Tips on Finishing Fast

Georgia State’s philosophy M.A. program is designed to be finished in two years. Out of a philanthropic concern for your welfare, we urge you to try to finish up within that time. Why? With our assistantships, there is no guarantee that you’ll be supported past two years. And if you do not have an assistantship, chances are that you are taking out some loans to live on and pay tuition. Taking out any more loans than is absolutely necessary in order to finish an M.A. in philosophy is, economically, a doubleplusungood idea. And if you go on to obtain a Ph.D. after your M.A. here, you’ll probably be in school at least 5 more years. So while we hope that your time with us at Georgia State is wonderful and intrinsically valuable, it should also be short.

Our program requirements can more or less be divided into two main areas: (1) taking a certain number of classes that also fulfill distribution requirements, and (2) writing and successfully defending a thesis. Few people have difficulty finishing the classes expeditiously. Where people get hung up is in finishing the thesis.

That’s because the thesis is open-ended and largely self-directed. With classes, there is a set meeting time, and a deadline for the final paper, so that, even if you are a habitual procrastinator, you’ll probably buckle down at the end and crank out the work that needs to be done. With the thesis, on the other hand, it’s easy to put off the work and instead put your time into more immediately pressing matters. In the second year, most of our M.A. students will be teaching Critical Thinking (or perhaps Intro to Philosophy or Intro to Ethics) for the first time, and it’s easy to allow the various tasks associated with that–preparing for classes twice a week, grading assignments, etc.—to take up almost all of your time. And if you’re also taking a class in summer and/or fall, it will be difficult to get started on your thesis. Many people let things slide. They might have a vague idea of what they’d like to write on, but they don’t do enough serious work on settling on a definite topic, doing research, putting together a thesis proposal and a committee, and so on, over the summer after year one or even into the Fall semester of their second year. These people are much less likely to finish the program in two years, especially because we have a set of deadlines for when drafts of the thesis must be given to your advisor and your committee that fall fairly early in the semester you wish to graduate.

The key to finishing in two years is to get started on the work on your thesis early. Our program, basically, involves taking 9 graduate-level classes (excluding Teaching Philosophy, Thesis Research, etc.) that fulfill various distribution requirements, plus writing and defending a thesis. A typical course load at the graduate level is 3 such classes each semester. So think of the program this way: your first year should be dedicated to getting the majority of your classes out of the way, and the second year to writing your thesis. In order to do this, you should have a thesis topic and an advisor selected just after the end of your first year in the program, so that you can spend the summer between your first and second years reading and taking notes for the sake of the thesis, and drafting a core part of your thesis (ideally, a draft of your writing sample if you are applying out), so that you can spend your second year completing the thesis (see deadlines).

In order to do this, you obviously need to start thinking about your thesis in your first year in the program. That doesn’t mean that you need to come in with a thesis topic already in mind. But consider which people you might like to have as your advisor, and then try to take classes with them ASAP. And while you’re taking your classes, ask yourself whether any of the material you’re studying interests you as a possible topic for a thesis. If so, make sure to write your final paper on that topic. Having a paper already written on your thesis topic to use as a starting point for further work gives you a big head start. If you have a possible thesis topic in mind, but it isn’t covered directly in any of the classes offered your first year, do not despair. You may be able to work that topic, in a plausible and natural manner, into a paper for a class on something else. For instance, let’s imagine that you’re really interested in Thomas Reid, but GSU happens not to be offering a seminar on Reid that particular year. However, if we are offering a class on Hume, you may be able to write your final paper on an analysis of Reid’s criticisms of Hume’s doctrine of impressions and ideas. (NB: before doing something like this, you will of course run your paper idea past your professor to make sure that it’s suitable for the class.)

Getting a majority of your thesis written over the summer and Fall of your second year offers a number of significant advantages. First of all, if you’re applying to Ph.D. programs (most of which have application deadlines around January 1), you can hone a writing sample of about 15 pages that can be the core of your thesis. Since a complete draft of the writing sample will need to be in your letter writers’ hands by Nov. 15, the hardest part of your thesis will be done by that time. From there, you will only need to (a) increase intro and background section to provide more context (and let your research show a bit more), (b) fill out the argument, objections and responses, and implications as you and advisor deem helpful, and (c) revise. Second, your thesis advisor will be able to discuss your thesis in some detail in his or her letter of recommendation, which should make it a stronger letter. Finally, you’ll then be able to make any needed revisions in the Spring semester in a low-stress way, rather than sweating things out in order to meet deadlines. For those applying to Ph.D. and J.D. programs, campus visits may eat up some of the Spring, and that can be time-consuming, along with teaching and completing your final classes (usually two). The less thesis work you have to do in April or May (or the summer!), the better off you are.

Getting a full draft of the thesis done before and during your third semester in the program is not a wild pipe dream. The Department of Philosophy does not have hard and fast page requirements for its M.A. theses, but we do not expect (and do not desire) sprawling opuses. An M.A. thesis ought to be a more substantial piece of work than a typical seminar paper, and it will likely be longer than a typical seminar paper. But what we really care about in the M.A. thesis is its being a more polished, professional, and tightly-argued piece of work than a typical seminar paper, rather than its simply being longer. We have had excellent M.A. theses that are 25-35 pages long. If you put as much time each week into working on your thesis as you should be putting in for a graduate-level class over the summer, then getting a solid draft of the thesis done over the summer should be easily achievable–especially if you already have a class paper written on the topic to use as your starting-point. Putting the same time into the thesis over the fall should allow a near-complete version of the core of the thesis (and potential writing sample).

In order to put in that time, particularly if you are also teaching your own course(s), it is essential to set a writing schedule and designated work times (as opposed to class time/teaching time). Also, you should take at most one class in the Fall. In fact, taking zero classes that semester might not be a bad idea. And don’t audit a lot of classes either. Even if a bunch of classes look interesting, don’t deceive yourself into thinking that you’ll be able to squeeze in the time to work on your thesis while also taking them. Focus on the thesis.

How can you make the time working on your thesis productive? It will help with writing your thesis to set deadlines for yourself and to meet them, even if your advisor isn’t pushing too hard. Lots of good things have been written on how to get done quickly with one’s dissertation, and most of that advice also applies, mutatis mutandis, to writing one’s thesis. Also, because of the self-directed nature of a thesis, it is excellent practice for writing a dissertation. One brief piece on writing a dissertation we can recommend is “Words on Paper.”

Two other bits of advice:

Write discrete chunks. Trying to write a draft of the whole thesis and then sending it off to your advisor is usually a really bad idea. There may be serious problems at the beginning that render later work moot, such as a misunderstanding of a key argument you’re considering, or a lack of clarity in a fundamental distinction you’re making, or a host of other things, which could (and should) have been caught sooner. And if you think of the task ahead of you as the daunting one of ‘sitting down and writing my thesis,’ the chances of demoralization and wheel-spinning are quite high. In almost all cases, you’ll do better if you set yourself a number of small, discrete steps to take, and then polish them off and send them to your advisor for feedback. Write up a draft of your exposition of one of the main arguments you’ll be criticizing, or section 2 of your planned 4-section thesis, make sure it’s on track, and then move on to the next step.

Keep in touch with your advisor. In line with the previous bit of advice, let your advisor know what you’re planning on doing. When you get extensive feedback on a piece of your thesis (or the whole thesis), look over it carefully, think about what you’ll be doing in response to that feedback, and then share those thoughts with your advisor. Sometimes it’s a good idea to throw out large chunks of what you’ve written, change the organization of your thesis, or significantly shift what you’re arguing for. But it’s a terrible idea to go ahead and do those sorts of things without first letting your advisor know you’re thinking of doing them.