What is it like to study philosophy as a University of London student?

Woman studyingQuestions about study habits and practices are very personal questions. They’re not personal in the impolite sense that to raise them evinces a bit of social ineptitude on the part of the enquirer. Rather, they’re personal in the sense that what ‘works’ for each of us will be determined by largely subjective or person-relative factors: What are our goals? What resources do we have access to? What sort of preparation have we undergone? What learning-strategies have we found to be most effective? What extra-academic obligations do we have? And so on.

Given that studying is so deeply personal in that latter sense, this post will only be about how I approach studying. Specifically, it will be about how I approach the study of philosophy as a University of London (UoL) student. My aim in sharing my approach to studying philosophy is threefold: first, I hope that it will provide those who may be interested in studying philosophy both with an idea of what it’s like to study it at the university level, and what it’s like to study it as a UoL student; second, I hope that others who are studying philosophy, or other essay-based humanities subjects, will glean some ideas from my approach that might help them with their studies; and third, I hope that others will share their ideas on studying with me (perhaps in the comments section of this post!) so that I might learn from them.

Since I am a UoL student, the first step I take when I begin to work on a new module (e.g. logic, epistemology, ethics) is to read that module’s UoL Subject Guide. Each guide provides you with both an introduction to the topics you’re expected to learn about and an extensive reading list from which to draw on. From there I’ll select both a textbook (or two!) and some essential reading for each main topic the module covers to get a decent overview of the subject. While doing the essential reading (and taking notes, of course) I’ll try to discern which topics really grab me. If all goes well, this initial period will provide me with four or five topics (out of, say, ten or so) to focus on for the rest of the year.

After selecting which topics to focus on, I look at all the past exam papers that are available on the UoL VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) , and begin to group the questions related to my topics into categories. I’ll also look for relevant questions here, which is an additional source of past UoL exam questions. The list of exam questions I ultimately end up with is what finally determines the course of study I’ll pursue for the rest of the academic year (though of course I’m free to change things around as the year progresses).

Once I’ve narrowed my focus sufficiently for a particular module, I’ll check that module’s Subject Guide once more to find additional resources on my chosen topics. But then I’ll begin to look beyond the Subject Guides. One of the best  resources for philosophy students is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Each article is peer reviewed, written by an expert in the field covered, and contains up-to-date information on scholarly treatments of the topic. Most importantly for me, they also contain extensive bibliographies that provide me with additional resources for studying that topic in depth.

Getting a list of resources is one thing; getting access to them is something entirely different. Much of the material you need can be found on the UoL Online Library. But if you have any decent university libraries in your area, be sure to check them out. If you explain your situation as a UoL student to the librarians, you’re very likely to get access to them, and perhaps borrowing privileges as well. And though in some cases you may have to pay an annual fee for both, chances are it’s much cheaper than purchasing the texts you need outright.

Once that preparatory work is complete (ideally it will take no more than a month), I begin to research and write essays in response to the examination questions I’ve selected. I can’t stress enough how important it is for philosophy students to write essays with specific questions in mind. This is one of the first lessons my former tutor Dr. Geoffrey Klempner taught me, and it is easily one of the most important I’ve ever learned. By approaching a topic with a specific question in mind, you’re forced to engage with the course material critically. That is, you’re forced to do philosophy.

My aim is to write an essay a week (though I rarely achieve it!) once I’ve entered this phase of my studies. How many essays per module should you look to complete? Since Birkbeck College is the UoL philosophy programme’s Lead College, I looked at the Birkbeck Philosophy Handbook (for brick-and-mortar students) and learned that the most enthusiastic undergraduate can expect to complete between 60 (full time students) and 80 (part time students) essays throughout the course of his or her undergraduate career. If we take the larger number, and divide it by eleven (which is the number of modules UoL students complete, minus the dissertation), we arrive at a figure of roughly eight essays per module. And when you consider that the essays range from between 1,000 and 1,500 words for first-year module, to 2,500 to 3,000 words for third year modules, that’s not too tough a number to shoot for (especially if you resume your studies within, say, a month from exams, which gives you 11 months to complete the essays!)

Once I complete an essay, I send it off to my tutor for critical evaluation. I should stress that UoL resources are designed to be used without any tutorial assistance. However, since my aim is to attend graduate school after completing my studies with UoL, I’ve concluded that for my purposes, receiving expert feedback on my essays throughout the year is crucial. And when you work out the costs involved with e.g. Birkbeck’s tutors, you find that they’re remarkably reasonable as well. For example, if we assume you’re writing eight essays per module, and (say) six drafts of your dissertation, we get a total of 94 essays completed throughout the course of your UoL career. If you choose to have each one marked by a tutor, at an average cost of 28 GBP per essay (Birkbeck tutors charge 24 GBP for essays of 1,500 words or fewer, and 32 GBP for essays of 3,000 words or fewer), we’d get a total of 2,632 GBP, or approximately 4,000 U.S. dollars. That means that the total cost of tuition for your UoL degree, should you choose to take advantage of it, roughly equals what you’d pay for a single one-semester course at a private college in the US! (Another way to think about it is this: for that one-semester course, you might receive three or four marked essays, most likely with very brief critical comments; however, with the UoL tutors, you’ll receive for the very same cost 94 marked essays, with very detailed comments!)

But if getting a tutor isn’t an option for you, there are additional ways to receive feedback on your ideas and essays. For example, there’s a fairly active UoL Philosophy Programme Facebook page with more than 100 members. And very recently, a few of us have begun experimenting with weekly Skype sessions, which seem to be going remarkably well. So in addition to access to feedback from qualified tutors, you have plenty of opportunities to get feedback from your peers as well. And some of the students who are working with tutors are active on the Facebook page, and so can pass along to you some of the excellent, expert advice they’re receiving.

Although the UoL philosophy program doesn’t provide students with access to recorded lectures, there are plenty of sources on the web to fill this gap. ITunes University has a number of lecture series available from leading universities with content that’s relevant to UoL coursework, and there are a plethora of high quality philosophy podcasts out there. Also, many professors and graduate students write philosophy blogs, and will often interact with comments you make on their posts. And I’ve found that many philosophy professors have made their course lecture notes available online. So when I’m working on a particular topic, I’ll also search these various web resources to supplement the study methods I sketched above.

At this point you might want to say, ‘OK, you’ve said quite a bit about how you approach studying as a UoL student, but not much about studying philosophy itself with UoL.’ And that’s true. But I think it would be best to introduce some philosophy first, for then I can show in detail what it’s like to tackle a specific topic as a UoL philosophy student (or, rather, what it’s like for me to do so!). So that’s what I’ll be doing in my next post, beginning with a selection from the ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ module on the fascinating topic of personal identity.

Eric is studying for the BA Philosophy by distance learning in Rhode Island, USA.


25 thoughts on “What is it like to study philosophy as a University of London student?

  1. Helpful article. You mention tutorial assistance. Was your assistance provided by Pathways to Philosophy (you mention Dr Klemperer) or by UoL tutors? Can you please provide links to information on tutorial assistance?

  2. Hi Mark

    Initially I was working with Dr. Klempner (for a little over a year), but he retired from teaching in June of last year. After he retired, I contacted Birkbeck college to see if the graduate students in their philosophy department would be interested in earning some extra cash while working on their advanced degrees in philosophy by providing tutorial assistance to interested UoL philosophy students, and they loved the idea. It took a few months (if I recall correctly), but they came up with the arrangement I’ll post below. While waiting for Birkbeck to respond to my request, I found my own tutor, whom I’m very happy with. However, I have corresponded with friends who have used the Birkbeck tutors, and they seem very satisfied with the assistance they’re receiving.

    Hope that helps!


    UoLIP-Birkbeck essay marking and feedback

    An informal arrangement for the provision of essay-feedback services has been made between students of the University of London International Programme (UoLIP) and Birkbeck College’s research students. UoLIP students follow self-guided study to work toward an award from the University of London, but some students may wish to receive feedback on work at some point before the pressured environment of exams, so research students from Birkbeck (which administers the UoLIP philosophy programme) will provide this assistance for a fee. Below are the details of the arrangement. Feel free to read everything, but Birkbeck research students should take note of the information for prospective tutors, and UoLIP students of the information for prospective tutees.

    Fees for services will be set at £24 for essays below 1500 words, and £32 for essays between 1500 and 3000 words. Fees for work that does not fit these criteria can be arranged between the student and their tutor.

    Fees should in most cases be paid via PayPal, as the most secure and straightforward method in the circumstances. Students and tutors may organise other payment methods if they wish. To avoid uncertainty, please ensure that payment is made within 48 hours of the return of the marked essay unless otherwise arranged between tutor and tutee.

    Anyone unhappy with their current arrangement can request to be put in contact with someone else, which will be arranged conditional on availability. Again, any problems can be reported to me, but I stress that this is an informal arrangement. If students make unreasonable requests or fail to pay they will not be put into contact with further tutors, and if tutors provide excessively late or low-quality feedback they will not receive further students, but at the point of service it is up to those involved in the arrangement to resolve any problems. I will act as a facilitator, but I can only respond to a reasonable number of queries so please only contact me if necessary.

    Information for prospective tutees

    Making arrangements:
    If you are interested in submitting one or more essays for feedback, send an email to [email protected] with the subject heading “UoLIP tutee”. In the body of the email confirm your name and email address for contact, provide the title/s of the module/s for which you would like to receive essay feedback, and indicate rough time-frames for these (e.g. “I would like to get feedback on an Epistemology essay during November, and a Metaphysics essay during December”). Your email will be acknowledged and, provided a tutor can be found, I will confirm the name and email address of your assigned tutor. You should then email them as soon as possible to confirm the following: (i) the subject of your essay – preferably a specific title, (ii) the expected length of the essay, (iii) planned submission date, and (iv) desired return date for the essay. Once the essay has been submitted and feedback has been received, payment should be promptly sent to the tutor via a channel agreed between you (preferably PayPal). You should then receive an annotated copy of your essay at the appropriate time – the tutor may choose to include a provisional grade, but not that this will be an aid to development, not a guarantee. If you are happy with your arrangement with the tutor, you may contact them directly from that point onward. If you have any problems that cannot be resolved between you and your tutor, email [email protected] and clearly explain your difficulties, and I will do my best to help resolve them.

    Information for prospective tutors

    Tutors will mark essays submitted by students and provide extensive feedback. Given the lack of face-to-face tutorials, detail will be especially important in the comments. Provisional grades may be assigned at tutors’ discretion, but students should note that these are aids to self-assessment rather than clear indications of the actual grade an essay would receive. Tutors will be expected to respond to queries and clarifications provided that they remain within reasonable limits.

    UoLIP students choose from the following list of modules (the levels are not of particular relevance, except that you should note an increasing need for in-depth familiarity as the levels increase):

    Level 4:
    Introduction to Philosophy
    Ethics: Historical Perspectives

    Level 5:
    Greek Philosophy: Plato and the Pre-Socratics
    Modern Philosophy: Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume
    Ethics: Contemporary Perspectives
    Methodology: Induction, Reason and Science

    Level 5:
    Modern Philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant
    Greek Philosophy: Aristotle
    Continental Philosophy: Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche
    Philosophy of Language
    Philosophy of Mind
    Political Philosophy
    Philosophy of Religion

    Making arrangements:
    If you are interested in tutoring UoLIP students, send an email to [email protected] with the subject heading “UoLIP tutor”. In the body of the email confirm your name and email address for contact, provide the title/s of the module/s for which you are happy to provide essay feedback (please be realistic about your competencies), and indicate any known periods of unavailability. Your email will be acknowledged, but you will only hear back from me if and when a suitable tutee is found. I will confirm the student’s name and email address, at which point you should wait for them to contact you. Once they have provided the requisite information, arrange a time-frame for marking and once you have received the essay work through it, providing feedback with as much detail as you believe will be helpful. I recommend using the “Comment” function in most standard word processors. When you return the annotated version of the essay, provide the appropriate details for payment (PayPal is best, though you will have to make sure you set an account up promptly as there are some security checks you have to go through before you can use the account). If you are happy with your arrangement with the tutee, remind them that they can contact you directly from that point onward. If you are unable to assist them with their next essay for any reason, please forward the email in which they request assistance to me. If you have any problems that cannot be resolved between you and your tutee, email [email protected] and clearly explain your difficulties, and I will do my best to help resolve them.

  3. Terrific post! I am so curious about this. Have you found your writing has improved a lot from the feedback you are getting? Any phone interaction? Any idea of how US graduate programns in philosophy look at Birkbeck?

  4. Hi Josh,

    I think I can confidently say that my tutor’s feedback has improved my writing quite a bit. Specifically, it has improved the way I write philosophy. For philosophical writing is distinct from other kinds of writing. So, when writing philosophical essays, you’re much more concerned with clarity than with elegance. And that affects not just the sorts of sentences you tend to use (e.g. short, grammatically simple sentences), but the overall structure of the essay. For example, you never want to leave the reader behind, so you try to be clear right from the start about what it is you’re going to be arguing. Also, you keep reminding the reader what you’ve said, and you regularly tell the reader what you’re going to be saying. And, of course, you try to make each step of the argument you’re developing as explicit as possible. (In my judgment, Derek Parfit’s work provides one of the best models of clear, simple philosophical writing.)

    I haven’t had any phone or Skype interaction with my current tutor, but I began studying with Dr. Klempner via Skype tutorials. I can’t say for sure, but I’d imagine that once you’re assigned a tutor for a specific module (or for a specific topic for a specific module), you might be able to work out arrangements for Skype sessions, if the tutor is open to that sort of interaction.

    I don’t have any specific information about how U.S. graduate programs in general view the UoL international program. But I do know (from this comment by former program director Samuel Guttenplan) that UoL grads have been accepted to one of the top graduate programs in the U.S., viz. Cornell (which the Philosophical Gourmet ranks 17th in the U.S., and 20th in the world, with strengths in metaphysics, philosophy of action, and Medieval philosophy). And, as you can see from Guttenplan’s comment, they’ve also been accepted to London and Oxford.

    Hope that helps!


  5. Eric, do you find it useful to read the examiners’ reports on past exam questions, as a way of receiving feedback on your essays? Very interesting and informative article, by the way!

  6. Hi Sarah, thanks for the kind words!

    I have definitely benefited from reading the examiners reports, but it seems to me as if the advice they provide is so general that they’re of limited use with respect to evaluating the specific essays I’ve written. But the reports do seem help one to develop the skill of reading and understanding exam questions (e.g. they may point out ambiguities in the question you’ve missed), and they often provide advice on structuring an answer, or on the sorts of questions to ask to begin thinking about a specific topic critically. At first, I thought it was best to write the essay and then read the report on it, but now I think it’s better to read the report first, and then write the essay. For outstanding feedback on your essays, I’d of course recommend working with a tutor. But if that’s not an option, you can get still get very helpful feedback from your peers on the UoL philosophy program’s Facebook page, or by participating in the Skype sessions we’ve recently begun holding. I know that I’ve received some excellent feedback from fellow students through the use of both!


  7. Thanks Eric. I’ve been drifting a bit lately in my studies so I’m going to bite the bullet, write an essay and submit it to one of Birkbeck’s tutors. Need an adrenalin shot! 🙂

  8. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for your post. I have been thinking of embarking on the BA in philosophy program and my biggest stumbling block was always how one would go about getting support from a tutor, specifically for essay marking. Your post solved that problem.

    I have two questions for you. Firstly, you mention that there is a Facebook page where a few of you trade ideas and feedback. If this is a public group, would you be able to post a link to it please? I’m quite sure that the page I found was not the one you’re talking about.

    Secondly, would you consider recording Skype-based philosophical debates you have with your peers and making them available on YouTube? It would help students expand their horizons in terms of ideas, in ways that are generally not available to distance learners.

    I look forward to your next post.



  9. Hi Jonathan,

    Unfortunately, the UoL philosophy program Facebook page is a closed group. I’m a member and an administrator of the group, but it’s not my group; it was started by another UoL philosophy student. Ideally, we try to limit its membership to people who are current or past UoL students to ensure that all the posts remain relevant to the philosophy program. But we do encourage all UoL philosophy students to join so they can ask questions, post essays for comments and suggestions, share ideas and resources, and participate in philosophical discussions. If you have any questions about the program in general, I’d recommend visiting the UoL International Programme’s Facebook page. Last year, prior to my registering with UoL, I submitted a number of queries on that page and received feedback that was detailed, timely and very helpful.


    On recording Skype sessions, we mentioned that jokingly in one of our first sessions, but I don’t think that’s an option most of us would seriously consider. Most of us are new to Skype, and we’re just getting to know one another. Also, knowing that the sessions are being recorded and made public on Youtube might ultimately be counterproductive given our purposes in conducting them (e.g. it might lead some to join the sessions for the opportunity to grandstand, it might cause others to refuse to participate altogether, it might make the exchange of ideas less ‘free’ in a sense because we’d be worried about what those who watch the videos in the future might think, etc.). The Skype sessions are primarily aimed at getting us used to discussing philosophy with others (a crucial skill the UoL program on its own utterly neglects), and to provide a fun and convenient way of receiving immediate feedback on ideas and essays. They also help with the sense of isolation you can feel as a UoL student, and they of course introduce you to some amazing new people from around the world who share your interest in philosophy.

    I’m happy to hear that you’re thinking about registering with UoL! I think it’s an amazing program, and an amazing bargain, for the self-motivated student. If you decide to register, I hope you take advantage of both the philosophy program’s Facebook page and the Skype sessions!


  10. Hello,

    I plan to study the Cert Higher Education in Philosophy and Computing this year. I will have to study level 4 courses. I have never studied Philosophy before. In fact i haven’t studied academically 18 years.
    My question is how are Philosophy questions structured in an exam? I understand Philosophy is very different from other subjects where you are tested for knowledge.
    I am a bit concerned because i am doing anonline course in Introduction to Philosophy and it is difficult to understand the philosophy “language” and what exactly is being said.
    I would greatly appreciate some advise.

  11. Hi Jagdesh,

    You’re right about the difference between philosophy and (many) other subjects, at least as far as exams are concerned. So, suppose you and I answer the same question an exam. We can disagree entirely in our conclusions, in our evaluations of the relative strengths and weaknesses of various arguments in the philosophical literature on this issue, even in our readings of these arguments, and still each get an excellent score! What matters most, as far as I understand, is the quality of the arguments we present for our conclusions.

    Here is an examples of a philosophy exam question (from an actual UoL exam (in this case Introduction to Philosophy): you can find more examples here: http://www.londoninternational.ac.uk/courses/undergraduate/birkbeck/ba-diphe-certhe-philosophy#study-materials and here: http://philosophos.org/london_university/lond4.html

    “Is it really possible for one person to change bodies with another?”

    Now to answer this question effectively on an exam you’ll have to put in some important work beforehand (of course!). Below is an example of how you might go about preparing to answer a question like this on an exam (though this particular question may not even arise! Thus, you have to be very careful when preparing for exam questions, and when reading the precise wording of questions on an exam sheet).

    The first step is to identify the issue and the core readings (which you’ll do with the assistance of examiners reports and, in the case of modules other than Introduction to Philosophy, the Subject Guide). In this case, the issue is personal identity https://londoninternational-blog.com/2015/04/13/the-problem-of-personal-identity/ , and there are two core readings: a selection from Locke’s ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ and an essay by Bernard Williams titled ‘The Self and the Future’. Of course, you’re encouraged to go beyond the core readings and explore the subject on your own (using e.g. the resources provided by the UoL online library, access to local libraries, information contained in excellent online sources like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/ or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://www.iep.utm.edu/ (both of which have great articles on personal identity), lectures on Itunes or Youtube, and so on).

    The second step is to ensure that you have a sold grasp of the relevant arguments (which presupposes a solid grasp of the question!). So, why might we think that it’s possible for persons to change bodies? Why might we think it’s impossible? What objections have been raised to various arguments on both sides of the issue? (Of course, there may be more than ‘two sides’ involved, but let’s assume there are two for the sake of simplicity).

    After you understand the arguments involved, the third step is to ask yourself, ‘What do I think? Which arguments are strongest? Are any of the objections raised by either side decisive? Can I come up with a stronger argument of my own? Can I answer an objection that seems to be decisive?’ Again, it’s not your conclusion that’s important here, but the arguments you develop and defend to support it. That is, it doesn’t matter if your conclusion is in disagreement with nearly everyone else’s on this issue: all that matters is how well you defend your conclusion with arguments, and how well you deal with objections that can be raised against your position.

    The next step (well, for me, anyway) is to write an essay in response to the answer. You’ll find that your ideas change as you write your essay. This is a consequence, I think, of the fact that writing forces you to clarify your ideas, which often leads to new insights. And when you finish your essay, you can either set it aside and review it later, or send it off to a tutor for some critical remarks, or pass it along to members of the UoL Facebook page to see if anyone is willing to review it for you.

    Here’s some excellent advice on essay writing in philosophy: http://www.jimpryor.net/teaching/guidelines/writing.html You can also easily find a pdf file titled ‘A Guide to Philosophical Writing’ that’s written for students at Harvard University. (Of course, not all the advice will apply to UoL exams, e.g. you’re not expected to provide formal citations in UoL exams, though you may gain from practicing doing so in your own essays).

    Finally, you revise the essay in response to (well founded) criticisms you’ve received from your tutors or fellow students (or due to some flaws you’ve come across after re-reading the essay). And from there you can move on to the next topic and the next question. And when you’re doing exam prep in the weeks or months before exams, you can come back to your notes and your essay to help you get ready for the exam (not just memorizing them, but perhaps extending them further, by considering how to revise the answer in response to a slightly different question!).

    Now that’s just one way to go about it. And of course the steps are not as discrete in practice as they appear above (e.g. when reading you should be engaging with the texts and writing down your own thoughts, so steps two, three and four are not always clearly separated).

    Regarding the terminology used in philosophy, I agree, it can be difficult to get a handle on at first. But like anything else, as you read more and more philosophy, and write more and more essays, you’ll find yourself understanding it much better. You can use some of the resources above (and course notes provided by many professors online) to try to understand troublesome terms. The same is true of difficult arguments. So, one tip that’s helped me quite a bit is this. When you read an argument you don’t quite understand, read some responses in the philosophical literature to that argument. They’ll always begin by providing a concise summary of the argument, which may then help you to understand it a bit better (though of course you shouldn’t assume that the author has understood it correctly either! Rather, use any insights you gain from this method to improve your own understanding of the arguments; don’t take the interpretation of any author as gospel). Similarly, if you find you can’t understand how a term is being used, read a variety of articles in which that term is used. You’ll find that many authors will explain what they mean by it, which will then help you understand it.

    I’m not sure if I answered your question, but I hope that helps!


  12. Hello Eric,

    Many thanks for replying with such depth and magnitude of information. I am indebted to you for your time and commitment in seeking to bring clarity and advise to me. The sample study materials and the other links are just what i needed. Of course i must now delve into their details to get the experience and test my ability.

    I intend to study privately (with no tuition support) for UOL-intl Cert. Higher Education Philosophy & Computing as a starting point. This is because i don’t have A- Levels and i haven’t studies in about 18 years. I am 38 and dropped out of College after a diploma in engineering with a low GPA. I was 18 then and had bad study habits; today i have much regrets.
    secondly i am aiming at a combined degree including Computing to keep my employment prospects open and also to have an open doorway into Computing at UOL if Philosophy is not my strength. However i believe that even a certificate in Philosophy will have much benefits for me in the future to come.

    I have never studied subjects in the arts or social sciences and as such i am weak in reading written intellectual materials and presenting critical essay tying responses. Engineering uses very simple direct language, few words as possible and then maybe a mathematical analysis follows.

    Once again thank you very much Eric. You have been considerably helpful and very enlightening.

    Best regards
    Jagdesh Rupie

  13. Hello Eric,

    Many thanks for replying with such depth and magnitude of information. I am indebted to you for your time and commitment in seeking to bring clarity and advise to me. The sample study materials and the other links are just what i needed. Of course i must now delve into their details to get the experience and test my ability.

    I intend to study privately (with no tuition support) for UOL-intl Cert. Higher Education Philosophy & Computing as a starting point. This is because i don’t have A- Levels and i haven’t studies in about 18 years. I am 38 and dropped out of College after a diploma in engineering with a low GPA. I was 18 then and had bad study habits; today i have much regrets.
    secondly i am aiming at a combined degree including Computing to keep my employment prospects open and also to have an open doorway into Computing at UOL if Philosophy is not my strength. However i believe that even a certificate in Philosophy will have much benefits for me in the future to come.

    I have never studied subjects in the arts or social sciences and as such i am weak in reading written intellectual materials and presenting critical essay tying responses. Engineering uses very simple direct language, few words as possible and then maybe a mathematical analysis follows.

    Once again thank you very much Eric. You have been considerably helpful and very enlightening.

    Best regards
    Jagdesh Rupie

  14. Hi Eric, I can’t seem to find anything online about the Birkbeck tutor marking services you wrote about. Is it an informal arrangement that has always been in place all these years? I am thinking of doing either the Philosophy BA, History BA, or English BA at the UOL external. Actually more than a decade ago when I was young, I completed the first year of an honours degree in Philosophy at a traditional red brick Uni in England. I found Philosophy challenging. I will never forget the C grade mark I received for my first Philosophy essay assignment. I wanted to do well in the course but to be honest, I found the lectures and tutorials didn’t really help me much in understanding what they wanted in a Philosophy essay. I don’t know how but over time, I read a tonne of Philosophy books from the Uni library in order to learn all of the pertinent arguments for each topic we learnt (we covered about 10 topics in the first year), and then somehow figured out how to structure my essay in a way that the lecturers and tutors seem to be looking for. It was hard work but in the end I topped the class and got first class marks. Due to family commitments and unforseen circumstances, I was forced to withdraw from the course because I had to move 200 miles away with my husband to aanother town for his new job.

    I believe I worked much much harder in order to get those grades though, and I saw a fellow course mate not even put in that much and still getting B grades for her essay assignments and felt like I was maybe not cut out for this sort of subject, since I had to work so hard to get one grade better than her. Do you think I am justified in thinking this?

    15 years later I’m thinking maybe I will try this again. Well I always wanted to get a degree. It’s one of those things I want to do before I die. I’m stuck choosing between 3 subjects. I’m naturally quite a decent essay writer. Not super smart I guess. I think I would really benefit from some tutor marking services. However I do think Philosophy is a subject well suited to self study. After all I made my grades mainly through self study back then. Honestly the lectures and tutorials didn’t really teach me those techniques. They were good for getting some introduction into each topic though. And anyway, I was too shy to speak most of the time, worried I would sound stupid! A lot of these philosophical terms I found very complex and could not have understood if I did not read other philosophers’ works on those same topics and their explanations of what these topics mean, to them. Basically I felt like I could not possibly understand the topic without stealing ideas from others, then I could formulate my own conclusions and arguments that way … I just felt I could not be original in my arguments though. I could not think up of them myself, however once I found out what other philosophers’ arguments on the topics were, I could formulate my own conclusion very well, based on their arguments. I don’t know if I’m explaining it well here… Apologise if it isn’t very clear. But I just felt like I was in doubt of my ability to do Philosophy, despite the grades I received. Really worried back then about how I’m going to formulate my own original arguments in year 3 for instance. Does year 3 work require that? What about the dissertation?

    People on forums seem to warn against the lack of contact time in UOL external degrees, saying OU is better. But due to my past experience studying Philosophy in Uni, I just can’t imagine the contact time being very necessary for subjects such as Philosophy. But what do I know? I’ve never done 2nd or 3rd year level Philosophy, English or History. I’m hoping you could give me your perspective and opinion about some of the things I’ve raised. Right now I’m really stuck between UOL external and Open Uni..

  15. Hi Rach,

    If you look at the third comment above (from me, dated April 1 2015 as 10:30 am) you’ll find all the information you need about getting a Birkbeck tutor. It has only been in effect for a year or so. After Dr. Klempner (an amazing mentor!) retired, and after a number of us had bad experiences with Dr. Joyce (mainly, unreliability), we decided to contact the Birkbeck grad students to see if they would be willing to tutor UoLIP students, and they liked the idea.

    Regarding whether you should be concerned about how hard you have to work relative to others for similar, or only slightly better grades, I suppose that depends on why you’re interested in studying philosophy. If you love it, then so what if you may not graduate with first class honors (though don’t be so quick to rule that possibility out!)? And so what if you probably won’t be the next Kripke or Parfit? Neither will 99.99% of us! Also, I think we often have many misconceptions about how hard we and others actually work. I can’t say if that’s so in your case, since I don’t know the specifics, but in my (admittedly limited) experience, many of us often overestimate the accomplishments and talents of others and underestimate our own. For what it’s worth, in my judgment the questions you should be asking is, ‘Will I enjoy working on a degree in philosophy? Will I regret it if I don’t give it a shot? Do I think that it will improve the quality of my life?’ If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then who cares how well or poorly you do relative to others!

    Also, with experience you’ll learn to work ‘smarter’, as the saying goes. Not that doing philosophy gets any easier! If anything, it gets harder! But that’s actually a sign of progress, in my judgment. When you get to the point where you’re dissatisfied with nearly everything you’re writing, but equally dissatisfied with nearly everything that everyone else is writing, you’re probably doing some pretty fine work!

    I wouldn’t worry so much about originality just yet. In the first year or so of your studies (from what I’m told — I’m only a ‘first year’ student myself), your originality will show primarily in how you formulate arguments and how you determine which arguments are the strongest. But after you’re adequately or sufficiently saturated, if you will, with the issues and arguments and distinctions and concepts of the topics you’re working on, you’ll find original thoughts come much easier. The only problem is, most of them will be horrible! And it may take a fellow student or tutor to help you distinguish the good from the bad. So don’t worry so much about originality just yet!

    Unfortunately, I know nothing about OU, so I can only speak about UoLIP. Yes, it’s true that one way to go about getting your degree is to work entirely on your own. Indeed, if you go with only the UoLIP supplied materials, that’s how you’ll have to do it. There is a student forum on the UoLIP Virtual Learning Environment, viz. the Student Café, which can be helpful, but it’s not very active. However, with the Facebook page and the opportunities to Skype with fellow students or tutors, or to have your essays marked by tutors, you can greatly increase your interaction with peers and with trained philosophers. (I regularly participate on the Facebook page and had in the past, and have just begun again, chatting via Skype with fellow students; I also send my essays to two amazing tutors, and have bi-monthly Skype sessions on my work with Dr. Daniel Fincke,. who is a fantastic teacher). Of course, it will increase the cost of your studies, so perhaps you should compare the costs/benefits of a UoLIP and OU education before making up your mind.

    I hope that helps!

    Best of luck,

  16. Thanks for replying Eric!
    I had a chat with my Philosophy lecturer at the end of my first year back then and voiced my concerns about my lacking of originality in thought. He too said it wasn’t something to worry about at that stage, etc. However I always had my doubts.

    I will have to really take stock and decide if it is worth spending money and time racking my brains for the next few years doing a Philosophy degree again. I am especially fearful of Kant. We touched on it briefly in year 1 when I was in Uni back then. Haha… Oh dear. Did my training in Philosophy improve my life? Yes I’d say so. I found myself able to tackle quite a large variety of academic texts after that, including scientific studies, research, law, etc. I became a much better student at any subject I wanted to tackle. In fact because of that, I would wholely recommend that every Uni student, regardless of what subject they want to take, do at least an introductory course in Philosophy!

    I had a look at the Pathways site and I think it is great. Wish I had taken that primer before plunging into a Philosophy degree back then.


  17. Hi Rach,

    You can still work your way through Pathways before joining UoL if you’d like. If you join the International Society for Philosophers (ISFP), which costs only 20 GBP per month (or 120 GBP for a lifetime membership), you can access all the Pathways materials and use them to submit four essays (between 2400 and 4000 words each) for an Associate Award (and a much longer work of between 8,000 and 15,000 words for a Fellowship Award). From what I recall, each essay must satisfy at least a 2:1 requirement for you to earn the award. This option involves a more modest investment of time and money than UoL, and will provide you with some expert feedback on your work. I mention this not to dissuade you from UoL, but to let you know that the Pathways option (in a modified form) is still available.




  18. Hello Eric:

    I see you are based in US. What did you study in US before you decided to do UoL BA in Philosophy. For someone from US high school diploma and some college, how different will be to study externally at a UoL ?


  19. This is extremely useful Eric, thank you! I have applied to the philosophy program (BA) and am curious about how everything fits together. You said you’d read some material and choose areas which interested you, which you’d delve into in more depth and begin preparing essays for in correspondence with your tutor. But the exams cover everything, so how do you prepare for the detailed essay questions which may or may not pop up in the exam? Understandably, you can only focus adequately on so much at a time. But you said, you’d pick 4-5 topics out of maybe 10 or so, what if the exam consists of questions you haven’t studied enough? I suppose you’d have to study really hard, all the material, and go in depth on just a few topics to hone your writing and thinking skills? In this program, do you get a list of material, the study guide and then just work through the material on your own, without any assignments at all? And then take the exam eventually? It says online you can complete the program in a minimum of 3 years, would it be possible to do so sooner? Sorry for all the poorly articulated questions. Thanks!!

  20. Hi Dipti,

    I completed about half the requirements for an ALB at Harvard’s Extension School before beginning my studies with UoL. I took a wide range of courses as I attempted to fulfill the requirements of the Extension School’s liberal arts degree. I think that only two of the courses I took could be classified as philosophy courses — Logic (with Eli Hirsch) and Modern Thought, a survey of works from Descartes to Nietzsche (with the late Hugo Bedau).

    External Study is very different from studying at a brick-and-mortar institution, of course! You’re basically on your own with UoL. And the UoL program is designed to be studied on one’s own. But you don’t have to be on your own! Perhaps you could use the UoL Facebook page, or the VLE, to meet a student or two who has aims similar to yours, and you can set up regular discussions via Skype, or provide one another with feedback on essays. Also, for additional costs, you can get access to excellent independent tutors, and turn the UoL experience into something akin to an Oxford tutorial/Cambridge supervision experience.

    Personally, I’ve benefited MUCH more from the Uol-plus-tutor educational experience than I did from more traditional brick-and-mortar study. But that may be because I’m rather shy, and was never comfortable speaking in class, while I find it easier to speak one-on-one with a professor via Skype or Google Hangouts. Also, the written feedback I get on my essays from the tutors I work with is far superior to what I was receiving at the Extension School. Of course, you don’t have to work with tutors — indeed, most UoL students do not. I chose to do so because my aim is to continue my studies at the graduate level.

    So the UoL experience will be different for each of us. It all depends on how you choose to pursue it!


  21. Hi Melody,

    Good questions! Let me work through them from last to first:

    (1) As far as I know, you cannot complete the BA in fewer then three years. You have from three to eight years to complete the BA.

    (2) If you work on your own, there are no assignments throughout the year. The only module you’ll receive any UoL supplied feedback on throughout the year is the dissertation. As for the rest of it, you’re completely on your own until May when you go to your exam center and sit for your exam. You get no written feedback on exams either, only a grade (which you receive about two months later) If you decide to work with an independent tutor, you can either devise your own assignments, or work with your tutor to come up with a study plan and assignments.

    (3) One of the resources you’ll get access to as a UoL student is eight (and soon to be nine) years worth of past exam papers and examiners reports for each module. I would suggest going through all the papers for the modules you’re taking, and grouping the questions into categories. You’ll notice common themes seem to appear most (sometimes every!) year, and that will help you figure out what to focus on. Of course, no plan is foolproof. But if you follow this approach, I think it’s very unlikely you’ll find yourself confronted with exam questions that you’re completely unprepared to answer. (For example: This year, one of the modules I’m working on is Ethics: Historical Perspectives. The module covers the ethical theories of five philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Mill. And the past essays include two questions on each philosopher. So My plan is to focus on Aristotle, Kant and Mill. Further, I’ve taken all the past exam questions for each of these philosophers and grouped them into categories. This gives me an idea of the material I have to master if I’m going to be prepared for the exam. Now, I just have to read the materials, chase down some sources that aren’t included in the required or recommended readings, start writing essays and thinking about these issues as deeply as I can!)

    I hope that helps!


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