What Is a Dissertation Exactly?

What Is a Dissertation In This Big World of Academic Papers

What is a dissertation? A dissertation is a final academic research paper that uses scholarly method to perform elaborate analysis of a topic and substantiate or disprove a certain hypothesis, expressed in a problem statement. Dissertation is mostly associated with a PhD degree, even though sometimes the term is used for a master’s research project. A dissertation is a closing step in the completion of an educational level. In the case with a PhD, successful defense of a dissertation promotes a doctoral candidate to the rank of a Doctor of Philosophy, where “philosophy” stands for one’s love and commitment to scholarship. PhD is one of the various doctoral titles, but prospective PhDs are required to write a doctoral dissertation more commonly than some other groups of doctoral candidates.

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Dissertation vs Thesis

Here comes the dissertation vs thesis question. Dissertation definition and thesis paper definition are often confused. The terms have a tight and somewhat tricky interrelation, but they are not exactly the same at all times. In the USA, a thesis is written by students that aim to reach a master's or sometimes a bachelor’s degree, while a dissertation is written on a PhD level. In the UK, it’s pretty much the opposite - although, when it comes to a master's degree, it depends on the type of a master’s programme whether the term “dissertation” or “thesis” is used to title the final academic project. In Canada, a master's degree student can only write a thesis, but a PhD candidate can write a dissertation or a thesis. As for Australia, bachelors, masters, and PhD scholars all write theses.

So, what is a doctoral dissertation and what is a thesis? Consulting a dictionary helps only a little bit to answer the question if we look at specifically American definitions of the two. When we try to define thesis and dissertation this way, we find that a thesis is “a formal and lengthy research paper, esp. a work of original research written in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a master's degree”; and a dissertation is “a formal and lengthy discourse or treatise on some subject, esp. one based on original research and written in partial fulfillment of requirements for a doctorate”. As we see, the definitions are almost identical. Only one difference is obviously confirmed there: in the US, prospective masters write a thesis, and prospective representatives of doctorate write a dissertation. In the worldwide scene, however, things might be quite the opposite - something you should keep in mind if you ever happen to study abroad.

Taking the foregoing information into account, it’s difficult to make a clear distinction between the dissertation meaning and the definition of a thesis. However, we can view this matter through the point of difference between a master's or sometimes bachelor’s research project and a PhD research project, regardless of the term they are denoted by. A master’s paper (and a bachelor’s paper automatically) is smaller in volume than a PhD paper. Depending on the type of research it's involved in, a master’s thesis length ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 words averagely, or from 50 to about 100 pages, whereas a PhD research paper consists of a few hundred pages and can be up to 100,000 words long. Aside from that, a master's thesis or dissertation is mainly focused on critical analysis and argumentation that are based on previous works of other scholars. Meanwhile, a PhD project proposes a new original contribution to its field of study. With a PhD research, a candidate has more independence in their work and is expected to direct it personally, while a future bachelor or master relies more heavily on the guidance of their supervisor. Lastly, to finish a PhD paper takes a couple or a few years of academic work, and a master’s paper is usually written within the last year of study.

A PhD dissertation (or thesis) opens the door to the doctorate. Official sources define doctorate as the highest academic degree that an educational institution can award for successful completion of a course of study. Different states, schools, and fields of knowledge have different requirements for a PhD candidate. Aside from a dissertation, these requirements range from being involved in a university’s research activity to attending special academic seminars and gaining some amount of work experience. The basis is graduate credit hours that one accumulates through academic coursework.

Is There a Real Difference Between Dissertation and Thesis?

The difference between dissertation and thesis actually ends with the difference between master’s (as well as bachelor’s) and doctoral degrees. Aside from the level of complexity, they are quite similar in everything else. Hence, further in the article, we’ll use the terms interchangeably, since we’ve already explained the main trick of their distinction. In the cases when the difference is pointed out again, we’ll let you know. Now, we look more closely at the characteristics of these papers.

The purpose of thesis or dissertation is to discover new valuable information that will add substantial material to the structure of the realm of study it pertains to. In a dissertation research, it’s common to use empirical data that serves for a practical in-depth analysis of the subject matter. The validity of your research should be confirmed by previous studies conducted by other academics. That's why citation of relevant resources is an integral part of a research paper, be it a PhD dissertation or master’s and bachelor’s theses.

Those resources and previously developed concepts are the construction that we use to build further studies upon. These may be either the works that study the subject of your dissertation or scholarly papers that expound on the definitions and concepts you use in your dissertation text. You must provide factual and specific references to these resources - you cannot simply retell an author’s opinion on a topic. Instead, you use you an actual, original explanation presented in their works, because only these are considered to be factual references.

The Structure

Preceding the text of your paper is an introductory description of your work, it’s called an abstract. It’s a summary of your research that gives the reader a clear overview of the subject matter, the content of the paper, and the results you’ve come to.

Whether you work on a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral thesis, the two key elements that hold your paper together are, firstly, its objectives, and secondly, either factual statement that the objectives seek to expound on or a theoretical statement that the objectives seek to resolve or substantiate in some way. For a master’s paper, it is mostly a factual thesis statement; for a PhD paper, it is mostly a theoretical problem statement. This statement is the heart center of your project, and you cannot know exactly what you’re going to write about until you have that statement formed.

When it comes to content structure, a thesis and a dissertation don’t necessarily differ from each other. Typically, they comprise a few chapters in the main body, framed with an introduction and a conclusion.

  1. The introduction acquaints the reader with the key terms and key concepts your research refers to. It explains the reason behind choosing the topic of the paper, gives it context, shows the research’s place in the niche alongside similar academic works, and sets a preview of the main body. The introduction is where one usually presents their thesis statement or hypothesis, the anchor of the whole project.
  2. In the main body of your doctoral or masters dissertation, you basically describe the research process in which you carry out your objectives in relation to the hypothesis or the thesis statement. Before getting into this process, you need to point out the methodology you use. The research methods of academic papers vary from experiments, surveys, interviews, and other ways of collecting empirical and statistical data to simply analyzing theoretical literature. The main body of your work is a profound analysis of all the information you’ve gathered to defend, negate, or investigate your proposal statement. Every new chapter is focused on a different aspect of the matter, a different method of research if you are using many, and a different effect of the outcome, among other factors. At times, interesting unexpected discoveries are made in the course of research, which may be included in your text.
  3. In the conclusion, one provides a brief but effective resume of their dissertation or thesis. You somewhat evaluate your own work, pointing out its weak and strong spots. But the main purpose of the conclusion is to summarise the examination of the problem statement. A role of your work in the development of the field is also emphasized.

Often, research projects include appendices which provide a visual summary of data that’s been used and obtained through research: tables, graphs, pictures, etc. 

Minor elements of your paper are a title page that has to comply with the style requirements, a detailed outline, and a properly arranged bibliography list with all necessary information about the sources you have used.

A thesis dissertation or any other paper can rarely include everything that has been discovered and studied in the field so far, yet it must refer to as many relevant major works on the topic as can be appropriate. There shouldn't be any gaps between facts and concepts you use, and if there are any, they have to be reasonably explained.

What may cause frustration for a student is the belief that, by the common dissertations definition, their paper is worth nothing unless it makes a major discovery or causes great impact on their field of study. However, such pressure is not necessary at all, because a dissertation is expected to be simply a small step to bigger studies in the long run. First and foremost, an academic paper shows that you are able of serving your field of study through the use of critical thinking and the analysis of data.


At first, it may be hard to get a grasp on how you should conduct your research and what sources you should use. Ask your supervisor to give you direction and tips. Some schools have classes devoted specifically to teaching students how to conduct academic research. Before you form the thesis statement of your dissertation, make sure there's enough literature that can give you information on that specific topic it is focused on.

What awaits you after you have finished writing your dissertation or thesis is the defense of the paper in front of a committee of professors. This is something you should keep in mind during the whole process of working on your dissertation. With every new aspect and element that you’re researching, ask yourself, “How would I present this to the evaluation committee?”.  Beware of getting distracted by data that is irrelevant to your topic. In the course of your research, some interesting discoveries may come up, but if they don't have much connection to the subject matter the paper is concerned with, it's better to give those discoveries just a brief summary after the main text or make an additional article or project based on them. The main meaning of the defense is to show how your research proves the thesis statement, and on a bigger level, you defend the value of the work in your field of study overall. It looks a little bit like making a presentation for an advertising campaign - you are demonstrating that your dissertation is good and useful. Although you shouldn't take this comparison overly literally, it gives you a good clue: you have to prepare a presentation and carefully plan your defense. Before it takes place, have conversations with the members of the committee or board, talk with your supervisor and those students who have already defended their dissertations successfully. That is in order to find out which aspects of the defense get the most attention, which questions you may be asked, and what the common mistakes people make at their dissertation defense are.