Comparison Between a Thesis and Dissertation

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What is the Difference Between a Thesis and Dissertation?

Although the terms “thesis” and “dissertation” possess similarities and are sometimes used interchangeably, there are significant differences between the two. If you plan on attending graduate school, you will have to complete a thesis or dissertation in order to earn the degree you are pursuing, but the former refers to a master’s degree and the latter to a Ph.D. degree necessity. Both are integral parts of the requirements for the specific degree sought.

Keep in mind, the requirements and guidelines for a thesis and a dissertation, along with structure, will vary according to the university, but the following general rules apply:

Degrees & Career Paths


What is a Thesis?


Although some undergraduate schools require students to submit a thesis to earn their bachelor’s degree, a thesis is generally required on the master’s degree level. Some exclusive colleges may require a thesis for graduation, but more often a senior must submit a capstone test to receive a degree.

A thesis is designed to test how a student understand his or her field of study by having them analyze work in their field that has already performed by others. In essence, it is a literature review, and the average thesis consists of about 100 pages. The purpose of the thesis is the application of a practical question related to the field of study and the student’s well-researched answer. The thesis reflects the student’s overall mastery of the material in their subject.

A faculty advisor helps guide the student during the process of research and writing the thesis.

A thesis usually consists of:

  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Body
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography

Usually, students complete their thesis in just one semester, while a dissertation generally takes one to five years to complete. A well-researched thesis can prove invaluable for those seeking employment, as it demonstrates an applicant’s critical thinking skills, research, writing, and communication abilities.

What is a Dissertation?


The dissertation is the final step in a Ph.D. program and it is designed to add to knowledge in the current field and to turn the student into a formal scholar. When complete, dissertations may run 400 pages or more, with many universities mandating five to six chapters.

These chapters include:

  • Overview
  • Review of Literature
  • Methodology
  • Analysis
  • Findings

It is not unusual for those in some fields to rewrite their dissertations and publish them in book format after acceptance, either with an academic publisher or, in some instances, as a general publication.

Unlike a thesis, a dissertation requires firsthand research rather than just analysis of available material. The process starts with the choosing of a topic and its approval by the school. The next step involves the student choosing a faculty chair and dissertation committee. These parties serve not only as mentors, but are also the ones who decide whether or not to accept the dissertation upon completion.

After writing the initial three chapters, also known as the proposal, the university’s Institutional Review Board must look at the students work and approve it before allowing research to start. Often, a considerable amount of changes are needed in various drafts of the proposal before approval is granted.

The student then conducts the research, discussing it regularly with the chair, writes about this research, and edits it themselves before submitting it to the dissertation committee. As noted, this process can take several years. Once approved, the student officially earns their Ph.D.

Differences Between Fields of Study


Whether thesis or dissertation, the field of study makes a substantial difference in the way the research is conducted and the methodology used. For example, in the sciences, research focuses on that done by the students themselves or extensive surveys. Those pursuing a graduate degree in humanities tend to concentrate more on statistics and surveys. In the educational fields, how new methods work is of primary importance in most research. Business master's degrees take a more practical approach, with the student contributing hands-on effort for the work and coming up with sample business and other pertinent plans.

If you seek a Ph.D. in social sciences, such as sociology or psychology, it is probable that your original research must include human participants. For example, a dissertation focusing on binge eating and how it relates to obesity will need research participants. The Ph.D. candidate works with the faculty advisor to design such studies. No matter the field of study, field work is critical. What you delve into depends on the subject, but it always involves using accepted methodologies and adhering to the highest ethical standards.

Although there are often large differences in the way a thesis or dissertation is developed according to the field, the bottom line is that the former is analysis of current literature, while the latter should present original, first-hand research on the topic.

Not the Same Everywhere


There is a critical caveat to the thesis vs. dissertation discussion, and it focuses on cultural differences. The definitions described above refer to the United States. In other countries, particularly the United Kingdom, what is referred to as a thesis in the US is known as a dissertation, and vice versa. The meaning of the words is literally flipped. The thesis is the work produced for a doctoral degree, and the dissertation is written for the master’s degree. Keep that difference in mind if you plan to attain an advanced degree in the UK, or in any other country which might use the words differently than we do. On your education path for masters and doctoral programs, you will also at some point also be required to write a personal statement or statement of purpose.