What’s the Difference Between a Dissertation vs. Thesis?

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If you plan to pursue an advanced degree, you may be wondering about the differences between dissertation vs. thesis projects.

What's the Difference Between a Dissertation vs. Thesis

Most candidates in master’s or PhD programs are required to complete a final project in the form of a thesis or dissertation before graduating.

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Because both a master’s thesis and a doctoral dissertation consist of in-depth research, analysis, and writing, some people use the terms interchangeably. They are separate assignments, though, that are completed at different stages in a student’s academic journey.

What’s the Difference Between a Dissertation vs. Thesis?

students working on their research-based project

Students enrolled in masters degree programs typically write a thesis, whereas doctoral students complete a dissertation.

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Although these projects are both research-based and are usually required for graduation, they have different lengths, requirements, and timeframes. Knowing how to distinguish between them is vital for anyone hoping to attend graduate school.

What Is a Thesis?

Woman taking Master's degree, researching for her thesis

A thesis is a scholarly paper that many students write before completing their master’s programs. Most graduate schools require students to submit a thesis that reflects the breadth and depth of their knowledge of the field and demonstrates their advanced research skills.

To create a thesis, students begin by selecting a topic of interest and conducting extensive research in that area. That information serves as the basis for a lengthy paper that describes the student’s position on the subject and presents evidence proving their assertion. Although it’s not common, some undergraduate schools also require students to write a short thesis.

What Is a Dissertation?

Man taking PhD degree, working on his dissertation

A dissertation is a doctoral-level project that is a standard feature of PhD programs. When completing a dissertation, a student will conduct original or expanded research that can contribute to their field and solidify their status as a scholar.

So, what’s a dissertation and how long does it take to write one? Dissertations are often hundreds of pages in length and are completed over several years. They reflect that a student not only understands the current state of the field but also has a unique approach to the subject matter. After writing a dissertation, a student must defend it to a committee and faculty chair, who determine whether it is acceptable.

A number of universities now offer doctorate programs without dissertations but have a capstone project for completion. Common programs are DBA degrees or doctoral programs in education with no dissertation online or on campus.

Differences Between a Dissertation vs. Thesis

Woman writing outlines for her thesis

A dissertation and thesis are distinct in important ways, including:

  • Academic level. A thesis is generally the final project required for a master’s degree. Students complete a dissertation during their doctoral programs.
  • Research requirements. Writing a thesis involves reviewing and compiling information from reputable sources. To complete a dissertation, students must also present new information based on original research.
  • Length. The difference in the length of a PhD dissertation vs. masters thesis is noteworthy. A thesis is typically between 50 and 100 pages in length and is written during the final year of a master’s degree program. A dissertation is generally 100 to 400 pages long and may involve several years of work.
  • Completion process. Students submit their thesis projects to a group of two or more faculty mentors. Dissertation projects culminate with an oral defense, where the student answers questions from a committee of various faculty members.

The difference between dissertation and thesis projects depends on where you’re studying. For instance, in the United Kingdom, master’s students complete a dissertation, and PhD students write a doctoral thesis.

Similarities Between a Thesis vs. Dissertation

Man writing his dissertation

Much like the similarity between a dissertation vs. capstone, a thesis is usually accomplished as a partial requirement for an academic degree. A thesis and a dissertation usually share these common features:

  • Purpose. Thesis and dissertation projects are designed to indicate whether a student is ready to graduate.
  • Required skills. To successfully write a dissertation or thesis, students often have strong writing, analytical, research, and editing skills.
  • Process. To complete either project, students select a focused research area, review existing sources, and write a long paper summarizing their findings and analysis.
  • Expectations. Students cannot commit plagiarism or act unethically.
  • Benefits. Completing a thesis or dissertation helps students gain a more thorough understanding of their field, narrow down their career goals, and demonstrate their achievements.

If you intend to complete a doctoral dissertation, you may have the opportunity to expand on the research from your master’s thesis or select a new area of interest.

Theses and Dissertations

Friends researching together for their theses

There may be a difference between a thesis and a dissertation in terms of when students complete them, how long they are, and what type of research they involve, but they are both beneficial academically and professionally.

These projects provide students with an opportunity to gain expertise in their fields and prepare for their careers. Graduates also sometimes publish their work as journal articles or books. Having a record of publications may strengthen your candidacy for future positions. Writing a dissertation or thesis is challenging, but it can be a valuable experience.

You can take the next step in your educational journey today by researching accredited master’s and PhD programs.

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Kama has a master's degree in English from Virginia Tech and a bachelor's in English from Concord University. She previously taught college-level English composition, literature, and English as a second language courses. She is now a full-time writer in the education field, with a particular focus on educational technology and pedagogical best practices for English language learners.