Have a Question? Contact the Humanities Office or an Academic Unit

Ph.D. Program Details

To read the most current version of the Department’s Ph.D. program regulations, click here. McMaster University also has its own general regulations for Ph.D. candidates, which can be found in the University calendar.


Applicants who are not Canadian and whose native language is not English must submit evidence of proficiency in the English language. Applicants who have passed the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or a suitable equivalent should submit their scores as part of their application.

Usually, an applicant must possess a Master’s degree in philosophy to be eligible for consideration for admission into the doctoral program. Applicants are not normally accepted if they have completed all their previous studies in philosophy at McMaster.

Normally students are admitted to the Program only on a full-time basis. Students admitted on a part-time basis must must pass the Qualifying Examination by their 36th month in the Program.

Supervisory Committee

A candidate’s Supervisory Committee is formed no later than six months after the candidate begins in the doctoral program. Candidates are required to provide a short statement of their research plans during their first term in the program.

The committee is comprised of the candidate’s Supervisor, who normally acts as Chair, together with two other philosophers. The Supervisor has primary responsibility for monitoring the candidate’s progress. Until such time as the Supervisory Committee has been appointed, its function will be carried out by the PhD Advisor. Wherever possible, a supervisor will be assigned to a candidate on the basis of their common research interests as soon as the candidate begins in the doctoral program.

The functions of the supervisory committee include:

  • assisting the candidate in planning the balance of a course of study and recommending that course of study to the Program Committee;
  • conducting annual reviews of the candidate’s progress and reporting regularly on that progress to the Program Committee;
  • conducting the candidate’s Qualifying Examination;
  • supervising a candidate’s thesis;
  • recommending external examiners to the Program Committee;
  • examining the thesis in accordance with the regulations of the university.

Notwithstanding the responsibilities of the Supervisor and the Supervisory Committee, the candidate is responsible for ensuring that Program requirements and deadlines are met.

Area Requirements

Ph.D. candidates are required to demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of the central areas of philosophy by demonstrating competence in 5 areas of philosophy from the 2 lists below. No more than three areas may be selected from one list:



Ancient and Medieval Philosophy Ethics and Value Theory
Modern Philosophy 1600 to 1800 Metaphysics and Epistemology
Continental Philosophy from 1800 Social, Political, and Legal Philosophy
British and American Philosophy from 1800 Logic, Philosophy of Language, and Philosophy of Science

Competence in a given field may be demonstrated by completing two graduate (one term) courses with at least a B+ (or equivalent) in each course. Normally the following are recognized as equivalents of two one-term courses:

  • A three hour written examination on selected primary texts in the field. The examination may be repeated only once.
  • A successful MA thesis defense.
  • A successful Ph.D. Qualifying Examination.
  • A published paper, subject to approval by the Program Committee, provided that it appear in a peer-reviewed professional journal in philosophy (graduate-student edited journals are specifically excluded).


Ph.D. students take six one-term courses. In special circumstances this load may be reduced, but all candidates must take at least four courses. Graduate students may select from Philosophy graduate courses at McMaster, Wilfrid Laurier University, and University of Guelph.

Satisfactory performance in course work requires no grade lower than B-minus (or equivalent). A student receiving a grade lower than B-minus (or equivalent) shall be considered to be making unsatisfactory progress.

Ph.D. Research Seminar

At least one of the candidate’s courses is the Ph.D. Research Seminar. Its objectives are to foster constructive dialogue amongst students and faculty and to encourage students to formulate their research in a philosophically sound manner. Students are expected to produce clear, expository and critical writing for each meeting of the seminar. Candidates on a six-course load may take the Research Seminar for credit twice (with different course content), but all candidates must take it at least once. The Seminar is offered under the direction of one faculty member, although all interested faculty and students are informed of the schedule and invited to attend. Supervisors are expected to attend when their supervisee is presenting.

Final grade is pass/fail. (NB: Failure of the Ph.D. Research Seminar amounts to unsatisfactory progress and may result in withdrawal from the Program).

Demonstration of Competence

Students in the Program may be required to demonstrate competence in one or more skills which their Supervisory Committee decides, in consultation with the PhD Advisor, to be necessary for their thesis (e.g. logic or a language other than English). The Supervisory Committee will normally decide on the type and level of competence required formally, at its first annual meeting with the student. However the student should meet with his or her Supervisor as soon as possible after initial registration to determine which competencies, if any, the student is likely to be asked to demonstrate. Normally the student will demonstrate the required competencies before being allowed to proceed to a Qualifying Examination.

Qualifying Examination

The purpose of the Qualifying Examination (QE) is to ensure that the candidate has a viable thesis proposal and the background to carry it through successfully. This is an oral examination on a written statement of relevant background and a written thesis proposal. The proposal includes the title of the thesis and a bibliography of the works central to the study. Doctoral students must submit a draft of their thesis proposal to their supervisor by the end of their 17th month of the program. The Examination is conducted by the student’s Supervisory Committee and is chaired by the PhD Advisor or delegate, who provides a copy of the student’s academic record for the information of the examiners. In order to be eligible to take the QE the student must have achieved (by the end of the 20th month in the program) a GPA on courses taken towards the PhD of at least 9.5.


Candidates submit a 500-1000 word written statement of how their courses, area selections, language proficiency, and other relevant knowledge (for instance in logic or other academic fields referent to the proposed research) have prepared them for their thesis research.

Thesis Proposal

Candidates submit a written thesis proposal of 3000-5000 words (not including bibliography) addressing the following points:

  • The philosophical importance of the research and the candidate’s anticipated contribution to the subject.
  • A description of the insufficiency of alternative positions in the current literature.
  • A clear statement of the problem that the dissertation proposes to treat and the proposed strategy for addressing it (where possible, students should sketch the argument of the thesis).
  • A working table of contents with a sketch of what each chapter contributes to the overall argument of the dissertation.
  • A working bibliography of the primary and secondary literature.

Criteria for Examiners

Examiners are not treating the examination as a thesis defense, but rather assessing the feasibility of the project and the student’s preparedness to undertake it. They may ask questions covering a wide range of material, but should make their judgment as to the success of the examination on the basis of both the written documents and the candidate’s performance in the examination.

Specifically, examiners should determine:

  • Whether the candidate is adequately prepared, including familiarity with basic and current research trends.
  • Whether the proposed thesis is likely to make a significant contribution to the literature in its area.
  • Whether the thesis as proposed will be of appropriate length, complexity, and difficulty.
  • Whether the proposed strategy is cogent.

The outcome of the Examination is reported to the School of Graduate Studies as “Pass with distinction”, “Pass”, or “Fail”. In the event a student fails the Qualifying Examination s/he will have the opportunity to make a second attempt, provided the 2nd attempt take place by the end of the 24th month period allotted. A second failure will require withdrawal from the Program. A student may petition any of these deadlines on compassionate or medical grounds. The granting of such a petition is at the discretion of the local PhD Advisor in consultation with the student’s Supervisory Committee.

Thesis and Defense

The thesis is prepared in consultation with the Supervisor and the other members of the Supervisory Committee. When they are satisfied, the finished work is submitted to an external examiner. Upon approval by the external examiner, the thesis is defended before members of the Supervisory Committee and one additional examiner, who is either the external examiner or an “internal external” examiner from another McMaster University department. A thesis which exceeds 90,000 words (including appendices, bibliography, and notes) will not be accepted unless permission is granted by the Program Committee on the recommendation of the Supervisory Committee.