Presenting and Defending Your Dissertation Proposal in Ethics and Social Theory at GTU

This is my compilation of the questions I heard given to students during my five years of listening to dissertation and comprehensive exam proposals in the ethics and social theory area at GTU. Some readers may recognize some of these questions, but I ask that you not identify anyone in the comments. These questions came mostly from faculty, but also from students. Some questions are edited to remove specificity.

Many of these questions are merely speculative or conversation-starting or are taken out of context and should not be viewed as indicative of typical views of the area faculty or students.

I present this for your reading pleasure, for the sake of nostalgia, and to prepare yourself, should you someday find yourself with a proposal before the area faculty!


Everyone should expect these:

1. What is your project?

2. What is your thesis?

3. Why is this significant?

4. Is this doable?


What is your dissertation about?  What is the topic?

Could you summarize your dissertation in one sentence?

What here is unique and new?

The problem with virtue ethics is always its anthropology.  How do you address this problem?

You need to expose a problem then propose a solution.  What is your problem and what is your solution?

How do we know if you have succeeded in your project?

What is the “soul” of your dissertation, the organizing principle?

Why is this relevant, who cares?

Can this project be done?

Are you the right person to write this dissertation?

Who are you disagreeing with here?  Who says this can’t be done?

How is this relevant to current discussions in your field?

Could you please define X term as it is operating in your dissertation? (E.g “what is functionalism?”)

What do you mean by X? What is X? (E.g. “What do you mean by ‘nature’?  What is nature?”)

What is a / the common criticism of X basic idea in your dissertation?


You should read Person Q’s books R and S.

Why is Person C relevant here?

Could you say more about how the thought of person A works in your dissertation?

Why isn’t person B in your dissertation? (Test yourself, pick a random academic and try to answer it)

How do you expect to compare your ideas to X person’s ideas when they are actually interested in Y different topic, not your topic?

What do you think of X person’s ideas and why / how are they adequate or inadequate? 

X person is the underlying major figure in this dissertation. Do you know X person’s work well enough to write this dissertation? What do you think of his/her theory of ________? (yes, the last question is a test to see if you really know that person…)

Person X already did this, what do you say to him/her?

Are you “cashing” Person X’s “promissory note” for a ________?


You have a lot of ________ on here and no ________ specialist on your committee.  How can you be evaluated on that?

Are any of your readers qualified to evaluate all of these many various interlocutors you have in your dissertation: Persons A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, etc.?

There seems to be Subject X underlying your proposal and yet you do not mention it explicitly nor do you have a reader qualified to read for that.


Where is your voice in this?

You are not being assertive enough.

Be clear who you are.  Why did your sources not do this project?


What is religious or theological about your project?

Is there any mysticism or spirituality here?

How does your dissertation relate to the ideas of community and church?

How is this representative of X religious tradition (e.g. Catholic, Lutheran, etc.)?

Why is this not atheistic?

What can X religious ethic contribute to the secular?

Is your theory based on metaphysics, nature, or political consensus?


What makes “good” good? What is your underlying assumption of what makes something good?

Is this really a consequentialist ethic and not a virtue ethic? 

What if true virtue is not in fact successful… does that make it wrong? After all, Jesus died.

Is there only one valid end for human society or are there multiple?  What about for individuals?

Are you changing X ethical methodology or updating it?

Compare stasis and dynamism in the context of X ethical methodology.

Groups judge individuals?  Isn’t that totalitarian?  What about individuality and human rights and freedom!?


This sounds to me like three dissertations.  Why do you think it is not?

Is this project doable?  It seems too huge.

You have a lot of moving targets here: topics X, Y, and Z.  How can you hope to create any kind of structure within such a dynamic network of ideas?


Is your method synchronic or diachronic?

How do we know the past?

Respond to this: in restricting our understanding of God (or nature) we are restricting our understanding of ourselves… hmm…


This is unfocused, incoherent.

You have a lot of assumptions here.  Too many false universalizations. 

I see a contradiction here…

Your thesis seems to contradict your statement here…

Are your conclusions independent of your methods?

Your thesis seems more descriptive than argumentative.

You dissertation needs to be more than “I like reading this.”

Remove passive voice!  No weasel words!  More action and argument!

You need more structure; not 1, 2, 3, hope for the best!

You need an “X affects Y in Z ways” for this to work.

Why are you unwilling to draw conclusions from your argument?


2 responses to “Presenting and Defending Your Dissertation Proposal in Ethics and Social Theory at GTU

  • nodoz99

    Thanks Brian … this is very helpful. A great application of your participant observation skills in qualitative data collection. Are you sure you’re not a social theory person?

  • Katie

    I found this both very helpful and a little nausea inducing as I sit here working on my dissertation proposal. Timely stuff for me Brian. Now excuse me while I go get my bottle of Pepto.

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