What is a Dissertation? [2023 Guide]

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It’s common for people who are considering a graduate degree to ask, “What is a dissertation?” This term comes up often in discussions of doctoral requirements, but it may not be immediately obvious what’s involved.

What is a Dissertation

Getting the facts about dissertations can help you decide whether this is a project to which you’re ready to commit.

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Since a doctoral dissertation can be an integral component of a PhD program, you may want to learn all about it before applying to schools.

What Is a Dissertation?

dissertation definition

A dissertation is a major project completed by PhD candidates. Through it, you will establish yourself as an expert with the knowledge, critical thinking, and research skills to move your field of study forward.

The dissertation process usually gets into full swing after you complete your doctoral coursework. Before that, though, you may take several classes that will help you get started and teach you what steps to take.

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The process of dissertation writing involves several phases. You’ll select a topic, do research, and type up a book-length paper about your findings and conclusions. Afterward, you will present a dissertation defense to a committee of experts who will evaluate your methodology and analyses.

As you work on your doctoral dissertation, you’ll receive the guidance of a faculty advisor. Additional support people may help you refine your strategies and ideas as well. This academic writing project can take many years, but a PhD will be the reward.

Types of Dissertations

Woman working on Empirical Dissertation

It’s common to think of a dissertation as an original research project, but that’s not the only form that this major paper can take.

  • Empirical Dissertation. This type of dissertation involves performing original research. You would design a research study, carry it out, and collect data. Perhaps you would conduct lab studies or speak to test subjects in focus groups. You’d then analyze the data and draw conclusions, which you’d write about in your dissertation.
  • Non-Empirical Dissertation. With this approach to doing a dissertation, you study and analyze others’ research. The goal isn’t to rehash what others in your field have already said but to think critically about it. Your objective might be to identify areas where research is lacking or to suggest new ways to apply current theories.

Before you commit to one path or the other, it’s beneficial to weigh the options carefully with your faculty supervisor. Some universities now offer online doctorate programs without dissertation but have a capstone project for completion. Common programs include on campus DBA degrees or online doctoral programs in education with no dissertation requirement.

How to Write a Dissertation

dissertation meaning

Writing a dissertation is a massive undertaking, so it can help to break the process down into steps.

  • Figure out your topic. The topic you choose should address a current hole in the field, captivate your interest, and provide enough material for a robust project. You should be able to distill your topic down into a single sentence, whether a statement or a question.
  • Do background work. It’s necessary to familiarize yourself with the subject and how people in your field currently understand it. This may include running some preliminary tests or reading published studies.
  • Craft your research proposal. Before going any further, it’s necessary to inform your faculty advisor about your plans. You’ll write a multi-page paper that outlines your topic and how you plan to address it. Your supervisor may then accept, adjust, or reject your proposal.
  • Undertake the research. Once you have a plan in place, it will be time to dig into the research portion of your project. What this looks like varies from one person’s dissertation to the next and can depend largely on the field of study. You may need to do lab work, collect data from study participants, review primary source material, or gather secondary commentary on relevant studies.
  • Prepare for the writing process. You may want to read through other people’s dissertations or craft an outline to help guide your process.
  • Draft the body. Once you’re ready to begin, you’ll type up the first draft of your dissertation’s chapters.
  • Get feedback. Throughout the process, it’s helpful to stay in touch with your advisor as well as outside support people. You can ask for their feedback and incorporate it into your work.
  • Prepare the final copy. You’ll edit and proofread your work as well as add an introduction, a conclusion, the appendices, and any additional elements.
  • Finish with the defense. Once you’ve completed each of the above steps, your advisor will determine whether you’re ready to defend your dissertation. You’ll present your research to a panel of experts and field their questions.

If the panel approves of your work, you’ll have successfully completed your dissertation!

Typical Chapters in a Dissertation

Woman writing her dissertation for PhD degree

Writing a dissertation is different than pulling together a short research paper. Most dissertations are quite long and are broken up into chapters. The format can vary, but the following list provides an overview of common chapter breakdowns:

  • Introduction. Your paper’s first main chapter will introduce the topic.
  • Review of current studies. Known as a literature review, this next chapter gives an overview of others’ research related to this topic. It shows where there are gaps in current knowledge and demonstrates the theoretical underpinnings of your project.
  • Research methodology. You will present your approach to collecting data for your research project, and you’ll also discuss your analysis methods.
  • Report of results. You’ll tell readers the things you learned during your study. This is where you’ll present your data, and you may use charts or graphs to visualize your findings.
  • Discussion of results. Your project is about more than simply gathering data. It’s essential to analyze the data as well. In this section, you’ll present your analysis of your findings to help readers learn what the data mean. You can also share how these findings could advance your field.
  • Conclusion. Finally, you’ll conclude by restating the purpose of your project and summarizing how you have met that objective.

Many dissertations contain other parts as well. Examples include title pages, dedication pages, glossaries, and appendices.

How Long Is a Dissertation for PhD?

Man working on his Dissertation for PhD

Dissertations can vary in length, but they are usually at least 100 pages. Some are 300 pages or longer. Papers between 100 and 200 pages are the most common.

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The standard length of a dissertation changes from one field to another. For example, history students often write dissertations that are several hundred pages. Mathematics PhD candidates may have dissertations that are fewer than 100 pages. The school where you earn your doctoral degree may set guidelines for the length of your PhD.

How Many Pages Is a Dissertation?

Woman checking her dissertation printouts

Many dissertations are a few hundred pages long. You’ll divide those pages up among the different sections of your paper.

The introduction may be 10 or 15 pages long. Your literature review will likely be longer—perhaps around 20 pages. You may need up to 15 pages to explain your methodology, but the results section should be under 10 pages. Finally, you can use 15 pages or more to share your conclusions.

Dissertation lengths vary among academic disciplines. Your academic supervisor can provide specific guidance for your situation.

What’s a Dissertation Defense?

Woman defending her dissertation to the committee

A dissertation defense is an opportunity to speak with experts from your field about your work. This step comes after you have finished the dissertation research and writing.

The committee will determine whether you have sufficiently answered your original question and contributed valuable research to your field. But you won’t present your defense until your advisor deems you ready, so the experience might not be as nerve-wracking as it sounds.

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During the defense, you may give a presentation to the committee. In addition, they can ask you questions, talk to you about your work, and discuss your work among themselves.

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

In grad school, you’ll hear about dissertations and theses. Both are major projects, but they play different roles.

Dissertation Thesis
  • Written in doctoral programs
  • Involves contributing new research or ideas
  • Often 100 pages or more
  • Usually involves a dissertation defense
  • Written in master’s programs
  • Involves thinking critically about existing research
  • Often 80 pages or fewer
  • Doesn’t usually involve an oral defense

The above distinctions between a thesis vs. dissertation apply to US schools only. Other countries use different naming conventions.

Writing Your Dissertation

what is a dissertation paper

Choosing to enroll in a PhD program and write a dissertation is a big decision. With careful planning and steadfast dedication, you can get this job done.

In the process, you can contribute research and insights to your field and help answer important questions. Plus, you can earn a PhD, a prestigious degree that can take you far in life. PhD programs with dissertations are available from both on-campus and online graduate schools. You can select the format that best suits your schedule and preferences.

If you’re ready to get started, then now is the time to explore accredited universities.

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Joy is pursuing her Ph.D. in Public Policy & Foreign Policy at Liberty University and holds a Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management from Amberton University, as well as a Bachelor's in Business Administration from Columbia College. With over 20 years of experience navigating online degrees and courses, Joy's focus is helping non-traditional students find accelerated degree options and credit for prior learning opportunities.