Dissertation vs. Thesis: What’s the Difference?

Dissertation and thesis. These words are enough to fill any graduate student with dread. They are both academic endeavors — two kinds of paper that represent the culmination of a graduate student’s many years of study and research. Furthermore, the word “thesis” has another meaning — an argument or main point of an essay or paper — which I’ll discuss later.

These two scholarly endeavors are similar in many respects: They both involve extensive research in a focused area, and they are both “defended” before a committee of experts — more on that later.

The thesis and dissertation are both long-form research papers written by graduate students that demonstrate knowledge in their chosen field. These papers are overseen and approved by a committee of school faculty and sometimes other experts.

While similar in some ways, the dissertation and the thesis are also distinct, and they come at different stages of the academic journey. 

A master’s thesis is the culmination of a master’s program, while a doctoral dissertation concludes a doctorate program.

But wait, you say, what about a “thesis statement” or “thesis sentence”? Good question. Any good paper — be it thesis, dissertation, or other — needs a strong thesis statement. Yes, your thesis needs a thesis, but I’ll delve into that later.

For now, let’s look at the master’s thesis and the doctoral dissertation.

Thesis — The Master’s Project

A thesis is a long-form paper (50-100 pages) that is the final project of most master’s level graduate students — if you’re getting an M.A., M.F.A., M.S., or other master’s degree, it’s likely you’ll have to write a thesis in order to graduate. (Some programs, though, require an alternative — like a capstone project or comprehensive exam.) A number of colleges and universities also require undergraduate seniors to produce a thesis as a final project as well. Mine did! 

While there is wide variation across institutions and programs, a master’s thesis, from inception to research to completion, will generally take about 2 to 3 semesters, or 1 to 1.5 years to complete.

Demonstrating Your Expertise

A thesis is a formal research paper that demonstrates a student’s ability to engage in independent research, analyze information, and, particularly for master’s students, contribute to the existing body of knowledge in their field. A student’s paper will focus on a specific topic within a broader field. 

For example, someone getting a master’s degree in the rather broad field of English Literature doesn’t write their paper on all of English writing, but focuses on something specific, like 19th-century depictions of monsters in British novels. Someone pursuing a master’s degree in Anthropology doesn’t discuss anthropology generally, but may hone in on something like burial rituals in pre-modern Europe.

When I wrote my MFA thesis in theater, I focused specifically on using the body as a signifier in a small-scale production of Coriolanus — if you have no idea what I just said, that’s ok! Part of being a master’s student means that you become an expert in a very particular area.

The Thesis Committee — Guiding Students to Success

Thesis students will have a thesis advisor, typically a faculty member with a master’s or doctoral degree in a related field, who guides the student through the research and the writing. There will also be second readers and sometimes third readers, other mentors who contribute to guiding the student’s work. These folks make up the student’s thesis committee.

The Thesis Defense — A Conversation

At the end of the thesis process, the student will have a thesis defense. At this event, the student meets with their committee to defend their thesis. While the word defend makes the event sound adversarial, in many situations, it is more of a conversation. It is an opportunity for you to discuss your work in depth, and — occasionally, yes — respond to challenges from your committee.

But don’t fear! By the time you’ve finished your thesis, it is possible that you know more about the specific topic than your readers — I had one professor who always told students that by the time of the defense, the student was the expert who was teaching him.

Dissertation — The Doctoral Paper

A dissertation is a longer paper (100-300 pages) that is the final project of doctoral students. If you’re getting a Ph.D., you’ll likely write a dissertation. (Some doctoral programs, such as those in physical therapy or law, have other requirements in lieu of a dissertation.)

It is an extensive and original piece of research, and, more so than a master’s thesis, is meant to make a substantial contribution to the academic field.

A dissertation can take substantial time to complete. Unlike a master’s thesis, which is often completed within a year or year and a half, a doctoral dissertation may take 3, 4, or 5 years — or even longer — to plan, research, and complete.

Dissertation — The Committee and the Defense

Similar to a thesis, a dissertation is supervised by a dissertation advisor, and at the end of the process, the doctoral student will attend a dissertation defense and discuss their work with a committee of experts.

Your Thesis (and Your Dissertation) Needs a Thesis

So what about the other use of the word “thesis”?

The term “thesis” can have another meaning in the context of an essay, distinct from its meaning as a research paper as a whole. 

In this context, the word thesis refers to the central point or argument of an essay, paper, or any written piece. It represents the main idea or assertion that the author aims to convey and support throughout their work.

Your thesis statement is like your North Star, guiding your writing as well as your reader’s journey through your piece.

The Thesis and the Dissertation

So, a thesis and a dissertation are both long-form academic papers that represent the culmination of a graduate student’s work. Additionally, a thesis statement is a sentence that offers the central argument of an essay or paper. 

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