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Dissertation vs Thesis: Your 2024 Guide
If you’ve been thinking about going to graduate school, you may be familiar with the application requirements, rigorous academic schedule, and thesis or dissertation you’ll be expected to complete. So, what exactly is the difference between a thesis and a dissertation? While there are similarities, there’s a clear difference between the two. In our guide, we compare dissertation vs thesis. Discover more about both – and what you can expect during your graduate program. Let’s get started!
- Table of Contents
What Is a Thesis?
A thesis is an academic paper or project that’s completed towards the end of a master’s degree program . It is typically completed as the capstone project , meaning it’s the final project required for a student to graduate.
Students need to select a narrow, specific topic within – or relating to – their field of study. Once they’ve selected a topic, students must conduct an in-depth review of existing research on their chosen subjects. The next step is to formulate an academic argument, an assertion they’ll need to support or prove with said research.
Therefore, a thesis is akin to an in-depth research paper. It’s comprised of research that essentially proves what a student has learned during their program.
What Is a Typical Thesis Structure?
A thesis generally follows a rigid structure that’s decided by the program, department, or university. Here is an example of a thesis structure:
- The Title Page
- Summary of Thesis Abstract
- Table of Maps and Figures
- The Thesis Body (Sometimes divided into chapters)
- The Results or Conclusion
Who Needs to Complete a Thesis?
Most master’s degree programs require students to complete a thesis. While some undergraduate programs may also require a thesis, these are generally shorter and narrower in scope.
Some programs will also require a master’s student to defend their thesis in front of a panel or committee.
What Is a Dissertation?
What is “the PhD paper” called? Some people refer to it as a PhD thesis, but it’s most commonly known as a dissertation in the US. Dissertations are the capstone project required at the tail end of a PhD program . It is almost always required, except for a select few one-year PhD programs .
Much like a thesis, dissertations are also academic papers that aim to prove a student’s expertise – while adding to the current body of knowledge – in their field. Thus, a student must look at existing research and conduct their own research .
Basically, it’s the magnum opus of a doctoral journey in the United States. A dissertation isn’t just a long research paper; it’s a beast of a project. It demands extensive research, originality, and the ability to make a meaningful contribution to your chosen field. Think of it as a research odyssey guided by a seasoned mentor. Once you’ve conquered this scholarly quest and defended your findings, you’ll proudly emerge with your hard-earned doctoral degree, a testament to your dedication and scholarly prowess.
A dissertation typically comes after a PhD student completes their required courses and passes their qualifying exams. In some programs, the dissertation process is embedded into the coursework. In such cases, students receive a jump start on their work, allowing them to potentially finish their program earlier.
What Does a Dissertation Do?
PhD candidates must present a new theory or hypothesis. Alternatively, they must present their research to question (or disprove) the existing accepted theory on their chosen subject. Students may choose to tackle their topic from a new angle or take their research in a different direction.
Most programs will require students to defend their dissertations. During the defense, candidates must be able to justify the methodology of their research and the results and interpretation of their findings. Defenses are typically oral presentations in front of a dissertation committee , where the students are asked questions or presented with challenges.
Although the defense may seem daunting, PhD students work closely with their advisors to prepare for their dissertations. Students receive feedback and advice to guide their dissertations in their chosen direction.
What Is the Typical Dissertation Structure?
Dissertations follow a rigid structure typically set by the program, department, or university. Here is an example format:
- The Acknowledgments Page
- The Abstract
- The Literature Review & Theoretical Framework
- The Methodology
- Discussions of the Findings, including analysis, interpretation, and applications
- The Conclusion
- List of References
- Any Appendices
What Is a Doctoral Thesis?
A doctoral thesis is a substantial piece of scholarly work that marks the pinnacle of a doctoral degree program, such as a PhD. Think of it as the academic grand finale. Its primary mission? To showcase the candidate’s mastery in their chosen field and their knack for delving deep into research.
In a nutshell, a doctoral thesis is a mammoth project that calls for originality. You’ve got to dig, investigate, gather data, crunch numbers, and present real data-supported findings. All this hard work usually happens under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable mentor. Once you’ve conquered this scholarly mountain and defended your thesis successfully, you’ll be proudly awarded your well-deserved doctoral degree. It’s the hallmark of your expertise and contribution to your field.
And how does a doctoral thesis differ from a dissertation? That’s mainly a geographic explanation. While they’re largely similar in scope and purpose, when comparing a doctoral thesis vs. a dissertation:
- A dissertation is the PhD capstone requirement in the US .
- A doctoral thesis is the PhD capstone requirement in Europe .
Related Reading: The Easiest PhDs
Dissertation vs. Thesis: The Similarities
In the master’s thesis vs dissertation discussion, there are plenty of similarities. Both are lengthy academic papers that require intense research and original writing. They’re also capstone projects which are completed at the tail end of their respective programs.
Students must work closely with their respective committees (e.g., faculty members, advisors, professionals) who provide feedback and guidance on their research, writing, and academic arguments. Both thesis and dissertation committees have a committee chair with whom the students work closely.
In some ways, the requirements for theses and dissertations are quite similar. They require a skillful defense of a student’s academic arguments. What’s more, both papers require critical thinking and good analytical reasoning, as well as in-depth expertise in the chosen field of study.
Students must also invest a significant amount of time into both projects while also being able to accept and action feedback on their work.
Dissertation vs. Thesis: The Differences
What are the differences between a PhD dissertation vs. thesis? The first and most distinct difference is the degree program requiring a PhD dissertation or thesis. A dissertation is typically the capstone project for a doctorate, while a thesis is the capstone project for a master’s degree program (or undergraduate program).
Candidates will have to defend their dissertation during an oral presentation in front of their committee. Only some master’s theses require this.
During a thesis, students typically conduct research by reviewing existing literature and knowledge on their chosen subject. During a dissertation, students must do their own research and prove their theory, concept, or hypothesis. They should also expect to develop a unique concept and defend it based on the practical and theoretical results achieved from their rigorous research.
Theses are also typically shorter (around 40 to 80 pages). Dissertations, however, are much longer (between 100 and 300 pages). Of course, the actual length of the paper may depend on the topic, program, department, or university.
Related Reading : PhD Candidate vs Student: What’s the Difference?
Dissertations and Theses: US vs. Europe
Whether you’re in the US or Europe, dissertations and theses are similar. However, European requirements and conventions differ slightly:
To ensure your PhD graduation, a dissertation is generally required. Doctoral theses in Europe are much like a PhD dissertation in the US : You must complete your own research and add to the existing body of knowledge in your field.
It may seem odd to require a dissertation for master’s degree programs, but in Europe, this is exactly what you’ll need. A master’s dissertation is a broader post-graduate program research project , though it’s most typically required for master’s programs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are a few of the most common questions we hear about the meaning of thesis vs. dissertation.
Is a Thesis and a Dissertation the Same?
Yes and no. In some ways, a dissertation and a thesis are the same. For example, both require original writing, critical skills, analytical thinking, plenty of research, and lots of academic effort. However, a thesis is more commonly reserved for master’s – and some undergraduate – programs. Dissertations are generally required by PhD programs in the United States.
Additionally, a thesis typically calls for heavy research and compilation of existing knowledge and literature on a subject. A dissertation requires candidates to conduct their own research to prove their own theory, concept, or hypothesis – adding to the existing body of knowledge in their chosen field of study.
How Long Is a Thesis vs. a Dissertation?
One of the primary differences between thesis and dissertation papers is their length. While a thesis might be anywhere from 40 to 80 pages long, a dissertation can easily run from 100 to 300. It’s important to note that these numbers depend on the specific program and university.
Does a PhD Require a Thesis or a Dissertation?
It all depends on where you are! While a US-based PhD requires you to complete a dissertation, a thesis (or “doctoral thesis”) is more commonly required for PhD candidates in Europe. In the US, a thesis is more commonly reserved for master’s degree programs and occasionally undergraduate programs. In Europe, a “master’s dissertation” is typically required for the completion of a master’s degree.
So, there you have it: an in-depth comparison of the dissertation vs. thesis academic requirements. Now that you know the primary similarities and differences between the two, it might become easier to decide your academic path. Just remember, you may be able to find a master’s program without a thesis or a doctorate without a dissertation requirement if you prefer. Good luck!
Are you ready to jump into your doctorate? Find out if you need a master’s degree to get a PhD .
Chriselle has been a passionate professional content writer for over 10 years. She writes educational content for The Grad Cafe, Productivity Spot, The College Monk, and other digital publications. When she isn't busy writing, she spends her time streaming video games and learning new skills.
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What’s the Difference Between a Capstone vs. Dissertation?
If you’re researching doctoral programs, you may be wondering about capstone vs. dissertation projects.
Some schools require students to write a dissertation, an extended paper based on original research. Others ask students to complete a capstone project that involves developing a solution to an existing issue. As a graduate student, you will most likely be asked to complete one or the other of these projects to earn your degree.
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Before enrolling in a doctorate or PhD program, it’s helpful to understand what a dissertation and a capstone require and how they’re completed.
Capstone projects and dissertations offer graduate students the opportunity to demonstrate what they’ve learned over the course of their studies, prepare for their professional futures, and establish themselves as scholars in their fields.
Despite their similar goals, these projects involve different processes and structures.
What Is a Capstone?
A capstone is a final project that a doctoral student completes at the end of their academic program. It typically involves between 6 months and 1 year of research, planning, writing, and analysis.
During a capstone project, you might complete an action research study, in which you identify a process that is inefficient or ineffective and design a process to improve it. You might also work directly with an external business, nonprofit, or government agency.
A number of universities now offer doctorate programs without dissertation. Just like online doctoral programs in education with no dissertation, they include capstone projects or research papers instead. Students usually deliver a doctoral capstone in the form of a paper or portfolio alongside the product or program that they have designed.
What Is a Dissertation?
A dissertation is a major research project that is a requirement for most PhD programs. The timeframe for a dissertation often ranges between 1 and 3 years.
To complete a dissertation, students develop a research question and seek answers that will fill a current gap in the field. They review existing literature, conduct original research, and write a paper that may span several hundred pages.
Many doctoral programs also require students to participate in a dissertation defense . During this process, the student presents their findings to a faculty committee and answers any questions that the committee might have.
Key Differences Between a Dissertation vs. Capstone
Although capstone projects and dissertations can both be graduation requirements for doctoral students, they have several defining features that set them apart, including:
- Focus . A dissertation project generally focuses on filling a gap in current research or enhancing knowledge within a field through new research and analysis. A capstone project uses or extends existing research to address a problem by developing a product, program, or process.
- Completion time . Students may need several years after they complete their primary coursework to finish and defend their dissertations. Capstone projects are usually completed in 1 year or less.
- Sources of support . While working on their dissertations, students generally have the support of one or more faculty advisors and present their final work to a committee. Students completing a capstone often work with an outside organization, such as a private business, as well as a group of faculty members.
- Length . The average dissertation length is typically 100 pages or more, and students sometimes publish their finished projects as books after graduating. The final paper for a capstone project is often significantly shorter than a dissertation, but it may be accompanied by a portfolio, product, or program.
Capstones and dissertations aren’t always mutually exclusive. In some cases, doctoral programs require students to complete dissertations as part of or in addition to their capstone projects.
Capstone vs. Dissertation – Which Is Right for You?
Finding the right PhD or doctorate program can be challenging. Knowing what is a doctoral dissertation in comparison to a capstone project may help you determine which school and degree path aligns with your career goals and academic interests.
For example, if you would prefer to work directly with a business in your future industry, a capstone may be a more suitable option. A dissertation is likely more fitting if your primary goal is to contribute to the existing literature and research within your field.
No matter which type of project you prefer, you can take the next step toward your online doctoral degree by researching accredited colleges and universities.
Understanding the Differences Between Dissertation, Thesis, and Capstone Projects
This article explains the key differences between dissertation, thesis, and capstone projects, and offers insights into how to approach each project to ensure academic success.
If you're pursuing an advanced degree, you may be required to complete a dissertation, thesis, or capstone project as part of your program. While these projects share some similarities, there are also important differences to understand.
A dissertation is typically required for a doctoral degree, while a thesis is required for a master's degree. Both involve extensive research, data collection and analysis, and a written report that contributes to the body of knowledge in the field of study. A capstone project, on the other hand, is typically a culminating project required for a variety of undergraduate and graduate degree programs. It may involve original research, but can also take the form of a creative project or a community service project.
Dissertation: A dissertation is a research project required to complete a doctoral degree program. It is a comprehensive study that contributes to the existing body of knowledge in the field of study. A dissertation typically involves original research, data collection and analysis, and a written report that is expected to make a significant contribution to the field of study.
Thesis: A thesis is a research project required to complete a master's degree program. It is usually a shorter and less complex study compared to a dissertation. A thesis may involve original research, but it can also be a literature review, a case study, or a critical analysis of existing research in the field of study.
Capstone: A capstone is a culminating project required to complete a degree program. It is typically undertaken in the final year of study and integrates the knowledge and skills gained throughout the program. A capstone can take various forms, such as a research project, a creative work, or a community service project. It is designed to demonstrate the student's ability to apply what they have learned to real-world problems.
To successfully complete a dissertation, thesis, or capstone project, it's important to have a clear understanding of the project's purpose and requirements. For example, a dissertation will require a more extensive literature review, data collection, and data analysis than a thesis or capstone project. A thesis may require more original research than a capstone project, but less than a dissertation.
In addition, it's important to work closely with your advisor or instructor throughout the project to ensure that you are meeting the requirements and expectations. You may also want to consider seeking out additional resources, such as writing support or statistical analysis services, to help you complete the project successfully.
By understanding the differences between dissertation, thesis, and capstone projects, and approaching each project with a clear plan and support, you can successfully complete your degree program and contribute to the body of knowledge in your field. In summary, a dissertation is a research project required to complete a doctoral degree program, a thesis is a research project required to complete a master's degree program, and a capstone is a culminating project required to complete a degree program.
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The difference between a dissertation and doctoral capstone
May 30, 2023
Estimated reading time: 3-4 minutes
If youâve been researching doctoral degrees, you may notice that virtually all PhD programs require a dissertation, while some professional doctorates require a doctoral capstone or an alternative doctoral project.
So, whatâs the difference between the two?
What do a dissertation and doctoral capstone have in common?
All doctoral programs help prepare students to contribute evidence-based practice in their field. Students learn to apply leadership principles and strategies that promote community support, diversity and individuality in the workplace, and the community.
Completing either a dissertation or a doctoral capstone requires intense preparation and a strong foundation in writing and critical thinking. Both culminate in a final document or project that demonstrates a broadened knowledge of relevant theory and practice.
What are the main differences between a dissertation and a doctoral capstone?
The Capella doctoral experience offers a good comparison of the two types of final project.
The Capella dissertation is a traditional five-chapter research document that youâll develop as you work with a faculty mentor and dissertation committee members. Itâs meant to be a work of high-quality academic research that contributes to your field of study.
The doctoral capstone can take many different forms depending on your program, your specialization or area of interest within your subject and other variables. Working with a faculty mentor and committee, youâll complete a project that offers solutions or improvements to a real-world problem relevant to your field of study.
- Project focus
- Project deliverable
- Deliverable detail
- Extends or applies research to solve a real-world problem
- Provides a solution to a problem within a specific organizational setting
- Presents the results in a deliverable (paper, product, or portfolio) and a final report that describes the creation of the deliverable
- Involves a quest for new knowledge to solve a real-world problem
- Addresses a research problem in one field of specialization
- Involves either quantitative or qualitative research methods
- Paper, Product or Portfolio
- Action research
- Clinical Research Paper
- Program Curriculum
- Change Management Plan
- Chapter 1. Introduction and Statement of the Problem
- Chapter 2. Literature Review
- Chapter 3. Methodology
- Chapter 4. Data Analysis and Results
- Chapter 5. Conclusions and Recommendations
Ready to explore the doctoral path that could work best for you? Capella University offers PhD and professional doctorate degree programs ranging from business and education to health care and technology.
Learn more about Capellaâs online doctoral programs.
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Thesis vs. Dissertation: What’s the difference?
Thesis and dissertation are extensive research papers that differ in terms of their requirements, length, and purpose, with the former being associated with a master's degree and the latter with a doctoral degree, but are often used interchangeably.
Updated on September 15, 2023
A thesis and a dissertation are both extensive research papers, and both require literature searches and novel findings, but the two differ in various ways. Their definitions also differ across regions. Typically, in North America, a thesis is required for the completion of a master’s degree, while a dissertation is required for the completion of a doctoral degree. The former is long, while the latter is longer and more intensive.
Despite these differences, the two terms are often used interchangeably, especially among those who haven’t completed one or the other. Here, we’ll compare the components, length, and purpose of these two academic documents to clearly understand the differences between these important papers in the life of a graduate student.
What’s a thesis?
The term “thesis” explained here is generally consistent with how the word is used in North America to describe this substantive research paper.
A thesis is an extended argument (PDF). It is a research-based document that displays the student’s/author’s knowledge and understanding of a specific subject within their field of study. It generally presents findings on a particular topic.
See this and this (PDFs) for examples. These superb master’s theses from Canada will give you an idea of the size and format of these papers.
Who would write a thesis?
You generally write a thesis if you’re undertaking a research-oriented master's degree program (as opposed to a practical program, which may require a capstone, internship, exam, etc.).
The thesis is the essential part of a program’s research component, demonstrating the student's ability to critically analyze the literature and complete independent research. The process of writing a thesis involves exploring a specific research question, conducting a comprehensive literature review, collecting and analyzing data, and presenting findings in a structured and cohesive way.
A thesis' specific requirements and expectations differ depending on the academic institution, department, and program.
Components of a thesis
A thesis is typically presented in chapters. How many chapters will vary, but a common structure is:
- Introduction: Presents the research topic, purpose, and objectives, setting the context for the work.
- Literature review: Comprehensive survey of existing scholarly material related to the research topic, highlighting key theories and findings.
- Methodology: Describes the methods, procedures, and tools used in doing the research.
- Research: The actual performing of the study, collecting, and analyzing data relevant to the research question.
- Findings and conclusions: Gives the results obtained and explains their significance in relation to the research question.
- Limitations and future research: Outlines the study’s shortcomings and suggests potential areas for future investigation.
Within that structure, and in addition to those parts, a thesis may also include:
- Cover page: Contains the thesis title, author's name, institution, department, date, and other relevant information
- Abstract : A brief summary of the thesis, highlighting the research objectives, methods, key findings, and conclusions.
- Certificates of own work
- Certificate of readiness to be included in the library
- Certificate that the research has not been presented to another university
- Table of contents: List of the main sections, subsections, and corresponding page numbers.
- Index of figures and tables
- References: A comprehensive list of all the sources cited in the thesis, following a specific citation style (e.g., APA, MLA).
- Appendices (optional): Additional materials include:
- Abbreviations and/or acronyms used
- Questionnaire or interview schedule/s (if used)
- Data acquired in the form of transcripts or numeric tables
- Research protocol
- Ethics protocol
What’s a dissertation?
This is also viewed from a North American perspective, where a dissertation is usually the main research work toward completing a research-based doctoral program.
A dissertation is a comprehensive and in-depth research project completed as part of the requirements for a doctoral degree. It’s a substantial piece of original work that contributes new knowledge to a specific field of study. Naturally, when it’s completed as the major requirement for earning a PhD, it’s longer, more detailed, and the expectations are higher.
Dissertations themselves can add to the literature in the field. For this reason, some students choose to publish them and have them indexed. The research and the data acquired while working on a dissertation can potentially lead to more publications and help define the researcher’s growing area of expertise.
See this and this (PDFs) top-ranking dissertation on ProQuest for good examples.
Who would write a dissertation?
Completion and defense of a dissertation is a standard requirement for doctoral students to earn a PhD or another doctorate such as an EdD or DM. But some specialized degrees, such as a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology), JD (Juris Doctor) or DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy) may have practice-based requirements in place of a research project, as these courses of study are geared more toward practical application.
Components of a dissertation
A dissertation’s components are generally the same as those of a thesis. You can look at the list above for a thesis to see what typically goes into a dissertation. But, if compared with a master’s thesis, most aspects are longer and more rigorous.
The word count requirements for theses can vary significantly, but doctoral dissertations often range 40,000–80,000 words or, per Harvard , 100–300 pages.
Differences between a thesis and a dissertation
As already touched on, the key differences are in where the two documents are used, length, and rigor. There are also regional differences.
A thesis typically demonstrates a master’s degree program student's grasp and presentation of a specific subject in their field of study. It normally involves a literature review, data analysis, and original research, but it is usually shorter and less comprehensive than a dissertation. The standards for rigor and novelty may also be lower.
A dissertation requires more extensive research, original contributions to the field, and a deeper exploration of the research topic. A dissertation is typically the output associated with a doctoral degree program.
The main differences in structure between a thesis and a dissertation are in the scope and complexity.
The word count requirement for theses and dissertations can vary depending on the institution and program.
A thesis is usually 20,000–40,000 words. However, there have been cases of mathematics dissertations that were only a few pages long!
Doctoral dissertations may range 60,000 to upward of 100,000 words, and exceed 100 pages. Many universities, however, seek around 80,000 words.
Oversight and process
A thesis may simply be submitted to the student's instructor, though rigorous thesis programs require a committee and defense. A dissertation will nearly always require the student to choose a chair, a committee, and then go through a more rigorous defense and revision (if necessary).
- Committee: Master's thesis committees usually have fewer members (typically 2–3) than doctoral dissertation committees (often 4–5, or even more).
- Guidance: Master's students often receive more detailed direction from advisers than doctoral students, who are expected to work more independently.
- Review: Dissertation reviews are typically more rigorous, often involving external reviewers, while thesis reviews are usually internal.
- Defense: A dissertation defense is generally more intense and formal, as it often involves a presentation to the wider academic community, while a thesis defense might be more confined and informal.
- Revision: The revision process for a doctoral dissertation is typically more extensive, given the larger scope of the project and higher stakes involved, compared with those for a master's thesis.
The terms' use varies among (and even within) countries. Here are some general regional differences:
In the United Kingdom, a thesis is commonly associated with both master's and doctoral degree programs. For example, the University College London refers to a thesis for EngD, MPhil, MD(Res), and PhD degrees. At the University of Nottingham , a dissertation is written for a research master’s degree.
In Australia and New Zealand , “thesis” is generally used to refer to a substantial research project completed for a higher degree, though not limited to a master’s (you’ll find ample references to a “PhD thesis”).
In Latin American countries, the thesis is commonly used to refer to both master's and doctoral research projects.
Both theses and dissertations are necessary documents for students in graduate programs. Despite the differences in expectations, and even in definitions of these papers, the student-author must do a diligent and rigorous job to earn their degree.
Here are a few helpful resources if you want to get into greater detail:
- Writing the Winning Thesis or Dissertation: A Step-By-Step Guide
- 100 PhD rules of the game to successfully complete a doctoral dissertation (PDF)
- Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Writing in Social and Physical Sciences
Perfect the English on your thesis or dissertation
Whether you’re submitting a thesis or a dissertation, if it’s in English, it should:
- Have no grammatical or spelling mistakes
- Use field-appropriate language
- Concisely and clearly communicate your research.
That’s what AJE expert editors will do for you. Within days, you can receive an expert English edit of your work. The editor will be familiar with your field of study and will comprehensively improve both the language quality and the delivery of your message. Look into AJE English Editing .
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Dissertation vs Thesis: The Differences that Matter
As a graduate student, you will have many different types of challenging coursework and assignments. However, the biggest project that you’ll work on when earning your master’s or doctoral degree will be your thesis or dissertation . The differences between a dissertation vs thesis are plenty. That’s because each of these pieces of writing happen at different times in one’s educational journey.
Let’s break down what a dissertation and thesis are so that you have a strong handle on what’s expected. For both a thesis and a dissertation, there is an obvious fluency and understanding of the subject one studies.
Let’s take a look at their similarities and differences.
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash
What is a dissertation.
When you enter a doctoral program to earn a PhD, you will learn a lot about how to conduct your own research. At the culmination of your degree program, you’ll produce a dissertation.
A dissertation is a lengthy piece of written work that includes original research or expanded research on a new or existing topic. As the doctoral student, you get to choose what you want to explore and write about within your field of study.
What is a Thesis?
A thesis is also a scholarly piece of writing, but it is for those who are graduating from a master’s program. A thesis allows students to showcase their knowledge and expertise within the subject matter they have been studying.
Main Differences Between a Thesis vs. Dissertation
The biggest difference between a thesis and a dissertation is that a thesis is based on existing research.
On the other hand, a dissertation will more than likely require the doctoral student to conduct their own research and then perform analysis. The other big difference is that a thesis is for master’s students and the dissertation is for PhD students.
Structural Differences Between a Thesis and a Dissertation
Structurally, the two pieces of written analysis have many differences.
- A thesis is at least 100 pages in length
- A dissertation is 2-3x that in length
- A thesis expands upon and analyzes existing research
- A dissertation’s content is mostly attributed to the student as the author
Research Content and Oral Presentation
Once completed, some programs require students to orally present their thesis and dissertation to a panel of faculty members.
Typically, a dissertation oral presentation can take several hours. On the other hand, a thesis only takes about an hour to present and answer questions.
Let’s look at how the two scholarly works are similar and different:
- Each is considered a final project and required to graduate
- Both require immense understanding of the material
- Written skills are key to complete both
- Neither can be plagiarized
- Both are used to defend an argument
- Both require analytical skills
- You will have to draft, rewrite, and edit both pieces of writing
- For both, it is useful to have another person look over before submission
- Both papers are given deadlines
- A dissertation is longer than a thesis
- A dissertation requires new research
- A dissertation requires a hypothesis that is then proven
- A thesis chooses a stance on an existing idea and defends it with analysis
- A dissertation has a longer oral presentation component
The Differences in Context: Location Matters
The united states.
In the US, everything that was previously listed is how schools differentiate between a thesis and a dissertation. A thesis is performed by master’s students, and a dissertation is written by PhD candidates.
In Europe, the distinction between a thesis and dissertation becomes a little more cloudy. That’s because PhD programs may require a doctoral thesis to graduate. Then, as a part of a broader post-graduate research project, students may complete a dissertation.
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The purpose behind written research.
Each piece of writing is an opportunity for a student to demonstrate his or her ability to think critically, express their opinions in writing, and present their findings in front of their department.
Graduate degrees take a lot of time, energy, and hard work to complete. When it comes to writing such lengthy and informative pieces, there is a lot of time management that is involved. The purpose of both a thesis and a dissertation are written proof that you understand and have mastered the subject matter of your degree.
A doctoral degree, or PhD, is the highest degree that one can earn. In most cases, students follow the following path to achieve this level of education: Earn a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, and then a PhD. While not every job title requires this deep educational knowledge, the salaries that come along with each level of higher education increase accordingly.
Earning Your Degree
Whether you are currently a prospective student considering earning your higher education degree or a student enrolled in a master’s or doctoral program, you know the benefits of education.
However, for some, earning a traditional degree on-campus doesn’t make sense. This could be because of the financial challenges, familial obligations, accessibility, or any other number of reasons.
For students who are seeking their higher education degrees but need a flexible, affordable, and quality alternative to traditional college, take a look at the programs that the University of the People has to offer.
University of the People is an entirely online, US accredited and tuition-free institution dedicated to higher education. You can earn your Master’s in Business Administration or your Master’s in Education . Not to mention, there are a handful of associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs to choose from as well.
If you want to learn more, get in touch with us !
The Bottom Line
Regardless of where and when you earn your master’s or doctoral degree, you will likely have to complete a thesis or dissertation. The main difference between a thesis and dissertation is the level at which you complete them. A thesis is for a master’s degree, and a dissertation is for a doctoral degree.
Don’t be overwhelmed by the prospect of having to research and write so much. Your educational journey has prepared you with the right time management skills and writing skills to make this feat achievable!
What Exactly Is A Dissertation (Or Thesis)?
If you’ve landed on this article, chances are you’ve got a dissertation or thesis project coming up (hopefully it’s not due next week!), and you’re now asking yourself the classic question, “what the #%#%^ is a dissertation?”…
In this post, I’ll break down the basics of exactly what a dissertation is, in plain language. No ivory tower academia.
So, let’s get to the pressing question – what is a dissertation?
A dissertation (or thesis) = a research project
Simply put, a dissertation (or thesis – depending on which country you’re studying in) is a research project . In other words, your task is to ask a research question (or set of questions) and then set about finding the answer(s). Simple enough, right?
Well, the catch is that you’ve got to undertake this research project in an academic fashion , and there’s a wealth of academic language that makes it all (look) rather confusing (thanks, academia). However, at its core, a dissertation is about undertaking research (investigating something). This is really important to understand, because the key skill that your university is trying to develop in you (and will be testing you on) is your ability to undertake research in a well-structured structured, critical and academically rigorous way.
This research-centric focus is significantly different from assignments or essays, where the main concern is whether you can understand and apply the prescribed module theory. I’ll explain some other key differences between dissertations or theses and assignments a bit later in this article, but for now, let’s dig a little deeper into what a dissertation is.
A dissertation (or thesis) is a process.
Okay, so now that you understand that a dissertation is a research project (which is testing your ability to undertake quality research), let’s go a little deeper into what that means in practical terms.
The best way to understand a dissertation is to view it as a process – more specifically a research process (it is a research project, after all). This process involves four essential steps, which I’ll discuss below.
Step 1 – You identify a worthy research question
The very first step of the research process is to find a meaningful research question, or a set of questions. In other words, you need to find a suitable topic for investigation. Since a dissertation is all about research, identifying the key question(s) is the critical first step. Here’s an example of a well-defined research question:
“Which factors cultivate or erode customer trust in UK-based life insurance brokers?”
This clearly defined question sets the direction of the research . From the question alone, you can understand exactly what the outcome of the research might look like – i.e. a set of findings about which factors help brokers develop customer trust, and which factors negatively impact trust.
But how on earth do I find a suitable research question, you ask? Don’t worry about this right now – when you’re ready, you can read our article about finding a dissertation topic . However, right now, the important thing to understand is that the first step in the dissertation process is identifying the key research question(s). Without a clear question, you cannot move forward.
Step 2 – You review the existing research
Once the research question is clearly established, the next step is to review the existing research/literature (both academic and professional/industry) to understand what has already been said with regard to the question. In academic speak, this is called a literature review .
This step is critically important as, in all likelihood, someone else has asked a similar question to yours, and therefore you can build on the work of others . Good academic research is not about reinventing the wheel or starting from scratch – it’s about familiarising yourself with the current state of knowledge, and then using that as your basis for further research.
Simply put, the first step to answering your research question is to look at what other researchers have to say about it. Sometimes this will lead you to change your research question or direction slightly (for example, if the existing research already provides a comprehensive answer). Don’t stress – this is completely acceptable and a normal part of the research process.
Step 3 – You carry out your own research
Once you’ve got a decent understanding of the existing state of knowledge, you will carry out your own research by collecting and analysing the relevant data. This could take to form of primary research (collecting your own fresh data), secondary research (synthesising existing data) or both, depending on the nature of your degree, research question(s) and even your university’s specific requirements.
Exactly what data you collect and how you go about analysing it depends largely on the research question(s) you are asking, but very often you will take either a qualitative approach (e.g. interviews or focus groups) or a quantitative approach (e.g. online surveys). In other words, your research approach can be words-based, numbers-based, or both . Don’t let the terminology scare you and don’t worry about these technical details for now – we’ll explain research methodology in later posts .
Step 4 – You develop answers to your research question(s)
Combining your understanding of the existing research (Step 2) with the findings from your own original research (Step 3), you then (attempt to) answer your original research question (s). The process of asking, investigating and then answering has gone full circle.
Of course, your research won’t always provide rock-solid answers to your original questions, and indeed you might find that your findings spur new questions altogether. Don’t worry – this is completely acceptable and is a natural part of the research process.
So, to recap, a dissertation is best understood as a research process, where you are:
- Ask a meaningful research question(s)
- Carry out the research (both existing research and your own)
- Analyse the results to develop an answer to your original research question(s).
Depending on your specific degree and the way your university designs its coursework, you might be asking yourself “but isn’t this just a longer version of a normal assignment?”. Well, it’s quite possible that your previous assignments required a similar research process, but there are some key differences you need to be aware of, which I’ll explain next.
Same same, but different…
While there are, naturally, similarities between dissertations/theses and assignments, its important to understand the differences so that you approach your dissertation with the right mindset and focus your energy on the right things. Here, I’ll discuss four ways in which writing a dissertation differs substantially from assignments and essays, and why this matters.
Difference #1 – You must decide (and live with) the direction.
Unlike assignments or essays, where the general topic is determined for you, for your dissertation, you will (typically) be the one who decides on your research questions and overall direction. This means that you will need to:
- Find a suitable research question (or set of questions)
- Justify why its worth investigating (in the form of a research proposal )
- Find all the relevant existing research and familiarise yourself with the theory
This is very different from assignments, where the theory is given to you on a platter, and the direction is largely pre-defined. Therefore, before you start the dissertation process, you need to understand the basics of academic research, how to find a suitable research topic and how to source the relevant literature.
Difference #2 – It’s a long project, and you’re on your own.
A dissertation is a long journey, at least compared to assignments. Typically, you will spend 3 – 6 months writing around 15,000 – 25,000 words (for Masters-level, much more for PhD) on just one subject. Therefore, successfully completing your dissertation requires a substantial amount of stamina .
To make it even more challenging, your classmates will not be researching the same thing as you are, so you have limited support, other than your supervisor (who may be very busy). This can make it quite a lonely journey . Therefore, you need a lot of self-discipline and self-direction in order to see it through to the end. You should also try to build a support network of people who can help you through the process (perhaps alumni, faculty or a private coach ).
Difference #3 – They’re testing research skills.
We touched on this earlier. Unlike assignments or essays, where the markers are assessing your ability to understand and apply the theories, models and frameworks that they provide you with, your dissertation will be is assessing your ability to undertake high-quality research in an academically rigorous manner.
Of course, your ability to understand the relevant theory (i.e. within your literature review) is still very important, but this is only one piece of the research skills puzzle. You need to demonstrate the full spectrum of research skills.
It’s important to note that your research does not need to be ground-breaking, revolutionary or world-changing – that is not what the markers are assessing. They are assessing whether you can apply well-established research principles and skills to a worthwhile topic of enquiry. Don’t feel like you need to solve the world’s major problems. It’s simply not going to happen (you’re a first-time researcher, after all) – and doesn’t need to happen in order to earn good marks.
Difference #4 – Your focus needs to be narrow and deep.
In your assignments, you were likely encouraged to take a broad, interconnected, high-level view of the theory and connect as many different ideas and concepts as possible. In your dissertation, however, you typically need to narrow your focus and go deep into one particular topic. Think about the research question we looked at earlier:
The focus is intentionally very narrow – specifically the focus is on:
- The UK only – no other countries are being considered.
- Life insurance brokers only – not financial services, not vehicle insurance, not medical insurance, etc.
- Customer trust only – not reputation, not customer loyalty, not employee trust, supplier trust, etc.
By keeping the focus narrow, you enable yourself to deeply probe whichever topic you choose – and this depth is essential for earning good marks. Importantly, ringfencing your focus doesn’t mean ignoring the connections to other topics – you should still acknowledge all the linkages, but don’t get distracted – stay focused on the research question(s).
So, as you can see, a dissertation is more than just an extended assignment or essay. It’s a unique research project that you (and only you) must lead from start to finish. The good news is that, if done right, completing your dissertation will equip you with strong research skills, which you will most certainly use in the future, regardless of whether you follow an academic or professional path.
Hopefully in this post, I’ve answered your key question, “what is a dissertation?”, at least at a big picture-level. To recap on the key points:
- A dissertation is simply a structured research project .
- It’s useful to view a dissertation as a process involving asking a question, undertaking research and then answering that question.
- First and foremost, your marker(s) will be assessing your research skills , so its essential that you focus on producing a rigorous, academically sound piece of work (as opposed to changing the world or making a scientific breakthrough).
- While there are similarities, a dissertation is different from assignments and essays in multiple ways. It’s important to understand these differences if you want to produce a quality dissertation.
In this post, I’ve gently touched on some of the intricacies of the dissertation, including research questions, data types and research methodologies. Be sure to check out the Grad Coach Blog for more detailed discussion of these areas.
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Yes, I struggle with literature review and am highly frustrated (with myself).
Thank you for the guide that you have sent, especially the apps. I am working through the guide and busy with the implementation of it.
Hope to hear from you again!
Great to hear that, Michael. All the best with your research!
Thank you. That was quite something to move forward with. Despite the fact that I was lost. I will now be able to do something with the information given.
That’s great, Pheladi. Good luck!
Thank you so much for your videos and writing research proposal and dissertation. These videos are useful. I was struggling, but now I am starting to write. I hope to watch your more videos to learn more about the dissertation.
Before this post, I didn’t know where to start my research, today I have some light and do certain % of my research. I may need for direction on literature review. Big thanks to you.
Very very good Derek
Thanks immensely Derek
You’re welcome 🙂 Good luck with your dissertation/thesis.
Thank you Derek for widening my scope on research, this can be likened to a blind man whose eyes can now see.
Remain bless sir🙏
You guys are doing really great… I am extremely grateful for your help… Keep going.. Please activate that research help for indian students as well I couldn’t access it being an indian.
I got stuck in the concept paper because I changed my topic. Now I don’t know where to pick up the pieces again. How can I focus and stay on track. I am getting scared.
Thank you so much Derek, I am a new comer, learning for the first time how to write a good research. These in information’s to me is a mind opener, I hope to learn more from you in the future, Thanks and God bless.
Thanks Guys this means so much to me
A pretty good and insightful piece for beginners like me. Looking forward to more helpful hints and guide. Thanks to Derek.
This is so helpful…really appreciate your work.
Great to hear that
On cybersecurity Analytics research to banking transactions
This was of great help to me and quite informative .
Thank you so much GradCoach,
This is like a light at the end of the tunnel. You are a lifesaver. Thank you once again.
hello, I’m so grateful for such great information. It appears basic, but it is so relevant in understanding the research process.
Your website is very helpful for writing thesis. A big well done to the team. Do you have a website for paper writing and academic publishing or how to publish my thesis, how to land a fully funded PhD, etc. Just the general upward trajectory in the academia. Thank you
I have learned a lot from the lectures, it was beneficial and helped me a lot in my research journey. Thank you very much
Thank you for your gifts of enlightenment to a person like me who’s always a student. May your ‘well’not dry out.
It’s quite a fun and superb, now I have come to believe that the way one teach can have an impact in understanding and can change one’s assumption and position about a subject or a problem, before I came here and learn I consider research methodology a hard thing because, I wasn’t taught by a mentor like this one. Thanks so much who ever have make this effort to make this something easy and engaging
I can’t imagine that world has achieved major aspects of every field of study
Thank you very much for all the valuable, wonderful and comprehensive amount of information… I highly appreciate your support, 100% I recommend you
This topic is intended for my MPhil. Work (The perception of parents on Technical and Vocational Education, the impact on educational policy). May you consider the suitability of the topic for me and refine if the need be. Thank you,
i have gone through the notes and it is interesting. All i need now is a pdf file that contain a whole dissertation writing inclusive of chapter 1 to 5 on motivation as a topic… thanks
Remarkable!!! You made it sound so simple
I got stuck in my writing because I need to change my topic. I am getting scared as I have a semester left 🙁
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What Is the Difference Between a Capstone and a Thesis?
The main difference between a capstone project and a thesis is that a capstone project addresses a specific problem, issue or concern in your field of study, and a thesis attempts to create new knowledge. A capstone project focuses on a narrow, specific topic , whereas a thesis addresses a broader, generalized issue .
Explore this article
- Capstone Project: Coursework Application
- Capstone Project: Select a Narrow Topic
- Thesis Paper: Create and Prove or Disprove a Hypothesis
- Thesis Paper: Professional Considerations
1 Capstone Project: Coursework Application
A capstone project tests your understanding of core concepts in your field of study and requires you to apply them to current situations. For example, a capstone project might require you to produce a solution to a business or scientific problem. Capstone projects don't require original research, but you must perform background analysis, conduct library research, examine similar projects and review best practices, according to the University of North Carolina. Capstone projects may be completed individually or in small groups . Some undergraduate and graduate programs require students to complete capstone projects to graduate. Consult your adviser about specific capstone requirements.
2 Capstone Project: Select a Narrow Topic
Choose a narrow topic for a capstone project, for which you can provide expertise and a comprehensive analysis. For example, your capstone project might address how a lack of protein affects elementary students' classroom learning or why some consumers are more likely to buy impulsively. In some cases, a capstone project deals with a specific company that's trying to improve productivity or solve a workplace concern. Most capstone projects require a written paper of approximately 15 to 25 pages, according to the University of Colorado. Your adviser may require you to present your project in public and complete a self-reflective evaluation.
3 Thesis Paper: Create and Prove or Disprove a Hypothesis
A thesis paper differs from a capstone project because you must create new knowledge by developing a hypothesis, conducting data analysis, assessing your results, drawing conclusions from your research and comparing your results to others. "A thesis paper feels more like the scientific method than a field project," according to the University of Wisconsin. You must work independently on a thesis instead of doing group projects . Thesis papers are generally reserved for graduate students.
4 Thesis Paper: Professional Considerations
A thesis paper is beneficial to students who plan to enter a Ph.D. program or conduct individual research related to their postgraduate studies or long-term careers. It's more time-consuming than a capstone project and is worth more academic credit hours. A thesis paper can be completed over several semesters, but a capstone project is generally a single-semester requirement . Course instructors and faculty advisers grade capstone projects, but a larger thesis committee grades thesis papers.
- 1 University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh Department of Public Administration: Capstone, Field Project or Thesis?
- 2 University of Colorado Boulder Interdisciplinary Telecom Program: Capstone Versus Thesis
- 3 University of Washington: What Is the Difference Between a Capstone Project and a MasterFINAL.docx
About the Author
As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.
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Capstone vs. Thesis — What's the Difference?
Difference Between Capstone and Thesis
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Q. What is the difference between a capstone thesis, a creative/applied project, a practicum/critical reflection paper, and a portfolio/critical reflection paper?
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Answered By: APUS Librarians Last Updated: Jan 02, 2020 Views: 5452
NOTE: Each program uses specific capstone options. Not all options are available for each program.
The capstone thesis is a study conducted by the student. According to the EOP Manual , it “must have a substantial research component, present an original argument, use proper academic conventions, including carefully documented primary and/or secondary sources, and should be at least fifty pages in length [not including front and back matter].”
The creative/applied project is a unique project created by the student. It can be a “discrete project, paper, exhibit, performance, or other appropriate task reflecting the integration of knowledge acquired in academic and professional activities.” (From the EOP Manual )
The practicum option is a 160 hour, intern-like project which the student completes with an organization under the supervision of a professor who is “responsible for directing the intellectual content and activities of the practicum.” This option includes a critical reflection paper, an “integration paper [that is] is generally between 25 and 30 pages and follows a method similar to David Kolb’s experiential learning style as the basis and method for writing the paper.” (From the EOP Manual )
The portfolio option is unique to each program: “Each program specifies the artifacts that make up the portfolio. Students are expected to retain these artifacts as they progress through their program and may be asked to submit these artifacts into a portfolio portal throughout the program. The portfolio contains a substantive analysis that contextualizes each artifact, articulates how the artifact demonstrates mastery of the learning outcome, and evaluates the student’s intellectual growth through the program.” The portfolio option also requires a critical reflection paper that demonstrates that “the student can apply relevant and recent literature to the artifacts and program objectives.” This paper should contain a bibliography of sources consulted and be roughly 50 pages (not including front and back matter). (From the EOP Manual )
For more detailed information, see the End of Program Assessment Manual for Graduate Studies and consult with your capstone instructor.
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