Dissertation / thesis writing

Here is the advice I sometimes give our Masters students about writing dissertations, having written two dissertation and marked hundreds. Most if not all of it will apply to undergraduate dissertations and PhD theses too. This is of course just my own take on how to go about things, but I hope it's of some help.

The boring bit. Check the regulations concerning the dissertation in the PG Handbook, ensuring you're clear about: the credit weighting, when and how the proposal is to be submitted, how supervisor allocation works, maximum length (does it include bibliography and references?), minimum length if any, how the mark bears on the degree as a whole (though don't obsess about this!), when you can start work on the dissertation in earnest, and, crucially, when the submission deadline is.

Don't be intimidated!

Don’t be Intimidated!

· Try not to fear the dissertation!

· It’s an opportunity – to explore in depth a philosophical topic you’re interested in.

· In essence, the task is like what you’ve done before, namely writing a philosophy essay. The differences are only the following: you choose the topic; it’s longer; and you get a supervisor advise where needed. Again, a good dissertation is much like a good essay, just longer.

· Don’t over-estimate what’s required. The objective is not, of course, to produce the last word on some big question, or to give a comprehensive or final account of your philosophical views. As much as anything, dissertations are too short for that; they are about the length of a long journal paper.

· While making an original contribution is a good thing, this need can take many forms. It need not, and usually does not, involve your setting out some new theory that will revolutionise the discipline (as nice as that would be)!

· Your dissertation proposal does not bind you. Even once you start work, you can change your title, approach, and view, and even, in the early stages, with the permission of your supervisor or the PGT Director, change your topic.

Choosing a Topic / Question / Title

Choosing a Topic / Question / Title

Choosing a topic can be difficult. Here are some things to think about when doing so, but please don’t think all these features are essential. It is a good thing when your dissertation topic/question …

· interests you (after all, you’ll be working on your dissertation for months);

· is something you have views about, or instincts as to what sort of view or point you might eventually want to advance, or what sort of contribution you might be able to make (though see bellow on contributions);

· is one you have or can get a good grip on in the time available, again one that you could—after a bit of work—state for yourself and your reader nice and clearly, perhaps one in relation to which you can think of good examples or thought experiments or data to make the issues clearer and more concrete;

· has the right scope, being not so broad and ambitious as to present an impossible task given time and space constraints, but being at the same time interesting and important—the sort of topic you could sell and make interesting for your reader;

· is (ideally) the focus of an existing literature, perhaps (though not necessarily) a currently lively literature (a “hot topic”), where this literature can be taken as setting up a debate that you can get involved in (which is not to say you must back an extant view);

· is helpfully related, perhaps (this is absolutely not essential) to work you’ve already done (allowing you to building on reading and thinking you’ve done, while avoiding self-plagiarism, of course), or even to doctoral work you might be intending to undertake in the future;

· is sufficiently philosophical (which is hard to define, of course, and certainly doesn’t rule out significant empirical dimension, but might be thought of in this way: “Is this something an issue that a mainstream philosophy journal might include discussion of?”).

Are titles important?

Your title might well change as you work on the project, which is perfectly healthy, but, even so, ensure that at any given moment you have in mind a good, clear, reasonably specific title, since this is helpful to focus your mind and your efforts and to avoid going too far down avenues not directly related to your dissertation’s central thrust.

It’s good to have a title that, for you and your reader, supplies some focus. “Freewill” is not good title. “Compatibilist defences of freewill” is better.

But, to my mind, the explicit question, “Is compatibilism about freewill correct?” is better still, since it makes clear what the project is: namely, to answer that question).

How to come up with a topic that is promising in the above respects? Again, many find this difficult, but here are some ideas:

· Talk to staff members working in the relevant area, e.g. course convenors of yours, or potential supervisors, or the PGT director. You can find out our research interests, and often see lists of our publications etc, on our webpages.

· Think about what has particularly interested you in the work you’ve done so far, e.g. has there been a topic you’ve discussed or written about that you found interesting and where you wanted to dig deeper or say more?

· Read a bit. If you think some angle on x might be a good topic, perhaps read the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy Article on that topic, or see if there is a some other good overview or survey piece in, for instance, Oxford Bibliographies Online or Philosophy Compass (which specialises in survey articles). You can use such overviews to generate leads as to other things, central papers or chapters or books, crucial contributions to the debate, that you might want to look over to generate some ideas. Even better if you find a paper you might want to disagree with, a paper you think gets things wrong or that presents a bad argument. (The website https://philpapers.org/, not to be confused with the journal Philosophical Papers, is is also a fecund source of ideas about what to read on given topics.)

· Chat to your fellow postgrads, especially those with similar interest. Brainstorm a bit!

What makes a good dissertation good?

What makes a good dissertation good?

· In your dissertation, you need to engage with the issue or question. Don’t just describe the issue or the various positions that one might take, however interesting. Ultimately, you need to address the issue, argue for a thesis, answer the question. It's not enough just to string together some interesting remarks about some theme, such as "Freewill".

· Even so, not every sentence and paragraph of your thesis need be argument. Indeed, often quite a bit of it will involve set-up of the issue, where you explain the issue, what hangs on it, why it’s important, what views others have taken, crucial terminology and distinctions required to really get a grip on the issue, etc. All of this is good, but do go beyond this. Again, do engage; take a line. You should by the end of your dissertation be able to say, “In my dissertation, I argued that p”. Ensure you know, and that your reader knows, what p you’ve argued for and how.

· Relatedly, don’t merely survey the literature. Locating your thesis and arguments within an existing debate can be extremely helpful and important, but don't only talk about the literature, engage with it, contribute to it (as it were). Some good dissertations will say a lot about the existing literature, but don’t mention the literature just for the sake of it, i.e. just to show how much you’ve read. Rather, ensure that where you discuss the literature, there is some further point to this, e.g. that it helps make the issue clearer, or shows alternative ways of going than that which you favour, or that it is the target of objections you want to make, etc.

· Relatedly, it is good for your thesis makes some original contribution, but don’t get out of proportion what this means. Striking originality is neither necessary nor sufficient. That your argument or thesis can be found in the literature is fine, provided you make it yours -- not by failing to acknowledge your sources (you must acknowledge them, of course!), but by endorsing it, clarifying it, and trying rationally to persuade your readers of it. Originality can sometimes just be a matter of making a point in a better or clearer way than others, perhaps drawing a distinction or effecting a connection that others miss or misdescribe. It can be particularly impressive if your point hasn't been made elsewhere, of course, but this is exceedingly rare, and impressive only if the point is plausible, clearly articulated, and cogently defended.

· Be rigorous and careful, give reasons and provide arguments. While intuition can play an important role in philosophical arguments, try to avoid just making reports on your own feelings, e.g. “I just feel that p”. Instead, try reasonably to persuade your reader that your view is right.

· Be clear! This can be exceedingly difficult in philosophy, given how hard, complex, and abstract the issues can be, but it’s important. Be aware that your reader might very well be less immersed in the issue or the literature or your particular way of coming at it than you are. Try to ensure that the dissertation would make sense to a philosophically literate, intelligent reader, even if they were not already immersed. Things that can help here (for more, see my essay-writing advice, linked to below):

Keep things as simple and straightforward as possible. Philosophical issues are difficult. Help yourself and your reader by making them as clear and accessible as possible. Technical vocabulary can of course be helpful, and is sometimes inevitable, but don’t let it proliferate beyond necessity, and ensure you know how to explain the issue to someone not immersed in the literature and the terminology. (One can have a sense of how to throw around the lingo without really have a tight grip on what the nub of the issue is; forcing yourself, in your own thinking about the issue, to cash and sometimes ditch the technical terms can be a helpful way not just of being clearer for your reader, but of getting clearer about the issues in your own mind.)

Where you can, illustrate issues with good, clear examples or thought experiments, or indeed with empirical data where relevant. Don’t get carried away; an example needn’t turn into a novella. Include only what is strictly relevant. But, pared back to their essentials, examples can be extremely helpful, both for your reader and for you.

Impose a useful structure. Avoid massive paragraphs. And consider organising the dissertation around some sections. If you do have sections, ensure they help you make the points you want to make, and clearly. Ensure there is better reason for ending one section and starting another than that the previous section is getting quite long. As with straightforward language, thinking hard about the structure of the issues and of your dissertation is likely to be helpful not to just to your reader, but also to you.

NB. It really is important to notice how working very hard and how to most clearly present the nub of an issue, and what it’s structure is, can be useful not just for your reader – which is essential, by the way, it is a lovely experience when marking to come across a dissertation that explains everything to you beautifully clear – but also for you. Endeavouring to be as clear as possible, and to structure your thinking and your discussion as sensibly as possible, can really help you start to notice things that others might have missed, e.g. views others have missed the space for, or weaknesses in their views that others might not have noticed. These are excellent ways, in short, to start to work out where there might be room for you to make a contribution.

· Bear in mind models of good philosophical writing and argumentation. To give you an idea of what a good dissertation looks like, we’re aiming to make available a sample or two. But if you’re looking for a model, any good philosophical article will do. By now, you have probably a philosophical paper or two that you have found particularly helpful, clear, useful, interesting, persuasive. Get those articles and think of what is so good about those articles. Then try to emulate those papers in your own work.

Pitfalls to avoid

Pitfalls to Avoid

Some dissertations are disappointing because they …

· are insufficiently philosophical

· aren’t bold enough, i.e. just describe an issues and some positions, or survey the literature, but don’t take a line, or do but just present it as what you “feel”

· are, conversely, dogmatic, i.e. in place of careful arguments, they just assert a view as more or less obvious, or more tentatively present them as what you “feel” is the case

· are too opaque and abstract, making it hard for the reader really to get a firm sense of what the issue is, or what is at stake

· pack too much in, meaning there isn’t space to develop key points properly, or to make them clear enough, and so that the dialectical thread becomes hard to follow.

On this last point, note: It is very tempting to want to mention every piece of reading or every point you’ve spent time thinking about, since otherwise that time can seem to be have been wasted. Try to resist this temptation! Include only what is helpful in moving your discussion, and in particular your argument, forward. Avoid padding and extensive detours. Make sure everything earns its place in the dissertation, i.e. plays some role in the unfolding discussion and argument.

The Process: Research, Writing, Supervision

The process – research / writing / supervision

You’ve pitched a topic and got a supervisor. What next? What does the process of “writing a dissertation” involve?

· Meet with your supervisor early on. Don’t think “But I’ve not thought the issue through enough; my supervisor will think I’m an idiot”. There is indeed likely be lots that you’re unclear about; there is not much point writing the dissertation if you understand everything and have all your points fully worked out at the start. Even so, or perhaps especially so, meeting with your supervisor early is likely to be very helpful. You can talk about how supervision will work, ensure your and your supervisor’s expectations match, but also talk in detail about what your topic/question is, what you might read, what line you might take, etc. Your supervisor’s job is not to do the work for you, of course, but he or she will still be a useful sounding board and a source of sensible guidance.

· Keep thinking throughout about exactly what your topic/question, and roughly line you want to take. Your ideas on these matters might well keep changing. That’s fine, quite natural. But try to ensure that at any one time you’ve got a good sense of what, at that time, you think the project is about, and ideally what direction you intend to take, at least in outline. F(or ideas about what counts as a good topic, and how to come up with one, see above.)

· Start to put together a reading list. And be realistic here. In some areas, there will an enormous literature. When that’s so, you don’t need to read everything. Try identify the pieces that are most crucial or helpful or relevant to points you want to make.

· Construct an action plan with deadlines! Again, be realistic. Ensure your plan makes time for the following:

(a) doing the core reading,

(b) thinking about the reading and the issues and what your own position and arguments might be,

(c) sketching and re-sketch an overall structure for the dissertation,

(d) reading more widely, once it starts to become clearer what your own approach to the issue might be, hence becomes clear what further bits of reading might be relevant and helpful,

(e) drafting some key parts of the thesis,

(f) discussing problems and central arguments and issues with others, including your supervisor,

(g) to begin to assemble and complete a first draft, and

(h) to polish a final draft, and insert references, bibliography, etc.

There’s no formula about what order these things should be done in, and different people work well in different ways. But try always to have a reasonably clear and realistic plan covering the time left to you before submission.

· Implement that plan! Though be prepared for surprised, wrong turns, arguments that fall through, etc!

· Finally, when it comes to reading and thinking about the issues, and imposing on the issues and your dissertation a shape, try to avoid slipping into passively absorbing what you’re reading and how others see things. So …

Don’t interrogatively, not passively. When the author asserts that p, ask yourself whether you agree that p. Ask whether the author has given good reasons for thinking that p. Ask whether there are reasons the author doesn’t mention for thinking that p, or that not-p. If, when reading, you find a certain step in the author’s argument hard to follow, and you find yourself unable to reconstruct the argument in a clear and compelling way, and have that faint sense of disquiet that one can start feeling when reading philosophy, be alive to the possibility that the problem might not be you, but the author, i.e. that you might have detected a weakness in their position or argument, something that it would be good for you to focus on in your dissertation.

Try to impose your own shape on the issues, to see how the various positions relate to one another. I do this on sheets of a2 paper, on which I draw big diagrams about how things hang together. That works well for me; it may or may not for you, but in any case ensure you do something to come up with your own idea of the structure of the debate and the issues.

Imagine discussing or debating the issues with others. Of course, it’s good to have real discussions with others when you can. But, even when you can’t, and you’re at your desk thinking about how the arguments go, imagine that you’ve an opponent present: walk around and, out loud, make the point you want to make as clearly as you can, then imagine how your interlocutor might reply, and then how you might reply to them in turn, and so on. This is probably best done somewhere other than the library!

For more on forcing yourself to engage, see below …

Perhaps also look at ...

PPerhaps also look at …

Don’t spend all of your time looking at guidance (leave enough time to do some philosophy!) but you might find some or all of the following helpful too:

· My own essay-writing guidance here https://www.davidbain.org/teaching/essay-writing

· My exam-revision guidance. A dissertation isn’t an exam, but the advice on how to force yourself really to engage with an issue, and just passively read about it, might be helpful. See: https://www.davidbain.org/teaching/exam-revision

· Richard Price’s advice on reading, and doing, philosophy, which is also very helpful on how really to engage with what you’re reading and thinking about. I’ve put this here: https://www.davidbain.org/teaching/reading-doing-philosophy

· Other essay-writing guidance on GU's webpages: https://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/humanities/studentstaff/philosophystudents/currentundergraduates/studyresources/.