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Advice for Students Wanting to Pursue a PhD in Chinese Thought

    (Please note that the following represents my own individual opinion, rather than a consensus view in the field. Students who want to pursue a PhD in Chinese thought should consult with other professors before making any decisions about preparing for and applying to PhD programs. Also, applicants who meet the criteria described below are not necessarily guaranteed admission to Utah's graduate program.)

  • Understand academe: For better or worse, academia is divided into distinct disciplines. Now, you can study Chinese thought from a number of these different disciplinary perspectives, including Philosophy, Religious Studies, Asian Languages, or History, but it is important to bear in mind that each has its own practices and standards. Accordingly, the preparation needed for undertaking a PhD degree in these fields differs. For example, Philosophy PhD graduate programs are generally not willing to admit students who do not have a BA degree in Philosophy. (If you want to get into a PhD program in an area for which you do not hold a BA degree, getting an MA degree first is a often a good way to transition into that area. In the case of Philosophy in particular, Tufts provides an excellent MA program of this sort.) Along with requiring different kinds of preparation for the PhD, the differences among disciplines mean that your job opportunities and expectations after you have completed the degree will likewise vary according to your field. Thus, Philosophy departments are unlikely to hire people who have a PhD in something other than Philosophy, though there are occasional exceptions. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for beginning professors to teach only one course in their area of expertise per year, and to teach the rest of their courses for the year in areas outside their specialization. Hence, if you were to earn a PhD in Philosophy with a focus on Chinese thought, as a starting professor you might be allowed to teach a course on Chinese philosophy, but you might also be required to teach Introduction to Philosophy, Ethics, Logic, or other basic philosophy courses. By contrast, if you were to earn a PhD in Asian Languages with a focus on Chinese thought, you might be allowed to teach a course on Chinese thought, but you might also be asked to teach a general survey course on Chinese culture or Chinese language courses. For these reasons, when thinking about pursuing a PhD in Chinese thought, it is important to choose carefully the field in which you want to work. This will largely be a matter of personal preference, but you should be sure to consider the kinds of teaching you would want to do (or avoid) after finishing the PhD.

  • Learn the requisite languages early: To do graduate work on Chinese thought, a student ideally should know both classical Chinese and modern Chinese. While the most important and widely studied works of Chinese thought are written in classical Chinese, the reason for studying modern Chinese is that one should also be able to read contemporary Chinese scholarship and communicate with modern Chinese scholars. (Japanese scholars have also produced a significant number of studies of Chinese thought, so it is very useful to know some Japanese as well.) In the US, classical Chinese courses often have as a pre-requisite at least two years of modern Chinese. Furthermore, one needs at least two years of training in classical Chinese to be able to work with philosophical texts at a reasonable level of proficiency. Thus, you should have at minimum about four years of language training in Chinese to undertake a PhD focusing in Chinese thought. Now if you have not previously had this training, you could try to learn the languages at the same time you start a PhD program. However, such an approach is not advisable for a number of reasons. First, not all institutions have the ability to provide advanced training in both modern and classical Chinese. If you attend such an institution, you will have to take time out from your PhD program to visit another institution that does offer such training or you will have to go overseas. Taking a year or more out from a PhD program is not desirable, because it interrupts the flow of your studies in whatever your primary discipline is. Second, and in a similar vein, even if an institution does offer all the language training you would need, taking such courses is still a distraction from a PhD program, which is focused around the content of a specific field. Third, Chinese is a difficult language, and not all people enjoy studying and working with it. It would be very unfortunate for you to enroll in a PhD program to study Chinese thought, only to discover that you hate the language or simply cannot master it, since you would then either have to come up with a new focus or quit the program. For these reasons, I recommend that anyone who is thinking seriously about pursuing a PhD in Chinese thought should start studying Chinese as soon as possible, and should try to have at least two years of modern Chinese and a year of classical Chinese before applying for the PhD. It will make you a stronger candidate for admission and will also position you to make the best use of your time as a PhD student. There are a number of good language training programs abroad, and I especially recommend spending a year or two in mainland China or Taiwan making sure you have a high level of proficiency before undertaking the PhD. (My own training was at the institution now known as ICLP, which I still recommend.)

  • Acquire a general understanding of Chinese history and culture: The development of Chinese thought has taken place alongside, and often in reaction to, developments in politics, literature, art, economics, and so on. For that reason, it is very helpful to know something about these other aspects of Chinese history and culture. If you pursue a PhD in an Asian Languages or History department, learning about these subjects will probably form a natural part of your training. However, if you enter a PhD program in Philosophy or Religious Studies, you will likely have less opportunity to study these matters, since those departments will generally not offer courses about them, and taking courses about them outside your department may be inconvenient or even frowned upon, since they detract from your main course of study. The easiest way to ensure that you have the appropriate background knowledge is to take such courses while still an undergraduate. Otherwise, an option to consider is doing an MA in East Asian Studies or Asian Languages before doing a PhD in Philosophy or Religious Studies. There are several universities around the country that offer such MA programs. Note, though, that some programs may require a certain level of language proficiency as a criterion for admission, so you will need to investigate them carefully before applying, if you have no previous Chinese language training.

  • Get familiar with the different approaches used by scholars: Even though scholars of Chinese thought in a sense all share a common subject matter, their approaches to the materials can be quite different and in some ways fundamentally incompatible. Except for a very few places, in the US it is rare for a university to have more than one professor who specializes in Chinese thought. This means that if you undertake a PhD focusing on this subject, you will likely be spending a great deal of time working with the one person at your school who does research in this area. However, if your understanding and approach to the material differs greatly from that of the professor who would be your main advisor, you are likely to wind up in conflict, and such conflict will make completing the PhD difficult or even impossible. The simple solution is to read some published work by the person with whom you are considering studying before you apply to the PhD program. If that person's style of scholarship is not appealing to you or is very unlike the approach you have previously learned, you two are probably not a good match and you should consider applying somewhere else. One article that provides helpful discussion of some of the different approaches in the field is Bryan Van Norden's essay, "What Should Western Philosophy Learn from Chinese Philosophy?" (in Ivanhoe, P.J., ed. Chinese Language, Thought, and Culture: Nivison and his Critics. Chicago and LaSalle, IL.: Open Court, 1996). Also useful is Sor-hoon Tan's 2016 book The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Chinese Philosophy Methodologies (but see my review of the book for some caveats).

    Lastly, a very interesting and informative discussion about the different opportunities for pursuing a PhD in Chinese thought took place on the Leiter Reports. The link to that discussion is here, and while I disagree with some things stated in that exchange, I still highly recommend it to students who are thinking of applying to do graduate work in this area.


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