Graduate Program

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The Ph.D. program is designed to be completed in five years. Accordingly, students in the program are typically guaranteed full financial support for five years. The Sage School does not offer a terminal master's degree.

Years 1-2

Coursework: Students are normally required to complete 12 courses covering a broad range of philosophical subfields. To meet this requirement, students enroll for credit in at least three courses per semester for the four semesters constituting their first two years in the program.     

Year 3

Fifth-semester tutorial and A exam: Students spend the third year preparing for the A exam, an oral exam based on the student's formal dissertation prospectus and work preparatory for writing the dissertation. Students spend the first semester of the third year (their fifth semester overall) pursuing an individualized tutorial with relevant faculty. The fifth-semester tutorial is the mechanism by which students identify a dissertation area and begin the research necessary for articulating, focusing, and launching a dissertation project. 

Years 4-5

Dissertation and B exam: Students spend their fourth and fifth years in the program writing the dissertation. The B exam is the oral defense of the completed dissertation. The Ph.D. is awarded on successful completion of the B exam and the submission of the completed dissertation.      


There are no formal academic obligations during summers. The typical funding package provides summer stipends for four summers (for more information see FUNDING). This summer funding is intended to free students to pursue their academic work or research. Supplemental funding is usually available to support summer language study or other specialized coursework.      

Special Committee

Each student has a special committee of advisors, consisting of at least three members of the graduate faculty. The committee offers general academic advising, approves the student's course selections and helps the student develop a plan of study that will provide the background needed for research and teaching in philosophy. The special committee is charged with recommending the residence credit to be awarded at the end of each semester and administering the A exam and B exam. Students may change the composition of their special committee and are encouraged to do so as their interests and dissertation plans develop.

Guidelines and Requirements

The following is a list of the guidelines and requirements for the Ph.D. in Philosophy. (The Sage School does not offer a terminal M.A. in Philosophy.)

  • Six registration units. One registration unit corresponds to the satisfactory completion of one academic semester of full-time study and research. 

  • Twelve graduate-level courses. Students are expected to complete graduate-level work in each of these four areas. (See the coursework guidelines below for more information.)     
    • History of Philosophy
    • Metaphysics and Epistemology
    • Ethics and Social and Political Philosophy
    • Logic    
  • Sage seminar. In their first semester in the program, first-year students participate in a proseminar (the Sage Seminar), which provides an introduction to selected central issues in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind and philosophy language.
  • Fifth-semester tutorial. During the fifth semester, students find and begin work on a suitable dissertation topic. Students select a faculty member in the field of philosophy to supervise their research and meet regularly with him/her to gauge progress. 
  • Admission to Ph.D. candidacy (A exam). This oral examination is taken in the sixth semester of residence. It covers the student's dissertation prospectus and relevant literature. 
  • Teaching experience. All students are required to serve as a Teaching Assistant (TA) during some of their time in the program. 
  • Dissertation. The dissertation must embody the results of original research in a substantial treatment of a single issue or connected set of issues. 
  • Final examination for Ph.D. candidates (B exam). This is an oral defense of a student’s dissertation work given in front of the student’s special committee.

(A student's special committee may also impose additional requirements: for example, languages or courses in related fields necessary for research in the student's area of specialization.)

Coursework Guidelines

Students are expected to complete twelve graduate-level courses distributed as specified in the following four categories:

History of Philosophy   

Students are expected to take at least three courses in the history of philosophy, of which:

  • at least one must focus on some major figure(s) in ancient western philosophy,
  • at least one must focus on some major figure(s) in modern western philosophy through the 19th century, and
  • the remaining course may cover any figure(s) in the history of western or non-western philosophy through the 20th century. 

(Normally, graduate-level Philosophy courses with a second digit of 2 count as history courses.)  

Metaphysics and Epistemology     

Students are expected to do work in at least two areas in this category. This category is construed as including Metaphysics, Epistemology, Philosophy of Science, Art, Mathematics, Language, Mind, and Religion. (Normally graduate-level courses with a second digit of 5, 6, 7, or 8 [in the four-digit course number] satisfy this guideline.)     

Ethics and Social and Political Philosophy     

Students are expected to do work in at least one area in this category. (Normally graduate-level courses with a second digit of 4 [in the four-digit course number] satisfy this guideline.) 

Logic or Mathematical Methods

Graduate students in Philosophy can fulfill this guideline in two ways.

  1. Demonstrating understanding of classical 1st-order logic (of at least the Boolean connectives, universal and existential quantification), including understanding of deduction, basic model theoretic concepts and facts, soundness, and the completeness of a formalization of at least classical 0th-order logic.
  2. Demonstrating competence with some of the mathematical concepts, methods, theories and logics that play a role in the philosophical literature, e.g. basic set theory, semantic theory, intensional logics, probability, decision theory, game theory and social choice theory.

Logic Prerequisite: Students will be allowed to take graduate-level courses in logic only if either (1) the logic committee has agreed that they have done previous work equivalent to the content of PHIL 2310, or (2) they have successfully completed 2310, (3) they have learned the material covered in 2310 and have taken the preliminary and final examinations (in take-home form) for 2310 or (4) they have special permission from the logic committee. The faculty members who teach PHIL 2310 will set and administer the relevant examinations. Students who choose option (2) may not count 2310 as one of the 12 required courses. Students are expected to complete this logic prerequisite by the beginning of their third term in residence

Graduate work done elsewhere     

Students may request credit for graduate-level work completed elsewhere. Such credit is limited to two residence units (i.e., two semesters of full-time course work). Credit for work done elsewhere is not granted automatically, and no decision about whether to grant such credit is made until a student has completed at least one semester of graduate study at Cornell. In some cases the decision is deferred until the end of  the first year of graduate study at Cornell.


Teaching experience is required for the Ph.D. in the Sage School, and graduate students normally receive part of their five-year funding package in the form of teaching assistantships. Sage School teaching assistants typically assist a professor in a lower-level undergraduate course, lead one discussion section per week for about 25 students, and are responsible for grading the work of those 25 students (a commitment of approximately 15 hours per week on average over the course of the academic year).       

Advanced graduate students typically have the opportunity to teach their own course on a philosophical topic of their own choosing in Cornell's First-Year Writing Seminar Program. First-year writing seminars enroll a maximum of 17 students and emphasize the development of writing skills within the context of discipline-specific subject matter. Graduate students often find teaching first-year writing seminars especially rewarding.


The Sage School typically provides full support for all of its graduate students for at least five years. Full support includes:

  • Full tuition in the Graduate School
  • A living stipend for the academic year
  • A summer fellowship (for four summers)
  • Student health insurance


Typically two of the five years — the first year and one other year (normally the fourth) — are non-teaching fellowship years. During fellowship years, students are freed from other obligations so that they may focus exclusively on their coursework or research. Students may use the second of their two fellowship years to pursue training or research-related activities elsewhere. 

Teaching Assistantships

Support for the other three years typically comes in the form of teaching assistantships. (For more information see TEACHING.)

Equal, Secure, and Non-competitive Financial Support

All students receive essentially the same financial support package guaranteeing full support for five years (contingent on satisfactory academic performance and satisfactory performance in any required teaching). Students in the program do not compete for ongoing funding.

Additional Support

Funding beyond the fifth year may be available for students making good progress towards completion of the degree. Additional support for specific purposes such as summer language study, travel to participate in conferences and research-related expenses is often available through at least the fifth year of study.

All students are urged to seek any outside support for which they are eligible.

Admissions Process

The Sage School admissions process is conducted once a year, January-March, for admission in the fall of the following academic year.

Application Deadline

January 15th for fall admission. (The fall semester begins at the end of August.)

Application Materials

The following  materials must be submitted online via the Cornell University Graduate School online application system:

  • Biographical information
  • Academic information (including unofficial transcripts)
  • If applicable, TOEFL or IELTS scores (GRE scores are not needed)
  • Recommender information
  • Three to five letters of recommendation; a total of five letters of recommendation will be accepted (submit all online), but only three are required*
  • Financial support information (if required)
  • Statement of Purpose
  • Writing sample in philosophy (typically 15 but no more than 30 pages long)
  • Application fee

*All letters should be submitted online.  Contact the Sage School at  if this is not possible. 

Notification of Application Status

Application status and receipt of transcripts and letters are reported via the online application; if anything is lacking during admissions, the Sage School will reach out for the information.

Admissions Notification

Notification of admissions decisions will be made by email on or before March 15th.

Frequently Asked Questions

View the Graduate Admissions Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).

Application fee waivers may be available:    How to apply for a Cornell Graduate School application fee waiver

Applicants can write to for additional information.



Admissions Criteria

The Sage School admissions process is highly selective. We receive approximately 250 applications each year for approximately five places in our program. As a result, we look for students with outstanding potential for graduate work in philosophy. In our admissions process, we give considerable and roughly equal weight to three parts of an applicant's file:

  • Academic record
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Writing sample 

The applicant's personal statement is also given some weight in the process.  

We use no particular numerical criteria (no minimum grade point average, for example), and we neither require GRE scores nor give them any significant weight when they are provided to us. We try to identify candidates with very strong general academic backgrounds and special skill or talent for philosophy in particular.   

Academic Record

We look for a strong general undergraduate record and very strong indication of philosophical ability. The latter is often (but not always) demonstrated by a record of achievement in philosophy courses. We normally expect applicants to have a background in philosophy at least the equivalent of what a Cornell undergraduate philosophy major would have. Many of our applicants come from Master's degree programs or have done some other sort of graduate work before applying to Cornell.

Letters of Recommendation

We require three letters of recommendation, and will accept as many as five. It is best if they are written by people who know the applicant well and can provide some concrete and detailed assessment of his or her work. At least one should be from a philosopher or philosophy instructor; it is better if two are (but an additional letter from a philosophy teacher who is not well acquainted with the applicant may be less helpful than a letter from a non-philosopher who does know him or her well).

Writing Sample

We look for a substantial, polished piece of writing that shows the applicant's philosophical abilities and skills. Typically, term-paper length (about 15 pages) is appropriate. Writing samples longer than 30 pages are unlikely to be read in their entirety. Something written for an upper-level philosophy course is generally appropriate.       

Personal Statement

We look for some insight into a person's general intellectual character and interests as well as some indication of how the person's abilities and interests fit with our program. We are particularly interested in candidates for whom our resources are especially well suited and who bring something interesting to our intellectual community.


One of the aims of the graduate program in the Sage School is to help students compete favorably in the academic job market. Each year a member of the faculty serves as placement director, whose role it is to oversee and guide students through the process of looking for jobs in philosophy. Among other things, the placement director assists each candidate with the preparation of their application dossier (writing sample, research statement, teaching dossier, CV, etc.), coordinates the gathering of letters of reference, invites guest speakers to provide advice about particular sectors of the job market, organizes practice interviews and job talks, and is there to offer guidance and support through the job market process.

The placement director for the current academic year (2019-20) is Professor Scott MacDonald.

The Cornell Graduate School also provides assistance and seminars to help those who want to pursue careers outside of academia.  Non-academic placements of our graduates have included healthcare, investing, biotechnology, and actuarial science.

Click here for details, including a table with initial and current placements of our recent graduates.

For more information, email the department or Professor MacDonald.

Department Workshops (Friday Workshops & Wednesday WIP Workshops)

Click here to view a listing of upcoming department workshops.