By Simon Knutsson
Published 21 Nov. 2018; last update 22 Nov. 2018

I sometimes get questions about which philosophy PhD programs to apply to. I’ve written my answers here instead of only in emails.

My philosophy background

I’m a PhD student in practical philosophy at Stockholm University since September 2017 and I will be a visitor at LSE in 2019. I was also admitted to the PhD program in philosophy at LSE. In 2016/2017, I applied to the PhD programs at Stockholm, LSE, Cambridge and Oslo. My research plans fit Stockholm and LSE better than Cambridge and Oslo. I would have applied to Uppsala, where my plans also fit very well, but Uppsala did not announce a PhD position at the time. The three universities that I targeted with my application were LSE, Stockholm and Uppsala.

I got my BA in practical philosophy from University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and I thereafter enrolled for one year in the master’s program in philosophy at NYU. During my time in New York, I took one philosophy course at Columbia University. Then I got my master’s in economics and my master’s in practical philosophy from University of Gothenburg. Finally, I studied practical philosophy at the master’s level for less than a year at Uppsala University before I started the PhD program at Stockholm University. My dissertation topic is formal value theory, and I’ve worked on normative ethics, population ethics, animal ethics and political philosophy. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time on logic and game theory. For more, see my profile on LinkedIn and my PhD research proposal.

Language requirements

For practical purposes, I consider the Nordic countries to be a part of the English-speaking world. You can get admitted to a PhD program in Sweden without speaking any Swedish. There are several PhD students in my program who don’t speak Swedish. All seminars at our department that I attend as a PhD student are in English, and all courses but one that I have taken in the program have been taught in English (the Swedish one was optional). I would guess that it is similar in the other Nordic countries. But when I asked a university in France about doing a PhD there, I gathered that one must speak French at that university.


I can’t say that the training I got at NYU or Columbia was better than at the Swedish universities. I also haven’t noticed that the seminars, courses, teachers or fellow students were of higher quality at NYU or Columbia. Seminars are just seminars where participants discuss some text, and I often don’t find seminars to be a good use of time. Similarly, in courses you attend the lectures, write the term paper or other exam, get your grade and move on. I think I’ve learnt the most when I have either (a) worked on a paper or thesis with close supervision from a good teacher who can challenge me so that I repeatedly do my best, get critical feedback, try again, and so on. Or (b) had a dedicated teacher who taught a demanding course.

Reputation and in which country the department is located

Faculty in Sweden tend to have a PhD from a Swedish university, faculty in Norway tend to have a PhD from a Norwegian university, and I guess it’s similar for Germany or Spain. So, which PhD is right for you seems to depend partly on where you want to work later in life.

A question is how attractive you are on the US philosophy job market with a PhD from a Swedish, German or Australian university. One could ask this question for any combination of countries and departments. For instance, how attractive are you on the Swedish job market with a PhD from these and these US universities? Both of my PhD supervisors at Stockholm University (Krister Bykvist and Gustaf Arrhenius) have PhDs in philosophy from Uppsala University and online it says that Gustaf also has a PhD in philosophy from University of Toronto. Both have taught at Oxford, and Krister has taught at Cambridge. One of my other main teachers at Stockholm University, Jonas Olson, also got his PhD from Uppsala and he lists as a part of his later experience “Tutorial Fellow, Brasenose College; Departmental Lecturer, University of Oxford.”  Philosopher Wlodek Rabinowicz at Lund University in Sweden also got his PhD from Uppsala and he has been a Centennial Professor at LSE. Beyond such anecdotes, I don’t know how attractive one is on the job markets in, for example, the US, Canada, the UK and Australia with a PhD from a Nordic country. I know of several philosophy professors in Sweden with a PhD from a university in the US.

It is often said that in the US and the UK, it is important for your career after the PhD to have attended a highly ranked PhD program. For learning about the USE job market, I recommend The Philosophers’ Cocoon. My impression is that there is less focus in Sweden than in the US and the UK to attend the right PhD programs and publish in highly ranked journals. I expect the other Nordic countries to be similar to Sweden in this respect.

The Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) is a ranking of graduate programs based on the reputation of the faculty. The data is gathered using a survey of philosophers. It ranks only departments in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Helen De Cruz has written about where graduates from PhD programs in these countries work after the PhD.

When I was an undergraduate student, I thought that maybe there is something special about places thought of as prestigious, and I thought that maybe “leading” philosophers (e.g., philosophers who are famous or have the most citations) are better than others and maybe their work is at a different level. I now think that is overblown. University and department prestige and the associations one has with a university name is, of course, partly a function of money and effort spent by that organization on marketing and branding. In addition, some philosophers market themselves while others essentially do not, and some philosophers are actively marketed by others (e.g., their work is spread by others or they are talked about favorably by people who are paid or do it for free). I also expect that some people in general talk favorably, don’t talk at all or talk badly about some universities, departments, programs, philosophers and publications, depending on what is in their interest. I think that whether some publications are cited depends partly on whether others have an interest in promoting them. Moreover, if you have money and access to labor, you can pay someone to write at least a part of a text that will be published in only your name. All in all, the prestige, attention and marketing game in philosophy is, like in the private sector, partly a matter of who has resources like money and labor, marketing skills, communication channels, useful connections and alliances, and who are in powerful positions already. As a remedy when choosing a PhD program, one can ask oneself: I have this image of this university, department, program or philosopher, and they are talked about in a certain way, but what do I really know about the department or about the quality of that philosopher’s work? One can evaluate, for example, the work of philosophers at the department oneself and form an own opinion.

If you do a PhD in philosophy in Sweden, I doubt it matters much which of the Swedish universities you do it at. I’m not aware of a substantial reputation difference between departments. It seems much more important who your supervisors are. I mean, are they good supervisors, do they have enough knowledge about your dissertation topic, can they teach you how to publish your manuscripts, and will they prepare you for the job market?


If you may want to have a career at universities, you should use the time in the PhD program to prepare for that. A supervisor who has been successful in the philosophy job market can presumably give you better advice on how to get certain jobs. For example, if it is important for your CV to have published in certain journals, a supervisor who has published in those journals might be better to help you. One thing I would look up before applying to a program is that the PhD supervisors that you will likely have are able to help you produce manuscripts that will be published in respectable peer-review journals. Looking at the person’s list of publications should be sufficient for that purpose. If there isn’t evidence that potential supervisors have that ability, there is a greater risk that you will have trouble getting your resources published in peer-review journals and getting a job at universities.

Your goals

Where to get your PhD partly depends on your goals. If you want to affect public opinion or policy in the US or the UK, it might be best to get the PhD there. But it might also depend on what you expect to say. An established philosopher told me that a disadvantage of being at one of the typically most prestigious departments is that it tends to make your work more mainstream and uncontroversial; that you don’t go against the orthodoxy as much. One reason for this, according to the person, is that the philosophers who to a larger extent than others set the agenda for philosophy and whose views kind of constitute the mainstream and establishment are your colleagues and friends that you interact with a lot. It doesn’t surprise me that some controversial but very interesting publications have been written by people like German philosopher Christoph Fehige and David Benatar, who is based in South Africa, as opposed to by people at the top departments in the PGR ranking. It’s at least possible that if you want to affect, say, US public opinion, and you have controversial ideas, it might be more important to find a department that welcomes your work than being in the US.


My impression is that salaries for PhD students in the US are low, based on how people talk about them.

At LSE, my understanding is that the main source of money for a fully-funded PhD is to get one of the PhD Studentships, which “are tenable for four years and cover full fees and an annual stipend of £18,000.” This amount is tax free.

In Sweden, PhD salaries seem higher. The starting salary for a philosophy PhD student in Sweden is around SEK 306,000 per year, which is roughly £26,400 per year. On this amount you pay tax. How much exactly depends on where you live and on whether you have other income. I don’t have other income and after tax I get around SEK 239,000 per year in PhD salary, which is roughly £20,600. The income I’ve just stated is for year 1 and 2 of the PhD in Sweden. Then the salary gradually increases until it becomes 15% higher at the end of the PhD. I expect that the salary in Sweden has the additional benefit that it increases my pension and government aid if I get ill or unemployed in a way that the studentship from LSE would not do.

Salaries in Norway for PhD students are much higher. When I applied to Oslo in 2017 the job ad said that the salary level would be 432,700–489,300, depending on qualifications, which must be NOK per year, probably before tax. This is around £39,600–£44,765 per year. Assuming the tax rate is the same as in Sweden, the after tax salary would be £30,900–£35,000 per year.

Duration and teaching requirements

PhD programs in Sweden are typically 4 years, and you must have a master’s degree before you start (and perhaps even when you apply, although their might be some flexibility). One of the 4 years is doing coursework and the remaining 3 are for dissertation work. At the philosophy department at Stockholm University, one can expect to get half-a-year of extra funding so that the funding lasts 4.5 years in total. There is, strictly speaking, no teaching requirement in my program, although it might be a good idea to teach if you want a job at a university in the future, and perhaps you should help out with the department’s teaching load as a matter of being a good colleague. If you teach, do administrative work, serve in councils, or the like, the duration of funding gets extended proportionally so that, in practice, you may get, say, 5 years of funding in total.

At LSE the PhD program is 4 years long and you are required to teach for 3 of those years, if I recall correctly.

The programs in the US tend to be longer, and I think you essentially earn a master’s degree in the program. I’ve heard that the length is an advantage of US programs because when you are about to finish your program and are looking for jobs or funding, you will have had more time to publish and build your CV. To compare to the Nordic countries, one would also need to factor in that you may teach more in the US so it’s not obvious which program gives you the most time to do research.

Subject-specific advice

Value theory (axiology)

One can distinguish between substantial and formal value theory. Substantial value theory deals with matters such as what is good or bad, for example whether pleasure has final (intrinsic) value. Formal value theory is about structure and logic related to value. I guess one can also consider meta-axiology a separate subject that deals with questions such as whether value has a mind-independent existence. Meta-axiology seems really similar to meta-ethics.

Let’s start with formal value theory, which is the topic of my dissertation. I’ll mention a few departments and philosophers that come to mind that seem the most likely to be suitable supervisors of a dissertation in formal value theory. My former teacher Erik Carlson in Uppsala or my supervisor Gustaf Arrhenius in Stockholm would be good. I also recommend LSE. My supervisors there would have been Alex Voorhoeve and Campbell Brown, and I think they would have been good supervisors. Toni Rønnow-Rasmussen at Lund University could be a good fit, but I think of him as working on meta-value theory and distinctions in value, rather than the more formal side. Others that I know less about include: Caspar Hare, and maybe also Miriam Schoenfield, at MIT; Christopher Meacham at University of Massachusetts Amherst; and the department at Princeton, where, for example, Johann Frick works on related things.

[To be continued, if readers are interested.]

When can you apply?

Universities in the US and UK seems to typically recruit PhD students every year around the same time of year. In contrast, my understanding of universities in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland is that PhD positions are announced some time during the year (usually during spring, but it could be at other times) and you can only apply when a position is announced. Positions can be of two kinds: either you can submit your research proposal on whatever topic that fits the department, or the position is explicitly tied to a specific research project. It could be that a project on moral responsibility has funding to hire a PhD student, and if you get that position, you need to work on that topic. Some projects are interdisciplinary. One project I saw was a about policy to deal with rising sea levels and there were issues of fairness or the like in the project so, in addition to non-philosophers, they wanted a philosopher in the project who will work on that. As far as I know, PhD positions in the Nordic countries always come with a salary, so you if you get the position you also get a salary.

Practical and theoretical philosophy

In Sweden, probably in Norway, and maybe in some other countries, there is a distinction between the subjects practical and theoretical philosophy. A PhD is officially and generally in one of the subjects but not both. Practical includes normative ethics, meta-ethics, value theory, applied ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of law and the like. Theoretical includes metaphysics, philosophy of language and the like. In countries like the US and the UK there is no such distinction and you just apply to a PhD program in philosophy.

Well-being and research atmosphere

I like living in Sweden. I feel I have peace of mind to focus on research. Other parts of life work smoothly and I don’t have to think about them much. I’m referring to things like health care, child care, filing taxes, public safety, public transportation and social safety nets. I’ve lived in the US two years and there I felt more worried an average day about health care and what would happen if I got ill or unemployed. I also feel that the PhD salary level in Sweden is fine to live on; it’s not financially stressful (and I have high student loans that I repay and my wife and I have two children). I’m more uncertain about how I would feel and cope financially if I did a PhD in the UK or the US, but maybe that would be fine too.

Bonus tip if you are applying to PhD programs in Sweden: requesting historical application material

As an applicant, it can be difficult to know how a research proposal is supposed to look. Universities’ application guidelines are often brief and unclear. Partly to help with that problem, I posted the research proposal that I applied with online.

But applicants, at least from Sweden and maybe from any country, could have read it even if I didn’t make it public. Documents like those sent in applications to PhD programs at Swedish universities are public information in Sweden due to regulations or laws. They are not posted online, but one can request to get them as PDFs or perhaps paper copies. I don’t know if one needs to live in Sweden to request them.

One can check one’s target schools in Sweden, see who got ranked #1 in the admissions process the last 5 years, see how their research proposals looked, see the research proposals of those ranked #2 and #3, and see what made those at #1 stand out.

One can similarly request (at least successful) applications for philosophy research funding from large Swedish funding agencies. I could, for example, ask to see the grant application someone with a philosophy PhD sent to some funding agency to fund a post doc somewhere or a research project. Those research proposals are higher quality so it might be better to be inspired by them rather than (only) the research proposals included in applications to PhD programs.

Which philosophy PhD programs should you apply to?