Information About Generals and the Dissertation

Date of Update: 1/23/2019

Deadlines for Generals

  1. Students taking January or May general examinations must select a general examination advisor by the end of the second week of the term in which the exam is to be taken. The general examination advisor will assist the student in preparing the student's general examination proposal. (Normally the general examination advisor will chair the student's general exam. Selection of the advisor will be a matter of negotiation between the student and a faculty member, in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies.)
  2. Students taking January or May general examinations will submit their proposals to the DGS, with a copy to their General Exam advisor, by the Monday morning after midterm break..
  3. Students taking October general examinations will select a general examination advisor by the Monday morning after spring break of the previous academic year, and will submit a proposal by May 15.

In addition, you must satisfy all pre-generals requirements (including the undergraduate lecture) by September 20 for October generals, by December 15 for January generals, and by April 30 for May generals.

Late submissions will not normally be accepted and, in any case, require the prior permission of the Graduate Committee.

Preparing a Generals Proposal

Your General Exam proposal needs to include:

  • Your name
  • Your General Exam advisor’s name
  • Field of examination
  • Project description
  • 12 questions that you will be prepared to answer
  • Bibliography

Please prepare your proposal in consultation with your General Exam advisor by the dates listed in the section above.  Your proposal will be reviewed and possibly modified by your General Exam committee.

The General Examination

The General Examination is an examination on the field in which you intend to write a dissertation, not on the as-yet-unwritten dissertation itself. Generals consists in an oral exam lasting approximately one hour, preceded a few days earlier by a 48 hour written exam.  The Generals proposal will include 12 questions, and the written exam will consist of 6 of these questions, three of which must be answered.  The answers to the three questions will total no more than 6000 words, and students are required to include a word count at the end of their examination paper (quotations count towards the total word count).  The written exam may be open book; students may have access to their notes; and students are encouraged to prepare their answers in advance.  The oral component will begin with the student giving a 5-10 minute overview of the field of their examination.   Examinations are administered by a committee of the faculty, the composition of which will ensure that the student is questioned from a variety of points of view. To pass Generals, students must demonstrate that they are prepared to write a dissertation in the field, and they must also demonstrate that they will be able to defend their dissertation orally.

List of Readings

Your generals proposal should include a list of readings which you are prepared to answer questions about, and twelve questions you are prepared to answer. In your list of readings, please make sure that the references are full enough so that the examiners can easily find the items listed. It will not do to refer to articles by title only. You may be asked to supply your examiners with copies of works that they have trouble obtaining themselves.

Preferences about Generals Examiners

At the time you submit your proposal, let us know any of your preferences about who your examiners will be. However, although we welcome your advice, we cannot promise to follow it. There are many considerations relevant to the choice of an examining committee.

Field of the General Examination

The field of the general examination is that field of philosophy in which you intend to write your dissertation (not that your intentions can't change afterward). The field should be construed as broadly as possible. "Philosophy of language" is better than "Tarski's definition of truth."

You are encouraged to present a brief dissertation proposal as part of the specification of your field. We urge you to seek advice about your intended dissertation topic.

Qualifications to Write A Dissertation In A Given Area

If you can complete pre-generals requirements and pass Generals, then we take it that you are able to write some dissertation or other; but not necessarily the dissertation of your choice. To do justice to some topics you may need preparation and qualifications that go beyond those required of everyone as part of our pre-generals requirements, and beyond what you could reasonably expect to pick up while working on the dissertation. You might need to know a considerable amount of logic, or linguistics, or physics, or history, or econometrics, or something else. In par­ticular, you might need a level of proficiency in some foreign language which is substantially higher than that needed to pass the language requirement. That might be because there are impor­tant untranslated scholarly works relevant to your topic. Or it might be because your topic requires you to figure out what someone meant by something written in a foreign language. Note the department's requirement that "if a student's dissertation is devoted to any considerable extent to an author, the student must be able to read the author's works in the original language." (But note also the delicate, yet real, distinction between writing about an author and writing about philo­sophical ideas that come from that author.) Don't take chances. The standards that apply are the generally accepted standards of sound scholarship; not the standards of doing the best you can with what preparation you have. If you can't do sound scholarship on a topic because you aren't good enough at a language (or something) that doesn't excuse or justify bad scholarship-it means that you should have chosen a different topic.

If in doubt about what qualifications are needed for a topic, and whether you have them, seek advice! Your adviser cannot determine by an exercise of authority what standards of scholarship will suffice-the adviser is only an adviser, there is no such authority-but the adviser can give you good advice on what will be needed to meet generally accepted standards of scholarship, and the adviser (with your help) can try to measure your level of proficiency. If you can't do a topic justice, you'd rather find out now than after you've submitted a dissertation.

Choose a Reasonably Sized Project

In choosing a dissertation topic and General Examination field, beware of overambition. Students sometimes attempt enormous projects which later have to be abandoned, others are completed many years later. Either way is a disaster for the student's academic career. It is hard to write a dis­sertation while starting to teach, hard to remain employed without the Ph.D., hard to publish arti­cles that would support promotion to tenure while still struggling with the dissertation. It is extremely advantageous to finish the Ph.D. before leaving Princeton. Your dissertation does not need to be a magnum opus; it does not need to contain every thought you have about the topic; the end of the dissertation need not be the end of your research and writing on the topic. Choose a project you can soon finish!

Dissertations Consisting of Several Essays

Some dissertations consist in several significant philosophical essays on different topics. Each essay in such a dissertation must be a substantial full-length philosophical article, not just a dis­cussion note.


Your dissertation should have a useful title that gives some indication of the philosophical content of the dissertation. Specifically ruled out are titles like, "Philosophical Essays" or "Three Philo­sophical Essays."


Although a good dissertation might be significantly shorter or longer, the Department recom­mends a target length of 30,000-50,000 words. Besides this recommendation, we also have established a length limit. Dissertations will normally be limited to 100,000 words (about 400 standard pages); exceptions must be approved by the Graduate Committee.


The following links will provide information on preparing your dissertation for submission: