What is a Graduate School Dissertation?

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Updated March 25, 2021

The graduate school dissertation represents the culmination of the years that you spent in your program and both the education and experience that you gained during your studies. A dissertation is different from a thesis, which is the last paper or project you complete in graduate school. Though not all schools require the completion of a thesis, you will need to complete a dissertation paper or project before earning a PhD. This project lets you work closely with a professor in your program and conduct your own research.

What should a dissertation have?

Based on Original Research

A graduate school dissertation is a paper or a project that you complete based on original research that you do on your given topic. While you can usually write a thesis project that simply looks at some of the existing research, those working at the doctoral level must create something unique and original. The school will look closely at your work to determine if you conducted the research on your own or if you borrowed heavily from other sources. Most schools give you the option of creating a large final project or writing a research paper.

Meets Publication Guidelines

The doctoral dissertation that you hand in must be suitable for publication. Your college will keep a copy in the school archives or library, and you may find that your topic is strong enough for publication as a mainstream book. When you first enter the program, your adviser will give you a detailed book that shows you everything you need to do in terms of formatting. If you have margins that are too wide, forget to cite a source or use the wrong format size, you may lose serious points on the paper or face other consequences and penalties.

Requires a Defense

The graduate school dissertation also requires a defense. You'll meet with three or more experts in the field, present your work and defend your position, which often requires that you answer a series of questions presented by the panel. Marianne Di Pierro of the American Society for Quality recommends that you create an in-depth presentation using PowerPoint that includes detailed slides relating to your project and that you create a list of questions you expect the panel will ask. This gives you the chance to go over those questions beforehand and ensure that you have answers for those questions.

Working with an Adviser

The strength of your dissertation can help you land a position in academia or in the working field immediately after receiving your degree. When you first enter the program, the school assigns an adviser to your case. The adviser works with you to choose a topic or narrow down your topic, but your adviser also offers helpful suggestions about the questions the panel will ask during your defense and how you can better prepare for that defense. Use your adviser as a sounding board about what to include in your paper and what to eliminate and to improve the first few drafts you create.

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The dissertation that you complete in graduate school shows that you will leave the program with the skills needed to conduct your own research and add something new to the field. The graduate school dissertation is an in-depth research paper or project that you conduct and write based on your own research, thoughts and opinions.

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