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Guide for BA dissertation students

Luke Elson
July 2021

I’m glad to be supervising your dissertation! I enjoy supervision, and I’ve learnt a lot of philosophy from it.

This document sets out some expectations and advice. Nothing here is set in stone… it’s just how I normally do things, and some advice that I’ve picked up over the years.

The dissertation is far more independent than other philosophy modules. I won’t chase you up about deadlines or meetings, and it’s up to you to manage the year-long project. My role is to make comments and suggestions, and offer advice. I won’t be the main marker at the end of the year, and at the end of the day you can choose to ignore my advice—it’s your work.

You should take the dissertation seriously. It is worth 40 credits—because the third year is worth twice as much as the second year, it is worth four times as much as a 20-credit second-year module.

If this doesn’t appeal to you, why not switch to an Independent Learning Module, which counts for less and takes place entirely in the Summer? The ILM is a perfectly respectable option, and many of our best students (including several who’ve gone on to further study in philosophy) have done it. I’d urge you to consider a change now, whilst you can still easily pick up an extra module to cover the credits.

But if not, read on…

The Process

  1. You will have submitted a short proposal early in the Summer break, and on that basis been assigned to me as a supervisor.

  2. You should read a couple of books over the Summer break if possible. No need to take notes: just get familiar with some of the literature.

  3. Around the start of Autumn term, you contact me to discuss your topic (maybe sending me your earlier proposal), and I might ask you what you are reading, and make some suggestions. Probably if you are reading this document, this has already happened.

  4. The Autumn assessed proposal sneaks up surprisingly quickly, so if you haven’t done anything over the Summer then now is the time to get reading.

  5. The usual system is that you email me to arrange a meeting, attaching a draft of some work, and I’ll comment on the draft and return the document to you by email. Then at the meeting we talk through my comments.

  6. I need at least a week to properly read something and make comments.

  7. You can send me a draft of a section, or even your summary of and reactions to something you’ve read. But please don’t send a bullet-point plan—I can only comment effectively on complete sentences/paragraphs.

  8. Especially when the busy Summer term comes, I can’t read multiple drafts of the full dissertation. I will definitely read one full draft, but it’ll take me at least a week to do so, and I’ll probably have substantial comments (meaning changes for you, if you agree with my comments).

Advice

  1. Don’t leave it past late Spring term to write a full draft, because you might not have time to make major changes.

  2. Don’t forget the proposal and presentation. They count for a huge chunk of your mark, and are a good chance to get feedback from other people.

  3. Take ownership of the process. For example, if you’ve not written something you’re happy to discuss, email me saying so and moving the meeting back by a week or two. Meetings without anything written to discuss can often be unstructured and not very helpful.

  4. But if you are feeling stuck, email me or arrange a meeting and we can talk through the issues. I’d much rather you stay in touch, whether or not you have anything written. If we chat frequently, then every meeting is low stakes and you don’t have to worry too much about whether you are on track. Often just talking about it can help with the work. (See ‘rubber duck debugging’.)

  5. During the academic year, I think if you do an hour a day of solid work (reading or writing) on your dissertation, you’ll be in a really good position.

  6. Think about the dissertation as 4 normal-length essays, plus an introduction and a conclusion. This will help you to maintain a clear structure, and prevent the task from being overwhelming.

  7. Try not to think of the dissertation as a chance to finally lay out your view on everything philosophical! The usual essay advice of covering a small topic in depth applies. The dissertation is about the length of a standard journal article, not a long book: it’s an opportunity for more depth, not more topics.

  8. In an essay it might be fine to simply show that someone’s argument doesn’t work. But in the dissertation you have space to ask deeper questions: ok the argument doesn’t work as it is, but are there any tweaks that could fix it? Why, or why not?

  9. As with all philosophical work, make sure to anticipate and respond to at least one line of objection. This is crucial in a dissertation, because the “I didn’t have space” excuse won’t fly.

  10. The following might not apply to every dissertation, but I think it does to most: make sure your work provides an argument, with explicit premises and conclusion, perhaps numbered. If you split it into 4 normal-length essays, as above, you might imagine each of them defending a step in the argument, for example.

  11. Don’t be pretentious. The best bits of philosophy are (at least in my opinion) written in clear, simple language that doesn’t try to sound too ‘academic’. Use jargon if you need to, but make sure to explain what it means. The person marking the dissertation is almost certainly not an expert in the topic… you need to teach it to them, and show off your understanding in the process.

The mechanics of writing

  1. I like handwriting the first draft of a paper. It forces me to actually type up a real second draft, rather than just fiddling with the first draft in Word. Worth considering if you get stuck, but I’m not going to read and comment on handwritten work!

  2. Right now, get set up with a reference manager that can keep track of citations. I like Zotero – it’s not the easiest to use, but it’s free and will manage your PDFs.

  3. Don’t spend ages fiddling with the introduction, then rush to do the more difficult bits. Do it the other way around! With the challenging contentful bits done, the introduction is easy.

  4. Try to keep everything dissertation-related in one notebook – perhaps a real paper one. All notes, plans, drafts, etc. This will prevent “I remember I read this quote but I’ve lost it…”

  5. It’s very common that as you write and read, you change your mind and interests. That’s fine, so don’t worry about sticking to the original title. The final dissertation will be marked as a free-standing document, so follow your interests where they lead you.

This list might make the process seem like overwhelming drudgery. But it doesn’t have to be! The dissertation done right can finish off your degree on a high, having written and thought about a topic of your choice that fascinates you. Done wrong, you are up at 2am a week before the deadline, emailing me a first draft and hoping that I can get comments to you in time for you to make changes. I hope the tips in this document help you avoid the second scenario.