Senior Thesis / Independent Study

An honors thesis in philosophy is an opportunity for sustained, deep, critical engagement with a philosophical problem or puzzle. It can be the most challenging and enriching intellectual experience of an undergraduate career. At the same time, it’s not for everyone. Mount Holyoke students are not required to write an honors thesis. The philosophy department takes seriously both the opportunities and challenges involved in embarking on such a project, and encourages students to talk with their advisor about whether their particular intellectual and academic goals would be best served by writing one.

If you’re interested in writing a thesis, continue reading for more on the nature and scope of the project, expectations (ours and yours), and important dates.

Expectations

Length, Scope, Structure.
Content-wise, what we look for in an honors thesis is:

  • a clear, compelling statement of a philosophical problem, puzzle, or question;
  • a critical engagement with the literature, which reveals:
  • an original view or perspective.

Form-wise, we look for clear, concise, highly polished prose that is the result of many rounds of revision.

An honors thesis in philosophy is a piece of writing in the same genre as a typical philosophy journal article. There is no specific length requirement, as that depends a great deal on the topic. Typically a logic thesis will be on the shorter end of the spectrum; a thesis in the history of philosophy or on a contemporary topic on which there is a substantial literature could be longer.

A successful thesis could be as short as 8,000 words, though many will be closer to 12,000. Successful theses on the longer end are unusual, and reflect extra preparation or work on the student’s behalf.

In general, longer and more ambitious theses often cover more ground at the cost of clarity, precision, and depth. Thus, shorter, deeply thought out, well-argued, and polished theses are preferable to longer ones. (This is in line with contemporary norms in the profession.)

Workload. Most students who successfully complete an honors thesis in philosophy begin seriously working on their thesis at the end of their junior year. After having their proposal accepted, and being assigned an advisor, students make a plan for summer writing and reading work. They also work through Thanksgiving break (during which they polish writing for the first significant deadline), through Winter break (during which they do a substantial amount of writing to prepare for the Spring), and through Spring break (at the end of which a completed draft is due to their advisor. They then have another intense period of writing and revising before their final draft is due to their committees, two weeks before the last day of class. (See detailed timeline below.)

Thus, the department only encourages students to take on a thesis project if they can make it their top priority from May of their Junior year to May of their Senior Year. Students who cannot prioritize the thesis or who try to do it in nine months, rather than twelve, have a much harder time successfully completing the work. Please be sure to have a frank discussion with your teachers early on--as soon as you think you might want to write a thesis--about any challenges and distractions that you foresee (and ones you might not!).

Unexpected challenges. It is easy to underestimate how much daily work the thesis requires and overestimate how much one can get done at the last minute. The challenges of independent work, such as the lack of external deadlines and the need for self-motivation, are hard to recognize in advance. The study habits that have helped you excel in classes, which end with the close of the semester, cannot always sustain this longer, deeper sort of project--so, you must cultivate new habits to succeed. Assume that much of your writing will ultimately be discarded or rewritten and much of what you read will never makes it into the final version. This is all par for the course. A big part of the challenge of writing a thesis is thus metacognitive: the process reveals students’ thinking, learning, and working habits--both what they are and how they are limited--and challenges students to take these to the next level. This can be incredibly rewarding, but reaping these rewards requires a great deal of humility and perseverance.

Timeline

The project spans a little over twelve months from conception to completion (April of junior year to May of Senior year). Here are the important dates.

Spring, Junior year: You begin conversations with faculty. Proposals are due in early April (by whatever date the academic calendar notes as the last day for ungraded work).

September, Senior year: You begin meeting with your advisor. Typically, something will be due for your first meeting. This might be an annotated bibliography, a revised thesis proposal, or some other piece of writing that reflects what you’ve learned and how your thinking has evolved over the summer.

November, Senior year: The Monday after Thanksgiving break, evidence of research progress must be submitted to the department. The department then evaluates submissions and meet to discuss whether they demonstrate sufficient progress for continuing the project.

You will submit:

  • An annotated bibliography: This is a list of the readings you have done with brief summaries of each, what you thought of them, and how they connect with your project, if they do. (This may be an expanded version of something you submit to your advisor in the fall.)
  • A short handout (~2 pages) with a reconstruction of the main argument that you’re engaging with and a discussion of the main premise you focus on.
  • At least 5000 words of prose. Typically (but talk to your advisor), this will include the following:
  • A statement of the philosophical problem or puzzle that you’re interested in
  • A longer discussion of the argument of your main opponents, which is both expository and critical.
  • A brief explanation of what the next steps are.
  • A cover letter that states what materials you are including, provides readers with any necessary context for reading the work, and includes anything else you might want to say about the project.

March, Senior year: A complete draft is due to your advisor the Monday after Spring break (roughly mid-March). ‘Complete’ here means that all the parts of the thesis have been written. This sets you up to focus on revising and polishing your ideas for the rest of the semester.

Although this is a time when you’re not reading anything new, it will still be a time of philosophical progress. Writing is an important part of the thinking process, and, as you will see, serious revision and reorganization of your ideas can lead to greater philosophical insight--as well, of course, as a nicely written, well-polished final draft.

April or May, senior year: Final draft is due to your committee two weeks before the end of classes. Check with your committee members about whether they’d prefer a PDF or a printed copy. At the same time, check about their availability and schedule your thesis defense.
Note: this final draft is the real deal. It should be proofread, polished, and formatted as per the LITS MHC guidelines:

If you're still reading, a little bit more about the process:

There are roughly three parts to a thesis, which correspond to three steps--although, as you’ll see, the steps are not sequential.

1. Find your problem.

The problem you’ll work on isn’t just a “topic”--like animal rights or possible worlds. It’s a philosophical puzzle, problem, or question.

In selecting your topic you should consider the resources available to you, including:

  • Your background on the topic: more is not required, but it is better. It’s a good idea to choose a thesis topic based on a course that you’ve taken, or, better yet, on a paper that you’ve written.
  • The specializations of the professors in your department: is there anyone who could advise you on this topic?
  • Your interests: are you curious enough about this topic to think about it for a whole year?
  • Your constraints: how much time, dedication, and focus can you give this thesis?

If you choose a topic that does not reflect all of these considerations, you risk having an unproductive thesis experience.

To find your topic, reflect on your previous work in philosophy. What were your favorite classes? What arguments or readings stand out in your mind? Which ones did you have a strong reaction to? Look for what you disagree with or what puzzles you.

Also, revisit the papers you wrote for classes. We especially encourage this way of finding your topic. (So, if you are looking forward from an early point in your MHC career, and wanting to do an honors thesis in your senior year, you should aim to take more seminars or writing intensive classes.)

(Take a look at Middlebury Philosophy’s thesis guide. The section on choosing a topic has some helpful tips for sharpening and focusing your question.)

Once you’ve got a sense of the philosophical problem--not just topic--you can write up a thesis proposal. Now, before you start writing that proposal, is a good time to check back in with a professor who can help you focus the idea and guide you toward relevant readings.

If your proposal gets accepted, great! But the work on the problem is not done. A substantial bit of the final work involves setting out this problem and convincing the reader that it’s a real, deep, philosophical problem worth engaging with.

2. Find your foil: your primary interlocutor or opponent.

Your aim in your thesis is to enter into, or create, a conversation. You might discover your main interlocutor back in step one, when thinking about an argument or article that you strongly disagreed with. But even if you do, there might be some other work that’s more relevant; and if you don’t, you’ll have to do some more reading.

To discover your main interlocutors, and situate yourself in the conversation, you’ll need to read quite widely. To keep track of things, you’ll keep an annotated bibliography. This is a written record of what you have read which includes:

  • A summary of the article, chapter, or argument,
  • Your thoughts and reactions, such as: what did you agree or disagree with and why? What was interesting or surprising? Etc.
  • An explanation of how the ideas in this piece might fit (if at all) with your project, and
  • Any noteworthy connections with other readings.

Don't get too caught up in the minutiae. At the beginning, your goal in reading is breadth over depth, so that you can orient yourself in the literature. And the aim of the annotation is to keep a written record of your knowledge and thinking.

It’s likely that only a fraction of the pieces you read will end up being part of the discussion. Nevertheless, your familiarity with the broader literature on your topic is an important part of your work for the thesis and will be evident in the final product.

3. Do the critical thinking work--the distinctly philosophical part.

The critical part of your thesis involves, at least, critically analyzing and responding to your main opponents. But it may also include stating your own positive view and arguments.

It’s natural to think of this part as coming last--as what you’d do at the end of the writing process. But in fact, you need to be thinking about this throughout the thesis, and from the beginning. This is because stage setting and expository work of the sort you do in steps 1 and 2 cannot really be separated from the critical thinking work. How you understand the philosophical problem, how you focus it and present it; which works you engage with, and how you set out the conversation--all of this is informed by your own, critical perspective on these issues.

This is part of the reason why writing a thesis involves so much writing and rewriting. It isn’t just because you’re aiming to have a better written piece of work. It’s also because first, writing work is thinking work, and second, thinking evolves over time. Sometimes we don’t know what our view on something is, until we’ve written about it. But then what we’ve written doesn’t reflect our thinking, so we must start again. Or: we don’t have a criticism of someone’s view until we’ve wrestled with it and tried to understand it--often by reconstructing their argument and writing it out more clearly than they did. But then, once we know what we disagree with and why, we might need to rewrite the exposition so that it’s more narrowly focused on or emphasizes the parts we’re engaging with. Finally, if all goes well, our writing won’t be able to keep up with our thinking: we’ll make progress so that, in February, we can see the shortcomings of our November thinking and writing.