Graduate Study in Chinese Philosophy

This page offers suggestions for students considering whether to pursue a Ph.D. specialising in Chinese philosophy. If you do decide to take this route, I suggest you keep the following goals in mind.

1. Linguistic and Sinological training. You want to acquire a general familiarity with Chinese history and culture and professional competence in classical Chinese, modern Chinese, and aspects of philology and history bearing on the primary sources you will work with. Advanced language skills are a tool that can help you make original contributions throughout your career.

If you are a graduate of a Chinese-speaking university program, then you will already have much of the needed competence. If you are from an English-speaking country, you should try to complete at least two years of language training before commencing postgraduate study, so that you can work with the primary texts in the original language right from the start. Your training should include both modern and classical Chinese. You may want to consider a year of language study in a city such as Taipei, Beijing, or Shanghai. Earning a masters degree at a Chinese-speaking institution in one of these cities would be a major plus.  

2. General philosophical training. You need a general familiarity with the history of Western philosophy and one or more subfields of contemporary philosophy, along with a deeper understanding of areas of contemporary philosophy closely related to your work in Chinese philosophy. Also necessary is practical training in writing the sorts of research papers characteristic of good contemporary philosophy. If philosophy was your undergraduate major, then you have already taken steps toward acquiring the necessary competence. Even so, you’ll need to complete some coursework in Western philosophy.

3. Training in Chinese philosophy. You need a broad familiarity with the history of Chinese thought, so that eventually you can teach courses on periods and traditions outside your specialty, and a deep, thorough understanding of the particular period or tradition in which you specialize. Your knowledge should cover primary sources and commentaries in Chinese and relevant secondary literature in Chinese, English, and other languages, if possible.

4. Dissertation. You want to produce a polished, original, philosophically significant dissertation that can readily be transformed into a monograph or several journal articles.

5. Teaching competence. You should be prepared to teach courses in Chinese philosophy and one or two other subfields of philosophy, such as ethics, epistemology, or metaphysics. This teaching competence will enhance your employment prospects considerably. You may also find it valuable to develop teaching competence in one or more areas of Indian philosophy. (Indian philosophy and Chinese philosophy are not inherently closely related to each other, however.) You wlil need to pursue opportunities for practice teaching and coursework in fields other than Chinese philosophy.

6. Employment prospects. To enhance your employment prospects, you want to achieve the above goals while having prospective employers perceive you as having done so. When you go on the job market, you will need a polished, professional writing sample and strong letters of recommendation from prominent scholars. Publishing a journal article or two would help.

Employers’ perception of you is one reason attending a highly ranked postgraduate program can enhance your job prospects. Not only have graduates of such programs generally received excellent training, employers perceive them as having done so, because of the programs’ reputation.

Pursuing These Goals

Your chances of developing a high level of linguistic and Sinological competence, acquiring a rich understanding of your area of specialization, and completing a significant, original dissertation project are increased by working with a supervisor who is a specialist in your particular research area or a closely related one. Ideally, this person will be a well-established scholar with a solid publication record.

For our purposes here, a specialist is 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. One advantage of working with a person who has this sort of background is that they are likely to present you with relevant intellectual challenges, steer you in constructive research directions, and help you avoid obvious mistakes, red herrings, and unproductive lines of work.

At the same time, your chances of developing the general philosophical expertise you need are enhanced by attending a postgraduate program that is strong across the board in core areas of philosophy, such as epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.

Ideally, then, you want to attend a program that is strong overall—as reflected by a high rank in surveys of professional philosophers—in which you can study with an established specialist in Chinese philosophy.