If you’ve been thinking about going to graduate school, you may be familiar with the application requirements, rigorous academic schedule, and thesis or dissertation you’ll be expected to complete. So, what exactly is the difference between a thesis and a dissertation? While there are similarities, there’s a clear difference between the two. In our guide, we compare dissertation vs thesis. Discover more about both – and what you can expect during your graduate program. Let’s get started!
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What Is a Thesis?
A thesis is an academic paper or project that’s completed towards the end of a master’s degree program. It is typically completed as the capstone project, meaning it’s the final project required for a student to graduate.
Students need to select a narrow, specific topic within – or relating to – their field of study. Once they’ve selected a topic, students must conduct an in-depth review of existing research on their chosen subjects. The next step is to formulate an academic argument, an assertion they’ll need to support or prove with said research.
Therefore, a thesis is akin to an in-depth research paper. It’s comprised of research that essentially proves what a student has learned during their program.
What Is a Typical Thesis Structure?
A thesis generally follows a rigid structure that’s decided by the program, department, or university. Here is an example of a thesis structure:
The Title Page
Summary of Thesis Abstract
Table of Contents
Table of Maps and Figures
The Thesis Body (Sometimes divided into chapters)
The Results or Conclusion
Who Needs to Complete a Thesis?
Most master’s degree programs require students to complete a thesis. While some undergraduate programs may also require a thesis, these are generally shorter and narrower in scope.
Some programs will also require a master’s student to defend their thesis in front of a panel or committee.
What Is a Dissertation?
What is “the PhD paper” called? Some people refer to it as a PhD thesis, but it’s most commonly known as a dissertation in the US. Dissertations are the capstone project required at the tail end of a PhD program. It is almost always required, except for a select few one-year PhD programs.
Much like a thesis, dissertations are also academic papers that aim to prove a student’s expertise – while adding to the current body of knowledge – in their field. Thus, a student must look at existing research and conduct their own research.
Basically, it’s the magnum opus of a doctoral journey in the United States. A dissertation isn’t just a long research paper; it’s a beast of a project. It demands extensive research, originality, and the ability to make a meaningful contribution to your chosen field. Think of it as a research odyssey guided by a seasoned mentor. Once you’ve conquered this scholarly quest and defended your findings, you’ll proudly emerge with your hard-earned doctoral degree, a testament to your dedication and scholarly prowess.
A dissertation typically comes after a PhD student completes their required courses and passes their qualifying exams. In some programs, the dissertation process is embedded into the coursework. In such cases, students receive a jump start on their work, allowing them to potentially finish their program earlier.
What Does a Dissertation Do?
PhD candidates must present a new theory or hypothesis. Alternatively, they must present their research to question (or disprove) the existing accepted theory on their chosen subject. Students may choose to tackle their topic from a new angle or take their research in a different direction.
Most programs will require students to defend their dissertations. During the defense, candidates must be able to justify the methodology of their research and the results and interpretation of their findings. Defenses are typically oral presentations in front of a dissertation committee, where the students are asked questions or presented with challenges.
Although the defense may seem daunting, PhD students work closely with their advisors to prepare for their dissertations. Students receive feedback and advice to guide their dissertations in their chosen direction.
What Is the Typical Dissertation Structure?
Dissertations follow a rigid structure typically set by the program, department, or university. Here is an example format:
The Title Page
The Acknowledgments Page
Table of Contents
The Literature Review & Theoretical Framework
Discussions of the Findings, including analysis, interpretation, and applications
List of References
What Is a Doctoral Thesis?
A doctoral thesis is a substantial piece of scholarly work that marks the pinnacle of a doctoral degree program, such as a PhD. Think of it as the academic grand finale. Its primary mission? To showcase the candidate’s mastery in their chosen field and their knack for delving deep into research.
In a nutshell, a doctoral thesis is a mammoth project that calls for originality. You’ve got to dig, investigate, gather data, crunch numbers, and present real data-supported findings. All this hard work usually happens under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable mentor. Once you’ve conquered this scholarly mountain and defended your thesis successfully, you’ll be proudly awarded your well-deserved doctoral degree. It’s the hallmark of your expertise and contribution to your field.
And how does a doctoral thesis differ from a dissertation? That’s mainly a geographic explanation. While they’re largely similar in scope and purpose, when comparing a doctoral thesis vs. a dissertation:
A dissertation is the PhD capstone requirement in the US.
A doctoral thesis is the PhD capstone requirement in Europe.
In the master’s thesis vs dissertation discussion, there are plenty of similarities. Both are lengthy academic papers that require intense research and original writing. They’re also capstone projects which are completed at the tail end of their respective programs.
Students must work closely with their respective committees (e.g., faculty members, advisors, professionals) who provide feedback and guidance on their research, writing, and academic arguments. Both thesis and dissertation committees have a committee chair with whom the students work closely.
In some ways, the requirements for theses and dissertations are quite similar. They require a skillful defense of a student’s academic arguments. What’s more, both papers require critical thinking and good analytical reasoning, as well as in-depth expertise in the chosen field of study.
Students must also invest a significant amount of time into both projects while also being able to accept and action feedback on their work.
Dissertation vs. Thesis: The Differences
What are the differences between a PhD dissertation vs. thesis? The first and most distinct difference is the degree program requiring a PhD dissertation or thesis. A dissertation is typically the capstone project for a doctorate, while a thesis is the capstone project for a master’s degree program (or undergraduate program).
Candidates will have to defend their dissertation during an oral presentation in front of their committee. Only some master’s theses require this.
During a thesis, students typically conduct research by reviewing existing literature and knowledge on their chosen subject. During a dissertation, students must do their own research and prove their theory, concept, or hypothesis. They should also expect to develop a unique concept and defend it based on the practical and theoretical results achieved from their rigorous research.
Theses are also typically shorter (around 40 to 80 pages). Dissertations, however, are much longer (between 100 and 300 pages). Of course, the actual length of the paper may depend on the topic, program, department, or university.
Whether you’re in the US or Europe, dissertations and theses are similar. However, European requirements and conventions differ slightly:
To ensure your PhD graduation, a dissertation is generally required. Doctoral theses in Europe are much like a PhD dissertation in the US: You must complete your own research and add to the existing body of knowledge in your field.
It may seem odd to require a dissertation for master’s degree programs, but in Europe, this is exactly what you’ll need. A master’s dissertation is a broader post-graduate program research project, though it’s most typically required for master’s programs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are a few of the most common questions we hear about the meaning of thesis vs. dissertation.
Is a Thesis and a Dissertation the Same?
Yes and no. In some ways, a dissertation and a thesis are the same. For example, both require original writing, critical skills, analytical thinking, plenty of research, and lots of academic effort. However, a thesis is more commonly reserved for master’s – and some undergraduate – programs. Dissertations are generally required by PhD programs in the United States.
Additionally, a thesis typically calls for heavy research and compilation of existing knowledge and literature on a subject. A dissertation requires candidates to conduct their own research to prove their own theory, concept, or hypothesis – adding to the existing body of knowledge in their chosen field of study.
How Long Is a Thesis vs. a Dissertation?
One of the primary differences between thesis and dissertation papers is their length. While a thesis might be anywhere from 40 to 80 pages long, a dissertation can easily run from 100 to 300. It’s important to note that these numbers depend on the specific program and university.
Does a PhD Require a Thesis or a Dissertation?
It all depends on where you are! While a US-based PhD requires you to complete a dissertation, a thesis (or “doctoral thesis”) is more commonly required for PhD candidates in Europe. In the US, a thesis is more commonly reserved for master’s degree programs and occasionally undergraduate programs. In Europe, a “master’s dissertation” is typically required for the completion of a master’s degree.
So, there you have it: an in-depth comparison of the dissertation vs. thesis academic requirements. Now that you know the primary similarities and differences between the two, it might become easier to decide your academic path. Just remember, you may be able to find a master’s program without a thesis or a doctorate without a dissertation requirement if you prefer. Good luck!