Undergraduate Study

Undergraduate Study

Over the years, many high school students or their parents have inquired about how to use the Report with respect to choosing an undergraduate institution. The first point to make is that the focus of this Report is on graduate study only: Pittsburgh may have an outstanding philosophy department, but it might make more sense for a good student interested in philosophy to do his or her undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins or Amherst, where student-faculty ratios are more favorable, and where there is a stronger focus on undergraduate education. Many faculty at major departments did not do their undergraduate work at institutions with top-ranked PhD programs. The tenured faculty at Michigan, for example, includes folks who did undergraduate work at Wesleyan, Tulane, Oberlin, and John Carroll, among other places. The tenured faculty at Texas includes folks who did undergraduate work at Missouri, Michigan State, and UVA. There are eminent philosophers—who have held or now hold tenured posts at top ten departments—who did their undergraduate work at the University of New Mexico, Queens College (New York), University of Pittsburgh or in non-Anglophone colleges and universities. It is possible to get good philosophical training in many undergraduate settings.

High school students interested in philosophy would do best to identify schools that have strong reputations for undergraduate education first. Only then, should they look in to the quality of the philosophy department. Some ranked Ph.D. programs have good reputations for undergraduate education, like Princeton, Yale, Brown, Wash U/St. Louis, Northwestern and Rice, among many others. The larger universities (like Harvard or Michigan or Texas) tend to offer a more mixed undergraduate experience, largely due to their size. Since much of the teaching at those institutions will be done by graduate students, it pays to go to a school with a strong PhD program, since that will affect the intellectual caliber of teachers you will encounter.

Many schools that do not offer a PhD or MA in philosophy, have strong, research-active philosophy faculties, for example, Amherst College, California Institute of Technology, Dartmouth College, Reed College, University of Vermont, Wellesley College, and Western Washington University, among many others. The colleges in the Claremont system (Claremont-McKenna, Pomona, Pitzer etc.) have, collectively, excellent faculty resources for philosophy students as well. Needless to say, many other good liberal arts colleges and universities that only offer a B.A. have strong philosophy faculties (i.e., faculties doing philosophical work at the research university level) and offer good undergraduate programs. In general, when looking at the philosophy department of a liberal arts college or university without a graduate program, you should look at two things.

(1) Does the department provide regular offerings in the history of philosophy (ancient, modern, Continental), formal logic, value theory (moral and political philosophy), and some combination of metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language and philosophy of mind. You will need courses in most of these areas to be adequately prepared for graduate study, not to mention to get a serious education in philosophy.

(2) Where did the faculty earn their Ph.D.? The majority of the faculty at any good department should have earned PhDs from well-ranked programs (as a rule of thumb, those in the top 50). If significant numbers of faculty earned their PhDs elsewhere, be wary. Some liberal arts colleges, even some nationally prominent ones (Grinnell is an example), have philosophy faculties that are now pretty far on the margins of the discipline; by contrast, some strong regional liberal arts colleges have much stronger faculties (Illinois Wesleyan and Lawrence University are examples).

You might also consider contacting the philosophy department at an undergraduate institution you are considering to inquire about where graduates have gone on for Ph.D. study. A school like Reed sends more students on to top Ph.D. programs than most universities within top twenty philosophy departments; that says something important about the quality of the philosophical faculty and curriculum. Amherst also provides interesting and impressive information about its alumni in academia: see