Thinking of applying to the BPhil in Philosophy at Oxford (or encouraging a student to apply)? Here’s what you should know.
Thinking of applying to the BPhil in Philosophy at Oxford (or encouraging a student to apply)?
Here’s what you should know.
The BPhil in Philosophy at the University of Oxford is one of the most prominent and well-respected Masters degrees in analytic philosophy. I was the student representative for the BPhil last year. Recently, a few prospective students have asked me about what the course is like, and in particular, whether or not it is worth applying (and paying the £75 application fee). One thing which often came out my conversations with these students is that the information which they have been given about the BPhil by the Oxford website (or by their own academic supervisors, many of whom did the BPhil a few years ago) is vague at best. Often, it’s plain wrong.
Prospective students deserve more up-to-date and honest information about what it is like to do the BPhil. In particular, prospective students (and the academic advisors who are likely to recommend the BPhil to the their students) could use more clarity about how the Funding, Assessment and Progression to PhDs have changed during the past few years. I hope that this post is useful for that end.
Disclaimer: The information in this post comes primarily from my personal experience as a BPhil student and as the BPhil student representative 2020/21, as well as from conversations with other BPhil students. This is very unofficial.
The tuition fees for the BPhil are extremely high even by UK standards (and they are likely to continue increasing over the next few years). The most recent figures, retrieved from the main University of Oxford information page for the BPhil state the fees as follows:
~£14000 for UK students (and also students from the Republic of Ireland)
~£28000 for everyone else (including EU students, now that the UK has left the EU).
Additionally, the cost of living in Oxford is quite high. In particular, rent is among the highest in the United Kingdom. If you want to live in college-provided accommodation, you’re generally looking at a minimum of £600pm. However, it is possible to pay a little bit less than this if you can find a place to rent privately (with other people) towards Cowley, east of the city.
The official page for applying to the BPhil says the following:
The University expects to be able to offer around 1,000 full or partial graduate scholarships across the collegiate University in 2022-23. You will be automatically considered for the majority of Oxford scholarships, if you fulfil the eligibility criteria and submit your graduate application by the relevant December or January deadline. Most scholarships are awarded on the basis of academic merit and/or potential.
(https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/graduate/courses/bphil-philosophy, retrieved 29/11/21).
This looks quite promising (if a little vague). Let me shatter your hopes: it is overwhelmingly unlikely that the University will give you any money.
I’ve been told that, even a few years ago, many BPhil students were fully funded through the AHRC and Clarendon scholarships. However, there has been a massive squeeze in funding for UK universities in recent years, so Oxford is only able to offer a half-handful of scholarships to DPhil (PhD) students. In practice, there is no money at all for BPhil (Masters) students. (During my time at Oxford, I knew only one BPhil student on the Clarendon scholarship – but that was a couple of years ago and I suspect that funding has dried up even more since then).
If you do get money, it will most likely come from your College. The University advertises a fairly long list of partial-scholarships here. However, even if you do get one of these scholarships (which is still quite unlikely), it will probably amount to no more than £1000 per year. This doesn’t even put a dent in the fees and living costs.
Of course, you can also apply (if you meet the relevant criteria) for external scholarships, like the extremely-competitive Rhodes and Ertegun scholarships. For what it's worth, almost all of the handful of funded students who I met on the BPhil were on the Barry scholarship, which is a conservative- and religious-oriented scholarship for US citizens (and which you can't apply for anyway).
In sum, if you do apply to the BPhil, you should apply with the knowledge that you almost certainly won’t get any funding.
However – and this is one of the worst aspects of the current application process – if you successfully apply and are offered a place on the BPhil (or the DPhil), the University will not tell you that you have no funding until after the deadline for accepting or rejecting your place. That is, the official deadline for accepting or rejecting your offer is usually in March, but the University of Oxford’s official policy is that scholarships are not finalized until sometime in May or June. Essentially, this functions to make students commit to studying the BPhil without any funding. (Although it is worth stressing that it is possible, though frowned upon by the Department of Philosophy, to ‘officially’ accept your offer in March and then withdraw later, when you find out – like everyone else – that you won’t get any funding).
There are no TA jobs for BPhil students (and relatively few for DPhil students either).
Additionally, there is not much of a culture of working part-time while studying at Oxford. And given how stressful and full-on the BPhil is, it is extremely difficult to find the time to work any significant number of hours during term.
It is possible to work during the five-week breaks between Oxford terms, or during the long summer break. But as I will explain below, it is expected (and unavoidable) that you will be working extremely hard on your BPhil assignments during these ‘breaks’. So, it will likely be very difficult to work full-time during these weeks.
I partially funded my studies by taking out a Postgraduate Loan from Student Finance England. You can only do this if you are a UK or Irish citizen, or in a few other circumstances: see here.
I was advised against taking out this loan, and I advise you against doing it too. (Unless, like me, your plan is that society collapses before you need to make any repayments. Or, like me, you plan to make less than £20,000 per year for thirty years, in which case you don’t need to pay anything anyway. But this is a terrible life-plan.)
2. Course Structure:
If you do end up on the Oxford BPhil, you will be assessed on six 5,000-word essays and one 30,000 word thesis. In order to get a Distinction (the Oxford equivalent of an A), you need to get an average of over 67 on your top 5 essays, and also get a grade of over 70 on your thesis.
You need to write six 5,000-word independent research essays in at least five different subjects across the three main areas of philosophy (Theoretical Philosophy, Practical Philosophy and Historical Philosophy). As I will explain in a moment, these are almost entirely independent from the classes you simultaneously need to take, and also semi-independent from your supervisions. In practice, you will do most of the work writing these essays during the ‘breaks’ between terms.
The BPhil is a two-year course, and each year is split up into three two-month terms. You submit two of your assessed essays at the end of the second term of your first year (i.e., March); two more essays at the very beginning of your second year (i.e., October, directly after the summer break); and the final two essays at the beginning of the second term of your second year (i.e., just after Christmas, when all of your PhD applications will typically also be due).
Feedback on these assessed essays is fairly limited. (And, as students, many of us (personally) had the perception that the grades were fairly arbitrary, and often radically diverged from our supervisor’s judgement about our essays.) Additionally, it is worth bearing in mind that, by the time you are applying for PhDs during the winter of your second-year on the BPhil (if you choose to do this), you will only have the results from your first four essays. So, if you want to get into a top PhD program, I would (somewhat cynically) recommend writing these essays on the subjects you are already most confident in, rather than using grad school to explore new interests.
At the end of the first year of your course, you will submit a short thesis proposal (150 words), along with a preference for a thesis supervisor. You might get this person as your supervisor. Or you might get someone different, in which case, there’s not much you can do but get on with the project anyway.
Then, during the last two terms of the course (i.e., the last five months), you need to write a polished 30,000-word thesis, which cannot repeat the material which you have already developed in your six 5,000-word essays. You will have no more than 8 hours of face-to-face supervision during these five months. That’s not much time at all.
Every term, the department will put on a series of pro-seminars (i.e., a general class which gives an overview of one area of philosophy), as well as 6-10 graduate classes in various areas of philosophy. For each of the first three terms of the BPhil, you will need to attend a pro-seminar and at least one other class. For the fourth term, you need to take at least two classes which are not the pro-seminar.
Here’s the important this: classes count for absolutely nothing in your assessment. You need to take them at the same time as you are trying to prepare for your supervisions and write your essays, but the only role that these classes play is to indirectly give you ideas about which you can write one of your essays. That’s it.
Additionally, because of the very large graduate student population at Oxford (there are usually more than 100 grad students in the department at any one time, with ~30 each year on the BPhil), many of these classes – and especially the most broadly-interesting or fashionable classes, for instance, the classes on value theory and social philosophy – will have more than 20-30 students in them. At this point, they are not really classes any more, but more like lectures where the discussion is dominated by a handful of older, more knowledgeable students (who are often DPhil students auditing the class).
Before you get to Oxford, you will request a supervisor for the first two terms. You may or may not be given the supervisor you request. You might get someone totally different, at which stage there is little to do but get on with your work anyway. You can meet with your supervisor for no more than 4 hours per term. Usually, you will have two 2-hour meetings per term, where you present a draft of one of your 5,000 word essays and they give you feedback.
You will have one supervisor for terms 1 and 2, and another supervisor for terms 3 and 4. The best case scenario is that your supervisor can help you with the essays which you plan to submit for assessment. However, in practice, supervisors will typically only be able to help you with two or three of your six assessed essays. This is because you need to write essays on at least five different subjects across very different areas of philosophy, but your supervisor will typically only be knowledgeable in one or two of these subjects. And in any case, you will typically need at least two or three rounds of feedback before any one of your essays is well-developed enough to submit for assessment. So, for at least two of your essays, you are effectively on your own.
3. Progression to PhDs
On the admissions website, Oxford’s official statement is that:
‘The majority of BPhil students go on to doctoral studies either in Oxford or at another institution.’
(https://www.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/bphil-philosophy#collapse387521, retrieved 29/11/21)
In my experience, this is not true. This is partly because there are so many BPhil students (usually ~30 per year) and so few PhD places in philosophy. And although several BPhil students do get accepted into top North American PhD program each year, this is by no means the norm. I would guess that, in the last few years, it is more like 25-30% of students that go on to doctoral studies.
Additionally, it is worth knowing that many BPhil students drop out or take substantially longer to complete the course (sometimes up to 1/3 of the students in a given year). If you do burn out (which is not uncommon), it is possible to leave after one year with an MSt.
Progression to the DPhil (Oxford PhD): This is phrased in a few different ways on the different BPhil admission webpages, but the following is a representative statement:
‘Candidates who achieve an overall distinction on the BPhil in Philosophy are automatically eligible to progress to the DPhil, provided that the Philosophy Graduate Studies Committee is satisfied that their proposed thesis topic and outline indicate that they can be adequately supervised by members of the Philosophy Faculty.’
(https://www.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/bphil-philosophy#collapse387521, retrieved 29/11/2021).
This suggests that students who get (or are on track to get) a Distinction grade in the BPhil automatically progress to the DPhil. This is categorically false.
It was true a few years ago that some BPhil students could automatically progress to the DPhil. But the Department changed their policy without publicizing it. As a result, many people (including academics who advise their students to apply to the BPhil) still think that automatic progression is the case. In reality, all BPhil students need to apply for the DPhil in exactly the same way as non-BPhil students, and they are evaluated through the same application process. In other words, doing the BPhil does not confer any distinct advantage for getting a place on the Oxford DPhil.
In sum, partly due to systematic funding cuts facing UK Higher Education institutions in the last few years, there are several reasons why the Oxford BPhil can be a bad choice for students (but which are not very widely known).
These not so good things are:
- - Expensive fees
- - Almost zero funding options
- - Overpopulated classes
- - Relatively little supervision
- - Lots of deadlines and independent work
- - Very little distinctive advantage for PhD applications
My hope is that students will read this blog post and take these factors into account when making their decision about whether to apply to the BPhil, and if they do apply and get offered a place, whether to accept that offer. Please share this post widely so prospective applicants can see it!
This post has been mostly negative, but I do want to conclude by stressing that there are also plenty of great things about studying the BPhil. The University of Oxford is very good at self-advertisement, so I won’t go into these in detail. But to briefly mention just three things. The BPhil course gives students lots of opportunity for independent philosophical research across almost any area of philosophy which interests them. The Oxford college-system enables one to make many close friends outside of the philosophy department, which can be extremely refreshing. Finally, Oxford is an extremely beautiful city, filled with many wonderful people. It is a brilliant place to live and study (though not so much if you are worried about funding and making ends meet).