Monday, December 26, 2005

What Next?

With my third year now completed, I'm trying to figure out what to do next. I was going to spend another year getting a double degree, but now I think I'll go straight into honours instead. (The main advantage being saving a year's time in getting into more advanced philosophy. Though as an added bonus, because I've done more than one degree's worth of courses already, I'll be able to discard those three courses where I only got an 'A', thus yielding a perfect GPA for my bachelor's degree.)

The big questions are 'where?', and 'doing what?'. My main goal for now is getting a good grounding in philosophy that will allow me to gain entrance to a top American university (or Oxford or ANU) for graduate study in 2007. Well, that and doing challenging and enjoyable philosophy, of course; but I expect they should go together.

As far as topics go, I'd most want to do some metaphysics and philosophy of mind, then some philosophy of science (especially as I haven't done any yet), and I feel vaguely obligated to get some history of philosophy under my belt at some stage too.

I'm not too sure how the honours thesis works (particularly, how much choice of topic the students have, or how much it is constrained by one's choice of supervisor), but some interesting topics that spring to mind include:
- Modality
- Philosophy of mind, esp. intentionality, subjectivity.
- Micro-macro relationships: reductionism, supervenience, emergence.
- Indirect reasons (the common thread between such diverse issues as: indirect utilitarianism, caring about reliability/knowledge rather than just truth, generalizations, etc.)
- Philosophical logic, e.g. problems involving indexicality, and/or philosophy of probability, esp. the principle of indifference, Bertrand's paradoxes, etc.
- Metaphilosophy, esp. the role of "intuitions" in philosophy.
- Political philosophy of collaboration: open source, creative commons, wikipedia, etc.

It would probably be best if I could get into one of the better Australian universities -- particularly ANU if I'd get to work with philosophers in the RSSS (e.g. Chalmers, Hajek, etc.). But it might be difficult to organize at this late date. In particular, I'd need significant financial assistance, and probably accommodation at a "Halls of Residence" (to make the transition to a new country a little less stressful). So I need to look into whether those are still open possibilities. [Update: looks like accommodation is probably available, but too expensive for me to afford. Honours scholarship applications were due back in October.]

Or I can stay at Canterbury for another year. Some of the offered honours courses do sound quite interesting. In the first semester I would likely do PHIL 453 Cognitive Science and two more out of: PHIL 431 History of Philosophy (Kant), PHIL 433 Moral Philosophy (Punishment), and MATH 441 Computability Theory. In the second semester I would do PHIL 463 Contemporary Philosophy (non-existence), plus choices from PHIL 439 Formal Logic, PHIL 458 Philosophy of Mathematics, and HAPS 401 Philosophy of Science.

Actually, Otago might be worth looking at too. They're a pretty small department, but look well suited to what I'm looking for. There I could do philosophy of science with Alan Musgrave (PHIL 308), metaphysics of modality with Josh Parsons (PHIL 459), would hopefully get one of the above as supervisor for my honours thesis, and have my other course(s) be the interesting-sounding ones on advanced ethics and/or advanced metaphysics. So much metaphysics! It would be wonderful.

Otago's main disadvantage is the lack of any philosophy of mind (for history of philosophy I could sit in on Charles Pigden's 300-level course). Plus financial concerns, as my current scholarship probably won't follow me around the country. But I guess that's what student loans are for.

Any advice is welcome, though obviously I can't promise to give great weight to random blog comments!



  1. There is a nascent world-wide Philosophy of Human Rights growing at:

    Don Kirk

  2. I would try to figure out which areas are most in demand and focus on those, while doing what I really enjoy in my spare time if necessary.

  3. Contrary to Nigel Kearney, I would advise you to do the areas which are of most interest to you, rather than those (you assess to be) most in demand. There are two reasons for this: you'll likely do better in areas of most personal interest, and who knows what areas will be in demand when you complete your PhD.

    I know a philosopher who did his PhD on tense logic under Arthur Prior. Prior advised him to forget this area, as there was no demand for it and never would be. Turns out to be lots of demand for it in computer science. Since even great philosophers, as Prior was, can be ignorant about the future, how much more so the rest of us.

  4. I have to agree with the last comment given above.
    Perhaps this is a very european perspective, but in my case, I first decided about the topic I will write my PhD-thesis, after that I tried to find out who would be a good supervisor for that topic and then I asked him. It was not the other way round. (You know, first to decide at which university you want to make your PhD, after that check out the research areas of respective professors and then to decide about the topic for the PhD thesis.)
    Today I see that this was the right way. The topic I wrote my PhD thesis is a topic only a few philosophers in Germany are specialists about. But this in not the most important thing. Naturally enough, in some sense, you will have to make clear that you thesis is part of an actual debate in philosophy - that it is of interest for the philosophical community so to say. But it would be false to choose an absolut mainstream topic, for that reason.
    In order to write a good - or perhaps an outstanding thesis - you have to be really interested in that topic.

  5. Yes, after following my interests this far (rather than, say, going into law or business), I'm not about to stop now. :)

  6. Having finished my BA last year, I'm now doing a Masters in preparation for a PHD afterwards. I'm not sure where you stand, but if you haven't done a masters I'd heavily recommend it, for getting a bit more knowledge taught to you, to broaden out your knowledge base a bit before specialising heavily, and because it lets you explore some things in more depth before you have to decide what topic you want to commit yourself to for 4 years.


  7. I suggest you ruthlessly work the system.

    Like nigel says you can find those areas that are in most demand, but an even better strategy is to keep in mind exactly how the system works.

    Choose a supervisor who can get things published (has good networks knows editors has publishd works himself) and make sure you get him.

    Work with him on a paper that is similar to his area and make sure that your topic is not too experimental so you can tie it into a solid heavily referenced paper without driving yourself insane.

    To many people tackle a topic because they are interested and because no one has done it sucessfuly before and a few months later realise it is not posible to write a solid thesis on that topic or that it would require another few years of work.

    Also start doing your paper as soon as you can time is precious - start now if you know what you want to do.
    Dont make yourself a sacrificial lamb it will not help anyone.

  8. I still say leave the nest now!

    Otago is a good move, I'd still say Auckland is stronger, one of the strongest departments in this hemisphere, depending on your interests.

    In terms of Aussie, obviously ANU would be good, maybe one of the CAPPE uni's if you are going to get into applied ethics in a big way.

    Otherwise I probably wouldn't bother, they have little more standing than most NZ universities.

    You could go straight to the US now if you wanted (Though I wouldn't recomend it myself) it is common there to enter PHD programs straight from BA, MA there is a terminal degree not a precursor to a PHD as it is in NZ.

    That said I think a BA(Hons) gives you a solid footing, that will give you an advantage in the US. If you want the US I would start preparing now for the tests etc.

    As for topics to research...
    Well I think mix the cynical and the idealist model and come up with something you want to do which can also sell...

    I wrote up a big list of possible topics when I was chosing topics for both PHD and MA and then picked something that I thought I could do in the time available, that was interesting to me, and that I thought would sell.

    I have a friend who did his PHD on the philosophy of Sculpture, where is he now? Working in Immigration... Why? Because there has only ever been one job in philosophy of sculpture and he didn't get it.

    Another tip:

    I myself wrote my MA thesis on the Argument from Evil, arguing (As sumarised badly here: that theodicies are required to rely on consequentialist reasoning if they which to succeed, entitled: God the Utilitarian?
    I did this because I found it geniunely interesting but also because it allowed me to legitimately claim to have worked extensively in both ethical theory, philosophy of religion and applied ethics.

    Thus with one thesis I got myself proof that I was competent in three different areas and allowed myself to apply for a larger array of jobs than if I had just focused on philosophy of religion.

    Likewise my PHD is on Distributive Justice in Health Care because:
    1. There was no advantage to me to stay in philosophy of religion, if I want to research there I can do so once I have a job, but right now the more areas I have the more employable I am.
    2. It gives me Political Philosophy and Medical Ethics which opens up two more job markets, namely politics departments and bioethics departments.

    So my further advice is try to pick topics which cut across several areas of philosophy, ultimately they will make you more employable...


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