Writing the M.Phil. Thesis

(August 2009)

The following are a series of observations and bits of advice I compiled for a brief talk in a seminar on research methods for M.Phil. students in 2008. I thought it would be more helpful to post them here. These points were originally intended primarily for masters-level students in Hong Kong who are working in philosophy. Some of them will not be relevant to doctoral students, to students from other places, or to those in other fields.

Postgraduate Study

  • Postgraduate study is different from undergraduate study. It is not “school” anymore. It is your job. Unlike all your previous years of education, from primary school to university, you are now a professional student. So you should devote the same amount of time and effort to studying and research that you would devote to a new career in any other field.

  • Accordingly, you should do everything you can to improve your philosophical knowledge and ability. Even if you plan to finish your studies after the MPhil and not continue on with the PhD, you will benefit greatly as a person if you work very hard. Make a habit of seeking out professors and other students for regular discussion. Put your full effort into each course paper and presentation. The skills you develop in critical thinking, data gathering and analysis, writing, and oral presentation will be useful in almost anything you do later.

Undertaking Research

  • Many students go through university without learning to skim a paper or book to find the main ideas and arguments. Learn to skim. Then you can judge whether you need to reread more carefully, because the material is directly relevant to what you are working on, or whether you can set the material aside for later or just consider it background reading.

  • On the other hand, you should reread sources most relevant to your research several times to be sure you fully understand all the details of the arguments.

  • Be attentive to different writers’ basic assumptions, how they frame the issues they discuss, what they emphasize and what they overlook, and other “implicit” aspects of their work. You may discover problems not just in their reasoning, but in how they formulate the issues and problems they discuss.

  • When working with original sources, as you will be in doing Chinese philosophy, do not assume that someone else’s interpretation of the source material is reliable. Read the original sources carefully, formulate your own interpretation, and identify and critically examine the reasons for your interpretation. Then see if you agree with others.

  • In working on Chinese philosophy, be cautious about hypotheses concerning similarities and differences between the Chinese discourse and, for example, Greek philosophy or contemporary Western philosophy. There are many fundamental differences between Chinese philosophy and Western philosophy; there are also many subtle similarities. A correct account of the similarities and differences will be nuanced and piecemeal.

Preparing for the Thesis

  • You need to strike a balance in your background reading. You don’t want to read too much, or you’ll spend all your time reading and never get around to writing your own paper. On the other hand, you don’t want to read too little, or you may overlook important research relevant to your project. The amount of background reading appropriate for MPhil students is different from that expected of PhD students, who should try to read just about everything in their immediate field. Consult your supervisor early to draw up a reading list together, and be sure to ask other professors and students if they know of interesting new books or articles related to your research area.

  • One especially helpful approach is to find recent anthologies of articles focused on specific fields or issues, in which different scholars present a range of contrasting views. Such sources often will introduce most or all of the current views in some subfield, allowing you to quickly identify what views you need to take account of and whether you tend to agree or disagree with them. The footnotes in such anthologies will often lead you to most of the key recent works in a subfield.

  • To get started with your reading, try one or two general introductions, one or two anthologies of wide scope, an anthology or two of narrower scope, and selected important papers that the writers of the anthologies cite or your supervisor recommends.

  • Philosophy is such a vast field that you cannot and do not need to read everything about your topic. You must be selective, concentrating on works of high quality and high relevance to your research. (Again, expectations on this point are different for MPhil and PhD students. PhD students should read much more.)

  • If you are as yet unsure of your topic, start by doing some reading in a general field that interests you. Then pick out a topic in that field that catches your interest. Next, pick out a specific question or problem. Then try formulate a view of your own about it.

  • Do not fall victim to “scholasticism,” an epidemic among academics in some fields. A postgrad student with a bad case of scholasticism is one who thinks that 95% of her work should be devoted to explaining what other people have said about some issue. The point of philosophical research is to make an original contribution to your field, not just to repeat what others have said.

Choosing a Thesis Topic

  • Don’t be too ambitious. A thesis with a fairly narrow scope will make your work easier. On the other hand, don’t set your goals too low, either. An MPhil thesis should cover more material and defend broader, deeper claims than a term paper does. The appropriate scope of your thesis and its central claims is among the important issues that you should discuss with your supervisor.

  • Select a topic relevant to interesting work in your subfield over the past ten years or so. This may be a topic others have treated or a novel topic that you can show is relevant.

  • If you are working in a department of philosophy, choose a topic that will be philosophically interesting according to standards recognized by mainstream philosophers. A basic requirement for a philosophy thesis is that it explain how the topic and the writer’s claims about it are philosophically significant, in a way that most philosophers can understand even if they themselves don’t work on that topic. This point is particularly important if you are working on Chinese philosophy, where there is an unfortunate tendency to work exclusively on interpretive, historical, or philological issues instead of philosophical ones.

  • Two common approaches to a thesis topic are a “figure-oriented” approach, in which the thesis is devoted mainly to studying the thought of some important thinker, and an “issue-oriented” approach, in which the thesis is devoted to examining one or more philosophical issues and defending a claim about them. (Often the two approaches will overlap.) Both approaches are acceptable, but I strongly recommend the issue-oriented approach. That is, instead of writing a thesis about Philosopher X’s view of Y, write a thesis about what you think might be the correct view of Y, with chapters about the views of Philosopher X and others.

Writing the Thesis

  • The two most important bits of advice for writing a good thesis are: start early and revise your writing repeatedly.

  • Set up a work schedule and try to stick to it. Inevitably, you will fall behind after a while. When you do, revise your schedule and continue with the new schedule.

  • Use your schedule and your outline (see next item) to divide your project into small, manageable parts. Writing a thesis can be intimidating. By breaking it down into parts, you increase your sense of control over the project. You will obtain a feeling of step-by-step achievement and progress as you complete each of the parts.

  • Plan your thesis in detail using an outline. Clearly state all arguments, all premises in the arguments, and all subarguments for the premises. (Some students are unclear what exactly an outline is. Here is an example of an outline for a short philosophy essay. An outline presents the content of the paper according to a hierarchical structure. It is not just a list of points.)

  • Don’t assume that you know what you’re going to say in your thesis until you have actually written an outline or even a first draft. Many philosophers modify aspects of their position during the process of writing a paper, thesis, or book. It is often difficult to evaluate your own view until you have it all written out in some detail, and the writing process often helps you discover problems in your view. So give yourself plenty of time to write, evaluate what you’ve written, and revise.

  • Writing a paper or thesis typically takes three or four times as much time as you think it will. If you think you can write your thesis in two months, then to be safe you should plan to take six months or more.

  • The first several drafts of almost anything you write will be typically be 25% longer than needed to support the points you need to make. During the revision process, try to cut 25% of the words in your original draft. Concise writing makes your work easier to read. As a result, others will read your work more carefully and give you more insightful comments.

  • An important exception to the above rule: Sometimes your supervisor or other readers will point out that you’ve neglected to explain a point or support some claim adequately. In such cases, you will need to expand, rather than reduce, the length of your original draft.

  • Write "preventively." By that, I mean write in such a way that your points will be clear to and cannot be misunderstood even by readers who have no time to think about what you say, are too ignorant to see the implications of your arguments, and so unsympathetic that they will interpret what you say in the least plausible way.

  • Learn the proper use of punctuation in English, the standard way to format a paper, and the proper format for citing sources.

  • For further advice on philosophical writing, see this page.

Evaluating Theses

When I evaluate an MPhil thesis, I look for the following points. Make sure your work satisfies these requirements.

  • You must identify and formulate a philosophically significant issue. The first few pages of the thesis should clearly state what specific issue or subject the thesis is about and explain why it is important. In other words, tell readers what are you going to talk about and why we should care about it.

  • The main claim or thesis of the work should be stated clearly in the Introduction, preferably within the first three pages or so. The thesis is the main point of the whole work—the central claim that you will argue for. 

  • The thesis must demonstrate a grasp of relevant primary and secondary literature.

  • You must explain what original contribution your work makes to philosophical discourse. For an MPhil thesis, the contribution can be minor, but the work must offer something original. A brief version of this explanation should appear in your Introduction, with a more detailed version in the body of the thesis and a review in the Conclusion.

  • Give good arguments to support your main claims and show why they are more persuasive than alternative views.

  • Identify weaknesses in your own claims and arguments and explain why these are not so serious that the claims and arguments are unsupportable.