In academia, people often seem to use the terms “thesis” and “dissertation” almost interchangeably, but at the administrative level, they have distinct meanings. The meanings also vary between the United States and other countries, such as in Europe.
What is a dissertation?
The answer to this question depends on the country. In the United States, the dissertation is a robust scholarly work, usually book length, that a doctoral candidate submits and defends as the final step to earning the Ph.D. In other countries, the dissertation is often associated with non-doctoral degrees, such as bachelor’s or master’s degrees.
What is a thesis?
The answer to this question also depends on the country. In many countries, the document that doctoral candidates submit as the final step to earning their Ph.D. is called a thesis. It can be a book-length work, or it can be a framing and summary of already published scholarly papers that the doctoral candidate has produced, with the papers appended to it. In the United States, however, the term “thesis” is usually reserved for a comparatively shorter document that people write as a concluding step of a master’s degree.
What are the similarities between a thesis and a dissertation?
Whether a graduate student is working on a thesis or a dissertation, the two documents share some similarities. They usually are expected to be scholarly works that present original ideas and often, original research and findings. They also will usually follow guidelines that the degree-granting institution has established. Anyone working on either a thesis or a dissertation should ask their advisor or an administrator about these guidelines.
The thesis and dissertation also are similar in the style of writing, which should be formal and academic. Either kind of document will almost always include a bibliography of works cited or that form the basis for the work described.
At many institutions, the author of a thesis or dissertation must present it publicly. In some cases, the presentation will be followed by a question and answer session with audience members. In other cases, the presentation will be to an advisory committee that will then pose what can be difficult or challenging questions about the presented work, which the author must address. This process is called a “thesis defense” or “dissertation defense.”
These publications also can have similar parts. They can include an acknowledgments section, where it is appropriate to thank anyone who has helped you reach this point, including family members, and to relax a little and offer personal gratitude. The rest will be in language that is academic and formal, usually beginning with a summary or abstract, followed by an introduction, the approach to the research, a summary of findings, and conclusions, along with references, tables, and figures as warranted.
Finally, the parts of the thesis or dissertation that have not already been published in a peer-reviewed journal may be submitted for consideration. In the humanities, it is not uncommon for the longer form of these texts to be published as a book. Most universities will have the academic version presented for earning the degree bound and archived or digitally archived as a record of the work. Students often are responsible for having the binding done and submitting the bound copy.
What are their differences?
A thesis and a dissertation differ mostly in what they represent (a document related to earning a master’s or doctorate degree, depending on where the institution is), their length, the expectations for original content, and their level of detail. For the document being presented for a master’s degree, for example, the author probably will produce a shorter work, with fewer citations and other elements, such as figures or tables.
For the document being developed for a doctorate, the author will likely provide considerably more detail, including from work that forms several separate scholarly publications in peer-reviewed journals, especially in the sciences. The author does not necessarily have to have all of these publications accepted by or published in a journal, but the usual expectation is that they eventually will be. The document that combines them all forms the institutional record of the work.
Where can I find examples?
Although examples of the general form of a thesis or dissertation are available online, the most useful examples for you will be recent publications from your own institution. You can find digital examples of a thesis or dissertation in an online search of your institution’s library or ask the university librarian, who will be quite knowledgeable and happy to help. Your advisor also should be able to offer guidance.
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