Every advisor has his or her own style and expectations. I've described mine here to help guide you in your choice of advisor for your philosophy independent work, and to help you get the best advising from me, if I end up being your advisor.
If you would like to talk to me about an independent work topic, the best thing to do is to see me at the very beginning of the semester. Stop by my office hour (listed on my web page) for a quick chat. There's no need to email in advance for this--just stop by during the office hour.
During our chat, I can advise you on whether the idea makes sense as JP or thesis, and on who would might be good advisors for it. If it makes sense for us to work together topic-wise, then most often you can just get started on thinking about and writing the paper after we talk. On some occasions I may be working with many other students already---if so, I apologize in advance if I have to ask to work with you in a future semester, or if I suggest alternate advisors to talk to.
Before we begin working together, please read the departmental information about JPs or Senior theses and Senior departmental exams. Among other information, these links also describe intermediate deadlines that I will expect you to follow.
At the beginning of the semester you'll be nosing around in the literature to narrow your topic. I advise that you learn how to use "The Philosopher's Index" for this stage, which you can find (along with other good philosophy resources) on the library's Philosophy Resources page.
Later on, you will want to get feedback on your own arguments and lines of thought. A good way to proceed is to tell me your argument before you write a full draft. In other words, get together a main idea or two and come to my office hour (no appointment or advance notice necessary, just show up any week) and try them out on me. I will try to give you feedback right away, suggest lines of reply to consider, and let you know whether the argument needs serious revision or augmentation. These meetings tend to work best when students have some notes to themselves written out to guide the discussion. Do this early in the semester, so that there is time to develop your argument.
A common pitfall is to wait until the middle of the semester or year to really think through an argument of your own. The thought is often "I'll put lots of time into the paper later in the semester". The result is typically that the student puts lots of work into polishing a paper that is unsuccessful because it has no real unifying claim.
Don't think of your task as planning and writing a book. Instead think of it as writing a short philosophy paper. And then a medium length philosophy paper extending or taking off from the ideas of the first one. And then another one. And perhaps one more. And then tying it all together.
In particular, I recommend that your first piece of writing not be a gigantic outline or introductory chapter or survey of any sort. Instead you should write a thesis bite. A thesis bite is a short (typically around 8 page) paper with a modest, well-defined aim. Think small and unambitious. The idea is to factor off some corner of your thesis question that admits of self-contained treatment. Set yourself a task that is not overwhelming.
Your thesis bite will probably end up being part of your thesis. But you needn't think of that when you're writing. You needn't think: this is section 1 of my master work. Think instead: this is a philosophy paper that clearly argues for a modest thesis, or accomplishes a helpful bit of explication of a hard text. Finish it and get it under your belt.
If you get stuck at this stage, it's especially important to see me right away. It may well mean you should shift your topic, or consult some other reference.
When you submit a revision of work I've already read, please send along a version with significant changes indicated. In other words, format in boldface (or other easily distinguishable way) those passages or regions that involve significant changes or additions. Don't worry about indicating every little change---just help me focus in on what important changes you've made.
In my experience the way of proceeding described above (coming to my office hours to talk through your proposed arguments, which you have written down in outline for your own reference during our conversation) is much more efficient than giving early drafts to me. That is because it is very psychologically difficult to throw out completed work and start from scratch, and in many cases you will want to make major changes in response to our discussions.
If you do wish to have me look at any written draft material (optional), be sure to hand in the draft two weeks before the due date at the absolute latest.
I expect my senior advisees to take advantage of the philosophy department's senior thesis writing group. It is led by a philosophy graduate student, and students have found it extremely useful.
It is important that you stay in touch with me about your thesis. Please stop by my office hour every once in a while, even if just to report that you're stuck or haven't made much progress. Sometimes I can help you get unstuck.
Sometimes students get behind and fall off the map. Don't fall into that trap. If you are feeling overwhelmed or behind, it is always easier to consult sooner rather than later. This is true even if you come into my office and say "I'm terribly behind and have done nothing". But do this early!
Follow the departmental directions.
Hand in a printed copy by 5pm on the due day to my mailbox in the philosophy department lounge on the 2nd floor of 1879 Hall.
Independent work grades are reported as percentages. The conversion to letter grades is described here.
As the descriptions below should make clear, the strongest grades require more of a thesis than that it lack various flaws. They also require a thesis to possess certain positive virtues. In most cases, when a student shows me a full draft of their thesis, point-by-point responses to my local comments and suggestions will strengthen the thesis somewhat. But such changes do not have the same potential for improvement as a complete rewrite from scratch, together perhaps with a modified or scrapped main argument. That is why addressing all of my local comments on a draft by making scattered changes or additions in no way guarantees an "A".
(I feel the same about drafts of my own papers, by the way---all of my papers go through at least one iteration of "throw the whole thing out, open a new blank document, and start writing from scratch".)
Since few students choose to rethink and rewrite their projects at a late stage, I don't without special prompting tell students to do so. Everyone has to choose for themselves how to allocate their time, and many worthwhile theses have been written without such a reboot. However, if you want my assessment of this strategy, please just ask me. Say: "Work-to-reward ratio aside, what would it take to bring this thesis to the next level?" If you do ask, don't be demoralized if the answer involves rewriting from scratch and/or rethinking the main argument from scratch. The best times to ask this question are (1) shortly after you have formulated your main argument, and (2) after you have written a substantial draft but at least one month before the due date.
The department associates no official verbal descriptions with the percentages. However, I have included some indications below of how I personally understand various representative percentages.
(Adapted from Jim Pryor's guidelines on grades, with some language from Princeton grading documents.)
Significantly exceeds the highest expectations for undergraduate work. This thesis is either a practically flawless execution of an exceedingly ambitious project, or else makes a contribution that is incredibly original for an undergraduate. (As a baseline, I can report that having advised senior theses at Princeton since 2000, I have yet to give a grade in this range.)
Meets the highest standards for the assignment. The thesis is clearly written, cohesive, well-argued, and original. A thesis that gives a straightforward response to some philosophical or interpretative problem would not merit a 95%, even if it is extremely clear. The main argument of a 95% thesis has no obvious flaws, and has an interesting conclusion. A 95% thesis does something extra--but not at the cost of a clear treatment of the problem.
Meets very high standards for the assignment. This thesis operates at an advanced level. It is ambitious and clearly written. If there are any significant problems with the writing or the organization of the thesis, then it won't merit a 91%. This is because good clear writing and organization are not separable from good philosophical thinking. The thesis may have a couple of minor mistakes or confusions, or it may fail to unpack some of its arguments sufficiently. Perhaps it includes a small amount of irrelevant discussion. The thesis may have an intriguing original argument or interpretation, but if so, that will be offset by some other flaw. For example, perhaps there is too little philosophical back-and-forth (considering objections and challenges, and responding to them). Or perhaps the thesis is not as engaged with the texts as it should be. On the other hand, the thesis may not have such flaws, but if so, that will be offset by its having a less original or ambitious main argument.
Meets high standards for the assignment. This is a well-written thesis with nothing terribly wrong. The writing may have some small problems, or it may be flawless. The thesis may make some mistakes or have some ambiguities that have to be sorted out, but overall it will be a very good paper. An 89% thesis has a clearly marked main argument, which has some plausibility and interest. A thesis that just makes routine observations about a topic and spells out a fairly clear but straightforward argument, won't earn an 89%. It will show more promise or originality than an 85% paper, but nothing will make it stand out like a 91% paper, or it won't be operating at as advanced a level as an 91% paper. (Or perhaps the thesis would stand out if some of its ideas were fully developed, but as it stands they aren't.)
Meets most of the standards for the assignment. This is a good thesis overall. It contains some notable mistakes, unanswered objections, or obscurities, but no serious misunderstandings. The writing may not be super-clear. To earn an 85%, the thesis needs to make it clear why the problem it addresses is a problem, and offer some response to it. (It may be a straightforward or unoriginal response; it may not be a decisive response; the thesis may even end by showing that a certain response doesn't work. But the thesis must put forward or examine some response to the problem.) An 85% thesis does not seriously misrepresent the views of other philosophers.
Shows some reasonable command of the material, though there are moderately serious problems. Perhaps the writing is unclear or the paper is poorly organized. Or perhaps there are straightforward mistakes or misunderstandings about what the problem is, or about what other philosophers say. Or perhaps the paper presents the problem correctly, but doesn't really address it. Still, there is significant effort. The author has some understanding of the problem and of the relevant texts. The author does offer some argument. A thesis with no argument won't merit an 81%.
Meets basic standards for the assignment, but there are serious problems. Either the writing is really hard to get through; or the thesis has little discernible structure; or the author doesn't understand the text or the positions she is discussing; or the thesis doesn't really attempt to offer any argument. Alternatively, a 79% thesis might be written in polished prose but the ideas are obscure or cryptic. A thesis giving the sense that the author didn't put in much effort won't ordinarily earn a 79%.
Papers with more problems will earn grades of 75% or below. It is difficult to give a general gloss on those grades since the problems that beset these papers are quite varied.
Meets some of the basic standards for the assignment.
Falls short of meeting basic standards in several ways.