The MSt in Philosophy of Physics aims to attract students with a strong background in physics at undergraduate level or higher, who wish to learn about philosophy in general and philosophy of physics in particular. This course offers a graduate education in Philosophy of Physics of the highest possible quality, providing a foundation on which candidates can go on to pursue doctoral work in the area.
Oxford is currently the premier centre in the world for Philosophy of Physics, as ranked by the Philosophical Gourmet Report.
The Faculty intends to admit four to five students for this course each year.
For information on how to make an application please see our Admissions Procedure and Entry Requirements webpage.
Students are required to offer three subjects: Philosophy of Physics, Philosophy of Science, and an elective component chosen from a list of ‘core’ Philosophy subjects (Metaphysics and Theory of Knowledge, Philosophy of Mind and Action, Philosophical Logic and Philosophy of Language, and Philosophy of Mathematics). Assessment is by a total of four essays of up to 5,000 words (two essays are submitted for Philosophy of Physics, and one each for the other two options).
Subject (i) Philosophy of Physics
Philosophy of physics concerns the conceptual analysis of the content and meaning of physical concepts and theories, particularly relating to the fundamental and established theories of quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, statistical thermodynamics, and special and general relativity. If it differs from foundations of physics, it is because its scope includes historically important theories in physics (like Newtonian gravity), and because it engages more deeply with contemporary philosophy. Central problems in the field include the measurement problem of quantum mechanics, relationalism vs absolutism in the philosophy of space and time, and the arrow of time in statistical mechanics.
This subject should be taught via (i) the undergraduate lecture courses in Intermediate and Advanced Philosophy of Physics; (ii) a dedicated graduate class running once per week across the first two terms; and (iii) individual supervisions, across the first two terms.
The philosophy of physics component is examined by two essays of no more than 5,000 words on topics that will be prescribed by the examiners.
Subject (ii) Philosophy of Science
Philosophy of science concerns both scientific method and the philosophical examination of the nature and scope of scientific knowledge, as well as the content of specific sciences, principally physics, but also mathematics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and linguistics. As such it overlaps with metaphysics and epistemology, in which it has always played a central role, particularly in the early modern period, and in the history of analytic philosophy. It is taught with special emphasis on this context in philosophy.
This subject is taught via (i) the undergraduate lecture courses in philosophy of science; (ii) individual supervisions; and (iii) a graduate class in philosophy of science, to be held regularly during the second term.
This philosophy of science component is examined by one essay of no more than 5,000 words on a topic of your own choosing (but excluding the topics specifically laid out by the examiners as part of the philosophy of physics component).
Subject (iii) Elective
Students will be required to select one subject from the following list:
- Metaphysics and the Theory of Knowledge;
- Philosophy of Mind and Action;
- Philosophical Logic and the Philosophy of Language;
- Philosophy of Mathematics
Each subject should be taught via (i) undergraduate lecture courses and graduate classes, as available; and (ii) individual supervisions held during the final term.
This subject is examined by one essay of no more than 5,000 words on a topic of your own choosing.
It should be noted that although the official deadline for selecting the elective subject is not until late in the second term of study, in practice candidates will need to decide much sooner in order to attend relevant lectures and classes.
Other Options for Philosophers of Physics
Students interested in specialising in Philosophy of Physics may wish to note that there is a possibility of following the “Philosophy of Physics track” in the BPhil in Philosophy, Oxford's flagship (two-year) postgraduate philosophy course. This is not a separate course, but a way of studying Philosophy of Physics within the existing BPhil structure.
Students on such a track would study primarily philosophy of physics and philosophy of science in the first two terms, study more general philosophical topics in the third and fourth term, and write a 30,000-word thesis on philosophy of physics or philosophy of science in the final two terms. They may also apply to the Philosophy Graduate Studies Committee for a waiver from one essay’s worth of the usual BPhil distribution requirement. For more information on the BPhil in Philosophy and how it is taught and assessed, please visit the BPhil in Philosophy webpage
Applicants for the BPhil are normally expected to have studied philosophy at undergraduate level, but the “Philosophy of Physics track” is also suitable for students with a very strong physics background who wish to move into the philosophy of physics or science, as an alternative to the MSt in Philosophy of Physics.
Those applying for the Philosophy of Physics track should state their intention clearly in their Statement of Purpose when applying.
After the MSt in Philosophy of Physics
MSt in Philosophy of Physics students may choose to apply to transfer into the second year of the BPhil in Philosophy. In such cases, the MSt in Philosophy of Physics will de facto act as a conversion course from Physics to Philosophy.
MSt in Philosophy of Physics students who want to transfer to the BPhil in Philosophy will be required to submit a formal application for transfer to the BPhil by Friday of Week 4 of the third term preceding the Michaelmas Term in which they wish to transfer to the BPhil. Approval of the transfer by the Philosophy Faculty’s Graduate Studies Committee shall normally be conditional on achievement of a distinction in the examination for the MSt in Philosophy of Physics.
MSt in Philosophy of Physics students who have successfully transferred to the second year of the BPhil in Philosophy shall not be awarded an MSt in Philosophy of Physics degree but will in fact be deemed to have completed the first year of the BPhil in Philosophy and the four essays submitted for their MSt examination shall replace the first four essays required of BPhil students in the first year of their studies. In their second year, transferred students will consequently be required to follow the assessment pattern as specified for the BPhil in Philosophy: they will be required to submit two essays of no more than 5,000 words at the beginning of the second term and a 30,000-word thesis at the end of the third term in their second year of study. For more information on the BPhil in Philosophy, please visit the BPhil in Philosophy webpage
As all other BPhil students, these transfer students will be required to give notice of the subject area of each essay, in accordance with the procedures and deadlines specified in the Graduate Student Handbook. When selecting essay subject areas they should ensure that they meet the BPhil in Philosophy assesment distribution requirement. However, applications for a waiver from the distribution requirement may with good reason be made to the Graduate Studies Committee.
MSt in Philosophy of Physics students who successfully transferred to the second year of the BPhil in Philosophy, may apply for the award of MSt in Philosophy of Physics only if they fail or withdraw from the second year of the BPhil in Philosophy.
MSt in Philosophy of Physics students are eligible to apply for a place to for the Faculty’s DPhil in Philosophy, initially as a Probationary Research Student (“PRS”). Detailed guidance on how to apply for progression to the DPhil will be provided early on in the academic year in a special information session about applying to doctoral programmes here and abroad.
Candidates who achieve a distinction on the MSt in Philosophy of Physics are automatically eligible to progress to the DPhil, provided only that the Philosophy Graduate Studies Committee is satisfied that their proposed thesis topic and outline indicates that they can be adequately supervised by members of the Philosophy Faculty. Candidates who pass the MSt without a distinction can be admitted to the DPhil at the discretion of the Philosophy Graduate Studies Committee. To achieve a distinction, candidates must achieve an average of 70 or above on the four assessed essays.
During their PRS year students who have progressed from the MSt in Philosophy of Physics will be required to satisfy certain formal conditions, which are specified in the Graduate Student Handbook, in order to progress to DPhil status. It is envisaged that a typical student might finish a doctoral thesis within three years of passing the MSt.