Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2019

Sample Thesis and Prospectuses


If you’re a PPE major, you will have to write a prospectus by the end of this term and you will have to write a thesis by the end of the spring. You probably haven’t done either one of these things before. So we try to take some of the mystery out by talking about real live samples. That was the point of today’s class.

Note that you can find all of the past PPE theses in the Philosophy library in 208 Pearsons.

The thesis

Prof. Brown, who was one of the readers of the Ehler thesis, described the process that the author took in writing it.

In thinking critically about it, Prof. Brown asked us to think about what the research question was. For instance, she pointed out that the statement of the research question on page three didn’t seem to be as good a guide to what the thesis was actually about as the chapter plan on pages four and five.

My guess is that the chapter plan was written, or at least revised, in the light of how the chapters actually turned out. That’s a wise thing to do!

In recounting what we took to be the research questions, we found two broad ideas. Niyati thought the point of the thesis was the policy recommendations for regulating gestational surrogacy. Rachel thought that it was concerned with moral theory, namely, the contrast between freedom of choice and substantive freedom in the second chapter.

Alexa wasn’t sure that that gestational surrogacy was the author’s real topic. She thought that is was only one example of some broader points about society, ethics, and technology that really animated the author.

Speaking for myself, I think it’s OK to have several kinds of projects in a PPE thesis. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a chapter that puts something specific into a wider social context, a chapter that does some work in moral theory, and a policy chapter. Thinking about how your readers will answer questions like: “what was the research question?” or “what was the author really interested in?” will help you write. If you have different kinds of interests, say so explicitly so readers don’t come up with their own interpretations about what you’re really doing.

If you asked me to criticize it, I think the thing I would say is that I never had a great sense of what the problem with gestational surrogacy was. There are a lot of problems with gestational surrogacy because it inherits the problems of our broader society. Everything is connected: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, history, and a host of other things. Part of the writer’s job is to isolate something specific from the jumble of connected stuff that makes up our social lives. I think the thesis actually did a pretty good job here. But, at the same time, the fact that I have trouble succinctly saying what the problem was shows that there is more work to be done. So when you are writing your own thesis, ask yourself these really basic questions. “Why is it bad?” or “what would someone reading this say if asked why the author thinks it’s bad?”

That said, I don’t really want to criticize it. This is much better than my senior thesis was. In particular, the research is amazing. She was very thorough in her reading but she was clearly in charge of her material. When you read that much, it is easy to let what other people wrote take over your project. She didn’t do that.


The two projects are quite different: explaining the third world war in central Africa and explaining the failure of a ferry project in Hawaii. But they both work! That’s the joy of PPE.

I think the Africa project worked largely because the author was not trying to explain the war in central Africa. He was comparing two different explanations of the war in central Africa to see which one was better supported by the evidence. That is a vastly more tractable project.

The Hawaii project is different in scale and in the research employed. Instead of a vast conflict and social science readings, the author was looking at one episode in Hawaii and drew on interviews in addition to library research. But they’re both great projects. You won’t be surprised to hear that the theses both turned out well.