Writing a Senior Honors Thesis in Philosophy
Many students would like to finish their work in Philosophy with some sort of capstone experience, in most cases by taking a seminar during the senior year. Some students wish to do more intense, original, sustained work in the discipline than even a seminar tends to allow. For these students writing a senior honors thesis in Philosophy may be appropriate.
Such students should talk with their departmental advisers about the possibility as soon as they can, preferably at the end of the junior year. It is easy to romanticize writing a senior thesis in philosophy, but often there are other, less stressful and more productive ways to provide a satisfying capstone experience.
A senior honors thesis in philosophy should be a sustained investigation of some issue of philosophical importance, typically stretching over 35-50 pp. It should engage with the current literature on the topic, and it should engage with the central philosophical theories, arguments, and approaches to the issue. It should provide original insights and discussion.
The senior honors thesis…
- spans both semesters of your senior year
- is worth 8 credits (4 credits per semester; usually same letter grade for both semesters)
- Note: these credits do not count towards the Philosophy Major or the Philosophy Minor
- culminates in a defense
- is overseen by a faculty advising committee
- will be specially formatted and archived in Tufts Digital Collections and Archives.
- may be worthy of Thesis Honors.
To be eligible to write a senior honors thesis, the student must…
- be a senior
- be in good academic standing
- have been on the Dean’s List at least twice before the senior year
- There is a waiver process for transfer students and others who have not met this criterion
- have the approval of chair of the thesis committee (indicated by a signature on the Honors Thesis Candidate Form)
The Faculty Advising Committee
Every student who writes a senior honors thesis must assemble a faculty advising committee. The faculty advising committee consists of at least two people:
A committee chair (aka a primary thesis adviser), who must be a full-time faculty member in the Philosophy Department (except in very rare cases)
A second reader, who is also usually a full-time faculty member in the Philosophy Department, but can be a full-time faculty member in another department
Many students also have a third reader, though this is optional. If the chair and second reader are drawn from the Philosophy Department, the third reader is often drawn from another department.
- The primary roles of the committee are to advise on the content, form, and length of the thesis, and to oversee the student’s progress
- It is the student’s responsibility to find professors who are willing to sit on the committee, and to arrange regular meetings with them
- Each thesis committee is unique, but the committee chair will usually have the most contact with the student. The student should decide the extent of the involvement of the other readers. Sometimes they are very involved throughout; sometimes not. The student is strongly advised to make use of their expertise.
- The student should work out a schedule of meetings with the primary adviser. Often advisers wish to meet students on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, or whenever the student has produced some writing.
- The student should also work out some sort of arrangement with the second and third readers. Ordinarily, a student will meet with the second reader once or twice per semester and with the third reader as needed, if at all; but arrangements vary from case to case.
- In any case, the student should keep all of the readers apprised of the thesis progress and of important dates and meetings.
The student can proceed with the senior thesis only after submitting a prospectus outlining the proposed project and having the proposal approved.
Length: roughly, 500-750 words (2+ double-spaced pages)
Due date: October 1st of the senior year, preferably earlier (and no later than three weeks after the start of the term for an out-of-sync senior)
- Submit the thesis prospectus to the Philosophy department (by October 1st)
- Within two weeks, the department will decide to approve the proposal or deny it or send it back for revision
- If the thesis project is approved, the student must
- register for Philosophy 093 (fall semester) and Philosophy 094 (spring semester)
- submit a Honors Thesis Candidate Form to Student Services (ordinarily by early October, but the deadline has varied over the years)
- Outline the motivations for and goals of the senior thesis project
- Outline the specific problem(s) to be addressed
- Outline the approach or methodology to be taken to the problem(s)
- Outline each chapter/section, indicating the key ideas and arguments, and their relation to the literature
- Include a tentative bibliography
- to include the names of members of the thesis committee
- it is clear what this central problem is—remember that a topic area is not a problem
- the thesis is unified and not just series of loosely related discussions
- that the project is the right size for a senior thesis
The Thesis Defense
The senior honors thesis culminates in a final examination called a “defense” usually lasting about an hour, sometimes a little longer.
The defense combines a formal presentation by the student, summarizing the thesis of about 20-30 minutes, followed by a question-and-answer period and discussion
All the committee members must be present at the defense
The committee decides on the final grade and determines whether to award thesis honors after the defense.
The defense may be open to the public or invited guests, or it may be behind closed doors with just the student and the committee.
A senior thesis may earn No honors, Honors in Thesis, High Honors in Thesis, or Highest Honors in Thesis based on the quality of thesis and the student’s progress throughout the year
Thesis honors will be indicated on the student’s transcript
Even if the student earns no honors, the student still earns 8 credits and the transcript will indicate “Senior Thesis” for those credits.
Thesis honors are distinct from Latin Honors
- Decide on a thesis project and approach
- Conduct background research to determine the viability of the project
- Begin drafting a thesis prospectus
- Contact possible faculty members to be on the committee. Meet in person to discuss the project with them.
Senior Year (Fall)
By the end of September, the student should have:
- finalized the committee and secured the agreement of a primary thesis adviser and the other reader(s)
- attended an informational meeting in order to cement an understanding of all the requirements
- submitted a thesis prospectus to the department for examination and approval to go forward with the thesis. Note: not every prospectus is approved.
By early October (by the end of the sixth week of the semester at the latest), the student should have
- Submitted a Thesis Honors Candidate Form. The chair of the Philosophy Department must sign this form.
At the end of November or early December, the student should
- meet with the primary thesis adviser to assess the student’s progress to determine whether the student should continue to pursue the honors thesis in the spring or switch to another sort of senior project or to an independent study
- aim to have produced a substantial amount of writing, e.g., drafts of at least some of the key chapters
Senior Year (Spring)
- By now, the student should aim to be rewriting and revising rather than introducing much more new material.
- The student should schedule a meeting with the entire committee early in April to ensure the committee is in agreement on what they expect during the revision process. There should be no unpleasant surprises during the defense.
- The student should submit a completed thesis with a complete and accurate bibliography to the committee at least two weeks before the end of classes.
- The student should set up a time and arrange for a space for an oral defense of the thesis, ordinarily during reading period. This must take place before finals in order for a May graduation. The deadline for the "Recommendation for Thesis Honors" form to be submitted by the honors thesis adviser to the degree audit coordinator in Dowling Hall is the first day of finals
- The committee may ask the student to correct or rewrite portions of the thesis after the defense but before it is submitted it to archives.
- The student should prepare the final document for archives—see the online guide for instructions and specifications—and submit the completed manuscript to Digital Collections & Archives.
Some words of advice from previous thesis writers:
"Don't wait until too late to decide on a topic, to do the research, and to write the actual paper. Start early. And make a timeline for yourself and your committee."
"For the writing stage, free writes are my best suggestion. While writing an 80-odd page thesis in a foreign language, free writing in English (for 20 minutes at a time, no more) helped me get my thoughts together."
"Make deadlines for yourself and submit as many drafts as possible to your professors and writing tutors."
“Having a defense earlier rather than later gave me plenty of time to do my other classwork and not have to worry about my thesis too around exam time."
Further Information and Writing Support
Students are highly encouraged to visit the following links for extensive support in planning and writing their senior honors thesis:
- Academic Resource Center
- Tisch Library: 8-week mini-course Research 4 Success
- Guidelines for Writing a Senior Honors Thesis in Philosophy