Dissertation vs Thesis: Key Differences

 

dissertation and thesis cartoons fighting

Whether you’re a graduate student just starting out in academia or a professor advising a student, making the distinction between a dissertation and a thesis is critically important to writing a strong dissertation and becoming a stronger writer. Unfortunately, the difference remains unclear since the terms are used interchangeably by graduate students, doctoral researchers, academic publishers & universities.

If you’re not sure whether you’re writing a thesis or a dissertation, this article will help you understand the differences between the two whether you’re a PhD or master’s degree student.

 

Dissertation Versus Thesis: Key Differences

While theses and dissertations share many similarities (they are both advanced graduate research papers), they actually refer to two different types of academic writing, and their differences include important concepts such as scope, purpose, length, and research requirements.

Most importantly, the difference between a thesis and a dissertation depends on the level of education. Far beyond being a simple essay, a thesis is for graduate students pursuing a master’s degree while a dissertation is written by doctoral students, also referred to as PhD candidates.

There are a few key differences between a thesis versus dissertation.

A thesis is often in the form of a literature review, which is a compilation of research knowledge in a particular field of study that proves one is competent in that subject. On the other hand, a dissertation is a more specific type of research paper written by those working toward a specific doctorate degree that contributes knowledge, theory, or methods to a field of study.

 

Which is Better For You?

The benefits of earning a graduate degree are huge. According to the US Census Bureau, those with an advanced degree earn 3.7 times as much as a high school dropout, and 13.1% hold a master’s, professional, or doctorate degree. If you’re a curious undergraduate student thinking of applying to graduate school, which is the right choice?

Cartoon person thinking of three different shapes

The right choice depends on your course of study and professional goals

In short, a dissertation is more focused and in-depth than a thesis. While a doctoral dissertation is based on original research, a thesis is often an extension or review of others’ research in order to demonstrate literacy. Further, a dissertation can be used as the basis or subject of a thesis, but not vice versa.

 

What is a thesis?

A master’s thesis is an academic research paper that requires a greater degree of research than an undergraduate thesis or term paper. It is marked by a higher standard of writing, and students are expected to demonstrate competence, literacy, and mastery of a subject. It usually takes two or three years to complete. Finally, a master’s degree thesis is usually written in order to obtain a research degree and is not intended to be published separately.

 

What is a dissertation?

A PhD dissertation is a substantial piece of independent research that is required of all students who are pursuing a doctorate degree. It is a piece of original work that has not been published elsewhere and, most importantly, makes a new contribution to the field. This contribution may be a new way of thinking about an existing topic or even a novel theory. The research performed for a dissertation is usually conducted over a period of several years to half a decade.

 

Characteristics of Master’s Thesis

  • Original and novel testing of ideas and a hypothesis
  • An independent work or experimentation
  • Demonstrated competence and understanding of industry techniques as well as their limitations
  • Thorough knowledge of the literature
  • Ability to use synthesize and criticize the literature for the research topic
  • Ability to present the work in an academic capacity (conference, seminar, recitation, defense, etc.)

Characteristics of PhD Thesis

  • All of the above
  • A novel contribution to the scientific literature not published previously
  • Original research produced directly by the author (graduate student)
  • A clear research question/hypothesis clearly answered (or falsified)
  • Advances in methods, observations, interpretation, etc.

So how is dissertation writing different from thesis writing?

Now that you know the definitions of a dissertation and thesis, let’s dive into some clear ways in which they differ:

 

Differences in Length

Length is the most obvious factor in differentiating between writing a thesis paper or dissertation. 

Generally, a doctoral dissertation has greater breadth, depth, and intention than a master’s thesis since it is based on original research. While the standard length of a master’s thesis is around 100 pages, a doctoral dissertation can be upwards of 400-500 pages. 

While most students can finish their PhD dissertation or thesis in as little as 1-2 years, it can take as long as 7 years depending on the school, program, and dissertation topic. As doctoral programs have their own formatting requirements, check with your school or university to find out what you need for your own dissertation or thesis. Most dissertations are organized into chapters, but the number of chapters varies as well.

 

Research Methods

A thesis and dissertation are both graduate-level research reports. This means they require students to investigate and report on a specific topic. But what is the difference in the scale of research between a master’s versus doctoral degree? 

The answer comes down to how much and what type of data you collect.

A master’s thesis is limited to secondary or reported knowledge. This knowledge has already been published, analyzed, and scrutinized in the literature. A thesis does not typically offer anything new in that regard. Your purpose is usually to write a comprehensive literature review on a novel or underreported topic using already reported data. 

 

Data sources for a thesis:

  • Academic journal articles
  • Scholarly books and publications
  • Academic periodicals and magazines
  • Survey reports
  • Industry and corporate reports
  • Government data (census, environmental, etc.)
  • Published statistics
  • Prior studies

On the other hand, a doctoral dissertation reports on novel data and is published so it can be scrutinized by others. It culminates in your dissertation defense.

 

Data sources for a dissertation:

  • All of the above
  • Laboratory experiments and investigations (e.g. basic sciences)
  • First-hand surveys, interviews, and focus groups (e.g. psychology, social sciences)
  • Unpublished data (i.e. verified data from experiments but too narrow to publish)
  • Abstracts, reviews, and conference presentations by other researchers

The above lists clearly show that a PhD researcher and dissertation writer must have specific hands-on experience about not only the result of others’ research but also how the researchers obtained the data. A dissertation must venture into criticism of how other studies performed their experiments, whereas a master’s student will only report on and evaluate the results.

 

Research Scope 

As mentioned above, a thesis is more of a literature review written to demonstrate competence and mastery of a field of study. In short, you are a reliable “reporter” of information related to that subject. A thesis shows that you know the technical jargon, understand the subject, are familiar with industry tools, and can translate that information to a general audience. This is why a master’s degree is sufficient and often preferred for industry jobs.

In contrast, a doctoral dissertation goes beyond simply using the building blocks of your subject and actually creates new tools, knowledge, and theories to advance the subject as a whole. If a master’s degree holder is like a seasoned Rolling Stone journalist, then a doctorate is the band/musician who actually makes the music.

dissertation versus thesis comparison chart, pink and blue

Editing and Proofreading Your Dissertation or Thesis

So far, we’ve focused a lot on differences such as research and purpose, but in the end, a thesis or dissertation is a written document that requires skill, focus, discipline, subject knowledge, organization, and scheduling. 

For non-native English speakers, the challenge is especially difficult since English is the lingua franca of academia and research. 

 

How an editing service can improve your dissertation or thesis

From body spacing and pagination, to font size and citation formatting, the guidelines for dissertation writing are exhaustive. Even worse, they vary by school. So besides the actual English writing and grammar, graduate students must worry about consistency, formatting, nomenclature, and terminology. That’s quite the burden! 

This is why it’s very common for graduate students, especially ESL and foreign ones, to seek out dissertation editing services that specifically cater to the academic needs of researchers and students.

Here are just a few reasons why dissertation proofreading is so helpful and what these editors do:

  • Correct grammar, punctuation, syntax, and structural errors
  • Offer suggestions to rewrite, remove, and revise writing
  • Ensure formatting and nomenclature are consistent
  • Knowledgeable academic editors with master’s and PhD degrees
  • Free up your time to focus on research, revisions, and content instead of looking for mistakes
  • Provide a proofreading or editing certificate, which may be necessary for non-native English speaking students

Lastly, most PhD advisors recommend that students seek out professional thesis editing since professors prefer to assess the actual research content of a dissertation, not mundane writing errors. Any graduate student reading this knows professors don’t like their time to be wasted! 

Be sure to check out other resources on how to improve your academic manuscript and the benefits of proofreading and editing.