If you’ve considered grad school—or simply know someone who has an advanced degree—you’ve likely heard about theses and dissertations. Both are long research papers that a student submits at the conclusion of his or her studies. Such papers are required in order to earn an advanced degree. But what’s the difference between the two? Are the terms interchangeable? Here’s the low-down.
According to thesaurus.com, “thesis” and “dissertation” are synonyms. Either word can be used to refer to a written discourse. “Discourse” is just a fancy word for a formal discussion (written or oral). Technically, the paper you write during your senior seminar as an undergrad is also a discourse. However, for clarity, people have come to use specific words to refer to papers at each level of education.
An easy way to keep the two graduate papers straight is to remember that both “doctorate” and “dissertation” start with a “d.”
The goal of such papers, regardless of your academic level, is to assess what you’ve learned over the course of your school career. The paper begins with an idea that you have about something in your field. You would then do research on this subject so that you can find supporting literature or otherwise prove your idea.
Along the way, your adviser will help you plan your research and guide you through any hurdles you encounter as you work on the paper. Ultimately, you’ll be judged on your ability to conduct research, your general knowledge of the subject matter, and your writing skills.
So are both papers exactly the same? Not really. Or, more accurately, not necessarily. The guidelines for a research paper vary from one educational institution to the next. Because a master’s degree is one step below a doctorate, most schools have less stringent guidelines for the thesis, as you might expect. But a thesis at one university might be quite different from the thesis at another. All schools have their own standards and length requirements.
Moreover, the requirements for a paper in one discipline of study can be quite different from those for another discipline. For example, an M.S. student may be required to perform some type of experiment or conduct a study that requires human participation, whereas this would be unusual for an M.A. in English or history.
In a thesis, your basic task is to analyze the previous works of established thinkers in your field. For example, if you’re studying psychology, you may posit that an absent or inattentive father has a serious impact on his female children in terms of their ability to form healthy romantic relationships. You would then find existing literature that proves your hypothesis.
Once you have finished drafting the paper, you will submit it to your adviser for a preliminary review. After you’ve made the suggested revisions, you will submit the new draft to a department head or director, who will approve or reject the paper. Keep in mind that most master’s candidates who have followed the guidelines and worked diligently are not rejected. Approval is necessary for the awarding of the final degree.
A dissertation asks a bit more of the student. Instead of focusing on the works of others to back up your idea, you will be presenting your own original ideas. The dissertation is more like a book that is written by an expert (you). A committee will review your work, and then you will be appointed a time to defend your idea before them. The members of the committee will ask you in-depth questions about what you’ve written and how you developed your ideas. The panel may request revisions to the dissertation, after which you would go through another defense. Once the paper is approved, you will be qualified to earn your doctorate degree.
Here’s a simplified way of illustrating the difference between a master’s thesis and a doctoral dissertation: A master’s candidate could theoretically make his or her case by using the dissertation of another. Now that you know more about theses and dissertations, you can feel more confident about your applications to grad school, knowing what will be expected of you.