The challenges of doing a PhD



If you have successfully completed an MA in Philosophy, and you are still interested in the subject, you may want to think doing a PhD. It’s a big decision, though. We have prepared this page with some advice on how to think about it.

The most important thing is the topic. You have to find something that really grabs you. Not a general area of philosophy, not a particular philosopher -- but a real problem, based on a deep disagreement in the literature. Think about some of the MA essays that really grabbed you, on topics where you have a lot more to say. Read around the topic to look for gaps in existing literature. Contact a member of the UCD Philosophy faculty to talk through the problem with them.

Once you find the right topic, writing a doctoral dissertation can be an exhilarating experience, and can transform your understanding of the world, and of you place in the world. But your decision to attempt one is a very personal one, and requires caution and self-reflection. Three big things to bear in mind:

First, the practicalities. The PhD in Philosophy usually involves four years of full-time study, and you have to be realistic about the money situation. That means tuition fees (see the UCD tuition fees page) as well as the high living expenses in Dublin (although you can commute from elsewhere in your third and fourth year). You may also be able to find a part-time job, while being careful that such a job does not take up too much time or energy. The School has only a small number of European tuition waivers to offer, which will not help with living costs (see our PG Funding Opportunities page). In addition, all PhD students are encouraged to apply for an Irish Research Council Fellowship (see the IRC page), but these are very competitive.

Second, the intellectual task. Writing your MA dissertation will have given you some sense of what writing a doctoral dissertation requires. But remember that an MA dissertation is only 12,000 words, and a PhD is seven times longer: about 80,000 words. And the difference between the two is not just a matter of length; the PhD dissertation needs to demonstrate your mastery of your chosen area of philosophy, and you have to articulate and defend a genuinely original thesis. That means a massive amount of reading and writing – and re-writing, and re-writing, and re-writing. For that reason, your initial research idea has to be as detailed as possible before you commit yourself; if in any doubt, you should postpone your beginning by six months or a year and do more preliminary work. (We offer the opportunity to begin in September or January in a given academic year.)

Given the size of the challenge, we recommend that you start by taking a “MLitt/PhD degree”. After your first year, it will be much clearer whether you want to go down the MLitt route or the PhD route. An MLitt lasts 2-3 years, the dissertation is only 40,000 words long, and is a very respectable achievement in its own right. Alternatively, you can apply to “transfer” into the full PhD programme.

Third, the question of motivation. Although a PhD in Philosophy is a necessary condition for a career as an academic philosopher, unfortunately it is nowhere near a sufficient condition. To put it bluntly, there are many more people with PhDs in Philosophy than there are academic job opportunities. So given the size of your investment in the PhD, you have to have a Plan B if – as is most likely – you will not secure an academic job. A PhD and an MLitt is still an excellent qualification for lots of other jobs, though, since it shows you can design and plan a large project; work independently and with colleagues; apply for funding; carry out detailed research; present your findings both in written form and in person; and network. Some of our PhD graduates have gone on to work in journalism, in research think tanks, in different parts of the civil service, in academic administration, in secondary school teaching, and in marketing companies.

All this by way of warning. We’re not trying to put you off, but you have to be realistic about the situation before you commit yourself to the PhD or the MLitt. Once you do commit yourself, please be assured that the UCD School of Philosophy – and especially your allocated supervisor – will do its best to support you through the whole four years. You will also benefit from our community of two dozen other PhD students in the School, as well as other PhD students in the College of Social Sciences.