Ethics 101: An Introduction to the Course

So I’m about to start studying for my ~big, scary, super intensive 3rd-year bibliography exam~. Basically, I need to choose a branch of philosophy that I intend to develop a strong, thorough foundation of knowledge in (ethics, obviously) and then read through a pre-selected bibliography of core texts and ideas in that branch. I take the exam based on this bibliography at the end of this school year.

I would like to share some of my notes here on my blog as I work through this reading list. The first reason being that I think it’ll help me personally (as a philosopher, as a communicator, and with motivation to study and keeping me on track). The second – and probably more important – reason is that I think (if I do it right) this could be a great resource for people (particularly, undergrads or non-academics) who want to get a good lay of the land and major ideas in moral philosophy in an accessible and manageable manner.

These two goals kind of feed into each other: I need to have good notes in order for this to be genuinely helpful to people other than myself, and if I am focused on creating genuinely good notes on my reading I am more likely to do better on the exam. Win-win 🙂

So throughout this school year I’ll be posting notes which:

  • Cover core and landmark writings in ethics/moral philosophy from all eras (ancient Greeks to present day)
  • Contextualize these writings in the greater sphere of relevant debates and ideologies
  • Are accessible for everyone and (to the best of my current foresight) will not presuppose any familiarity with moral philosophy
  • Maintain a(n albeit introductory-level) sense of academic rigor
  • Individually, are intended to give one a gloss of the topic at hand
  • Collectively, are intended to give one a fairly solid foundation of the basics of moral philosophy

These posts will be given their own hyperlink in my main menu and organized by topic for ease of access and use.

Class is in session 😉 Welcome to Ethics 101.

Application Advice: Letters of Rec

This advice is specifically for philosophy undergrad seniors or BA/MA-holders who are applying to Philosophy PhD programs. Maybe it’ll also apply to other people in other situations in other fields. [Insert the usual disclaimer to take what I say with a grain of salt, every situation is different, etc.]

How to ask:

  • Ask early! At least a month in advance, but probably more. Professors can get pretty busy around application season, so you want to make sure you get your request in early, giving them plenty of time to work on it.
  • I recommend asking via email first, and then offering to meet in person later on if necessary. In the email, explain what you’re applying for and say when you will need the letter by. Include a brief statement about why you think this professor in particular would be a good letter writer for you. Finish the email by saying that you’ll give them all the necessary information (including application materials) if they agree to write you a letter.
  • A sample email:

Hi Professor!

I am applying to PhD programs in philosophy this upcoming cycle, and if you’re willing, I would love for you to be one of my letter writers. I took classes ____, ____, and ____ with you and enjoyed them immensely. From this I hope that you have a pretty good understanding of my academic abilities. (For reference, attached is a paper I have written for one of your classes that I am particularly proud of.)

If you feel you are able to write me a strong letter, I can email my application materials to you to aid in your writing: a draft of my writing sample, personal statement, statement of purpose, and CV. Additionally, if you would like to meet in person to discuss this further, I am available at ____.

(Also, please feel free to say no. Given how competitive admissions are, I would only want you to write me a letter if you feel you can write me a good one. Otherwise I am happy to find someone else.)

Thanks for your consideration! Sincerely, …

Who to ask:

  • Ask a professor you can depend on! From experience, I can say that nothing sucks more than your letter writing falling through on their agreement and dealing with the stress of missing letters from your application.
  • As much as possible, you probably want to ask people in the philosophy department and you probably want to ask people who are professors (as opposed to adjuncts or grad students). Also if possible, try to have at least one letter writer whose area of research is similar to or the same as your stated area of interest. Admissions committees take into account who is writing your letter – not just what it says!
  • Only ask professors who you have a good, strong relationship with, and who can speak positively to your philosophical abilities. This sounds like an obvious one, but it’s particularly important to keep this in mind when considering how many letters you should submit. Most places require three but accept up to five. Three strong letters is better than three strong and one mediocre one.

What to do after you’ve secured your letter writers:

  • Send along those application materials you promised. You want to give them some leads for what to write about, and also make sure that what they say about you is in line with what you say about yourself in the other parts of your application.
  • Send them gentle reminders one month, two weeks, one week, and each day up to three days before the letter is due. Sometimes professors get busy, and it’s ultimately your responsibility to make sure all parts of your application are submitted on time.
  • In the case that your letter writers fail to submit their letter on time (God forbid, but it happens), email the DGS of the school you’re applying to letting them know of your situation. Most places (at least in my experience) grant a short grace period/extension for professors to get their letters in. (You’ll still have to submit the rest of your application materials on time, though.)
  • After all letters have been submitted, write a sincere thank you note to each of your professors. Letters of rec are one of the most important aspects of your application, and hopefully they put a lot of thought and effort into writing them for you. (I recommend a handwritten note instead of an email – it’s way more meaningful!) Bonus: This keeps you on good terms with them if you ever need to ask them for a letter again in the future.
  • Several months later once admissions decisions have rolled in, make sure to let your professors know what happened! They played a central role in your application process and they should know the outcome.

Hope this was helpful! Best of luck to everyone 🙂

How to Write a Philosophy Paper (Undergrad)

One thing I’ve come to realize upon completing my first year of grad school is that my writing process needs some work. I had a system that worked stellar for me as an undergrad, but for whatever combination of reasons, is harder for me to execute as a grad student. Maybe I’ve just become out of practice since taking a year off.

But, since I’ve gotten quite a few questions over the years about how to write a paper for a philosophy class, I figured I would share the process I used here. I expect this to be most helpful to undergrads, especially those who are somewhat new to philosophy. [Insert the usual cautionary preface about how “this might not work for everyone,” blah blah blah…]

I always kept my philosophy papers very structured, explicit, and to-the-point. I created an outline-centered approach that catered to my desired style of writing:

1 Create bare-bones outline

Like I said, I like my papers very structured. Almost every paper I’ve ever written has had the following structure:

outline

I really like having my papers read like a standard argument, so the entire body of my paper is ordered based on the general argument I present in my introduction. (Just keep in mind that, given that this is a bare-bones outline, “general argument” and “premise” here can be interpreted quite loosely.)

Sometimes, instead of addressing (an) objection(s) at the end of the main body of my essay, I’ll tack them onto the end of one the previous sections III A-D. It just depends on what I think makes my paper flow the best.

2 Add main details to intro paragraph

A Formulate thesis

Usually it starts with “I will argue that . . .”

B Formulate general argument

Something like “I hope to establish this by first . . . , then . . . , and finally . . .” – just something that both resembles the flow of an argument and sets up the structure of the main body of your paper.

3 Provide background info

The essays I wrote in undergrad were always a response to some paper(s) we read in class. My rule of thumb is to assume I’m writing for someone who has some philosophical background but not necessarily in the topic at hand. So throughout my paper I would feel free to use philosophical jargon, but in this section of my paper I would provide a relevant summary of the current discourse/body of work I was addressing and define all technical terms.

4 Organize topic sentences

Each of my topic sentences are an assertion of each premise (loosely interpreted) from my general argument (also loosely interpreted); I dedicate each portion of my main argument a section in my essay body.

5 Fill in each section in outline

For my intro paragraph, this usually means adding a sentence or two to introduce my paper before I present my thesis and possibly also one sentence briefly addressing the importance/significance of my thesis.

For each of my body paragraphs, this means arguing for each of my topic sentences (kind of like mini arguments for the premises of your general argument).

6 Objection(s) + Response(s)

Usually I introduce an objection with “One may try to argue that . . .”

Again, I place the objection where I see fit. Sometimes it’s within the discussion of an individual premise (usually if it’s an objection against one of my premises) and sometimes it’s at the end of the body of my essay as a whole (usually if it’s an objection against the argument in its entirety, e.g. its structure).

7 Add transitions

For example, at the end of intro paragraph I’ll put something like: But before presenting my argument, it is useful to first provide the background against which this conversation is taking place, to help connect my intro paragraph to the next section of my paper.

8 Conclude

A Summary

“In this paper I have attempted to show that . . . I did this by first . . . I then argued that . . . Lastly, I responded to the objection that . . .”

B Implications and significance

I conclude my papers with a short discussion of where my conclusion situates us in the discourse, why it might be important/significant, and address any shortcomings of or possible future lines of inquiry from my arguments.

9 Stitch essay together

Usually at this point I have enough material to organize into an essay by simply deleting my headers and C&P-ing. I’ll read over what I’ve stitched together and make minor edits/additions as I see fit.


I think I’m going to make a “Student Advice” section for my blog which will include practical help information such as this, as well as things like time management tips, mental health advice, and the like.

This will be the first post in this category.