Difference between Dissertation and Thesis
Chances are that you and other early career researchers (ECRs) have been using ‘dissertation’ and ‘thesis’ interchangeably. Dissertations and theses are sometimes collectively referred to as theses. Further, you might even hear the hybrid term ‘thesis dissertation’! This article looks at the difference between the two terms, if indeed there is a difference.
Historical definitions and usage of the terms
According to historical usage dating back to the 17th century, in both the UK and the US, the written work submitted at the end of a master’s degree was called a ‘dissertation’, while the scholarly work submitted as the primary requirement for a PhD was called a ‘thesis’. In the second half of the 20th century — for no known reason — the terms in the US ended up being reversed. If you examine the etymology and dictionary meanings, there do not seem to be clear distinguishing features either.
Different terms, common implications
As a scholar, where does that leave you? Rather than worrying about the distinction between these terms, it is crucial to focus on the requirements for the scholarly work you have at hand.
Both mean an extensive treatise that is assigned to a student studying for a degree at a university or other institution. Both provide the opportunity to demonstrate a scholar’s ability to think critically and analyse and present your findings.
That said, let’s see what they mean according to various categorisations.
Academic degree type
The purpose of a master’s degree is to test a student’s understanding of the background of the field of study. A dissertation or thesis that is associated with a master’s degree is largely the student’s analysis of the existing literature on the topic, together with some original contribution.
Work by a doctorate student – for a PhD degree – focuses on original research. The student comes up with a topic in their field that hasn’t been researched. The student then formulates a hypothesis and performs original research to prove or disprove the hypothesis. A doctoral thesis must contain a substantial contribution of new knowledge to the field of study. The resulting work may be called a dissertation or thesis.
In countries where the academic system is based on the British system of university education, ‘dissertation’ refers to the body of work at the end of an undergraduate or master’s degree, while ‘thesis’ refers to the body of work produced at the end of a PhD. In countries and institutions following the American system of education, the terms tend to be used in reverse.
Incidentally, institutions and even different departments in the same university can use the words differently! A university may follow certain terminologies and guidelines for the scholarly treatise resulting from work done at the masters or PhD level. Within a university, each department will have their own guidelines for using the word ‘dissertation’ or ‘thesis’. The bottom line is to follow the terms used by the university and department you are working at.
End note: The difference doesn’t matter
The piece of scholarly writing that you end up with should demonstrate your ability to conduct research, critically analyse the literature, interpret the findings and communicate your work in a broad sense. Importantly, the body of work must be presented and formatted in line with the guidelines of your department and/or academic institution.
All the best for writing your dissertation/thesis!
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