Choosing a Program

As of 2009, the major alternatives for pursuing a Ph.D. in Chinese philosophy at an English-speaking university are the following:

  • Study with a specialist in Chinese philosophy in a department not highly ranked in the Philosophical Gourmet Report. The advantage of this route is that your scholarship will benefit if you work with a supervisor who is deeply engaged with the texts in the original language. The disadvantage is that you attend a less prestigious department, with less renowned faculty.

  • Study in a higher-ranked department with a non-specialist who publishes in Chinese philosophy. This alternative gives you the advantage of studying in a more prominent department. But it is a reasonable choice only if you already have the requisite linguistic and Sinological knowledge, including familiarity with the Chinese texts. And it is a disadvantage not to work with a supervisor who can scrutinize your interpretations of the primary source texts.

      Reminder: I’m construing a “specialist” as a scholar whose own postgraduate training was largely in Chinese philosophy, whose publications are mainly devoted to Chinese philosophy, and who can provide training in reading Chinese philosophical texts in the original language.

  • Earn a master’s degree with a specialist in Chinese philosophy and then a Ph.D. from a higher-ranked department, preferably supervised by a scholar who publishes in Chinese philosophy. This alternative combines some of the advantages of the first two while mitigating their disadvantages.

  • Study in a highly ranked—say, world top twenty—program under the supervision of a non-specialist who does not publish in Chinese thought. The advantage of this route is that attending a very strong program will foster your overall philosophical development. The disadvantage is that it’s unlikely you could do satisfactory doctoral research on Chinese philosophy without supervision by someone who publishes in the field.


  • If you intend to specialize in Chinese philosophy, it is crucial to read the primary texts in the original language and to discuss them regularly with a supervisor and other colleagues who also do so. Hence I strongly recommend spending at least part of your postgraduate career studying under the supervision of a specialist, either by pursuing the Ph.D. in a department with a specialist or by first doing a master’s with a specialist and then going on to a higher-ranked program for the Ph.D.

  • Choose a program primarily on the basis of your interests, your affinity with a prospective supervisor, the academic environment in that department, and whether the department can provide rigorous general philosophical training. Since no program where you can do Chinese philosophy ranks especially high, PGR rankings should be at most only a minor factor in your choice.

  • Read some of a prospective supervisor’s work before choosing a program. Try to find a supervisor whose interests and approach are compatible with yours and who is likely to be a helpful, challenging mentor. Contact potential supervisors before applying to programs to confirm they will be available and to see what suggestions they may have concerning your study plans. Your choice of a supervisor is perhaps the most important factor affecting the quality of your postgraduate education.

  • As you will (most likely) be coming out of a department that lacks the cachet of an Oxford or a Princeton, take steps to boost your job prospects in other ways. Publish early, obtain letters of recommendation from influential scholars, and get some teaching experience. Attend conferences and correspond with specialists whose work interests you. Since Chinese philosophy is a small, tightly-knit field, one or two good publications and several strong letters of recommendation can enhance your profile significantly.

  • If by chance you are admitted to Oxford, Princeton, or another top-tier school, I suggest you enroll and change your area of specialization from Chinese philosophy to a field more in line with that program’s resources. If you like, study Chinese thought independently, as a secondary interest. Get some grounding in classical Chinese and take advantage of email and blogs to discuss issues with specialists. If you establish some basic competence in Chinese philosophy, you can consider developing it as an additional area of specialization later in your career. (The ability to teach an introductory course on Chinese philosophy will come in useful no matter what your specialization.)