How to Apply

The Department offers admission in the fall only for its Ph.D. program. (Please note that there is no separate M.A. program in philosophy.)

Application may be made online. Applicants must submit official transcripts, three letters of recommendation, and a sample of philosophical writing. Brown Philosophy Department no longer requires GRE scores to apply to its PhD program (no advanced subject test is required either). The application deadline is 2 January.


Inquiries regarding graduate admissions should be directed to the Graduate School and not to the Director of Graduate Studies. This includes questions about waiver of the application fee. (See here for information.) The Director of Graduate Studies is responsible only for the Graduate Program and plays no role in the admissions process.

The Department is not able to schedule individual meetings with prospective applicants. There are simply too many prospective applicants for that to be practical. This website, and faculty member's individual websites (see here), should answer most questions about the PhD program, faculty research interests, and the like. Admitted students will be invited to visit the department in late March or early April, expenses being paid by the University (except in the case of some international students).

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Application Advice

Students who are interested in applying to graduate school are often puzzled by the application process. This page is intended to provide some guidance. 

The best guidance will, however, be provided by a student's own undergraduate advisors and mentors. Almost every professor you have was once an undergraduate nervous about applying to graduate school, and most of them are happy to talk about their experience.

(Alex Guerrero, from Rutgers, also has some advice for prospective applicants.)

The Application Process

Application deadlines are typically in mid-January, but some departments, including Brown's, have deadlines at the beginning of January. It is really best to think, then, in terms of 1 January and, with the holidays being just before that, in terms of mid-December.  

Philosophy Department deadline for Fall 2023 Admission will be January 2, 2023 before 12 midnight.

Application Documents

Departments make their admissions decisions based on all of the information available to them. It is very important that applicants have solid grades, and not just in philosophy. Most programs expect a student to have exposed themselves to other areas of learning, especially when those other areas are relevant to the areas of philosophy in which they are interested. Thus, for example, students interested in political philosophy should strongly consider taking some courses in political science; those interested in philosophy of language, in linguistics; in the history of philosophy, in relevant areas of history or history of science; and so on.

It is also important that students take a wide range of philosophy courses. It is natural to 'specialize' and take a large number of courses in a specific area of central interest. But it is equally important to have a solid undergraduate education in philosophy generally and particularly, for our program, in contemporary analytic philosophy, both on the 'metaphysics and epistemology' side and on the 'value theory' side, as well as in the history of philosophy. (Breadth is as important as depth, here as elsewhere.) That one has satisfied the requirements for a concentration (or 'major') in philosophy does not guarantee that they have such a broad education: There are different ways one can satisfy those requirements, and some ways of doing so will leave gaping holes. Students interested in pursuing graduate study should therefore consult with the undergraduate advisor, or some other mentor, no later than the second semester of the junior year regarding selection of courses.

The 'statement of purpose' is intended to give the admissions committee some general information about why a particular applicant wants to go to graduate school and what they intend to do once they get there. Do not tell a long story beginning, "Ever since my childhood, I've wondered about my dreams", although, if there are specific life-experiences which have sparked or sustained an interest in philosophy, these may be worth mentioning.

It is not expected that applicants will be able to commit themselves to some very specific project for their dissertation. Indeed, many students find that, when they get to graduate school and are exposed to a wider range of philosophical thought than they were previously, their interests change quite dramatically. Many programs will be suspicious of applicants who seem not to be interested in philosophy but only in some very small fragment of it.

What you should do in your statement of purpose is explain, as clearly and (nota bene) concisely as you are able, what it is about philosophy has so gripped you that you are considering graduate study. It is an odd way to spend one's life. What is it about philosophy that makes you want to spend the next six or so years of your life studying it? To spend at least three years writing a dissertation on one, small topic? And to spend the rest of your life pursuing research, teaching philosophy to unsuspecting teenagers, and so on and so forth? Your statement should include a serious explanation of your interests, as you now find them to be. And it is worth also including a reasonable assessment of what you hope to accomplish when you enroll in graduate school: Are there specific areas of philosophy about which you would like to learn more? Are there specific areas which bear upon your main areas of interest which you think you need to know more about?

Note that it's best to be detailed. Don't just say you're interested in meta-ethics. What questions interest you? What have you done to pursue these interests?

The statement of purpose is also the one chance the admissions committee has to get to know you a bit as a person. Graduate school is hard, and, while the love of philosophy will take you some distance, there are other intellectual and personal virtues that are important as well, such as persistence and an ability to respond well to (constructive) criticism. Departments are also communities of scholars, who work and learn together, and an ability to 'play well with others' is important. Most departments also value a diversity of perspectives. So, if there are particular life experiences that speak to these aspects of your personality, you should feel free to discuss them.

The letters of recommendation are one of the two most important parts of the application. It is typically these on which admission to the committee's shortlist will turn, and admission itself depends heavily upon the contents of these letters. Remember that the admissions committee has very little information available to it. It is therefore happy to rely upon colleagues who, presumably, have access to more information.

Because the letters are so important, anyone who thinks they even might be interested in graduate study must work to develop close professional relationships with at least two members of the faculty before the senior year. The reason for this is that, given the large enrollment of most courses, it is difficult for any faculty member to get to know all of the students in any particular such course. And it is, as should be clear, impossible for a faculty member to write a cogent, informed letter for a student if they know of that student only as one among many members of one large lecture course. The best letters of recommendation are detailed, speaking honestly and convincingly about both the student's strengths and weaknesses, and good letters say something interesting, and equally convincing, about the applicant's potential for further growth and development.

How can one develop such relationships? Most obviously, by attending professors' office hours to discuss the material from lecture. Do not feel as though you have to have a question fully worked out before going to office hours. It's fine simply to want to talk about something you don't quite understand or something from the reading that is bothering you. Office hours are for just such things. (You would perhaps be surprised how often some faculty sit in their office hours wishing a student would come talk to them.)

Ideally, applicants will have three letters from philosophers who know them well. Letters from non-philosophers usually carry less weight. Such people may be able to speak to your general abilities as a student and scholar, but often they do not know much about philosophy and so cannot speak specifically to your potential as a philosopher. (Of course, there are exceptions: professors in other departments who are philosophically sophisticated.) It is also better to have letters from faculty than from graduate TAs, simply because the former have more experience than the latter. But, at the same time, a letter from someone who knows you really well is better than one from someone who can only speak in generalities. So this can be a balancing act. Talk with your mentors about whom you should ask for letters.

The writing sample is perhaps the single most important part of the application. Almost always, it is what will decide an application's fate. An application with a poor writing sample, but stellar letters and grades, will gain acceptance almost nowhere, since the poor quality of the writing tends to undermine one's confidence in the letters; but one with middling letters and an excellent writing sample might still stand a chance. (Strong grades are just assumed here: The writing sample won't get read if the grades are mediocre.) It is, therefore, not a good idea simply to select some paper that got an 'A' and submit it unchanged. You should, rather, look upon the task of producing a writing sample as if it were an additional course and plan to devote a fair amount of time just to this task.

It is, for this reason, also rarely a good idea to submit a paper one is writing for a course taught in the fall of the senior year (if that is when one is preparing the application). There is just not enough time to polish such a piece for inclusion as a writing sample. A better idea is to use a successful paper written in the junior year as the foundation for your writing sample, and then to work on it further, doing additional reading, polishing the arguments, getting feedback on drafts, and so on and so forth. You can begin this process by discussing the comments you received on the paper with your instructor. Note that this is also a good way to strengthen your relationship with that instructor and so to give them a solid basis for a letter of recommendation.

A good writing sample addresses a substantial philosophical problem, whether it amounts to a critical evaluation of an argument or a serious attempt to interpret difficult philosophical texts. Mere reports of what some philosopher or other thinks—or mere 'compare and contrast' efforts—are not likely to impress. Do not, however, think that you have to make an original contribution to the area about which you are writing to produce a solid writing sample. Very few undergraduates are capable of writing such a paper. Still, though, you should be thinking for yourself: We want to see that you are able to do philosophy, not just talk about it.

Mostly, admissions committees are looking for two things: promise and a solid basis from which a student can start learning to do original philosophical work. What the writing sample should demonstrate, then, is that you have acquired the basic skills needed for the serious study of philosophy: An ability to read and write philosophy and to think critically and creatively about philosophical problems.

The writing sample needs, as was said, to be a substantial piece of work. It should therefore be at least 12–15 pages long, as it is hard to do anything serious in less space. It should not be excessively long: The members of admissions committees, being human, have been known to get annoyed by overly long writing samples; they simply do not have the time to read 40 pages from every applicant. Rarely will there be any reason to go over 20 pages, and 25 pages is probably an absolute maximum. Generally speaking, it's not a good idea, either, to submit a longer piece of work, such as a senior thesis, even if you indicate to the committee that there is some portion of it that you would really like them to read. It is far better to re-work the relevant material so that you can be sure it is self-contained.

It is permissible to submit more than one sample of writing, but you should not do so unless you have some very good reason. (An example of a good reason: You have serious interests both in the philosophy of language and in Aristotle.) If you do submit more than one sample of work, you should indicate which of the pieces you intend as primary and which as supplemental, in case the committee deems itself unable to read everything (as is likely).

You should be absolutely certain to proofread thoroughly: Do not trust spell-checkers and the like to do this for you. It is a good idea, too, to have friends read through the paper and comment upon your style, grammar, and so forth. The paper needs to be well-written: Being able to write well is an absolutely fundamental prerequisite for graduate study. (You will learn to write better as a graduate student, but you need to have a solid foundation already.) Make sure, too, that your citations are in good order, that quotations and footnotes are properly formatted, and so on and so forth: You want your paper to look as if you've spent real time with it—and as if you are proud of it.

Finally, the writing sample does not have to be connected, in any way, with the area or areas you think you most want to pursue in graduate school. So long as your record shows a sufficient foundation to pursue those areas, a writing sample in some other area might even impress the committee as a demonstration of your philosophical breadth. Your faculty advisers can help you choose a paper that would be appropriate for a writing sample.