I supervise at least one undergraduate a year. Many of the same questions come up each year. I have prepared below a set of guidelines to help when starting out on a dissertation.
Please note that this is personal advice and not to be taken as a substitute for the undergraduate handbook and marking scheme.
Do's and Don't's for a dissertation
- Have a claim. You should be able to state your claim clearly in 1–2 sentences.
- Have claim of the right size – viz. a size you can defend (be careful not to be too ambitious here)
- Have a rigorous argument for your claim. Your argument should be able to convince a rational person who does not already believe your claim
- Make your dissertation clearly understandable to a philosopher who is not an expert in this area
- Explain why your claim is important
- Be honest if you do not conclusively establish your claim – e.g. clarify that your claim follows conditional on certain stated assumptions, list unresolved objections
- Make clear your original contribution
- Make use of your supervisor for feedback on drafts
- Aim for this to be your magnum opus or last word on the topic
- Try to solve a major problem (e.g. the mind-body problem, external world scepticism)
- Cover every possible view in the field
- Include extra material unless it advances your argument
- Have one massive 6,000 word chapter
- Leave it until Semester 2 to start work
How to write a dissertation
The points above give you an idea of what to aim for but they don't provide a method for how to get there. There are many ways to write a dissertation. It may be reassuring to know that there are simple methods that can reliably produce an excellent dissertation. The algorithm below is one method:
- Find the general area you like (e.g. phenomenal consciousness)
- Select one article/book chapter in that area that you find fascinating (e.g. Smith (2009))
- Summarise Smith (2009) carefully in your own words, paying attention to whether each step in the argument follows from the previous
- Look for weaknesses in Smith (2009)‘s argument
- Summarise how Smith (2009)‘s argument should be corrected. Focus on the following:
- Which new resources do you need to draw on?
- Which alternative conclusions follow?
- Which objections can be raised to your proposal?
- Draw on relevant bits of surrounding literature to support (5)
You have a first class dissertation!
Filling the dissertation with enough words
A common worry among students is whether they are able to write enough words. The longest piece of philosophical writing they may have done so far is 3,000 words. How can you write a sustained argument that lasts for 8,000 words? This turns out to be easier than you might think. Indeed, the difficulty often turns out to be not going over the word limit.
For the sake of argument, let us see how following the algorithm above might work out in terms of word count.
- Introduction (500 words): What is your claim, the outline of your argument?
- Chapter 1 (1,000 words): Why is your claim important? What are the pay-offs?
- Chapter 2 (2,000 words): Careful and charitable summary of X in your own words
- Chapter 3 (2,000 words): Your rigorous criticism of X
- Chapter 4 (2,000 words): How X should be corrected, associated costs, consequences for views that use X, possible objections
- Conclusion (500 words): Summary and next steps for future work
And we are done!
Milestones to aim for
Milestones depend on the specific project and you should talk to your supervisor about your workload and what would be a reasonable plan for finishing the dissertation in the year. Below is a rough plan that one might aim for.
- End Y3: meet supervisor & agree on general topic
- Summer vacation: background reading on topic
- Start Y4: find 1 article/chapter to focus
Year 4, Semester 1:
- Start: meet with supervisor & agree plan for year
- Middle: first draft of 2 chapters
- End: polished draft of 2 chapters
Year 4, Semester 2:
- Start: first draft of entire dissertation
- Middle: polished draft of entire dissertation
- End: revisit, revise, and submit dissertation
A dissertation in philosophy is a story … like all good stories, it only includes what is essential to the story — Robert Paul Wolff's astute advice that applies just as well to UG dissertations as well as PhD theses
Be concise, but explain yourself fully — Jim Pryor with an excellent 3-stage plan for writing philosophy
Style is the feather in the arrow, not the feather in the cap — Peter Lipton has some wonderful and concise writing advice
Read your work aloud. … Be firm: take your prose to the gym, and keep working at it until the bones and sinews show through! — Peter Smith, previously editor of Analysis, with some fantastic advice
What is an argument? — Jim Pryor's guide is essential reading for anyone writing philosophy; it contains a lexicon of philosophical terms and a taxonomy of good and bad arguments, which is useful for classifying the arguments you consider