The Role of the Thesis
Writing and defending a Master’s thesis is the culmination of our M.A. program. It is writing a thesis that distinguishes the M.A. from a typical undergraduate philosophy program, in which a student just needs to pass a certain number of classes that cover the various areas of philosophy. The Department has a number of guidelines, requirements, and deadlines to be met regarding theses. Graduate students should familiarize themselves with these during their first year, and begin discussing potential thesis topics with potential advisors by the end of their first Spring semester.
That said, the successful thesis need not be a landmark achievement in philosophy. Instead, it simply needs to demonstrate that the student has acquired sufficient philosophical skills and knowledge. And so, many of the things we will be looking for in a successful thesis are the same sorts of things we want in a good seminar paper.
Philosophical Skills. Philosophy is (in part) an activity of offering arguments for a conclusion. An M.A. thesis needs to have a clear overall thesis, and the rest of the M.A. thesis needs to be clearly organized around the goal of supporting that thesis, by offering arguments in support of it, rebutting objections, etc. Some exposition will be necessary to lay out background for one’s project, to set out objections before answering them, and the like, but your M.A. thesis should not be primarily expository. Likewise, your M.A. thesis should not be a set of disconnected reflections on some topic or philosopher. In the course of writing the thesis and refining it in response to feedback from your advisor and committee members, you will end up demonstrating that you can lay out a series of clear and sustained arguments for some conclusion, and anticipate and rebut objections.
The thesis of your thesis need not be ambitious (“I will prove that substance dualism is true”); for an M.A. thesis, a modest and tightly focused thesis is more likely to be successful. And a ‘negative’ thesis is acceptable. (“I will argue that so-and-so’s arguments against substance dualism, which are based upon the causal interaction of mind and body, do not give us good reason to reject substance dualism.”) Finally, a thesis can demonstrate a great deal of philosophical skill, far more than enough to pass, even though (in the opinion the advisor or committee) its arguments have serious problems, some major objections are still outstanding, etc. In fact, it would be shocking if a thesis didn’t have flaws, loose ends, and the like.
Mastery of content. By the time you’re done with your thesis, you should know what you’re talking about. This includes being to explain clearly the relevant distinctions, arguments, and positions in the topic you’re exploring in a way that demonstrates your understanding of them. (Being able to do this is consistent with having a controversial interpretation of what’s going on with some argument or philosopher, even one that your advisor might regard as mistaken.) It also involves being able to bring to bear the relevant scholarly literature on one’s topic. The scope of the literature you will be expected to consider will vary widely from topic to topic; determining its scope should be done in close consultation with your advisor.
Other. The M.A. thesis should be a professional piece of work. Typos, grammatical mistakes, and other pieces of sloppiness should have been ruthlessly sought out and destroyed by the time you are ready to turn it in. Philosophy does not have one standard reference system, but textual references should be clear, complete, and not in some atypical format. And if there are other scholarly conventions adhered to by people in the field in which one is writing (e.g., using Stephanus numbers to refer to passages in Plato, not page numbers in particular translations), one should follow them.
Length. We do not have a set length for M.A. theses. Because the thesis is supposed to be more in-depth than a seminar paper, it typically will be longer. It’s possible to imagine a polished, tightly-argued, well-done thesis that clocks in at 15 pages, where it would be obtuse to ask for more, but this would be highly unusual. At the same time, we do not want theses to sprawl on forever. It’s not a dissertation, and you’re better off keeping it within manageable limits. So–keeping in mind that we do not mandate particular page lengths–somewhere between 30 and 50 pages (with standard margins and font) would be a decent range. Please also remember that longer does not equal better. We recently had an M.A. thesis whose first draft was 75 pages, and the final one was 32 pages, and partly as a result of this, was far better at the end.
It will be much easier to meet these standards if you use, as the starting point for your thesis, a paper you’ve already researched and written for a seminar, rather than beginning your thesis ex nihilo. So, insofar as it is practical to do so, try to select paper topics that you could see yourself possibly doing more work on in your thesis.
Basic regulations for composition of the thesis committee:
- The Thesis Advisor must be either a lecturer, tenure-track, or tenured member of Georgia State’s Department of Philosophy.
- The committee must have at least 3 members who are either lecturers, tenure-track, or tenured members of Georgia State’s Department of Philosophy.
- Additional committee members may be from outside the Department of Philosophy or outside Georgia State.
Addenda and modifications to the basic regulations:
- Students on the Neurophilosophy track are encouraged to have at least one committee member from outside of the Department of Philosophy who works with Georgia State University’s Neuroscience Institute and who is approved by the thesis advisor. For these students, the committee need have only two members who are either lecturers, tenure-track, or tenured members of Georgia State’s Department of Philosophy.
- For the purposes of composing committees, faculty who are joint appointed in Philosophy and another department count as members of the Department of Philosophy.
It will contain the following parts:
- A title for the thesis.
- A brief description of the subject of the thesis and of the main conclusion or conclusions that you will argue for in the thesis.
- An outline, chapter by chapter, of how the thesis will be structured.
- A listing of the classes you have taken, and with whom, that you think will be fairly directly relevant to the issues you will be exploring in your thesis.
- A bibliography of the works you plan on consulting during your research for the thesis.
The prospectus should be brief; we suggest no more than 3 pages double-spaced for A-D, and no more than 2 pages for E.
When a student first signs up for thesis research, she is expected to consult with her advisor in order to develop the prospectus as a basis for further work on the thesis. Because of this, a student should normally take no more than one semester of Thesis Research prior to finishing her prospectus. The student will show all of the members of her committee a draft of the prospectus and get their feedback on it. Then she will revise the prospectus in light of their suggestions and have them sign the revised prospectus, along with the registration form for Phil 8999, in order to register for subsequent semesters of Thesis Research.
The prospectus is not a binding contract. We fully expect that by the time a thesis is completed, its structure or conclusions might be significantly different than the student envisioned at the start of the process.
In cases (hopefully rare) in which a student completely changes topics and advisors, she may sign up for Thesis Research again without a completed prospectus, in order to develop the prospectus for the new topic.
As one of the central purposes of the thesis is to allow students the opportunity to revise and refine a piece of writing more than is possible with a paper written for a class, the thesis is not a work which is submitted for the first time immediately prior to the oral defense. In order for the thesis to serve its purpose and be a profitable experience for the student, multiple drafts of the thesis have to be circulated in a timely fashion. Therefore, the Department has developed the following minimum requirements for successfully completing the thesis. Students are strongly encouraged to write more drafts than required.
1. A student must have the prospectus approved by the thesis committee prior to registering for Phil 8999, Thesis Research, in the semester in which the student will finish her degree requirements. Because students normally draft the prospectus in Phil 8999 the previous semester, students should sign up for three hours of Thesis Research at least a semester prior to the semester in which they plan on finishing up; e.g., sign up for Thesis Research in Fall 2009 at the latest if you plan on graduating Spring 2010.
Students must have a thesis research authorization form approved in order to sign up for Thesis Research. Students should e-mail this form to their thesis advisor no later than the Monday prior to the start of classes. Students who miss this deadline will need to have their advisor submit a manual add request, and they will be responsible for paying the manual registration fee.
2. A first draft of the whole thesis must be given to the thesis advisor by the date indicated below. The thesis advisor will then discuss with the student what revisions need to be made to this draft before it is ready to be distributed to the other members of the thesis committee. It may sometimes take several rounds of revisions before a thesis is ready to be distributed to the full committee.
3. With the advisor’s approval, a draft of the thesis must be circulated to the thesis committee by the date indicated below.
4. After getting feedback from the full committee, the student will meet with the advisor to discuss what changes to make to the thesis. Again, it may sometimes take multiple drafts before the advisor decides that the final draft is ready to be distributed. At their discretion, other members of the committee may request to see a revised version of the thesis between the draft of the thesis first circulated to the full committee and the distribution of the version of the thesis to be defended.
5. The version of the thesis which a candidate will defend must be given to all members of the thesis committee by the date indicated below.
The deadlines below are for completing all work within a semester so that the student is finished and need not register for any additional credit hours to graduate. The official graduation date will be in the subsequent semester, but the student will not need to register in that semester. Please contact the Director of Graduate Studies if you wish to know the deadlines for officially graduating within a given semester. These latter set of deadlines will be about 3 weeks earlier.
- Prospectus Approval. The Monday before classes begin
- Draft to Thesis Advisor. The W deadline for that semester (generally halfway through the semester)
- Draft to Full Committee. 1 month prior to the defense
- Version to be Defended. Last day of class
- Defense. Last day of final exam period
- Upload thesis. Prior to start of classes the subsequent semester
Please note that the thesis advisor has the prerogative to set earlier deadlines than those above; e.g., that the defense must be held by the last day of classes and the version to be defended circulated to the full committee at least a week prior to the defense. Students will need to have their thesis pass a “format check” prior to uploading their thesis and to register for graduation.
Faculty may not be in town during the summer and therefore students may have to submit materials in advance of these deadlines.