Senior Thesis / Independent Study

Writing a senior thesis can be an incredibly enriching experience. In writing a thesis you will get the chance to explore a question of your own design. This question can be on a topic that has always interested you and intrigued you. It can be on a question that you have wanted to study but haven't yet had the opportunity. You will have a whole year to define that question and seek out an answer. Working on your thesis will likely be the most challenging academic experience you have had, and may well be the most rewarding. You will learn what it is to commit to a major project and bring it to completion. Your thesis work will be valuable whatever you do after graduation, but it will also introduce you to a central component of philosophical practice: the intensive and sustained engagement with a philosophical problem in all of its varied aspects. Lastly, it may help you decide whether you want to continue your study of philosophy in graduate school.

Thesis/Honors Process and Requirements

The department encourages students with sufficient background for independent work to enroll in the honors program for their senior year. Pursuing honors involves engaging in a significant amount of independent research, the culmination of which is a written thesis. To be admitted, students must have at least a 3.0-grade point average and must complete a successful application. To pass, the thesis must be judged acceptable by the honors committee.

Writing an honors thesis is a considerable undertaking, and requires motivation and advance planning. Please consult the schedule for information on the different stages of writing an honors thesis. The links on the left provide additional information.

Advance Planning

If you are writing on a topic within a field in which you have never taken a class, you will have to do a substantial amount of work during the summer before your senior year. On top of doing the reading and research immediately relevant to your topic, you will also have to complete extra reading and research on foundational topics in the field.

For example, suppose you wish to write a thesis on the ethics of eating meat but have not taken a course in ethics (or have only taken a specialized course on a particular topic in ethical theory). During the summer before your senior year, you will not only have to read some of the important texts on your topic, but you will also have to read about some of the basic theories employed by authors writing on that topic.

With this in mind, the department recommends that you do not pursue a thesis topic in a field for which you have not taken the necessary courses. This does not mean that writing on such a topic is disallowed, or that doing so is impossible; rather, past attempts indicate that it typically involves more work than can feasibly be done in one year.

The best way to avoid this problem is to plan ahead. During January Term of your junior year (or earlier) begin thinking about what topic you want to write on. Then look at all the philosophy courses offered at the Five Colleges to see whether there are any courses that might prepare you for writing the best thesis you can. Take one or more such courses. Such a course might also be offered in your senior year - if so, take it. The more ways you approach your question, the better your thesis will be.

Due Dates

April 25th, Junior Year

Submit thesis proposal to the department for approval. Notification of acceptance or rejection will be given before the end of the semester. Typically, proposals are not rejected, but students may be asked to modify or refine their projects.

Late November, Senior Year

The Monday after Thanksgiving break, evidence of research progress must be submitted to the department, along with a cover letter summarizing this progress. You will be notified before the end of the semester whether you have made sufficient progress to continue.

May 1st, Senior Year

Final draft of thesis due. Copies must be given to all three members of your thesis committee.

Exam Period, Spring Semester, Senior Year

Orally defend your thesis. You will be notified immediately following the defense whether you have passed.

Spring Semester, Junior year

In the spring of your junior year, you have three tasks:

  1. Choose a Topic.
    At this point your topic can be quite general. For example, your question at this point could be simply, "What is the nature of friendship?" or "How is it possible to know what another person thinks?"
  2. Find an Advisor.
    You can ask any member of the department to advise you on your thesis. However, the professor you choose may believe that another member of the department is more qualified to direct your thesis, and may direct you to that person.
  3. Write a Two to Three Page Prospectus.
    The prospectus should:
    • Set forth the question you wish to address in your thesis.
    • Describe how you hope to answer this question.
    • Include a reading list.
    • Be submitted to the department by April 25th.

Summer After Junior Year

In the summer of your junior year (i.e., the summer before you begin your senior year), you have one task: read the books and articles on your reading list.

A note on strategy: Write a short summary or response paper for each article or book you read while you are working toward your thesis - this information becomes very useful as the thesis progresses. When undertaking a project like this, it is best to start writing as soon as possible. If you put off writing and only read, one of two things might happen. Either you will have too much to say and you won't know where to begin, or you will have nothing to say and you will begin to doubt your ability to write a thesis. Both of these attitudes can lead to panic, and panic is seldom good. So, write early and often.

Fall Semester, Senior Year

 In the fall of your senior year you should:

  1. Begin meeting with your advisor once per week.
  2. Narrow the focus of your thesis. Now that you know the field better, you must be more specific in the problem you are addressing - the odds are that the question or topic you began with in the spring of your junior year was too broad.
  3. Write the core chapters of your thesis. Typically, these chapters will:
    • Present the question you will be answering in your thesis.
    • Motivate the question - why is it important?
    • Survey the canonical answers to your question.
    • Critique these answers.
  4. Submit this work and a cover letter to the department by the Monday after Thanksgiving break.

Spring Semester, Senior Year

In the spring of your senior year, you should:

  1. Rewrite your chapters.
  2. Write the introduction and conclusion, if necessary.
  3. Choose the second and third members of your committee.
  4. Prepare your final draft, due on May 1st.
  5. Give an oral presentation and defense of your thesis.

Further information on all of these steps will be given in conversation with your advisor and committee members.