Is There a Difference Between a Thesis and Dissertation?

Carolina Brown

May 5, 2021
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When browsing master’s and doctoral programs, you’ve probably seen the phrases “thesis” and “dissertation” listed on various websites. These terms are often used interchangeably, so they can be a bit confusing when you aren’t sure what they mean. If you plan to pursue a post-secondary degree, you should know the difference between a thesis and dissertation.

What Is a Thesis or Dissertation?

Though theses and dissertations are different, they serve a similar purpose. These are projects students complete to present the independent research skills they’ve learned throughout their program, and department faculty can ask questions and make critiques. Most graduate programs require students to write either a thesis or dissertation to officially obtain degrees.

Essentially, you write a thesis or dissertation to demonstrate the knowledge you’ve gained during your time in school. Each document follows a similar setup, as well. That’s where the commonalities stop for the most part. From content to length to definition, theses and dissertations vary in every other aspect.

1. Differences in Content

Keep in mind that theses and dissertations contain separate content. Additionally, they’re also completed by different students. Those in master’s programs usually complete a thesis, while doctoral candidates will submit dissertations.

If you’re writing a thesis, your project will cover a relevant topic in your chosen field. Therefore, history students may research specific historical events, which allows them to dig deeper into the subject matter. It’s your chance to show that you know how to discuss and explain detailed information in a professional manner.

Alternatively, dissertations ask students to come up with original ideas. These projects require you to choose a topic you’ve theorized yourself, so you have to find various sources to back up your concept. Rather than expand upon someone else’s work, you prove and defend your own point. This process often requires students to conduct tests and experiments to produce research themselves.

2. Differences in Length

Because each project requires different content, you can imagine that another difference between a thesis and dissertation will be length.

Generally, theses take a few months to research, write and present. Many students find that the research takes the longest, as you may need one month or more to find and develop the concept you want to explore. It should be at least 100 pages long upon completion.

While dissertations take a comparable structural approach, they require more preparation and research. There’s additional content needed, as well, as you need to highlight how and why you came up with the original dissertation topic. These projects can take years to complete, especially when you need to conduct your own research. By the end, your dissertation will be around 60,000 to 80,000 words in total, according to the University of Cambridge.

Additionally, students who have to complete a dissertation will work alongside a faculty member so they have enough support. These professors typically have to approve the idea before the student begins, which can take additional time. Sometimes, your entire program will be based on your dissertation.

3. Differences in Definition

There are also differences between a thesis and dissertation in relation to how other countries define them. If you attend school overseas, you might find that your university recognizes a thesis in the same way you’d define a dissertation in the United States. It depends on the region and institution.

Plus, you may find that your specific program has different expectations for theses and dissertations, which can affect the overall process. For example, science students may have to complete dissertations, while English students must complete a thesis. There are also some arguments surrounding whether current processes should be updated, so your program may have its own unique viewpoint on them.

Do All Graduate and Ph.D. Programs Require Them?

If you think a thesis or dissertation seems like a daunting task, you’re not the only one. However, you should note that not all schools require them. Those who plan to pursue master’s degrees may only need to complete a smaller research project to graduate. But almost all Ph.D. programs require a dissertation, so you should consider that fact.

Remember These Points as You Browse Programs

Though a thesis and dissertation might seem the same, they’re actually different in most aspects. These projects serve a similar purpose, but you should anticipate varying content, lengths and definitions depending on which one you have to write. It helps to ask the universities you’ve considered specific questions about the thesis or dissertation they require, so you know exactly what to expect.

Looking for more guidance on theses and dissertations? Check out these picks from our reading list:

The Dissertation Warrior: The Ultimate Guide to Being the Kind of Person Who Finishes a Doctoral Dissertation or Thesis (Amazon) by Guy E. White

Writing a Successful Thesis or Dissertation (Amazon) by Fred C. Lunenburg

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