How is a dissertation different from a thesis? If you plan to attend graduate school at the master's or doctoral level, then you may have come across the terms thesis and dissertation on various school websites that outline the program requirements. Nearly all graduate-level programs in the United States require completion of a final thesis or dissertation, but some schools differ in their interpretation of this final project. Used to gauge comprehension and the ability to argue effectively, a thesis or dissertation represents a student's understanding within her field of study. The following article will help you identify the differences between these two research documents.
Length and Structure
The length and structure of a thesis and dissertation vary according to program; however, most theses are significantly shorter than dissertations. Students seeking a master's degree usually complete a thesis project in one full semester during which this is the only course they take. Doctoral candidates spend years completing their research so that they can write, edit and cite a research document that may comprise 400 pages. In some schools, a doctoral candidate's entire course of study may be referred to as his dissertation. Length and structure also depend on the field of study. Science majors write less because they conduct more hands-on experiments; students in humanities and liberal arts programs write longer papers with more in-depth analysis.
Regardless of how schools use the terms thesis and dissertation, the purpose remains the same for both projects: Master's level theses and doctoral dissertations require extensive research in order to prove that students have retained sufficient knowledge about their field. Theses typically require less external research because the project reflects a student's own ideas and conclusions. Dissertations take several years to complete and may require hundreds of external sources.
The secondary focus is to see how well students can defend their own work. Both of these research projects typically conclude with an oral defense in which faculty members ask questions about the research and final paper. A dissertation defense can last several hours whereas a thesis defense may last only an hour.
You should also note a major cultural difference when it comes to final research projects. In the United States, the word "thesis" represents a paper that reflects a student's ideas supported by thorough research. According to Enago, Europe understands this term in a different way: "A doctoral thesis is a focused piece of original research which is performed in order to obtain a Ph.D. A dissertation is part of a broader post graduate research project." If you plan to attend a school in Europe or other parts of the world, you should contact your individual school to verify how they define these terms.
Related Resource: TEACH Grant
Some master's level programs in the United States do not require a research project as significant as a thesis, but almost all doctoral programs require a dissertation. Extensive research projects such as these force students to develop better analytical thinking skills and to put those skills into action by creating a tangible work. In addition, theses and dissertations are published in a limited academic capacity as part of the final requirement for most schools. When choosing a graduate program, make an appointment with your school's research faculty so that you can ask, "How is your program's dissertation different from a thesis?"