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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.


Admission to the Ph.D. program requires an M.A. in Philosophy or an equivalent degree. There is also a possibility for students enrolled in McMaster’s M.A. program in Philosophy to be accepted into the Ph.D. program without completing the M.A. degree, subject to their satisfying certain conditions for excellent progress in their first year. Selection is made by the Ph.D. Program Committee of the Department of Philosophy, and any student admitted comes under the general regulations of McMaster University.

Any applicant whose first language is not English and who has not completed a degree within an accredited university in a program whose primary language of instruction is English must submit evidence of proficiency in English. Please see under the Language Requirements tab for an enumeration of the exams and minimum scores that constitute sufficient evidence.

Supervisory Committee

A student’s Supervisory Committee is formed no later than six months after the candidate begins in the doctoral program.

The committee is comprised of the student’s Supervisor, who normally acts as Chair, together with two other members. The Supervisor has primary responsibility for monitoring the student’s progress. Until such time as the Supervisory Committee has been appointed, its function will be carried out by the Ph.D. 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;
  • conducting annual reviews of the candidate’s progress;
  • 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. Graduate courses completed before commencing the Ph.D. program can be counted towards satisfying the area requirements. The Ph.D. Advisor will determine into which of these areas of philosophy each course falls. 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 M.A. 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 courses in total: five one-term courses, plus the Ph.D. Research Seminar in their second year. 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

One of the candidate’s six 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. 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.

The final grade for the Seminar 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 Ph.D. Program may be required to demonstrate competence in one or more skills which their Supervisory Committee decides, in consultation with the Ph.D. 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. 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 Ph.D. of at least 9.5. The QE is an oral examination of the QE document that the student prepares in consultation with her Supervisor and the other members of her Supervisory Committee. This document must include the following:

Statement of Preparation: A 250-500 word written statement explaining how their courses, area selections, language proficiency, and other relevant knowledge (for instance in logic or other academic fields relevant to the proposed research) have prepared them for their thesis research. This statement should be appended to the Thesis Proposal.

Thesis Proposal: A written thesis proposal of no more than 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
  • QE Timeline

Doctoral students are expected to submit a draft QE document to their supervisor no later than the 17th month of enrollment in the Program (typically, the end of January of the second year). Students who are unable to meet this expectation must notify the Ph.D. Advisor via e-mail. To remain in the Ph.D. Program, the student must pass the QE by the end of the 24th month of enrollment (typically the end of August of the second year). Any student unable to meet this deadline due to medical or personal emergencies is advised to consult the Ph.D. Advisor to discuss the possibility of petitioning the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) for an extension. Note that SGS’s discretion to grant such requests is strictly limited to exigent circumstances.

A student who fails her first QE may attempt the QE a second time, but only if there is adequate time to do so before the end of the 24-month deadline for passing the QE. To ensure adequate time for a second attempt, the student is advised to schedule her first QE by the end of the 21st month of enrollment (typically May of the second year). Students who fail the second attempt will not be allowed to remain in the Program.

Criteria for Examiners

The Supervisory Committee’s task at the QE is to assess the viability of the thesis project and whether the student is adequately prepared to undertake it. 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 examiners will make their judgment as to the success of the examination on the basis of both the written document and the candidate’s performance in the oral examination. The outcome of the QE is reported to the School of Graduate Studies as “Pass with Distinction”, “Pass”, or “Fail”

Thesis and Defense

The student prepares the thesis in consultation with the Supervisor and the other members of the Supervisory Committee. With the approval of the Supervisory Committee, 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 Ph. D. Program Committee on the recommendation of the Supervisory Committee.