Dissertation vs. Thesis: A Comparison

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No matter what your field or specialty is, earning a graduate degree is one of the best ways to advance your career. In fact, for some professionals, earning a master’s degree and a doctoral degree is a requirement. A graduate degree program nurtures professional critical-thinking skills and refines field-specific knowledge, enabling you to prove your expertise and competence.

When completing a graduate degree program, students are required to produce a major research and writing project, such as a dissertation in a doctoral program or thesis in a master’s program. These two projects are often confused, so what is the difference between a dissertation vs. thesis? There are a few major differences and similarities between the two that are important for any potential graduate student to know.

What Is a Thesis?

A thesis is an academic paper completed near the end of a student’s course of study for a master’s degree program. Note that most master’s degrees require the completion of a thesis for graduation. Some bachelor’s degree programs even require students to write an undergraduate thesis, which is typically shorter and less in-depth than a master’s degree thesis.

To write a master’s thesis, students select a reasonably narrow topic of interest in their field. For example, if you’re earning a degree in nutrition science, you might examine the effects of varying compositions of pregame meals on athletic performance.

The next step is to conduct an in-depth review of existing research on your topic. You would then formulate an academic argument (for example, that high-carb pre-game meals are advantageous for endurance athletes) and use the existing research to prove your assertion.

A thesis is typically structured in a relatively rigid format, depending on the policies of the university and the individual department. The following components are often required: 

  1. Title page
  2. Abstract (summary)
  3. Table of contents
  4. Table of figures/maps
  5. Body, typically divided into chapters
  6. Conclusion/results

What Is a Dissertation?

In contrast to a thesis, students working on a doctoral dissertation conduct their own original research after reviewing the established research. The goal of a dissertation is not only to prove the student’s own knowledge and skills but also to add to the existing body of knowledge in their field.

Students may present a new theory or hypothesis in their field or present research disproving a previously presented theory. Alternatively, they may tackle a new angle, taking the established research in a new direction.

The traditional order is to take doctoral courses, complete the qualifying exams and then write the dissertation. However, there are exceptions to this. At some universities, the dissertation process is integrated into the coursework. This allows students to get a jumpstart on their research while working toward the completion of their course requirements. As a result, they may graduate more quickly.

The process of writing a dissertation begins in a way similar to the process for a master’s thesis. Students select their topic and then conduct a literature review, which is a thorough analysis of the existing research on that topic. From there, students can work on developing a new theory, debunking a previously established theory or finding a new angle on an existing theory.

The dissertation defense is often one of the most intimidating aspects of the doctoral degree program. However, students work closely with their selected committees throughout the dissertation process. This means you can rest assured that if your committee has allowed your work to proceed to the point of the dissertation defense point, then your dissertation will almost certainly be accepted, and you will be granted your degree after your successful defense.

Like that of a thesis, the specific makeup of a dissertation depends on the policies and requirements of the university and the doctoral candidate’s department. In general, however, dissertations include the following:

  1. Title page
  2. Acknowledgements
  3. Abstract
  4. Table of contents
  5. Introduction
  6. Literature review and theoretical framework
  7. Methodology
  8. Findings
  9. Discussion of findings (interpretation, analysis and applications)
  10. Conclusion
  11. Reference list
  12. Appendices

Differences Between a Dissertation vs. Thesis

The primary difference between a dissertation vs thesis is the degree programs that require these projects. Students in a master’s degree program will write a thesis, whereas students in a doctoral degree program will complete a dissertation.

Another difference between the two projects is that a dissertation usually requires an oral defense, whereas a thesis generally does not. After submitting the completed dissertation to their dissertation committees, students will schedule dates for the oral presentation of their work. The committee members will ask questions and sometimes pose challenges. Students must be able to justify their methodology and interpretation of their findings.

Additionally, as you might expect, a typical master’s thesis is far shorter than a typical doctoral degree dissertation. A thesis might be between 40 and 80 pages, although it can vary from one degree program to the next. In contrast, the average dissertation is between 100 and 300 pages.

Similarities Between a Dissertation and a Thesis

Despite the differences, there are some similarities between a dissertation and a thesis. Both require intensive research and the completion of a lengthy paper comprised of original writing.

In addition, both projects require the following: 

  • The skillful defense of an academic argument (the stance or main point of the paper) 
  • Analytical reasoning and critical thinking 
  • In-depth expertise about the subject area 
  • A significant investment of time (years for dissertations and months for theses) 
  • A willingness to rewrite and edit based on feedback from professors, peers or committee members

Another similarity is the committee. All doctoral degree students work with a committee comprised of faculty members, advisors and similar professionals who guide the student’s research and writing. It’s also customary for students writing a master’s thesis to have a committee.

In both thesis and dissertation committees, the committee chair is the primary point of contact for the student. In other words, the chair is the person who is most closely involved with shaping the direction of the student’s research, academic arguments and writing.

For both types of degree programs, the thesis or dissertation is a requirement to graduate with the degree. It is typically considered the capstone project.

Grand Canyon University offers a wide range of master's and doctoral degree programs to choose from. GCU is committed to helping students enhance their career qualifications, transition to new careers or simply fuel their passion for learning. Click on the Request Info button above to learn more about GCU’s graduate degree programs and how to apply

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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