Preliminary Essay

In the Spring quarter of their second year students will register for the first quarter of a two-quarter (Spring, Autumn) workshop on the preliminary essay. The workshop involves discussion of general issues in writing the essay and student presentations of their work. Although students do not register for the Summer quarter, they are expected to make significant progress on their preliminary essay over the summer.

By the end of the eighth week of the Spring quarter at the latest each student will submit to the Director of Graduate Studies a proposed topic and a ranked list of possible readers in the Philosophy Department. The Graduate Program Committee will evaluate proposed topics along the following lines:

  • is the topic philosophically interesting?
  • can a paper on the topic be completed within the given time?
  • can a committee be formed to supervise an essay on the topic?

If the topic is approved, the Graduate Program Committee will form a preliminary essay committee for the student in question consisting of two faculty readers, each of whom the student is expected to consult regularly and each of whom have equal responsibility in directing the preliminary essay. The student's primary responsibility in this process is regularly to provide each of the faculty readers with a new draft of the essay and then rewrite the most recent draft in accordance with their instructions. The primary responsibility of the faculty readers is to provide the student with prompt and focused instructions about how to rewrite each draft, while ensuring that it remain within the page-length requirement. The preliminary essay should be no longer than 8,000 words in the body of the text, with an additional 1,000 words of philosophical prose permitted in the footnotes. The word-count does not include bibliographical and philological footnotes or block quotations in the text.

In additon to the supervision furnished by the student's preliminary essay committee, further direction and structure is provided through participation in the Preliminary Essay Seminar, which runs for two quarters. Every student enrolled in the PhD program is required to take the Preliminary Essay Seminar for credit during the Spring Quarter of their second year and the Fall Quarter of their third year. The seminar is taught by the Director of Graduate Studies, who offers additional supervision and oversight throughout the entire preliminary essay process, from beginning to end. One of the primary purposes of the Preliminary Essay Seminar is to provide a forum in which students can present their ongoing work on the essay in a seminar-environment, in order to discuss it with their peers and receive additional oral feedback on their work.

From the point of view of the faculty, the aim of the exercise of the preliminary essay is to enable the student to acquire the following two skills before embarking upon a full-scale dissertation: (1) to learn to improve a piece of philosophical prose by subjecting it to many rounds of revision, without in the process permitting it to grow in length, and (2) to learn to work with a committee of faculty advisors whose distinct forms of supervision are to be synthesized and harmonized in that single piece of writing. From the point of view of the student, the exercise of the preliminary essay affords the following two opportunities: (1) to test out a possible dissertation topic, without having immediately to make a costly investment of time and effort in it, and (2) to test out a pair of possible dissertation advisors, without immediately having to commit to these individuals as final choices for members of the student's dissertation committee. If, after completing the preliminary essay, a student wishes to change (one or more of) their faculty advisors or their topic or both, then they are utterly free to do so.

The final draft of the Preliminary Essay must be submitted by the first day of the Winter quarter of the student's third year. Essays submitted late are penalized as follows: A letter grade is reduced by one notch if the essay is submitted after the deadline but before the first day of the sixth week of the Winter quarter (e.g. an 'A' is reduced to an 'A-'). A letter grade is reduced by two notches if the essay is submitted after the first day of the sixth week of the Winter quarter but by the end of Exam Week of the Winter quarter (e.g. an 'A' is reduced to a B+). Essays submitted after the end of the Winter quarter do not count toward satisfaction of the requirement.