Tufts’ Master of Philosophy program promotes philosophical passion, community

A group of master's students are pictured at a symposium sponsored by the Tufts Department of Philosophy on Sept. 16. Courtesy Jodi Hilton
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“If I could choose one book to bring with me to a desert island, … it would absolutely be Plato’s ‘Republic.’ … I teach it every year, and I still discover new and exciting things, it still makes me think; it is by far my favorite book ever,” said Christiana Olfert, associate professor and director of graduate studies in philosophy at Tufts, who oversees the the top-ranked terminal master’s in philosophy program in the nation according to The Philosophical Gourmet Report. 

Such philosophical fervor is likewise present in the program’s student body. 

“[Philosophy] is just pleasing. … Recognizing and knowing truth, beauty and goodness … makes you happy,” said Joshua McKeown, a master’s philosophy student in his first semester of the typically two-year program.

Graduate students from across the United States and the world come to Tufts to pursue their philosophical passions in the school’s master’s in philosophy program. 

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“We want to offer an entry point into serious, advanced study of philosophy for folks who may not have had a traditional, extensive experience with philosophy in their undergraduate education,” Olfert said. 

McKeown, for instance, studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Mississippi College, but there was only one professor in the school’s philosophy department. 

“There weren’t many history of philosophy courses, [and] there weren’t courses on metaphysics,” McKeown said. “I only had to take six [courses for my philosophy major,] and none of them were on analytic philosophy or Greek philosophy, they were more broad.” 

Tufts’ master’s in philosophy, on the other hand, requires at least two courses each in the history of philosophy as well as metaphysics and epistemology, in addition to at least two in normative philosophy.

According to Olfert, these curriculum requirements help students form a strong intellectual arsenal. “[One] of the goals of our program [is] to provide a pathway into professional philosophy. … We think that kind of breadth makes for good philosophy,” Olfert said.

Just as the master’s program’s curriculum is diverse, so are the backgrounds of its students. Mikel Moyer, for instance, is currently enrolled after earning his bachelor’s in chemistry in 1981, working for almost three decades in pharmaceutical research, then returning to earn first a bachelor’s and now a master’s in philosophy. 

On the other end of the age spectrum, Helena Fang is a current student in the master’s program as an undergraduate senior. She is a mathematics and philosophy double major who is concurrently completing Tufts’ combined four-plus-one B.A./M.A. degree program in philosophy.

“In the spring semester of my sophomore year, … I just decided that I want to pursue academic philosophy as a career. And I realized, if I applied to Ph.D. programs in senior year, I’d basically only have a year to prepare,” Fang said. “And I realized, if I do the four-plus-one then I [would have] an extra year to take more philosophy classes … [and] think about what specifically I’m going to do in philosophy and also just stay in the department and have deeper connections with the faculty and people around.”

The four-plus-one option enables Tufts students to earn a master’s degree with only one year of study beyond their undergraduate education. Olfert recommends it to everyone at Tufts who is interested in philosophy.

“[Tufts undergraduates] are subject to the same standards that we use for admissions for [any other] students, but we know Tufts students really well, and we know our majors really well. … I think it’s a really exciting opportunity.” Olfert said.

Avner Baz, the chair of the philosophy department, explained how the program promotes collaboration between undergraduate and graduate students.

“We have a graduate program of the highest caliber, which … allows our undergraduates to interact with graduate students,” Baz said. “[The undergraduate program] benefits in so many ways from the fact that we do have this very high quality graduate program.”

Those salutary interactions would be far less frequent if Tufts had a Ph.D. program instead of a terminal master’s. In fact, the department only offers one course specific to the master’s program, so aside from that, undergraduates and graduates take many of the same philosophy classes. 

“In that way, our graduate students are sort of part of our [undergraduate] major as well,” Olfert said. 

Such diversity of students’ backgrounds and philosophical inclinations along with the diversity of faculty enhances the philosophical discourse in the master’s program. 

“I think it’s good for philosophy that there are all of these different voices and experiences and perspectives. I also think that this is one of the great advantages of our department, … that we have very diverse faculty representing very diverse philosophical approaches and temperaments and perspectives,” Baz said. 

On that variety of philosophical perspectives, graduate student Luke Jennings, who is in his second and final year in the master’s program, said of his classmates, “The people around me are really interested in epistemology, metaphysics and philosophy of mind … and psychology and philosophy of language. … It can be quite useful to get different philosophical perspectives to see an issue which you took to be in some sense settled … and bring them under close inspection.”

Philosophical discourse in Tufts’ master’s program is vibrant even outside the classroom. Fang said she often has philosophical discussions with other master’s students.

“You talk to someone about something you’ve been thinking about that … they haven’t thought about deeply. And then a couple of days later, they’ll come back to you and be like, ‘Oh, I was thinking about what you told me a couple of days ago. Here’s what I thought afterwards.’” 

These conversations are especially frequent in the Graduate Writing Seminar course, which is required of master’s students and was added to the program after Olfert arrived at Tufts in 2010. 

“It’s an opportunity for the students to prepare a sort of capstone project for their degree, in which they bring a draft of a paper or a detailed proposal for a paper to class. … [They] rework it, take it apart completely, put it back together, respond to objections from, like, 13 of [their] peers and then rewrite the paper again,” Olfert said. 

Prospective Ph.D. students typically end up using that as a writing sample in their Ph.D. program applications, and for other students, the course provides an opportunity to prepare a capstone piece of writing that represents the culmination of their degree, in which they put their philosophical skill on display. 

Yet how do Olfert and Baz collaborate to decide on the contents of the curriculum and work to maintain the master’s program’s excellence? 

“Either I come to [Olfert], as the [director of graduate studies], with a certain kind of idea or concern … that I want to consult with her about, or she comes to me with some issue that has arisen in connection with a graduate program. … And we think about it together. … She is more familiar with the graduate program, and I have the broader picture,” Baz said. 

That collaborative work has helped Tufts’ Master of Philosophy program become one of the best in the United States. 

“There [are] a lot of really fantastic master’s programs, but Tufts is really, really great for the reason that it just has a lot of faculty members that do a lot of different things. You come away from doing a master’s at Tufts having encountered a lot of different types of philosophy,” Jennings said. “[The faculty] are incredibly supportive and incredibly helpful.”

The program’s excellence has resulted in Ph.D. placements at Oxford, Princeton and Harvard, for example, across its last three graduating classes alone. 

“A couple of weeks ago, we had one of our former [master’s] students come back to the department — now he’s an associate professor at Howard — to give a talk. … On Nov. 18, … another student of ours who went to MIT and now is an assistant professor at Boston University will come to give a talk. These are very significant moments,” Baz said. 

No matter one’s area of philosophical study or background, Baz believes that philosophy can be applied almost everywhere. 

“[Philosophy] encourages you to and teaches you how to be more reflective and self-critical,” Baz said. 

‘Philosophy’ is a word with Greek origins that means “the love of wisdom,”  which evokes the most fundamental questions of humanity. 

“The questions that animated Greek and Roman philosophy were: How do I live well? What is happiness? Should I fear death?” Olfert said. “It’s important to me to do my best … in my work to keep in mind that the philosophy I do is sort of deeply interconnected … [to] the existential questions that we all have. And even if we’re reading about it a bunch of millennia later, there’s still something that we connect to.”

Echoing Olfert’s sentiment, Baz elaborated on philosophy’s everyday relevance in provoking questions.

“[For example,] why am I doing what I’m doing? What puts me in [this] position? What would come for me as success in doing it? Why do I care about it?” Baz said.

Tufts’ Master of Philosophy program helps students contemplate such essential questions more effectively and completely. Baz, Olfert and other esteemed faculty with wide-ranging philosophical interests make the program excellent for Ph.D.-seeking students of varying backgrounds like Fang, Jennings and McKeown. That excellence elevates Tufts’ philosophy department as a whole, fostering a rich and lively intellectual environment.

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