Senior Thesis Guidelines

Philosophy Department Senior Thesis Guidelines


A thesis in the Philosophy Department is a research paper of 30 to 50 pages presenting the results of a student’s in-depth investigation of some problem, question, or topic. Writing a thesis is not required for all students, but it is especially appropriate for those considering graduate study in philosophy.

Although the student is advised and supervised in this work by at least one department member, most of the work is done independently and the responsibility for completing a good thesis rests with the student. In addition to the faculty member who serves as thesis supervisor, a second faculty member should be chosen to serve as a second reader. The role of the second reader is to read and comment on the main documents of the thesis project as indicated below. After completing the thesis, the student defends the thesis in a presentation to the philosophy faculty.

The student completes the work in the two semesters of the student’s senior year, and thus receives two units of credit. Completing a thesis is one way of fulfilling the philosophy department’s SYE requirement. (The other way to fulfill the SYE requirement is to take the senior seminar, Phil 400: Metaphilosophy.)

What is a Senior Thesis?

Senior theses may be approached in different ways. Senior theses may examine closely a single work or works of a single author, a philosophical question which examines the work of several authors, an interdisciplinary problem or question which examines work of authors in different disciplines, or the focused refutation or development of a position. Theses should reflect careful examination of texts, a considered argument developed over the course of the thesis and awareness of significant counterarguments. Theses should take into account original sources but also important secondary literature. Above all, theses should reflect your own clearly formulated philosophical argument.

Ok, I am Interested – How Do I Get Started?

A student usually initiates a thesis by approaching a faculty member with an idea for an inquiry. This should be done in the year before the thesis is undertaken, usually in the spring semester.

The student should then prepare a proposal to submit to the department for consideration. (See “Guidelines for Proposal” for details.) Students who currently qualify for Honors (3.5 GPA in philosophy) will receive first priority, but proposals from students who do not meet the requirements for Honors will also receive careful consideration. The philosophy department will make every effort to accommodate all students who submit strong proposals, but there may be times when staffing limitations reduce the number of thesis projects we can accommodate. Honors students register for Phil 498 (Fall) and Phil 499 (Spring). Other students whose proposals are accepted register for Phil 489 (Fall) and Phil 490 (Spring).

Guidelines for Proposal

The thesis proposal should include:

  • A tentative working title of your thesis.
  • A “thesis statement” of the major claim you wish to defend.
  • A preliminary outline or table of contents. (A senior thesis typically has approximately 5 chapters. Given that the thesis will be 30-50 pages, each chapter then will be 6-10 pages.)
  • A preliminary annotated bibliography. You may include works that you have already read (perhaps in classes; perhaps these works are what inspired you to take on this topic), but you also should engage in library research to identify other key works that you plan to read. See “Library Research in Philosophy” for more information. In the “annotated” part of your bibliography, indicate for each work whether you have already read it or not, and indicate why you include it in your bibliography.
  • Suggestions for who might be your primary supervisor and second reader. Your primary supervisor should normally be a faculty member in the philosophy department. The second reader can be from another department, such as if your topic is somewhat interdisciplinary.

Fall and Spring Semesters of Senior Year

The purpose of the fall semester’s independent study is to complete most of the research necessary to write a thesis so that the focus of the second semester is the composition and revision of your thesis.

Thus, in the fall semester, you meet regularly with your supervisor as you develop your reading list, continue reading in your topic, and refine your own thesis statement and argument. By the end of the fall semester:

  • You should have completed most or all of your reading. Your annotated bibliography should now include summaries of all of your sources.
  • You should have a more fully developed version of your thesis statement.
  • You should have a more fully developed outline of your argument. This should be reflected in your updated table of contents.
  • You should develop a work plan for your writing in the spring (deadlines for each chapter).
  • You should give this more polished version of your proposal (all of the above documents) to your second reader for feedback.

In the spring, you focus on writing your thesis, following the schedule of your work plan, and incorporating suggestions from the second reader. Ideally, you should complete a full draft by four weeks before the end of the semester (typically around April 1) to give to your thesis advisor and your second reader. You should expect to make substantial revisions, and perhaps even to undertake additional research, after receiving comments on this draft from the thesis supervisor and second faculty reader. If both your thesis supervisor and second reader are happy with your revisions, you are ready, by about two weeks before the end of the semester (but no later than the beginning of the last week of classes), to give copies to the philosophy faculty to read.

Typically, your defense will be during finals week of the Spring Semester. The defense is a presentation of your thesis to the philosophy faculty and other interested parties (such as faculty and other philosophy majors interested in the student’s topic) during which you are expected to summarize your results and respond to questions about those results and the methods by which they were generated. The philosophy faculty will very likely suggest yet further revisions/refinements. After you submit your final fully polished version of your thesis, the philosophy department will send it off to get it bound, keeping a copy for the philosophy department, and sending you a copy as well.

A listing of past senior theses can be found on the philosophy department website, and bound copies are available for perusal in the philosophy department office.

Library Research in Philosophy

How to Get Started

If you have a fairly clear idea of a general topic, you may want to start by reviewing what you learned in the relevant courses that gave rise to this idea. What philosophy readings have most inspired and developed this interest? What papers have you already written that move in this direction? What suggestions have you already received from faculty for further reading? What suggestions have you already received from faculty that would help you to develop your ideas and arguments more fully?

Whether you have an idea or not, it can be really helpful to browse in philosophy dictionaries and encyclopedias (most can be found under Library of Congress call number B in the reference section of the library. One of these is available also online: The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) In these reference works, well-respected scholars write summary articles on important philosophical topics. Most of these articles also contain short bibliographies of key works in those topics. Once you find a topic that especially attracts your attention, look for those works in the bibliography and have a closer look.

By thus identifying key works to read, you are starting to develop your preliminary bibliography! Library book searches using keywords will help you find other sources that look interesting and helpful.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

In philosophy, primary sources are usually classic, standard historical writings. Hopefully you have been introduced to a good number of these in your coursework. Some of the sources listed in philosophy encyclopedia articles would be the standard primary sources that everyone writing on this topic is expected to be familiar with.

Secondary sources are typically writings by current or recent philosophers, reflecting on and expanding on the traditional sources. Many of these writings are found as articles in academic journals. Well-established authors often also write book-length manuscripts as well.

In your thesis, you should show both your own thinking in response to the key primary sources, but also awareness of how current philosophers are considering the topic today. So you will need to find secondary sources as well. A good way to do this is through the Philosopher’s Index, which you can access through the library web page.

For more information about finding relevant resources in the library, consult with a reference librarian. Some of the pages on the library website are helpful as well.