Writing an Honors Thesis

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An Honors Thesis is a substantial piece of independent research that an undergraduate carries out over two semesters.  Students writing Honors Theses take PHIL 691H and 692H, in two different semesters.

What follows answers all the most common questions about Honors Theses in Philosophy.

Who can write an Honors Thesis in Philosophy?

Any Philosophy major who has a total, cumulative GPA of at least 3.3 and a GPA of at least 3.5 among their PHIL courses can in principle write an Honors Thesis.  But first, you must find a faculty member who is willing to be your advisor, and you must submit an application.  (Click here to get the application form.)  You will need to take the initiative in approaching someone about being your advisor.  Agreeing to be the advisor for an Honors Thesis is a major commitment, so bear in mind that there is a real possibility that someone you ask will say no.  Whether you will be permitted to write an Honors Thesis with a particular potential advisor will be decided by that advisor in consultation with the Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS).  If you cannot find an advisor, you cannot write an Honors Thesis.

Are there any specific pre-requisites?

The requirements for writing an Honors Thesis in Philosophy include having taken at least five PHIL courses, including two numbered higher than 299, having a total PHIL GPA of at least 3.5, and having done one of the following four things: (i)  Taken and passed PHIL 397; (ii) successfully completed an Honors Contract associated with a PHIL course;  (iii) received an A or A- in a 300-level course in the same area of philosophy as the proposed thesis; or (iv) taken and passed a 400-level course in the same area of philosophy as the proposed thesis.

When should I get started?

You should get started the semester before you plan to start writing your thesis — that is, the semester before the one in which you want to take PHIL 691H.

Often, though not always, PHIL 691H and 692H are taken in the Fall and Spring semesters of the Senior year, respectively.  It is also possible to start earlier, and take 691H in the Spring semester of the Junior year and the Fall of the Senior year.  Starting earlier has some important advantages.  One is that it means you will finish your thesis in time to use it as a writing sample, should you decide to apply to graduate school.  Another is that it avoids a mad rush near the very end of your last semester.

How do I get started?

Please start by getting a copy of the Honors Thesis Checklist (click here).  This guides you through the entire process.

The first thing you will need to do is to talk to one or more professors about the project you have in mind, and about the possibility of their taking you on as advisor.  Then you will need to fill out an application and submit it to the Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS); at present this is Mariska Leunissen.  Click here for the application form.

Once you have been approved to write an Honors Thesis and you have connected with an advisor, the last thing you need to do is fill out an Honors Thesis Contract (get that by clicking here), get it signed by your advisor, and give it to the DUS.

Then the DUS will register you for PHIL 691H.

What happens when I take PHIL 691H and PHIL 692H?

PHIL 691H and PHIL 692H are the course numbers that you sign up for to get credit for working on an Honors Thesis. These classes have official meeting times and places.  In the case of PHIL 691H, those are a mere formality:  You will meet with your advisor at times you both agree on. But in the case of PHIL 692H, they are not a mere formality:  The class will actually meet as a group, at least for the first few weeks of the semester.  (See below.)

PHIL 691H

When you take PHIL 691H, you should meet with your advisor during the first week of the semester and fill out a work plan (click here to get the form) which you should then turn in to the Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS).  Over the course of the semester, you will meet regularly with your advisor.  By the last day of classes, you must turn in a 10 page paper on your thesis topic; this can turn out to be part of your final thesis, but it doesn’t have to.  In order to continue working on an Honors Thesis the following semester, this paper must show promise of your ability to complete one, in the opinion of your advisor.

PHIL 692H

When you take PHIL 692H, you will continue working with your advisor,  But during the first few weeks of the semester, you will also meet with the other thesis-writers and the DUS.  You will take turns “workshopping” one another’s papers.  This means, each of you will be assigned a time for the group to talk about a paper by you.  (This can be the short paper you wrote at the end of PHIL 691H, or it can be something else you’ve written which is to become part of your thesis.)  You will send this paper to the other members of the group in advance of each meeting; we will all come to class having read the paper, and we will all bring at least two written questions about the paper, ready to have a fruitful discussion.

The Graduate Course Option

If you and your advisor agree, you may exercise the Graduate Course Option.  If you do this, then during the semester when you are enrolled in either PHIL 691H or PHIL 692H, you will attend and do the work for a graduate level PHIL course.  (You won’t be officially enrolled in that course.)   A paper you write for this course will be the basis for your Honors Thesis.  If you exercise this option, then you will be excused from the other requirements of the thesis course (either 691H or 692H) that you are taking that semester.

Who can be my advisor?

Any faculty member on a longer-than-one-year contract in the Department of Philosophy may serve as your honors thesis advisor. You will eventually form a committee of three professors, of which one can be from outside the Department.  But your advisor must have an appointment in the Philosophy Department.  Graduate Students are not eligible to advise Honors Theses.

Who should be my advisor?

Any faculty member on a longer-than-one-year contract in the Department of Philosophy may serve as your honors thesis advisor. It makes most sense to ask a professor who already knows you from having had you as a student in a class.  In some cases, though, this is either not possible, or else there is someone on the faculty who is an expert on the topic you want to write about, but from whom you have not taken a class.  Information about which faculty members are especially qualified to advise thesis projects in particular areas of philosophy can be found HERE.

What about the defense?

You and your advisor should compose a committee of three professors (including the advisor) who will examine you and your thesis.  Once the committee is composed, you will need to schedule an oral examination, a.k.a. a defense.  You should take the initiative here, communicating with all members of your committee in an effort to find a block of time (a little over an hour) when all three of you can meet.  The thesis must be defended by a deadline which is set by the Honors Program, which is usually a couple of weeks before the end of classes.

What is an Honors Thesis in Philosophy like?

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, but 30 pages (double-spaced) is a good guideline.  Many examples of successfully defended Honors Theses can be found on a bookshelf on the first floor of Caldwell Hall.  (Ask Mariska Leunissen, or anyone else who happens to be handy, to show you where it is.)