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Doing Philosophy of Physics as a graduate student

These notes are meant to be a quick introduction to graduate-level courses in Oxford for philosophy of physics. Much more information on the graduate admissions process at Oxford can be found in the Graduate Studies Prospectus on the University website

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Before applying, you basically have to decide whether you want to do physics (perhaps in an area of physics where conceptual or foundational topics are studied, but still, in physics), or in philosophy of physics (and therefore in the philosophy department, not the physics department). This is going to depend on a variety of factors, including your own interests, your academic background, and your future plans. If you want to apply to do a physics doctorate, all I can really do is point you at the relevant bit of the Physics department website, as I'm not informed enough about the Physics doctoral program to give up-to-date information

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If you want to study Philosophy of Physics, there are basically three options:

  1. If you have already studied Philosophy at Masters-degree level, you can apply directly to the PhD program (called "DPhil" in Oxford). You can't normally bypass this: unless you have some previous philosophy training at graduate level, you won't normally be considered for the PhD program.
  2. You can apply for Oxford's main master's degree in Philosophy, the BPhil. Technically this stands for "Bachelor in Philosophy", but the name is an anachronism: it's a two-year masters course, comprising about 1 1/3 years of taught work followed by a 30,000 word thesis. Completing the BPhil to a sufficiently high standard normally ensures a place on the PhD program. A student doing the BPhil with interests in philosophy of physics might expect to spend about a third of their teaching time, and all of their thesis time, working on philosophy of physics. The BPhil is designed for students who already have some undergraduate philosophy training, so it is somewhat difficult (not impossible - I did it, for instance) to get a place on it without some background in philosophy. It's likely that in the next couple of years, a "philosophy of physics track" will be introduced to allow exceptional students to be admitted onto the BPhil without formal prior philosophy training.
  3. You can apply for the MSt in philosophy of physics, a dedicated 1-year taught masters program aimed at students with a strong physics background but little or no previous philosophy training. From the MSt, it's possible to progress directly to the PhD, although your first PhD year has a significant taught component to reflect the fact that you won't have done as much mainstream philosophy as your peers.

More information about these courses, and the application details, can be found here at the University website. (Note that the application deadline is usually early in January.) I'm also happy to answer queries by email (see here for contact details), though for practical queries I may pass you on to the University admissions office. (Please note that if you want to come to Oxford as a full-time student, you need to apply through the central admissions process - I don't have any way of offering to supervise people who contact me directly. And even if I did, it wouldn't really be a fair way to run the process.)

College choice

There are about thirty Oxford colleges and all students are a member of one college or another. For undergraduates, colleges are a major focus of their academic life; for graduate students, the academic focus tends to be the Department, and the college role is primarily (though not entirely) social and pastoral. I'd strongly recommend my own college, Balliol, which has a very vibrant graduate community with its own Graduate Centre close to the main college site; you can find out more about it here. But ultimately, college choice is not terribly important for graduate students, and it isn't something to lose sleep about. (And it has literally no effect on your chance of getting into Oxford: graduate admissions decisions are made by the Department, not by the College.)