Graduate Advising & Resources

We have resources, advising and support to help students succeed, from their first day in the program through graduation day and beyond.


Before You Start: Background Reading

If you are an incoming graduate student in Philosophy and Social Policy and do not possess a substantial background in ethics and political philosophy, familiarize yourself with these basic texts:

  • Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 2002)
  • John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 2nd ed. (Harvard, 1999)
  • William H. Shaw, Social and Personal Ethics, 6th ed. (Wadsworth, 2007)

If you do not possess a substantial public policy background, familiarize yourself with books such as:

  • James E. Anderson, Public Policymaking: An Introduction, 6th ed. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005)
  • Eugene Bardach, A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis, 3rd ed. (CQ Press, 2008)
  • Christopher Jencks, Rethinking Social Policy (Basic Books, 1993)


Planning a Program of Study

Course Registration

During their first semester, MA students are strongly encouraged to register for at least two courses in the required "core," and for at most one elective, if you are a full-time student. Part-time students should take commensurately fewer courses, beginning with core courses.

  • PHIL 6230 (Ethical Issues and Policy Arguments) is especially recommended in the first semester.
  • ECON 6217 (Survey of Economics) and PPPA 6020 (Research Methods and Applied Statistics) are two required courses that are often offered during the summer term, so you might want to save one or both of them to take in the summer.
Initial Advisor Conference

New students should schedule an initial conference with their advisor to set out a provisional program of study for completing the degree. The program of study requires students to review their graduate experience and write a coherent account of the significance of what they learned and the skills they acquired. The final product is a succinct summary of what the student accomplished and can be a valuable tool for explaining the unique MA in Philosophy and Social Policy degree to people who are not familiar with it. For students who choose the non-thesis track, the program of study is also used to help the program directors shape each student’s comprehensive examination appropriately.

Before the Initial Advisor Conference 

  • Review the general Columbian College requirements for a master’s degree, as well as the MA requirements listed in the University Bulletin.

  • Draft a provisional program of studies, including what electives might best suit your focus area of choice. Electives may be taken from the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, the School of Media and Public Affairs, the Graduate School of Political Management, the Elliott School of International Affairs, the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, the School of Business, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Milken Institute School of Public Health and Health Services and the Law School, in addition to the Columbian College.

  • Bring two copies of the draft to the meeting.
Program of Study Requirements
  • Should be a narrative description of coursework that explains the coherence of the program as a whole.
  • Should answer: What policy problems did you address in your coursework? Which problems did you study extensively enough that you consider yourself to have some in-depth knowledge of them? Are there problems you studied in more than one course, or on which you wrote several papers in different courses? Have you acquired the expertise implied by a master’s degree? 
  • Should include an appendix listing every course completed and the instructor’s name.
  • Should be approximately three pages, excluding appendix.


Credits and Grading Policies

Transferring Credits

Under certain conditions, GW allows graduate students to transfer in outside graduate-level coursework for credit. In addition to general GW requirements for transfer credit, the Philosophy Department has several stipulations for transfer credit:

  • Any prerequisites are satisfied
  • The course is sufficiently related to the student's course of study, as determined by the student's advisor in the department
  • No more than 12 hours of coursework taken at other universities will count toward the MA
  • Any hours of transfer credit for graduate courses taken elsewhere before arriving at the university will be deducted for the total number of course hours taken elsewhere that you may apply to your degree
  • You may not apply to your degree a course taken elsewhere if it duplicates a GW course offered in the same semester

Learn more on CCAS Office of Graduate Studies

Consortium Courses

For information about taking courses at other universities in the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, visit the Office of the Registrar’s website. All Philosophy Department students should speak with their academic advisor before registering for a consortium course.

Grading and Incompletes

Graduate students are expected to maintain an overall grade-point average of 3.0 (B). Those who fall below 3.0 may be placed on probation and ultimately removed from the program. Different employers have different expectations about grades received in graduate school. Some will expect all A's. Others will not pay much attention to these grades or know how to interpret them. Students who plan to submit a petition for the thesis option should aim to receive all, or nearly all, grades of straight A. Receiving grades of A does not guarantee that the thesis petition will be approved.

Learn more on CCAS Office of Graduate Studies


Course Selection

Many graduate students take a full-time class load: nine credit hours each fall and spring semester. Some students take fewer credits. Others add one or two courses in the summer semester. Much depends on the student’s individual funding package and any outside responsibilities. Keep in mind that not all courses are offered every semester, and that summer course selection is limited. 

The Philosophy Department offers most of its courses annually, but does not offer graduate courses in the summer semester. However, students can often complete courses offered by other departments over the summer. 

The department encourages students to register for a mix of courses each semester — some from the philosophy core, others from the policy core. It is wise to concentrate on required coursework in the first two semesters, and add more electives later.


Default (Non-Thesis) Option

The non-thesis option consists of 36 credit hours: 24 credit hours in required courses and 12 credit hours in electives. It is the default option for the MA, and most students prefer it.

Examination Questions

The comprehensive examination ("comp") is a take-home examination that tests students’ ability to reason and write about policy problems.

The program directors draft examination questions for each student based on their individual program of study. The questions are designed to test whether the student can manage concepts and methods from different disciplines to shape a cogent interdisciplinary argument on a policy problem. 

Students will evaluate policy issues of their own choosing, selected from various normative, empirical and analytical perspectives. The questions may require the student to explain which concepts and theories appear to have influenced policy making in certain areas. Questions may also require the student to imagine being an advisor to a policy maker and grapple with the ethical dilemmas raised.

Preparation for Exams

Exams are open-book, with a two-week deadline. While memorization is not necessary, it will be useful to review syllabi and course material and to gather and organize sources in preparation.


A reading committee will evaluate the exam essays and assign one of four scores:

  • Passing overall
  • Passing in part
  • Failing in part
  • Failing overall

Students who receive a “failing in part” or “failing overall” score will be given an opportunity to retake part or all of the exam.

Exam Scheduling and Graduation

Most students choose to take the comprehensive examination after the conclusion of their last semester of coursework. For example, a student might complete coursework in the spring, take the comprehensive exam over the summer and receive their degree in August.

Program Description Due Date Degree Receipt Date
June 15 August 
October 15 December
March 15 May

Completing the exam after all coursework allows students to focus solely on the exam material. However, students who wish to receive their degree at the end of the fall or spring semester may complete the comprehensive exam during that same semester.

August graduates are not charged summer tuition and they are still permitted to march in the May graduation ceremony, although they must still submit the Application for Graduation before the deadline for May graduation. The GW Office of the Registrar charges a $35 fee for "continuous enrollment" for students who choose the August option. Most employers do not care whether the prospective employee’s degree is “in hand” in May, provided that all required coursework is completed.


Thesis Option

Exceptional MA students may choose to complete a thesis with the permission of the Graduate Studies Committee. The thesis option consists of 30 credit hours: 24 credit hours in required courses and six thesis credit hours.

Application Process
  • Complete at least 12, but no more than 24, of the required credit hours before applying. 
  • Submit a letter or email to the director of graduate studies. The letter should explain why you want to write a thesis, what topic will be explored and what background research will be conducted before beginning work on the thesis. It should also indicate the planned time frame and a requested faculty member to serve as thesis advisor, if applicable.
  • Await a decision from the Graduate Studies Committee, which reviews the application letter for approval or rejection.

Approved students should begin working on the prospectus, with input from the thesis advisor.

The prospectus should be between 10 and 20 pages, double-spaced, excluding bibliography. 

The thesis committee will vote on the prospectus and provide written feedback within three weeks of submission. There are three possible ratings:

  • Approved
  • Rejected with an invitation to resubmit
  • Rejected without an invitation to resubmit

Approval of the prospectus does not guarantee acceptance of the completed thesis. Students who receive a “rejected without resubmission” score may pursue the non-thesis option for completing the MA.

Thesis Course

All thesis students need to register for PHIL 6998-99: Thesis Research. Students may complete all six credits in a single semester, or spread them out over two consecutive semesters.

Prospectus Deadlines
Semester to Complete Thesis Research Course Prospectus Due to Advisor
Fall  June 15
Spring October 15
Summer March 15
Thesis Evaluation

Once the thesis is completed and approved by the thesis advisor, it will be submitted to the thesis committee. There are three possible scores:

  • Accepted as is
  • Accepted conditionally, contingent on specific modifications
  • Agreed to re-evaluate, only if the thesis were to be substantially rewritten


Applying for Graduation

All students, whether or not they choose to complete a thesis, must apply for graduation by the beginning of their final semester of study.

  1. Meet with the Philosophy Department director of graduate studies.

    • Non-thesis option: schedule the final comprehensive examination at this time.

    • Thesis option: schedule the final thesis due date at this time.

  2. Apply for graduation with the Registrar’s Office.


Outside Employment

Many graduate students hold part-time or full-time employment or internships while pursuing their degrees. The Philosophy Department offers graduate courses in the late afternoon and evening to facilitate this. Students are encouraged to seek positions in which they can develop skills and acquire experience relevant to their ultimate career goals. 

Visit the GW Center for Career Services to explore job openings.


Additional Support and Counseling

Some students find graduate work more challenging than they had expected. If you ever encounter difficulties with your coursework, especially during the first two months of classes, you should contact the advisor or department chair immediately to discuss your options. A course dropped during the first four weeks of classes does not appear on your transcript. A course dropped after the fourth week, but before the end of the eighth week, is assigned a grade of W on the student’s transcript. Courses may not be dropped after the eighth week. In some cases, engaging a tutor may prove very helpful.

Advisors are available for more than academic support. If a student decides that the philosophy program is not the right fit, or is having other emotional, academic or career problems, the department is available to help. The director of graduate studies and the chair are available to listen and promise confidentiality, when needed. For more support on personal matters, take advantage of the university’s free counseling resources.


Letters of Recommendation for Future Roles

MA students are welcome to ask professors for letters of recommendation for employment, fellowships or advanced graduate degree programs — with some important caveats:

  • No instructor is ever obligated to write a letter of recommendation.
  • A letter from a university instructor does not simply indicate that the student passed particular courses. It is a detailed statement about the student’s individual strengths and weaknesses compared to other students whom the instructor has taught.
  • Instructors are unlikely to write letters for students who have not received good grades and participated actively in class discussions.
  • Some instructors will ask to see copies of written work, with their comments. Students should save graded term papers in a safe place.
  • It is courteous to give professors at least one month to write letters. 
  • Instructors are sometimes too busy to write letters even for the most capable students, especially if the letter is requested at the last minute.


GW Graduate Student Resources