Dissertation vs thesis: what’s the difference?
The summer seems a very long way away, particularly during a COVID lockdown when normal university life seems suspended. But round about now is when students begin thinking about their thesis dissertation. If you were hoping for a flash of inspiration to strike later on, remember that ‘chance only favours the well-prepared mind’!
When it comes to your thesis dissertation, it’s always good to start early. You can gather ideas, run initial thoughts past lecturers, and do some preliminary reading, at leisure. Your library can start retrieving your hard-to-find research materials. And the weeks, sometimes months, they take to arrive won’t stress you out! Meanwhile, you can set to work on initial thesis dissertations ideas. If, for whatever reason, they stop working out, you can discard them without penalty. There's ample time to come up with something new.
Often, initial ideas for the thesis dissertation are far too ambitious. They tend to be loose, baggy monsters, so broad in scope that they cannot tamed with even the most ingenious research and structure. Starting on your thesis dissertation now gives you time to step back and reflect. It gives you time to make good, strategic choices, without kettling yourself into a corner with limited time and no alternatives.
What is a thesis dissertation?
What precisely is a thesis dissertation? Strangely, this is a question often overlooked by both students and lecturers alike. Perhaps where you are studying it’s just called a ‘dissertation’ or a ‘thesis’. At which point, the question becomes: dissertation versus thesis – what’s the difference? This blog post attempts to answer just that question. It also shows how you can move forward in your studies, by understanding the difference between a dissertation and a thesis.
If you are an undergraduate and have been tasked with writing a dissertation, this differs to a dissertation (or thesis) at postgraduate level.
The task you have been set is what many departments at the University of Oxford continue to call the ‘long essay’. This is an extended form that mimics the kind of written work that you’ve already been submitting throughout the year. It may be more ambitious than those other pieces of work. It may use more primary and secondary sources, and will likely be longer. But, overall, it will be similar in form and structure to your usual essays.
Be aware, though, that this is not always the case.
Recently, digital technologies have made research materials more readily accessible to larger audiences. In response, traditional long essays are evolving to resemble higher degree research. Oxford’s Faculty of History has been something of a pioneer in transferring undergraduates from ‘long essays’ to ‘theses’. ‘The thesis offers you the opportunity to engage in primary research on a subject of your own revising, and to work out arguments which are entirely your own, not a synthesis of the conclusions of others’, they explain, ‘[...] Some undergraduate theses are so good that they are ready to be published as they stand’ (University of Oxford, 2020).
The 12,000-word limit of these new undergraduate theses is comparable to that found in peer-reviewed journals. And other universities are following suit. They, too, are making changes towards this new research-based dissertation thesis model.
At the time of writing, these new research-based undergraduate theses are still quite rare. For now, the thesis dissertation remains central to organisation of higher, postgraduate degrees.
What the books say
Commercial press literature doesn't help much when it comes to the thesis versus dissertation discussion. Savvy writers and publishers are eager for as broad a readership – and as many library catalogue search hits – as possible. Because of this, they tend to hedge their bets when it comes to their choice of title.
Patrick Dunleavy goes with Authoring a PhD Thesis: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Dissertation (2003). Joan Balker chooses Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis (1998).
Others bring the terms closer together. Randy L. Jayner chooses Writing the winning thesis or dissertation: a step-by-step guide (2018). R. Murray Thomas markets Avoiding Thesis and Dissertation Pitfalls: 61 Cases of Problems and Solutions (2001).
The thesis versus dissertation terminology gets even more strained as you move beyond the covers. Inger Mewburn’s How to Tame Your PhD (2013) discusses ‘the oddities of the thesis/dissertation process’. Fred Pyrczak does the same in his Completing Your Thesis or Dissertation (2000), ‘a book to help students with the thesis/dissertation’.
It’s a short skip from Nineties-looking ‘thesis/dissertation’ (complete with forward slash or oblique). And, from there, to the hybrid ‘thesis dissertation’ term that we’ve used so far. This is a term that can be spotted in Alet Kruger’s Corpus-Based Translation Studies (2011). It is also in Antonio Blanco’s Medical Biochemistry (2017), and many other books and publications.
Thesis and dissertation: a brief history
As the two terms blend, it is becoming harder to recognise the difference between 'thesis' and 'dissertation'. The appearance of the new 'thesis dissertation' catch-all doesn't help much either.
Historical usage offers a much-needed point of clarity. In the UK, the extended piece of work done at the end of a master’s degree has traditionally been called a ‘dissertation’. This has been the case since the seventeenth century. The long piece of work done as the primary requirement for a PhD has been called a ‘thesis’ for almost as long.
Cultural influences from America have unsettled these once-fixed definitions. Until the early twentieth century, America followed Britain closely when it came to the use of 'thesis' and dissertation.
Recording Dan Dodson vs The State, the Records and Briefs of the Supreme Court (1832) is one of the earliest mentions of the ‘doctoral thesis’ in America. ‘I have a doctoral thesis on this problem and it tends to say that the new building, at least in a short run, didn’t make that much difference’. As late as 1919, the University of Chicago’s Circular of Information, recorded the ‘Master’s Dissertation’ passed.
By the mid-1960s, however, the terms in America had reversed. The archives begin to discuss and cite the ‘Master’s Thesis’ and ‘Doctoral Dissertation’. The reason for this switch remains unclear. The classical etymologies of the terms don’t point to any distinction that might be pertinent to a dissertation vs thesis debate. ‘Dissertation’ comes from the Latin ‘dissertatio’ meaning ‘discussion or debate’. ‘Thesis’ comes from a Greek/late Latin ‘thesis’ meaning ‘placing, a proposition’. The origins of these words seem to allow for a flexible interchangeability. The fact that ‘dissertation’ and ‘thesis’ traded meanings in America indicate as much too.
It is anyone’s guess why America started referring to ‘Master’s Theses’ and ‘Doctoral Dissertations’. And this after more than a century of ‘Master’s Dissertations’ and ‘Doctoral Theses’.
In post-war America, there was an expansion of liberal arts colleges in America. This was accompanied by a proliferation of higher degrees. The master’s degree quickly became more significant, financially, than the doctoral degree. And it may be that, in this transition, the 'thesis' was transplanted over, from doctoral student to master’s, in an act of linguistic grade inflation.
American universities and colleges wanted their master’s students to feel proud and clever. In engineering this, they handed over the ‘thesis’ term from their more advanced doctoral counterparts.
The confusion that we witness in the Dissertation vs Thesis UK debate today is due to the exporting of these revised terms back from America to the UK. Their effect is amplified because of the increasing globalisation of higher education. Their effect is also amplified by a larger trans-Atlantic cultural homogenisation.
We have, then, considered two forces operating on the language of thesis dissertation. There is this American muddling of the traditional thesis/dissertation hierarchy. And there is a second, similar process at work, in the upgrade of undergraduate 'long essay' to 'dissertation' or 'thesis'. It is no longer practical or possible to draw a hard distinction between a thesis and a dissertation.
Interestingly, the confusion has not only resulted in the necessity of the ‘thesis dissertation’ hybrid term. It has, more sinisterly, afforded opportunities for unscrupulous academics to exaggerate their qualifications.
Potential for abuse
Recently, a public complaint was made against a British lecturer. This lecturer had listed postgraduate qualifications on his staff profile page. All of them were from prestigious universities.
For many years, these went unchecked and unchallenged. But, recently, one member of the public read the lecturer, bragging on social media that he’d been awarded a First for his research thesis.
The member of the public was sceptical of the truth of this claim. Postgraduate research degrees are not classified like undergraduate ones. They were unable to locate the lecturer’s thesis in centralised research catalogues. The complainant soon discovered the lecturer's postgraduate qualifications were actually undergraduate level. They were continuing education diplomas. These diplomas are a fine achievement for those who work hard to get them. But they are a far cry from the postgraduate qualifications from topflight universities that the academic had suggested.
At the time of writing, the academic’s qualifications were being investigated by his own university. They were also being investigated by the national Office for Students.
You can check people's CV claims by knowing about the different types of ‘thesis dissertations’. You can spot fraudulent behaviour when it comes your way! More usefully, knowing those differences allows you to judge what is expected of you, at whichever level you are studying.
Summary of differences
Writing a thesis dissertation at any level can be daunting, particularly if you’ve never attempted one before. If you’re unsure what your thesis dissertation should be, the best thing you can do is to read a few recent examples from your department or speak to your dissertation supervisor. How easy this is to do highlights one major difference between thesis and dissertation. What follows, to conclude, is a list of those major differences.
1. Accessibility and assessment
Undergraduate long essays are sometimes called dissertations or theses. These are internally assessed and not made publicly accessible. You will only be able to read them if you borrow them from former students or ask your lecturer for outstanding examples from previous years.
Master’s dissertations, also internally assessed, are stored either in departmental libraries and/or the university library. These can usually be accessed by physically visiting the library. More conveniently, master’s dissertations can also be requested via the UK’s Interlibrary loan agreement.
PhD theses, once externally examined, are stored both in the library of the host university and the national British Library. Theses are searchable through the British Library's online ETHOS catalogue.
As a rule, the greater the ease of public access, the more significant or important the thesis dissertation is deemed to be. The same is true of the use of external staff. Undergraduate and master’s-level courses are internally marked and externally moderated. Higher profile PhD theses are always externally examined.
Finally, undergraduate degrees are the only ones that receive grades or classifications. Master’s and PhD aren't classified – just a simple question of pass or fail.
2. Duration of study
In the UK, master’s degrees take one or two years of full-time study. The master’s dissertation is a significant component of that study. This is less so the case in special MRes or ‘master’s by research degrees’, where the dissertation plays a more central role in the course of study.
By contrast, PhDs take a minimum of three years. In practice, the PhD thesis is the sole work of a doctoral student. Any other study requirements, if any, are very limited by comparison.
3. Word count
The prescribed word count for thesis dissertations is indicative of the academic level at which they are pitched. Undergraduate dissertations tend to be no longer than 12,000 words. Master’s dissertations run at closer to 40,000. PhD theses usually clock in at 80,000 to 120,000 words. PhDs in Fine Art with a practice component tend to be shorter as they work alongside an exhibition of artwork.
If you are studying for a PhD, it’s worth noting that academic publishers prefer to publish new academics writing towards that minimum. If publishing is one of your postdoctoral ambitions, sticking to the lower limit could save you years of rewriting!
Original contribution to knowledge
Any student at any level of study can have an original thought, and it is always hugely satisfying to read when it occurs.
At undergraduate level, originality tends to be defined relatively loosely. A thoughtful synthesis of existing ideas is, in practice, usually assessed as original thinking, even if it isn’t, strictly original.
Original thinking an often be found in a master’s dissertation. But the emphasis continues to be on that synthesis of existing knowledge. Master’s students are expected to know the literature around their chosen subject thoroughly and have done their research. They are expected to demonstrate an expert command of its arguments. This is what they are primarily assessed on.
PhD theses, however, are made or broken by their original contribution to knowledge. Expert understanding of the subject tends to be relegated to an early literature review chapter. Out of review emerges a central, truly original idea, that propels the rest of the thesis.
As we have already seen, undergraduate theses can, in exceptional cases, be publishable. PhD theses, on the other hand, are far more ambitious with regards to publication. Their successful completion marks the first step in professional, academic career.
Choosing an academic editor
We hope this blog post has cleared up any confusion you might have had about the difference between dissertation and thesis. A final note: at every level – undergraduate, master’s, or doctoral – meticulous presentation, correct referencing, appropriate register, robust argumentation, and strong evidence for those arguments are always rewarded.
Furthermore, the higher the level of degree, the more all these things are expected. Choosing an academic editor who knows your subject well is important at undergraduate level. But at master’s and PhD level, it becomes crucial. Those higher degrees are predicated on expert knowledge of the field and original contribution to knowledge.
Whoever you approach as an editor, always ask what direct experience they have that relates to your work. If the experience they state seems cursory or adjunct, be prepared to walk away and find someone else more familiar with your chosen field.