind-blowing experience. It would be an amazing way to spend the next few years, but perhaps not the best way to kickstart a career. The city you live in is important, but certainly not as important as the quality of education you receive. I have a friend who studies philosophy at the University of Madrid; I might be able to contact him to see what Spanish philosophy circles think of the PhD program in Barcelona, if your daughter needs some inside information.

This thread has made me wonder how many MetaFilter members are philosophy grad students or professors.
posted by painquale at 3:13 PM on December 9, 2004

Having recently applied to universities in the UK and the U.S. for a Ph.D. (in History), I have a few warnings.

- UK universties are increasingly demanding that students have the equivalent of a masters before starting a Ph.D. This is a change in the last decade (according to a British prof who finished his Ph.D. in the early 90s). My fiance got caught in a very bad situation - he went to Cambridge, then was told he must write a full Master's thesis before he could begin his Ph.D. He now has only two years to write his Ph.D. - he was expected to do both degrees in three years. Perhaps this is the specialness of Cambridge (hands down the worst university and graduate school adminstation I have ever been witness to). But it is worth making sure that all of the administrative details are clear before applying. I was not even eligible a Ph.D. program at UCL (I only had a BA), but was accepted at an equally respected North American Ph.D. program.

- U.K. Ph.D.s are three years (after a masters), but U.S. degrees are 5-6 years. They are very professionalised - there are very few students who are not looking at an academic career, at least in the humanities, largely due to the length of the degree. This may create a very different atmosphere from a British Ph.D., which is shorter, and appears to have more students taking it before going on to other fields outside academic teaching and research. Is your daughter interested into putting in 5-6 years of her life, including up to two years of generalist coursework? It can be very frustrating for someone who just wants to get going on their thesis - I know at least one student who left my university for Oxford because she wanted to start working on her thesis sooner.

About the University of Chicago: I am not a philosopher, and will not pretend to able to judge the department, but funding may also be a problem. Unlike some other prestigious private universities, such as Princeton or Yale, the University of Chicago does not, AFAIK, give funding for all Ph.D. students. Instead, the students compete for the funding, and compete to keep it. It is a very different atmosphere from somewhere like Yale, where all Ph.D. students receive a stipend of at least $17,000 for 5 of the 6 years of study, and do not compete with each other for this.
posted by jb at 3:40 PM on December 9, 2004

Yeah, in most US schools, there is a lot of foundational coursework / comp exams, before you can get to the thesis.

Continental philosophy in the US is strong at boston college, penn state, and the new school for social research (new york). The new school has the Husserl archives.
posted by mdn at 9:31 AM on December 10, 2004

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