A graduate degree generally requires completing either a thesis or a dissertation, and there is a difference between thesis and dissertation. In Shakespeare’s day, a candidate for a master’s degree would write a thesis, an original paper in which he maintained a certain proposition. He would read his thesis to his committee, after which he sat in silence while two faculty members gave point by point refutations of everything he said. The focus here was on the student’s ideas and his ability to arrange and express them clearly. If a student wished to advance further in academia he could pursue a dissertation. This was more of a literature review. He would read widely in a particular area and write up his findings, discussing the various authorities and their opinions. The point was to demonstrate that he was well versed in the literature of the field.
Thesis vs. Dissertation: Europe
In Europe the original distinction between a thesis and a dissertation has been largely retained. A doctoral thesis is a focused piece of original research which is performed in order to obtain a PhD. A dissertation is part of a broader post-graduate research project.
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However, the thesis has evolved since original research nowadays requires plenty of background research. So, a thesis will contain extensive citations and references to earlier work, although the focus remains on the original work that comes out of it.
Thesis vs. Dissertation: USA
In the United States, the definition of a thesis is almost the opposite of that in Europe. Because a thesis is shorter than a dissertation it gradually came to mean a preliminary degree on the way to a doctorate. A thesis is now performed to earn a Master’s degree. In scientific fields, a master’s candidate takes advanced coursework and gains hands-on experience in a research project but does not direct the project to the same extent that he would in a doctoral program. In a master’s project the student’s ideas are welcomed and expected but the focus is on obtaining technical expertise, not doing original research. Engineering students commonly obtain Master’s degrees and seldom go on to get PhDs. In other fields such as Chemistry, the opposite is true, with a Master’s degree no longer being required as the first step for a doctorate. Almost everyone I know who received a Master’s degree in Chemistry got one because they dropped out of graduate school and wrote their truncated research as a Master’s project.
What They Have in Common
Both a thesis and a dissertation require a lot of work and should be treated seriously. I attended a thesis defense recently in which the student was not well prepared. The visuals were poor and disorganized and the student did not handle questions well. I knew that he had achieved a good level of technical ability, but you would never know it from his presentation. An effort that takes years of your life surely deserves better treatment than this.
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So you are beginning your graduate program, reading over all the material and trying to prepare yourself as best as possible for the next two to three years. You’re already looking forward to graduation and figuring out exactly what will be required in order to receive your degree on time. What you've probably discovered is that whether you are pursuing a masters degree or a doctoral degree, the main goal in graduate school is to complete original research or projects, depending on your degree program.
The words “thesis” and “dissertation” are often used interchangeably, leading to some confusion in academia about what each individual word actually means. The main similarity between the dissertation and the thesis is the structure. Both have an introduction, literary review, main body, conclusion, bibliography and appendix. But that is the extent in which they are similar.
Differences Between a Masters Thesis and Doctoral Dissertation
Generally in the US, a thesis is the final project for the masters degree and a dissertation leads to a doctoral degree. Those pursuing a masters degree must perform research on a specific subject that demonstrates their knowledge acquired through their program. Seeking a PhD is different in that your dissertation must contribute something completely new and undiscovered to your field. In other words, you have to contribute original knowledge to the subject. So the main difference between a thesis and a dissertation is the depth of knowledge you must attain in order to write the paper.
A masters degree thesis is more closely related to a research paper that you would have completed during college. You are expected only to use the research of others and provide your own analysis on your discoveries. It demonstrates your level of critical and analytical thinking and defines the subject that you are most interested in pursuing within your field. With a dissertation, you are expected to use the research of others only to guide you in your own research to come up with a completely new hypothesis.
Another way in which the thesis and dissertation differ are in length. A masters degree thesis is typically over 100 pages. However, the dissertation is usually at least double and sometimes triple the length of a thesis. To determine the length of your thesis or dissertation, remember you should always first consult your grad school.
Tips For Writing a Thesis or Dissertation
The first step in writing your thesis or dissertation (or any other academic paper) is setting a deadline. You don’t want your deadline to be the due date of the paper because you need to leave enough time to get it proofread and to make any additional changes. You should keep a journal of your ideas to help with the writing process. The next step is to create a detailed outline of your paper.
When beginning to write your thesis or dissertation, keep in mind that you are writing an academic paper. Not many people besides your professors and academic advisors will read your thesis, so make sure to keep your writing style formal.
Consult a scholarly text to see how your thesis or dissertation should be structured. Once you have written and edited your thesis or dissertation, you should find an editor. Some editors will only check spelling and grammar issues, while others will check for overall continuity and flow. Determine what you need before searching for an editor.
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