Carnegie Mellon University
Thesis Writing Advice

Thesis Writing Advice

Writing a senior thesis is perhaps the most important requirement of the Logic and Computation major. Over the course of your undergraduate career, you have been exposed to some of the best ideas that humankind has to offer, and you have worked hard to master them. But you should not forget that the theories you have studied are the work of ordinary human beings, trying to address basic questions that are related to our common everyday experiences. The act of writing a senior thesis gives you an opportunity to become a part of this process, and explore fundamental questions much the way that academic researchers and theoreticians do.

Carnegie Mellon's philosophy department is characterized by two distinguishing features, both of which are represented by the L&C major. The first is the use of formal analytic techniques to address philosophical issues; we firmly believe that formal modeling and rigorous analysis provide information and insights that are crucial to philosophical inquiry. The second is the attitude that philosophical research is not an isolated "ivory tower" pursuit, but rather is concerned with fundamental aspects of everyday human activity.

The first feature puts restrictions on your senior thesis: we expect a clear, rigorous analysis. The second, however, gives you a good deal of latitude: any human activity or pursuit raises philosophical and methodological questions that can be a subject of investigation. In addition to more traditional topics relating to logic and computation, you might consider, for example, the following:

  • If you are interested in cognitive science and psychology, you might develop a formal model of some aspect of human reasoning, study its logical properties, evaluate it with respect to concrete psychological data, or implement it computationally.
  • If you are a computer programmer by nature, you might explore foundational aspects of a certain computational task. Computer programmers aim to write "good" software; you might ask, "What makes a database good?" "What do various storage schemes assume about the way knowledge can be represented and accessed?" "What assumptions are implicit in a given model of computation?"
  • Ethics is concerned with justice, and fairness. Active research in the philosophy department uses game theory to quantify these notions, in order to understand how they can best be attained.
  • You may choose to study the historical development of a branch of one of the sciences, in order to better understand how this development influences our modern understanding of the subject.
  • One L&C major wrote a thesis on multimedia and interactive storytelling, under an advisor in the English department. In doing so, he explored the nature of storytelling itself, and examined different ways that the new media can broaden our understanding of the term.


Writing a senior thesis is a significant undertaking. Though there are no rigid length requirements, a written thesis should be at least thirty pages long, double-spaced. The thesis can have other components as well, such as artwork or software, in which case, the written component may be somewhat shorter. Your submission should include all the following:

  • background information
  • an original contribution
  • a discussion of its significance

Regarding the background, your thesis should discuss previous work that is relevant to your topic. Research does not occur in a vacuum; you will most likely be facing issues that others have also raised and studied, and your thesis should demonstrate an understanding of how your work fits into the big picture.

The prospect of making an original contribution may seem daunting; but remember, no one is asking you to revolutionize your chosen field. Your research might try to overcome what you perceive to be a shortcoming in one specific approach to a subject, or it might apply a recent theory in a new and interesting way.

Finally, your work should be undertaken from a philosophical standpoint. You should make it clear what issues you are addressing, how you are going about doing so, and why.

Supported Topics

In the philosophy department you will find active research in all of the following areas:

  • Logic and the philosophy of mathematics: proof theory, category theory, and the history of logic and mathematics (Avigad, Awodey, Scott, Sieg)
  • Methodology and the philosophy of science: causality, probability theory, foundations of statistics, formal learning theory (Glymour, Kelly, Scheines, Spirtes, Seidenfeld)
  • Epistemology and the philosophy of mind: belief revision, causal reasoning, philosophical logic, artificial intelligence (Arlo-Costa, Kelly, Simon)
  • Ethics and political philosophy: game theory, decision theory, conflict resolution, computer assisted instruction of ethics using case studies (Bicchieri, Cavalier, Covey, Madsen, Vandershraaf)
  • Philosophy of language: linguistics (Simons)
  • Aesthetics and the philosophy of art (Carrier)

You may choose to take part in a research project that is already underway. For example, in the philosophy department, the Tetrad software uses statistical methods to determine possible causal dependencies in statistical data; the Proof Tutor combines automated proof search with a friendly user interface; and there are similar projects involving game theory.

You are also free to choose an advisor in another field, such as computer science, mathematics, statistics, psychology, social and decision sciences, English, etc.

Finding an Advisor

At the beginning of the spring semester, I will ask you to tell me who you have chosen to supervise your research. Your advisor’s duties are twofold:

  • He or she should help guide your research, by offering suggestions, answering questions, and critiquing your work.
  • He or she will read and evaluate your thesis at the end of the year, together with one or two additional members of the CMU faculty.

The details of the first are between you and your advisor. For example, your advisor might wish to have you enroll in a supervised reading course, or may prefer to hold a weekly informal meeting. If you would like, I can supply you with a short formal letter to your potential advisor, outlining these duties.

Dual Submission

Students involved in research projects in other departments may wish to incorporate some of this work in their thesis. We encourage this, with two caveats:

  • If you are seeking academic credit in multiple instances, those granting credit must agree to the dual submission. You should make it clear to all involved, and in the text of the thesis itself, what components of the work have been submitted for credit elsewhere.
  • The material you submit for your L&C thesis should not be identical with the material you submit for another purpose. For example, suppose you write a database and submit it, with technical documentation, for credit in computer science. Though the description of the database and its implementation may form a central part of your L&C thesis, the latter should include more background information and philosophical analysis.

Your L&C thesis can be used in conjunction with the Dietrich Senior Honors Program. You can find out more information about the honors program in the Dietrich College Academic Advisory Center, Baker Hall 161.

Suggested Timetable

Before your senior year: start thinking about a topic. The summer is a good time to do background reading.

Fall semester: Take the L&C Seminar, which will introduce you to current research in the department, as well as one particular research topic in more depth. As soon as possible, start talking to potential advisors, and gather more reading material. By the end of the semester, you will have seen most members of the department through the seminar, and you will be in a better position to make a final decision on an advisor and topic; but this should not stop you from gathering suggestions right away.

By the end of the Fall semester: Settle on a topic and an advisor.

Spring semester: Take the L&C Research Symposium. This will give you a chance to discuss your research in public, and receive comments and suggestions from your peers and the instructor. Also during this time, stay in contact with your thesis advisor so that he or she can monitor your progress.

At the end of the second semester: Theses are typically due at the very beginning of the last week of classes. Your thesis will be read by your advisor and at least one other member of the department, and I will rely on their evaluations to determine whether or not the thesis fulfills the degree requirements. In addition, I will forward the evaluations to the instructor of the symposium, who may also use it to determine your final grade.