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Faculty of Philosophy


Guide to College Supervisions


The organisation of teaching within colleges varies from college to college. But the general pattern is that each student has a Director of Studies appointed by the college to oversee the student's work, give advice on the choice of papers, and arrange supervisions.

Directors of Studies are philosophy specialists, and often will do a good deal of the supervisions themselves; but students who spend much time studying philosophy will have several supervisors, usually including advanced postgraduate students. Students entering the third year of the Tripos may wish to have a particular supervisor for a particular paper, possibly because of the supervisor's research, possibly because (as will typically be the case with senior faculty staff) a reference from that person could be helpful when applying for postgraduate study. Candidates who are in this position are advised to raise the matter with their DoS as early as possible, since many teaching staff are fully booked for the whole year well before it starts.

Philosophy students often have supervisions by themselves, though they may also have them in pairs or small groups, especially in first year. Typically, a student will have been set some reading and asked to write an essay on a topic relevant to a paper for which he/she is studying.  The essay will have been handed in prior to the supervision so that the supervisor can read it in advance.  The supervision itself is then devoted to a critical discussion of the essay and of the general topic on which it bears. Philosophy students usually have one supervision each week. So, in an eight-week term students will be expected to write at least eight essays.

Attending supervisions is an obligation, not an invitation. Indeed, if you repeatedly fail to show up, then in many colleges the cost of the missed supervisions will be charged to your own college bill.



Generally, students will have 4 supervisions for any one paper. Papers cover a wide range of material and subtopics, as set out in the Guide to Courses ( and the reading lists ( In most cases, it is impossible, and undesirable, to attempt to cover the whole range. It is best to concentrate on a substantial but compact portion of the whole. Within this, supervisors will prepare a list of self-contained topics, each manageable in one week. Your supervisor might involve you in the selection of topics; they will ensure that a pathway is charted through the paper so as to give it some coherence.

If you feel you need extra support/tuition in a particular area you should raise this issue with your Director of Studies.


Each essay is defined by a question or statement set by your supervisor at the beginning of the week, on which the essay must be written. The purpose of the weekly essay is to accustom undergraduates to distilling their reading into a clear, concise yet rounded argument. Supervisors normally ask for the essay to be handed in prior to the supervision meeting, so that they have time to make written comments and a brief assessment if they wish, or to make notes for the discussion. If you have agreed to hand in written work then you must do so. If you fail to hand in written work as agreed, your supervisor may refuse to go ahead with the supervision.

There are many forms that a good philosophy essay might take. Most importantly, remember that a successful philosophy essay will consist of an argument, not a survey. Your essay shouldn’t merely report that some philosophers have argued for one conclusion, whilst other philosophers have argued another; rather, your essay should argue for some specific conclusion, and should argue against the others. This argument should be coherent in its structure, rigorous in its analysis, and clear in its expression.

The Faculty’s Marking Criteria may be found here[EH1] :

An excellent guide to good philosophical writing was prepared by a number of former Cambridge postgraduate students who had extensive experience of supervising undergraduates. This guide may be found here:

Reading Lists

You can access current Faculty reading lists from each individual course page in Moodle ( using your Raven login.  There you will find a link to the relevant reading list on the Reading Lists Online (RLO) platform and another to a printable PDF version.  The RLO version will show you the locations of print copies of the readings alongside links to online versions where these are available.  For more information and advice on using RLO to find, access and manage your reading take a look at the LibGuide at or contact the Library team at who will be very happy to help. 

 Your supervisor may suggest a more targeted list of readings for each topic.  Your supervisor should discuss each reading list with you and will often suggest one or two outline texts as a starting point. You can always ask your supervisor for further guidance on what to prioritise within the list.

The supervision

Supervising styles differ and you should expect a range of approaches throughout your undergraduate career. However, a good undergraduate supervision should make progress on three fronts:

1.   Improving your understanding of the quality of the essay you submitted. You should be prepared to reflect upon: the accuracy and relevance of the essay’s content; the breadth and depth of its analysis; the quality and structure of its argument; the clarity and precision of its expression; and, where appropriate, its style (vocabulary, syntax, punctuation, tone, pacing, etc.).

2.   Expanding the breadth and depth of your understanding of the topic as a whole. Supervisors will ask you about what you have read and written about; they will probably also ask you about matters not covered in the essay; they may ask you to make connections between what you did write and what you could – with more thought and/or reading – have written. Supervisors will want to clarify and broaden your understanding. You will be encouraged to have your own agenda and to ask your own questions.

3.   Testing your knowledge and understanding of the topic, and your general philosophical skills. When asked a question by your supervisor, don't just try to come up with the “right” answer and expect to leave it at that. Philosophy is at least as much about learning how to argue as it is about learning what to argue. Should your supervisor fail to accept your answer to a question, this need not indicate that you have said something “wrong” (although it might!); in many cases this should be treated an invitation to engage in further reflection and exploration. Dialogue, cross-examination, playing devil’s advocate, querying the everyday assumptions that everyday people take for granted – all these are vital parts of the philosopher’s craft. Take heart from the knowledge that speculation and exploratory debate are often productive parts of this craft!

Most importantly, you should remember that a supervision is a conversation, not an interview. Supervision is not merely an opportunity for you to display the knowledge you already possess; it is also, and importantly, an opportunity for you to test your knowledge, to expand your knowledge, and to respond to challenges to your knowledge. You shouldn’t just talk; you should also listen. And you shouldn’t just listen; you should also think.

Take a pen and paper (or other writing device) to all your supervisions, so that you can take notes.

Supervision reports

Your supervisor will write a report to your college before the end of each full term and it is normal for the Director of Studies to discuss this with you. This report will give the Director of Studies a sense of your progress that term and flag any areas of concern. Supervision reports are also normally available for students to read online.