What is a thesis prospectus?
By the 10th week of their 6th term in the Department, students will submit to the Director of Graduate Studies a proposal for a thesis and suggestions as to whom they would most prefer as advisors. The Director of Graduate Studies will then appoint a committee, of at least two faculty members, but normally three faculty members, who will meet with the candidate about the proposal. This meeting is the oral thesis prospectus examination. This meeting must take place by the end of the third year in order for the student to maintain Good Standing. Once it takes place, the student remains in Good Standing even though the advisors may require him/her to revise the thesis proposal and meet to discuss it further. The student must pass the examination by the end of the 7th term in the Department.
The prospectus should be between 5 and a strict maximum of 15 pages long (double spaced). It should not be a philosophy paper, but rather a thesis plan that (a) clearly articulates an interesting philosophical problem in a way that (b) displays the student's knowledge of the problem's place in the space of philosophical ideas, and in particular, of the leading attempts to resolve the problem and (c) gives as clear an indication as the student can give at this early stage of how he or she intends to organize the thesis, and of what he or she expects her contribution to be, that is, of what he or she can add to the existing literature. (Students writing a thesis consisting of three linked papers should apply these guidelines to each of their topics.) Although the prospectus defense takes the form of an oral examination, its principal purpose is to reach an agreement with prospective future members of the student's thesis committee as to the shape and substance of the project.
Advice about how to proceed
Early in the third year, you should choose a professor and ask if he or she will be your prospectus advisor. It's a good idea to have a professor that you're working with throughout the whole process, even if you're not sure of your topic. So just make your best educated guess of who would be good to have. You can switch prospectus advisors if you end up choosing a topic for which someone else would be a better advisor. Meet with your prospectus advisor regularly to report on your thoughts and to get feedback on drafts of your prospectus, as well as any other writing you're doing in choosing a topic and formulating an idea for your thesis. It's a good idea to often write up five-page pieces on your latest thoughts. Once you have a prospectus advisor, report to the DGS who it is. Anyone currently in the third year or above who does not have a prospectus advisor should get someone within the next month!
Once you've picked a thesis topic (if not before), you should ask two more people to be the other members of your prospectus committee. These three people will examine you during your prospectus defense.
A word on choosing your thesis topic. Remember that the aim is to pick a thesis topic that genuinely interests you, on which you think you will do good work, and in an area that you think you will continue to want to work in after graduate school. Your thesis need not be the *best* topic for you. This is not the last piece of serious philosophical work you will do, nor is it the best work you'll do. You will be better served by getting to work quickly on a thesis topic that is a *good* topic for you than by spending an extra year trying to figure out what the *best* topic would be. ("Satisfice" in picking your topic; don't aim to maximize.)
A prospectus is a fifteen-page paper that lays out the topic and plan for your dissertation work. The prospectus and the prospectus defense should convince your prospectus committee that you are ready to write a dissertation.
There are different ways a successful prospectus can be written. One kind of prospectus lays out a question that your thesis will address and discusses the positions that have been taken on the question, and makes some points about those positions. You needn't have come to a conclusion about the issue yourself; you are showing that you are ready to work seriously on the question. Another kind of prospectus proceeds by stating the central claim you plan to argue for in your thesis, and roughly what your argument for this claim will be. It should be clear how your claim and your argument relate to what others have said. In writing this kind of prospectus, you aren't committing to do exactly what you say you'll do—but by making a specific plan you're giving yourself a good way to get started doing focused work. Your central claim, and your argument, can change (indeed, they likely will radically change) as your work proceeds.
Advisors will inevitably differ on exactly what they want from a prospectus, and what they think yours needs to be like given your topic and your philosophical habits. Work closely with your advisor and take her advice seriously. And get the other two members of your prospectus committee involved sooner rather than later.
(This document was written by Liz Harman and endorsed by Michael Strevens.)