Dissertation vs. Thesis: What’s the Difference?

This post may contain affiliate links, meaning we get a commission if you make a purchase through our links, at no cost to you.

Spread the love


If you’re thinking about going into a graduate or a postgraduate program, you have probably heard of these two words. You might even confuse the two, and with good reason, they are frequently used interchangeably, although their meaning is different.

This puzzlement could be linked to a lack of a concrete meaning of the words. Therefore, they can be used to refer to different things.

For people whose goals are to pursue academia and research, going for a master’s and/or a doctorate program would teach you the necessary skills. It would help you expand upon and conduct research and interpret and analyze data.

Given that these two research papers are the most dominant parts in earning a master’s degree or a doctorate in a specific field, it is crucial to know the differences and similarities. Also, make sure you’re knowledgeable about the requirements for each research paper to meet them.

Is a Thesis and Dissertation the Same Thing?Is a Thesis and Dissertation the Same Thing?

The synonymous use of the two words and the interaction with people from across the globe who have different denotations create confusion around this topic. But they are not the same thing, and they have multiple meanings.

Simplifying the whole discussion. In some cases, they are both called a thesis preceded. This is done by the college degree level in which they are submitted, such as “masters” or “doctoral.”

Their meanings basically depend on which region it is said; for example, in Europe, “thesis” refers to the paper written to help earn a Ph.D. On the other hand, a “dissertation” is a part of a broader postgraduate research project. In some places, it could also refer to the paper which helps earn a master’s degree, dubbing it a master’s dissertation).

However, “thesis” refers to the final research project to get a master’s degree in the US. Moreover, a “dissertation” is the research project to get a doctorate degree or a bachelor’s degree (called an “undergraduate dissertation”).

But you should know, generally speaking, there is a distinction between the two.

To explain the intricacies behind each, and for simplicity, we will use the US meanings of the words.

What is a Dissertation?

What is a Dissertation?

There are two dissertations: an undergraduate dissertation and a doctoral dissertation.

The undergraduate dissertation is a piece of research completed in the last year of the undergraduate program. A student explores a related topic of interest in greater depth than would otherwise be taught. Being guided through the process by an advisor of his choosing.

While requiring much less originality, comprehensiveness and being much shorter than a doctoral dissertation, it still has heavy research and analytical components. It is a discussion of the field of interest through thorough background research.

The doctoral dissertation, which is often referred to and will be directed to here solely as “dissertation,” is a document that joins between multiple things.

  • First and foremost, the work and knowledge that the student has acquired in graduate school. The majority of the paper will be based on heavy research, shared knowledge, and analogies, on which they will establish their hypothesis, which they will aim to prove in the paper.
  • Secondly, original or expanded research. The student will be researching a specific topic of their choosing. They will gather data through the methodologies they are taught while working on the dissertation.
  • Thirdly, an analysis and an interpretation of the data. The students are taught methods of analyzing the gathered data. They are expected to put that to use in the dissertation. Additionally, they are required to add a description of where the research lies in the larger context of the field.
  • Lastly, the oral presentation, or dissertation defense, is a chance for the candidates to communicate the results of the research that they have done. Presenting the components of their research and explaining the logical deduction of their conclusions.

In the dissertation defense, the candidates have an opportunity to explain their findings within the field, showing their proficient knowledge in the major. Their hypothesis, methodology, and conclusions are then challenged by the committee of faculty members.

Overall, the dissertation should show research, and analytical skills put forth by the candidate’s efforts and offer independence from the guidance of a faculty member. It should show how, due to the research, the knowledge in the field is more advanced.

What is Thesis?

What is Thesis?

What is a thesis? When you first hear that word, the first thing that pops up in college student’s mind is that thesis statement you have to write for essays. That is a statement that asserts the position paper, and is often your main argument in the essay.

A thesis put simply, is a collection of the information and expertise that the student has accumulated on the major they are studying. It’s a portrayal of qualifications of mastery of the subject.

It explores a specific field within the major that the student is interested in. The student, interacting with both the Major Advisor and Advisory Committee (chosen by the student), should result in the complete thesis.

The thesis revolves around an idea that answers the central thesis question. This idea should be conveyed through the preliminary research and the student’s input, making the work original. This idea should be argued by presenting analyzed data using prior research on the topic.

The oral presentation, or the thesis defense, would have questions from an expert panel about the subject matter, testing the student’s knowledge about their thesis, references, and the field in general.

Basically, it should be a showcase of the student’s familiarity with their respective fields and reflect on the hands-on experience they have gained through the master’s program. They do not direct the research they work on, but they are encouraged to contribute ideas.

What's the Difference Between Thesis and Dissertation?

What’s the Difference Between Thesis and Dissertation?

The main difference between thesis and dissertation lies in when and why they are written. The thesis is submitted at a graduate level to get the master’s degree. In contrast, the dissertation is presented at a postgraduate level to attain a doctorate in the field.

In addition, the dissertation includes more focused research about a specific topic in the field. At the same time, the student has a broader view of the thesis and looks more at the bigger picture than at a particular part of the field.

Moreover, unlike the thesis, the dissertation is not limited to expanding on or analyzing previous research. People writing a dissertation have to develop on the previous study and conduct their own, collect findings, and conclude. It is an opportunity for the student to convey a new concept, theory, or idea.

Also, the thesis defense is often less harsh than the dissertation defense. The thesis is more grounded in shared knowledge. In contrast, the dissertation is based on the candidate’s own procedures, methodologies, etc.

Another difference between thesis and dissertation is the absence of grades in a dissertation.

Finally, the dissertation is much lengthier than the thesis. It includes detail of the research background information such as the proposal, grants, etc. Thus, it would be approximately 2-3 times longer than a thesis.

Just as an extra point, in some programs, the projects are required to have an oral presentation component to it presented to a committee of faculty members. Usually, a dissertation presentation would take up several hours. In contrast, the thesis presentation would typically take an hour to present and answer questions.

One significant difference to keep in mind is the originality of the work and the directing of the research. There is less originality and no control over the study for the thesis. At the same time, there should be a lot of creativity and complete control over the research (given some limitations).

Put simply, there is a difference between a dissertation and a thesis. Still, there are a lot of similarities as well. Regardless of whether you want to get into a master’s or a doctorate program, the same basic skills will be required for you to graduate.

What are the Similarities Between Thesis and Dissertation?

What are the Similarities Between Thesis and Dissertation?

There are many similarities between a thesis and a dissertation:

  • They are both considered final projects for college degrees. They lie at different levels as the thesis is intended for the master’s and the dissertation for the Ph.D.
  • They are both research-based, as the whole point of the paper is exploring a topic or field and building on it or developing a new concept or idea through conducting the research.
  • They both require a strong understanding of the subject matter, as diving deep into a particular topic will need a good handle on the fundamentals and relative course material.
  • They both require professional and technical writing skills, considering extensive research papers.
  • They both should be original works, meaning they should include new insights through personal touches, new ideas, or concepts.
  • They both require analytical skills for the analysis of data and research. Specifically, an excellent ability to find trends, interpret and understand data, and conclude based on that.
  • They both put forward an argument and support it with evidence. The thesis puts forward an answer to the thesis question and defends that while a dissertation aims to prove its hypothesis.
  • They both can be published into the public domain as original works, although that is entirely the author’s choice.

All in all, the one major similarity is the way the papers flow. They both are constructed in the same way; title, sub-headings, abstract, methods, results, discussion, conclusion, recommendation, bibliography, and appendix. Another major similarity is that you have to be guided through the papers; you have an advisor or supervisor helping you throughout the journey.

Wrapping Things Up: Dissertation vs. Thesis

Clearing up the initial confusion based on semantics and putting the requirements of each of the papers on the table, hopefully, the distinction is a little less hazy.

They both require a lot of work, a solid understanding of the major in general, and heavy research to support the idea/hypothesis you are trying to prove.

The usual sequence of college degree levels is bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate. But that is not necessarily the path that you should take. Depending on your goals and your major, the idea of getting your Ph.D. without your master’s might be worth considering.

Considering that the dissertation requires much more work and a better understanding of the subject, it is the convention to get a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. That gives the student a good background in the topic and strengthens their basics, making it easier to write the dissertation.

Knowing what each program’s components are and what they take into consideration is an essential step in making that decision. Either way, it requires a lot of passion towards studying the subject for one to get into a graduate or postgraduate program and work towards any of the research projects.

Professor Conquer
Professor Conquer

Professor Conquer started Conquer Your Exam in 2018 to help students feel more confident and better prepared for their tough tests. Prof excelled in high school, graduating top of his class and receiving admissions into several Ivy League and top 15 schools. He has helped many students through the years tutoring and mentoring K-12, consulting seniors through the college admissions process, and writing extensive how-to guides for school.

If you found this helpful, help us out by sharing this post!


Readers of this post also read...

How Hard are Actuarial Exams?

How Hard are Actuarial Exams?

You’ve probably heard that becoming an actuary is one of the best career decisions you can make. The job ranks high in most career previews you’ll see online, and there are good reasons for that....

Read More