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Casual Thomist

Entering Academic Philosophy with a Non-Phi Major

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Posted (edited)

Is it possible to transition into philosophy?

I got a bachelors in history in 2017 from a small liberal arts college without any reputation and originally planned to study intellectual history, but since then have found my interests drifting towards pure philosophy instead (I'm interested specifically in scholastic metaphysics). How difficult would it be to use my degree to get into a philosophy program, and if it is possible for me to do so, what would you recommend I do with my time between now and November to increase my chances? For example, I work at the institution I graduated from and have the opportunity to get a minor for free over the next year. My GRE scores are good but could be better (168/155/6.0), and my GPA was 4.0. I also have a 1/3 tuition reimbursement to MAPSS at University of Chicago from a failed application to the Committee on Social Thought.

If there is any other information that would be helpful for answering this, just let me know!

Edited by Casual Thomist

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2 minutes ago, Casual Thomist said:

Is it possible to transition into philosophy?

I got a bachelors in history in 2017 from a small liberal arts college without any reputation and originally planned to study intellectual history, but since then have found my interests drifting towards pure philosophy instead (I'm interested specifically in scholastic metaphysics). How difficult would it be to use my degree to get into a philosophy program, and if it is possible for me to do so, what would you recommend I do with my time between now and November to increase my chances? For example, I work at the institution I graduated from and have the opportunity to get a minor for free over the next year. My GRE scores are good but could be better (168/155/6.0), and my GPA was 4.0. I also have a 1/3 tuition reimbursement to MAPSS at University of Chicago from a failed application to the Committee on Social Thought.

If there is any other information that would be helpful for answering this, just let me know!

Just on a pure job market level, history's job market is better than philosophy's. I too, find intellectual history fascinating, which sort of puts us both in a tough situation. As you no doubt know, many scholars look at intellectual history with moderate suspicion. They suspect it's a way to disproportionately focus on dead European males, while Pocock and others have shown multiple ways forward. 

My own irritation aside, a few questions: what specifically interests you about Scholastic metaphysics? What research question would you try to answer in a dissertation, and what would your methodology be? If you're asking a historical question like "what intellectual currents caused Anscombe to meld Thomist thought with Wittgenstein's thought?" then you should be in a history department. 

Getting a minor, and developing a top quality philosophy writing sample would almost certainly help your case. 

I wouldn't go for the MAPSS. It's not cheap, and unless you've serious gaps in your preparation (e.g. you need to know Latin, but don't), a terminal MA isn't tremendously useful. 

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Posted (edited)
15 minutes ago, Casual Thomist said:

Is it possible to transition into philosophy?

I got a bachelors in history in 2017 from a small liberal arts college without any reputation and originally planned to study intellectual history, but since then have found my interests drifting towards pure philosophy instead (I'm interested specifically in scholastic metaphysics). How difficult would it be to use my degree to get into a philosophy program, and if it is possible for me to do so, what would you recommend I do with my time between now and November to increase my chances? For example, I work at the institution I graduated from and have the opportunity to get a minor for free over the next year. My GRE scores are good but could be better (168/155/6.0), and my GPA was 4.0. I also have a 1/3 tuition reimbursement to MAPSS at University of Chicago from a failed application to the Committee on Social Thought.

If there is any other information that would be helpful for answering this, just let me know!

Don't go to the MAPH/MAPSS programs; they're a colossal waste of money. Take some upper-level or grad courses at your current institution (since you work there). This will help you get letters, possibly give you a starting point for a writing sample, and give you some exposure to the discipline. Then apply to programs, with plenty of fully-funded MA programs on your list.

Edited by hector549

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2 minutes ago, psstein said:

Just on a pure job market level, history's job market is better than philosophy's. I too, find intellectual history fascinating, which sort of puts us both in a tough situation. As you no doubt know, many scholars look at intellectual history with moderate suspicion. They suspect it's a way to disproportionately focus on dead European males, while Pocock and others have shown multiple ways forward. 

My own irritation aside, a few questions: what specifically interests you about Scholastic metaphysics? What research question would you try to answer in a dissertation, and what would your methodology be? If you're asking a historical question like "what intellectual currents caused Anscombe to meld Thomist thought with Wittgenstein's thought?" then you should be in a history department. 

Getting a minor, and developing a top quality philosophy writing sample would almost certainly help your case. 

I wouldn't go for the MAPSS. It's not cheap, and unless you've serious gaps in your preparation (e.g. you need to know Latin, but don't), a terminal MA isn't tremendously useful. 

Not sure about the claim that history's job market is better than philosophy's. I was under the impression that it was the other way around (though both are very difficult). I'd like to see some data that suggest otherwise.

I agree that MAPSS/MAPH is a bad idea, but a terminal MA is certainly useful, especially for someone trying to enter from an adjacent discipline. It's just important to go to a fully-funded one with a good placement history, not something like those Chicago programs.

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1 hour ago, hector549 said:

Not sure about the claim that history's job market is better than philosophy's. I was under the impression that it was the other way around (though both are very difficult). I'd like to see some data that suggest otherwise.

I agree that MAPSS/MAPH is a bad idea, but a terminal MA is certainly useful, especially for someone trying to enter from an adjacent discipline. It's just important to go to a fully-funded one with a good placement history, not something like those Chicago programs.

The job market comments was more based on my own understanding of the situation. The AHA has claimed that roughly 55% of all history grads end up with some full-time academic position, but they're very vague as to what that means (TT, Full Time non-TT, Adjunct, Postdoc, etc.). Brian Leiter's blog tends to be pretty good about issues with philosophy placement. Here's a recent enough (Oct. 2018) article: https://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2017/10/placement-in-phd-granting-program.html

As for the MA, I'm glad we agree about the Chicago programs! I tend not to hold them in the highest regard, as I've seen woefully underprepared students come out of them.

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Posted (edited)

My partner is in history, at a non-fancy but R1 university with a pretty strong faculty, and her advisors have a policy of strongly discouraging anyone from seeking academic employment in history unless they are studying Asia or Africa. So it certainly isn't good.

Whether philosophy is any better, I'm not sure. But the thing is, you have to consider not only the philosophy market, but the sub-market for history of philosophy, Medieval specifically. And that's also a very very bad market, at least from all the data that has been made available by the APA and all the philosophy bloggers and so on. The less in-demand (or the more over-represented) your sub-field is, the harder it is to get a job.

Edited by philosopuppy

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12 minutes ago, philosopuppy said:

My partner is in history, at a non-fancy but R1 university with a pretty strong faculty, and her advisors have a policy of strongly discouraging anyone from seeking academic employment in history unless they are studying Asia or Africa. So it certainly isn't good.

The African history market is way down the last two years, too. It's pretty bad all around, even worse for students coming from programs outside the top 15.

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I am a non-phil major (chemistry and creative writing, so even further removed from the field than you are) and I was able to successfully apply to and secure a funded MA position during this past cycle (although I did cut it a little close; I got a few non-funded MA offers, and was going to take an offer with an assistanship that would have still required me to pay tuition at a school in Canada until April 9th, when i got my funding offer from the school I will be attending come fall).  I did have a few things going for me (I won a research fellowship for the summer between my junior and senior year, and used that research to write what I think was a really good writing sample, and I had one fairly prestigious letter writer).  My GPA was lower than yours, and I think my GREs were comparable.  So, I think it's definitely possible for you to make this happen, and I think that with the advice thus far in this thread (really knuckle down on your writing sample, try to take or audit graduate courses at your current institution if you're eligible as an employee, get that minor, etc.) you'll have no problem.  I'm sure you know this from applying to programs before, and I'm sure that you'd find it elsewhere, but really nail in your personal statement why you're making this shift from history to philosophy; that'll convince adcoms that you're serious and help to demonstrate to them why you're worth the "risk." 

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Posted (edited)
4 hours ago, philosopuppy said:

But the thing is, you have to consider not only the philosophy market, but the sub-market for history of philosophy, Medieval specifically. And that's also a very very bad market, at least from all the data that has been made available by the APA and all the philosophy bloggers and so on. The less in-demand (or the more over-represented) your sub-field is, the harder it is to get a job.

This is a good point, although there's always the option of having it as an AOC rather than an AOI, I suppose.

Edited by hector549

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FWIW, my anecdotal impression (from my acquaintances in history) is also that the job market there is better than in philosophy, though still terrible. Think along the lines of 100-200 applicants per job, vs. 300-600.

Also, as everyone else has said, avoid Chicago's cash cows.

It's totally possible to transition into philosophy from outside. It's not even all that hard, in the sense that loads of people do it. While a Master's degree in philosophy would certainly help, the most important thing is to make sure that your writing sample is up to snuff, and clearly philosophical. After that, work hard on your statement of interest, and on explaining why you want to move into philosophy. Clear and distinct (!) reasons are better than generalities, here: you need to make the case that you're serious about philosophy, and that it's the best disciplinary fit for you.

All that said, it's worth reiterating that although the history of philosophy job market is much better than the market for most other general areas, it varies a lot by historical subfield. And scholastic/medieval's job market is terribad. On the order of 1-2 jobs a year (almost always at Catholic institutions). And although there are lots more open/open jobs, they don't often seem to go to scholars working in that time period.

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3 hours ago, maxhgns said:

All that said, it's worth reiterating that although the history of philosophy job market is much better than the market for most other general areas, it varies a lot by historical subfield. And scholastic/medieval's job market is terribad. On the order of 1-2 jobs a year (almost always at Catholic institutions). And although there are lots more open/open jobs, they don't often seem to go to scholars working in that time period.

To echo this point, I think things are starting to get even worse for the humanities even at places that should be committed to them. I've heard that Duquesne is going to ax its classics department, for example: https://twitter.com/ariellecohen/status/1118984345577054209?s=03

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6 hours ago, maxhgns said:

FWIW, my anecdotal impression (from my acquaintances in history) is also that the job market there is better than in philosophy, though still terrible. Think along the lines of 100-200 applicants per job, vs. 300-600.

Depends on position. It's not uncommon for a US history job to have 400 applicants, but it's also worth pointing out that US history is an incredibly oversaturated market. I don't know what the equivalent in philosophy would be.

2 hours ago, mithrandir8 said:

To echo this point, I think things are starting to get even worse for the humanities even at places that should be committed to them. I've heard that Duquesne is going to ax its classics department, for example: https://twitter.com/ariellecohen/status/1118984345577054209?s=03

I definitely agree about this. Whether or not it's nice to say, there are far too many humanities PhD programs that cannot reasonably justify their own existence. Brian Leiter made this point years ago about Philosophy departments, but it's clearly true for history as well.

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23 hours ago, psstein said:

Just on a pure job market level, history's job market is better than philosophy's. I too, find intellectual history fascinating, which sort of puts us both in a tough situation. As you no doubt know, many scholars look at intellectual history with moderate suspicion. They suspect it's a way to disproportionately focus on dead European males, while Pocock and others have shown multiple ways forward. 

My own irritation aside, a few questions: what specifically interests you about Scholastic metaphysics? What research question would you try to answer in a dissertation, and what would your methodology be? If you're asking a historical question like "what intellectual currents caused Anscombe to meld Thomist thought with Wittgenstein's thought?" then you should be in a history department. 

 Getting a minor, and developing a top quality philosophy writing sample would almost certainly help your case. 

 I wouldn't go for the MAPSS. It's not cheap, and unless you've serious gaps in your preparation (e.g. you need to know Latin, but don't), a terminal MA isn't tremendously useful. 

I will admit that my interest in Scholastic metaphysics is rather broad and my number one priority right now is narrowing down towards a research question. I would say that my highest interest is in the way St. Thomas and the scholastics restated and used Artistotle's four causes and principles.

I asked my original question because I have two ways of stating my determined question, one in terms of philosophy and one in terms of history. If I were to frame my study in terms of philosophy, I would want to examine a question such as: "How can the principle of motion (for example) be defended against Humean scepticism?"

From a historical perspective, I would want to examine the question of the early modern transition away from metaphysics, essentially: "what grounds did Descartes, Spinoza, etc give for abandoning Aristotle's causes? Where they intellectual or did they stem from political/cultural/"practical" origins? Did they make any real attempt to respond to the questions posed by the Medieval Scholastics?

I came up with these examples somewhat off the cuff, but I hope they help explain where my thinking is. As for MAPSS, unfortunately your example of a serious gap was right on the money as I would probably need to know Latin but don't. I have a professor who is willing to tutor me and possibly build an intermediate independent study for me, but it is still a serious issue.

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6 hours ago, maxhgns said:

FWIW, my anecdotal impression (from my acquaintances in history) is also that the job market there is better than in philosophy, though still terrible. Think along the lines of 100-200 applicants per job, vs. 300-600.

 Also, as everyone else has said, avoid Chicago's cash cows.

It's totally possible to transition into philosophy from outside. It's not even all that hard, in the sense that loads of people do it. While a Master's degree in philosophy would certainly help, the most important thing is to make sure that your writing sample is up to snuff, and clearly philosophical. After that, work hard on your statement of interest, and on explaining why you want to move into philosophy. Clear and distinct (!) reasons are better than generalities, here: you need to make the case that you're serious about philosophy, and that it's the best disciplinary fit for you.

 All that said, it's worth reiterating that although the history of philosophy job market is much better than the market for most other general areas, it varies a lot by historical subfield. And scholastic/medieval's job market is terribad. On the order of 1-2 jobs a year (almost always at Catholic institutions). And although there are lots more open/open jobs, they don't often seem to go to scholars working in that time period.

I'm under no illusions as to the current job market. I've been out of undergrad for about two years and the main reason I didn't initially go to grad school is because I got scared off by people telling me that I would never have a job, and that resulted in a six month stint volunteering abroad and an aborted foray into law school. Whether I go into history or philosophy, I'm at peace with the notion I meant spend a long time as an adjunct working for relatively little.

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Posted (edited)
2 hours ago, Casual Thomist said:

I will admit that my interest in Scholastic metaphysics is rather broad and my number one priority right now is narrowing down towards a research question. I would say that my highest interest is in the way St. Thomas and the scholastics restated and used Artistotle's four causes and principles.

I asked my original question because I have two ways of stating my determined question, one in terms of philosophy and one in terms of history. If I were to frame my study in terms of philosophy, I would want to examine a question such as: "How can the principle of motion (for example) be defended against Humean scepticism?"

From a historical perspective, I would want to examine the question of the early modern transition away from metaphysics, essentially: "what grounds did Descartes, Spinoza, etc give for abandoning Aristotle's causes? Where they intellectual or did they stem from political/cultural/"practical" origins? Did they make any real attempt to respond to the questions posed by the Medieval Scholastics?

I came up with these examples somewhat off the cuff, but I hope they help explain where my thinking is. As for MAPSS, unfortunately your example of a serious gap was right on the money as I would probably need to know Latin but don't. I have a professor who is willing to tutor me and possibly build an intermediate independent study for me, but it is still a serious issue.

No, that really helps. You might do really well in a history/phil. of science program (e.g. Pittsburgh, who have faculty who love this sort of work). Your proposed project sounds absolutely fascinating to me, as historians of science have usually assumed that Galileo's world system finally killed Aristotelianism. There's a lot of good literature to this end, most of which is tied to the Sci. Rev. one way or another. Even of the questions you've put forward, I'd encourage an even narrower dive into one, as well as situating yourself within the literature. I'm happy to point you towards works on the history and phil. of science side.

There are also, generally speaking, ways to learn how to read Latin without MA coursework. I'd also point out that many, if not most early modernists, aren't talented Latin scholars. Most know enough Latin to muddle through sources with a dictionary and a grammar. If you're self-motivated, there are some great self study aids out there, and not just the rather dry Wheelock's Latin.

Edited by psstein

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1 hour ago, psstein said:

No, that really helps. You might do really well in a history/phil. of science program (e.g. Pittsburgh, who have faculty who love this sort of work). Your proposed project sounds absolutely fascinating to me, as historians of science have usually assumed that Galileo's world system finally killed Aristotelianism. There's a lot of good literature to this end, most of which is tied to the Sci. Rev. one way or another. Even of the questions you've put forward, I'd encourage an even narrower dive into one, as well as situating yourself within the literature. I'm happy to point you towards works on the history and phil. of science side.

 There are also, generally speaking, ways to learn how to read Latin without MA coursework. I'd also point out that many, if not most early modernists, aren't talented Latin scholars. Most know enough Latin to muddle through sources with a dictionary and a grammar. If you're self-motivated, there are some great self study aids out there, and not just the rather dry Wheelock's Latin.

I would definitely be interested in looking at any literature you can throw my way from either perspective. What prompted the question in my mind is some assertions from modern day Thomists who say that while yeah, Galileo's world system was the nail in the coffin for Aristotle's physics, it was not for his metaphysics and the philosophy of nature behind them; I'm curious to see if they're right or not. 

Latin would be important if I wanted to make the transition into philosophy and make an examination of metaphysics/philosophy of nature the center of research, since St. Thomas Aquinas would definitely be at the center of that. Any way I can get that background without sinking sixty grand into a year in Chicago would be a big plus.

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14 hours ago, Casual Thomist said:

I would definitely be interested in looking at any literature you can throw my way from either perspective. What prompted the question in my mind is some assertions from modern day Thomists who say that while yeah, Galileo's world system was the nail in the coffin for Aristotle's physics, it was not for his metaphysics and the philosophy of nature behind them; I'm curious to see if they're right or not.

Yes, I've read that too, especially from Edward Feser.

Right, the first book you should look at is H. Floris Cohen, The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). I'd strongly advise not reading the whole thing, as it's often a summary of existing scholarship. I'd recommend reading the relevant sections and then examining the footnotes. That would probably be the best use of your time.

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1 hour ago, psstein said:

Yes, I've read that too, especially from Edward Feser.

Right, the first book you should look at is H. Floris Cohen, The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). I'd strongly advise not reading the whole thing, as it's often a summary of existing scholarship. I'd recommend reading the relevant sections and then examining the footnotes. That would probably be the best use of your time.

Edward Feser's comments are really what sparked my interest in the time period. Thanks for all the advice!

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