ACA Blog

Natosha Monroe
Sep 07, 2011

What Is The Difference Between A Dissertation And A Thesis? And What Exactly ARE These Things, Anyway?

I’m sure you are familiar with the words, “thesis” and “dissertation.” Prior to my PhD program I thought I was too—but then, mid-way through my PhD program, I quickly figured out how much I DIDN’T know. Why? Because that’s when the infamous dissertation suddenly became a very large, very ominous part of my life. Until you have successfully endured and survived The Experience, there lies a plethora of questions surrounding the innocent little projects. For starters, what is the difference between the two? What kind of research must take place? What are the components of the work? Are there differences between the requirements in the social sciences and in another field such as literature or physics? And just what does it take to successfully write and defend a Thesis or Dissertation?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a dissertation as “a long essay, especially one written for a university degree or diploma” and a thesis as “a long essay or dissertation involving personal research, written as part of a university degree.” Merriam-Webster defines a dissertation as “an extended usually written treatment of a subject; specifically one submitted for a doctorate” and a thesis as “a position or proposition that a person (as a candidate for scholastic honors) advances and offers to maintain by argument” as well as “a dissertation embodying results of original research and especially substantiating a specific view; especially one written by a candidate for an academic degree.”

Hmmm…so does this indicate a thesis is more complicated than a dissertation since, according to these definitions, a thesis CONTAINS a dissertation? No, not according to a great book by John D. Cone and Sharon L. Foster called, “Dissertations and Theses from Start to Finish.” According to the authors, “there is no clear distinction between the terms” but that among “U.S. universities, it has become common to distinguish between dissertations and theses by referring to the work done for a master’s degree as a thesis and that done for a doctoral degree as a dissertation.”

However, when I compared my dissertation requirements to those of a master’s level thesis in an English program, the differences between the two were vast. For example, my dissertation requires an original research project involving human subjects. The master’s thesis requirements I viewed require no research of human subjects, obviously, but instead “involve lots of reading and writing and thinking and not much else.” Seriously, those are words taken directly from the master’s degree program I viewed online. This of course seems so much simpler so I immediately felt a tinge of jealousy and made me ask myself, “Just what have I gotten myself into?”

Some common themes of dissertations and theses are 1. Designation of a specific topic/problem/statement to be studied 2. Initial faculty approval of components such as the topic to be studied, problem statement, and research methodology 3. Extensive literature review of the topic at hand 4. The devotion of a significant amount of time (typically between 18 months to three years) 5. Various drafts and revisions along the way as the work develops 6. Use of university/program-designated format 7. A lengthy final product (typically between 25 and 100 pages in length) 8. Supervision during the work by a member of the school’s faculty and/or other professionals 9. Submission and approval of the final document via board review (typically a set group of faculty members and potentially other professionals/experts in the field; in my case this will include a meeting between myself and the board where I will need to effectively defend my dissertation against their barrage of questions!)

So apparently there may be MANY differences between a thesis and a dissertation or there may be little to NO difference between the two. It really depends upon the requirements set forth by each specific school or academic program. Most universities make their dissertation/thesis guidelines available online so it’s best to view them ahead of time so you are aware of what will be required of you. This is typically a general outline of what the university requires and expects of your work. For requirements and expectations set forth for your program/degree of choice, you must view those of your given program as well since these will vary and be very specific. In the social sciences, your program will most likely require you to design and conduct relevant, original research with human participants and the purpose of the thesis/dissertation will be to demonstrate your capability to design and conduct quality research in your field.



Natosha Monroe is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.

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1 Comment

  1. 1 shafiullah 02 Mar
    nice attempt on your part to differentiate between dissertation and thesis .

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