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Assoc Prof

For many grad students, there will be an AOS, a couple AOCs, other areas of philosophy that are somewhat interesting, and then areas that are not at all appealing. If one has already satisfied a distribution requirement (say, a year or two of coursework), there may not be much reason to take courses in the last of those categories. I wouldn’t recommend only taking courses in the AOS (and most programs wouldn’t have enough courses in just one subfield), but if there are AOC-type courses, or other areas that interest a student (especially topics that are commonly listed as undergraduate teaching needs), working on those makes more sense than sticking with the areas of philosophy that are least appealing.


Another reason it may be a good idea to take courses like that: you may need to--or want to claim to be able to--teach courses in those areas in the future. Sure, you could put together a course on such topics on your own if/when the time comes, but it is so much easier to borrow or adapt a course you've taken than to start from scratch.


To add to Marcus's point, when I was taking grad classes I underestimated the extent to which taking classes with a broad historical scope would be useful in my teaching. Now that I've taught some classes, I notice that I repeatedly am drawing from a reading-intensive class covering the majority of Plato's dialogues: even though it has never come up in my research, being able to locate strategies and ideas within the different phases of Plato's work and understanding the small pointers to further problems has turned out to make teaching these dialogues much easier. And I could not have made up for that by just reading literature on the specific dialogue I want to teach any time it comes up.

On the other hand, I regret never having had the opportunity to take classes on Indian or Chinese philosophy. I've tried to make up for that by self-studying, but having taken a class or two would have made things much easier for me.

So, I think a good way to approach this is to ask: does this class cover things that might come in handy in my teaching? You may not intend to work on epistemology, but even then at least your teaching may benefit from you being able to discern different forms of skepticism and different strategies to respond to it. (Being familiar with, let's say, pragmatic invariantism about knowledge ascription may not be crucial though...)

Marcus Arvan

Anonym's point is a critical one, I think, for future job candidates. The more courses one is qualified to teach, the more competitive one may be as a job-candidate at institutions that focus on teaching and need particular courses to be taught by new hires (some of which may be courses unrelated to the hiring area AOS).


To play devil's advocate, I think there is also a downside to taking too many courses outside of one's AOS. I think there is something to be said for being hyper-focused on one's specific field of interest/topic in grad school. I find that many students can cast their net too wide, and they end of floundering. Staying hyper-focused on one's aos, in my view, may allow one to progress quicker through the program, publish sooner, and thereby have a better chance at a job. But of course, it depends on whether you have settled on a topic. My story is the opposite of Marcus'. I went into my PhD program knowing exactly what i wanted to write on and did not waver from it. Mind you, I've had to take courses outside of my aos because I'm part of a small department and I had no choice. but overall, I found these courses to be a waste of time. THat's not to disparage getting a broad background in general. But I think you can do that prior to reaching a PhD program.


Another reason to do this (besides what Marcus mentioned about lots of areas being more closely interrelated than you'd think) is just that it's good to be able to talk at least halfway competently to colleagues who work in other areas. Other commenters have noted that it might come in useful when you want to claim to be able to teach a certain class. But in my experience, coursework outside my areas in grad school turned out to be helpful because it helped me have at least half of an idea of what was going on outside my own little bubble in philosophy, and that helped facilitate conversations I otherwise wouldn't have had at conferences and on job search committees.


As far as topics you aren't knowledgeable about or won't specialize in are concerned, those are prime candidates for a course. Bear in mind, also, that even though you're in your second year of a PhD program, this describes most of philosophy for you. If you're American, you probably had around ten courses in philosophy as an undergrad, and probably haven't had any Master's level coursework either (for comparison's sake, most honours BAs in Canada require 20+ courses, and you typically have an MA when you enter a PhD program). It's really not a lot of experience.

For my part, I routinely draw on my undergrad education and the enormous pile of grad courses I took or audited. Mostly, I draw on them for my teaching, but occasionally for my research, too. For that reason, I also attend conference talks that I'm not necessarily super interested in, or on topics outside my immediate research interests. That's how you learn stuff, after all!

As for courses you don't enjoy, that's a different matter. I'd only take those if I had a good reason to do so (e.g. cultivating an AOC).

Now that you're done, remember that you can audit courses, too. Don't audit three a semester, but do use audits to your advantage. Plus, it helps to keep you active in department life.

Timmy J

I think it really depends on (a) what sort of student you are and (b) what the particularly courses are like.

For example: I'm generally a crappy student. I don't learn much from courses. There are lots of classes on my undergrad transcripts and a few on my graduate transcripts whose content is completely and utterly lost to me. Some of them I don't even recall having taken at all.

But some courses, because of the way they were run or because of bizarre other things that are specific to me, I learned a ton from and remember a lot about.

The moral, I think is this: take courses that will stick with you; the subject doesn't matter much. Also take courses the taking of which is instrumentally beneficial (e.g. take courses that lead to getting a certification or secondary degree of some sort). Don't take other courses.


The older I get, the more I find myself re-reading Plato’s works. When I first read Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, it stuck with me. I kept thinking about it over and over again asking myself: What is Plato trying to tell me besides the obvious? Then it occurred to me what those things he was trying to tell me were. It’s interesting how one sometimes have to go back to Plato to obtain enlightenment. There are lots of lessons to be learned from Plato. And in my view, no other thought experiment in philosophy could beat the Allegory of the Cave in terms of imagination and wisdom.

Of course.

One note of caution: having taken a course in graduate school will not be treated by very many search committees as a sufficient condition for being able to teach one's own course on that topic.

That said, graduate coursework is of course useful with respect to being able to teach a course of one's own on a given topic. At the very least you can use the syllabus from the course as a basis for your own.


This isn't original, I remember seeing it somewhere on the philosophy related internet, but it seems right to me.

A big factor in what ideas you'll have is what you read. What you read sort of channels your thoughts towards positions or arguments that you wouldn't have thought of otherwise. If all you read is what everyone else in your AOS reads, then you'll end up having many of the same thoughts everyone else in your AOS has. That makes writing new papers and avoiding getting scooped harder. If you read widely in different areas of philosophy as well as outside of philosophy, then you're likely to have thoughts no one else does when presented with a question because no one else has your particular intellectual background.

It seems like the same point applies to taking a wide variety of courses.

Another Grad

Lots of good points above. To add to one already up above:

Only knowing about your own AOS will make it hard to talk to your colleagues, and perhaps more importantly, potential colleagues about their work. It may make you seem boring, or, worse, arogant: because you only care about your own work. And having a reputation for being boring or arrogant (or coming across that way in interviews) is not a good way to get a job.

When I think about the other grads in my department we all know will definitely get a job, one thing that ties them together is that they have diverse interests and can happily chat with any of the professors about their work. The grads (there aren't that many here) who only work on one hyper specialised topic rarely seem to hang around the department and certainly aren't the people you think of when you think about who is going to do really well.

And for a new one:

You might not think that your AOS is going to change. But if you look at people who have really successful, long careers, they very rarely have just one AOS. Look at emeritus professors around and you won't find many who only ever wrote papers on the metaphysics of grounding! Or even just on metaphysics alone.

William Vanderburgh

I took courses mainly in History and Philosophy of Science and in History of Philosophy. Both big areas, with some overlap. I would now claim a dual AOS in both those areas, because I have continued to be interested in and to do research in those areas. I teach both, too. Since it worked for me, I'd recommend that approach--don't get too broad in your course work and don't get too narrow. Today, I'd add a cross-cultural/cross-philosophical-traditions element to that. I would also suggest taking at least one course in each of the core areas (Ethics/Social Political, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Phil Sci, History of Philosophy): at several points in your career you are going to find yourself hiring or evaluating colleagues in areas outside your own and having some exposure to their fields will help. Not to mention it can make attending your department's colloquia on topics outside your AOS more interesting and productive. You might also find something you didn't expect you would like. (I audited a lot of courses after my coursework was officially over, but in the end I think that mostly served to slow down progress on my dissertation, so don't go overboard.)


There are two questions here: whether to take grad courses outside one's AOS, and whether to take grad courses outside one's AOS *after* one finishes all the distribution requirements. (The OP is in the latter position.) The answer to the first question is definitely yes. The answer to the second question is not quite clear to me.

I guess the answer to the second question varies depending on the concrete situations. After one finishes the distribution requirements, the most important tasks are finishing the dissertation and finding a job. Taking a course outside one's AOS seems to have very limited benefits for one's own research.

As people already pointed out above, taking a grad course in an area is not sufficient for establishing a teaching competence in that area in many cases. If one is serious about teaching in an area, one might take (or audit--don't forget about this option) one or more courses, work as a TA, and/or teach an undergrad course in that area.

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