Dissertation vs Thesis

Dissertation vs Thesis: Revealing the Mystery

Future college and university students often have great ideas about their social life on the campus and the subjects they will learn in lecture halls. But this is sometimes paired with a quite a vague, unsure notion of how exactly the curriculum will be carried out. Some don’t even look as far ahead as the finish of their higher education, while others want to know beforehand what awaits them all of the way till the end. On that finish line, students who pursue bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees will meet dissertations and theses as bridges that lead them to the next academic level. However, it’s not always clear who will get to write what - a dissertation or a thesis paper. Both are the kind of final research in a student’s major, both are substantial pieces of writing that require long hours of work. What else makes them similar and what doesn’t? What is the difference between a thesis and a dissertation? Time to find out.

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Dissertation vs Thesis: The Roots of the Contrast

Let’s begin our dissertation vs thesis discussion by looking at the definitions of the two terms. An official dissertation definition identifies it as “a long essay on a particular subject, especially one written for a university degree or diploma.” Dissertations now seem to become a part of how we define theses, according to the following definition of a thesis: “a long essay or dissertation involving personal research, written by a candidate for a university degree”. With such similar and even confusion definitions, it’s easy to get stuck, not knowing how exactly to tell one from another. It’s also important not to confuse neither dissertations meaning nor theses meaning with that of essays. This is why in order to understand something, you should look beyond the abstract dictionary entries and at the practical application of subjects. With dissertations and theses, we know that they should reflect one’s proficiency in their field of study. And so, the paper must be deeper and more complex than essays you wrote high school, even though they utilize the same principle of expounding on some aspect of objective reality through one’s own frame of understanding. To be a professional, you cannot use only your own vision of things you study - the vision has to stand on a strong foundation built by the work of other scholars who contributed to the subject.

To go deep enough and gain substantial understanding, one has to dig the roots of the knowledge up to the surface - that’s what we call research. A research can be done with two main purposes: either to get to know about something that was hidden from your awareness before, or to go further and use the knowledge obtained to discover something that was previously hidden from everyone’s awareness. The distinction between these two steps is where the real difference between a dissertation and a thesis lies. But first, we need to look at the academic degrees and remember the difference between PhD and masters degree and between a master and a bachelor. Their hierarchy goes from bachelor to master to a doctor - from basic to highest, respectively. Is a doctorate the same as a PhD? Yes and no. PhD, “doctor of philosophy” title, awarded within a bunch of fields (mostly humanities), is one of many types of doctoral degrees that are ascribed to different areas of knowledge. But it’s the PhD candidates that more often than others are required to write a research paper in order to obtain a doctoral degree.

Thesis vs Dissertation: General Issues

The question of thesis vs dissertation is a bit complicated. First of all, the name of a final project does not always tell us if it’s an undergraduate, a prospective master or a doctoral candidate who writes the paper. On the contrary, it’s the academic degree a student holds that defines the characteristics of the paper regardless of its name. Therefore, when a bachelor-to-be writes a dissertation, it’s smaller than a master’s degree thesis. And if we switch the names, the bachelor-to-be will still be writing a thesis smaller than a master’s dissertation. There’s no concrete reason explaining why the names differ among colleges and universities, but they still do. If we look at this peculiar question at the global level, we find that this variation takes place even between countries.

PhD and Masters in Europe vs USA

There is no unanimous point of view on the doctoral thesis vs dissertation question in Europe. Standards differ, sometimes putting thesis “above” dissertation and at times putting dissertation “above” thesis. For example, in the UK a dissertation is written at the undergraduate (bachelor) level, while in France dissertations are simply short treatises that have no particular relation to any degree. In Germany and Poland, you write a PhD dissertation but a master’s or bachelor’s thesis - and so it is in the United States as well.

In some countries, a PhD candidate writes a thesis, while a dissertation is a piece of work one writes further along the road as an accomplished doctor of philosophy. Predominantly in the world, a dissertation is associated with higher degrees, especially the doctorate. In most cases, future masters submit a thesis, as do prospective bachelors. Taking such arrangement as a prevalent standard, we’re about to view the differences between a thesis and a dissertation in more detail.

Difference Between Thesis and Dissertation

The difference between thesis and dissertation is not profound enough to make the two kinds of paper diverge so much that a different approach is needed for each of them. And yet, the requirements for their size and depth do differ, corresponding with the height of the academic rank the paper may grant to a student.


As a bachelor or master project, a thesis - usually taking from 40 to 60 pages on the bachelor level and from 50 to 100 pages on a masters level, ranging from 10,000 to 50,000 words - is significantly shorter than a doctoral dissertation, the size of which is a few hundred pages, normally from 60,000 to 80,000 words. In rare situations when the volume of a dissertation is expected to exceed 100,000 words, the board who evaluate the paper are informed of such a special case beforehand.

Aside from ms vs PhD contrast, another important factor which determines the length of the paper is the field of study it relates to. Disciplines that study the world in a more empirical way - like sciences - usually need less text and therefore have comparatively lower word counts for research papers of any kind, using more formulas, graphs, and being more concise on the whole; whereas somewhat abstract and liberal subjects, from psychology and history to literature and arts, need more words to expound on a topic properly and require more volume for theses and dissertations for that reason.

The amount of work devoted to a research also differs for undergrads and post graduate students. A master or a bachelor degree thesis is written at the end of their whole course of study, which takes various subjects, and only one of them a thesis is concerned with. A master’s curriculum, however, includes a more narrow set of disciplines, and it’s not uncommon that students at this level study just one subject for a semester or a year and write their theses during that time. It takes much more for future PhDs, who work almost exclusively (in the academic area) on their dissertation for several years.


There are no considerable differences in the structure of a paper for various academic degrees. This aspect depends more on the discipline in the focus of the paper. Theses and dissertations at any stage of education are basically research reports that testify for a one’s knowledge in their field of study - in particular, a single topic that their research covers. Nevertheless, the dissertation versus thesis level of complexity does change, increasing for every next degree. On bachelor and master levels, a thesis is usually expected to be more like a report on what they’ve learnt within a subject from accomplished scholars, combining that with their own understanding and critical analysis of the matter, as well as any related ideas they can come up with.

Sometimes on a master’s but more commonly a doctor’s level, the results of the final research should offer a contribution of new useful knowledge to the discipline they major in. Their work must investigate something that nobody else has looked into before or studied deeply enough. This might not be compulsory for every discipline and every school, but generally, it is. In this aspect, another thesis versus dissertation point is that on a PhD level, the new contribution is essential, and a dissertation cannot even be called this way without that part. The volume requirements also allow for more extensive work higher up the academic ladder.


Prospective bachelors, masters, and PhDs especially have to present their paper to an evaluation board, generally consisting of college or university professors, and defend its value. The board leads a discussion with the author of the paper, asking questions on the topic that a student researched in their thesis or dissertation. The duration of the defense process depends on the extensiveness of the research; hence, a thesis defense for future bachelors or masters, lasting from half to over one hour is extended to a few hours at a dissertation defense. If for some reason the paper isn’t approved, a student can submit the work again after making adjustments or, in some cases, conducting a whole new research.


Another difference between phd and masters papers is the way they are supervised in the process of writing. Prospective bachelors, masters, and doctors all get at least one supervisor to guide them through the research. The doctoral candidates, though, work more independently and have more authority to orchestrate the process on their own, while future masters and present undergrads should rely more heavily on the support and advice of their supervisors.

There are other criteria complementing a research that may be necessary for obtaining a degree. Even here, there are phd vs masters degree distinctions: to become a PhD, almost exclusively one has to write the paper, but to become a bachelor or a master, students don’t always have to write a thesis - there are other options available, down to simply having a certain number of credit hours under a student’s belt.

Thesis vs Project

A common alternative for a master’s thesis is a project one has to submit at the end of their master studies - plus a number of extra credit hours to make this option equal to a thesis, which is more complex. A project is designed to resolve a problem or make improvements within the scope of an academic subject, and so, it’s different from a research that a thesis is involved in. When making a choice about masters project vs thesis, remember that writing a thesis is a better option for students who want to pursue a doctoral degree in the future - not because it’s obligatory to have written a thesis to become a PhD but because researching for a thesis prepares one for their future dissertation research. As opposed to a thesis, a project, according to students’ feedback, gives them more space for creativity.

Thesis vs Research Paper

A research paper, however, is neither an alternative option nor the same thing as a thesis. Technically, a thesis is a research paper. But when it comes to names, the conventional understanding is that a research paper is any paper you write as a part of your classes to examine an issue in general terms or focus on a single aspect of it, while a thesis examines that issue in its entirety and has a specific purpose of proving that the author of the paper is qualified enough to be awarded a higher academic degree. Keep this distinction in mind the next time someone mentions a research paper so you could specify what they mean.