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What Is a PhD Dissertation?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 17 April 2014
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A Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) is typically awarded at the conclusion of extensive coursework and research that usually culminates in the writing, presentation, and defense of a PhD dissertation. This is a document that presents an extensively researched problem or idea, and then painstakingly examines that issue and ultimately offers a solution to the problem or a new way of considering the issue. A PhD dissertation is usually prepared by someone going for a PhD in any field, and the specific area the person has studied will often indicate the form of the dissertation, as well as the function of the piece.

Sometimes also called a thesis, a PhD dissertation typically acts as a person’s ultimate work as a student and the gateway for that person into the professional world. There can be some potential confusion when using the terms thesis and dissertation because in some areas they are interchangeable. In other areas, a thesis is for sub-doctoral work while a dissertation refers to the doctoral work. In still other areas, a thesis is used for doctoral work and dissertation is used to refer to sub-doctoral work. A PhD dissertation, however, typically refers to the work done to receive a PhD and complete a person’s formal education in a particular field.

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For people studying scientific fields, a PhD dissertation is quite important as a means of presenting their ideas and can often establish their initial reputation in the field. Scientific dissertations often take the form of examining a problem and then proposing a solution to the problem, or demonstrating research and understanding that better clarifies the problem. This can be an obvious real world problem or a theoretical problem that plagues others working in a particular field of the sciences. A PhD dissertation presented by someone studying the arts would more often take the form of a new way of viewing a piece of artwork, such as a criticism of a literary text with a new view of the work.

A student may work for years on his or her PhD dissertation, and the final work is often hundreds of pages long. Most schools indicate style preferences that dissertation students are to follow, and an adviser will usually work with a student to try to help him or her craft the best dissertation possible. The final PhD dissertation is then given to a board of reviewers, typically experts in the field and professors, who read the work and establish its worth. A student will then have to present his or her work before the board during an oral review and defense of his or her ideas, before finally receiving a PhD.

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