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What is the Difference Between a Thesis and Dissertation?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 09 December 2016
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The difference between a thesis and dissertation is largely contextual and ultimately they can be two fairly different ideas, or synonyms for the same concept. While the meanings can vary from region to region, and even between different classrooms, in general one is typically used to refer to a piece of writing or work done for an undergraduate or master’s degree program and the other is used to refer to work toward a doctoral degree. The problem with distinguishing between a thesis and dissertation, however, is that in some areas one term refers to the undergraduate work and the other term refers to doctoral work, and in other areas they are reversed.

When considering the difference between a thesis and dissertation it can often be helpful to examine different regions and levels of education. Throughout much of the United States (US), the term “thesis” typically refers to a long work for an undergraduate program or for a master’s degree, while “dissertation” often indicates work in a doctoral program. “Thesis” is often used synonymously with other terms such as “essay” and “paper” to describe a fairly extensive piece of writing. A thesis can also be a single aspect of an essay or piece of writing that basically states the central concept within the written work.

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At some colleges and universities, the different between a thesis and dissertation is usually clearly indicated because the term “dissertation” will often only be used to refer to a doctoral dissertation prepared to complete a degree such as a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD). This is usually a very long piece of work that often takes several years to complete and serves as a student’s ultimate educational work, and typically makes a noteworthy contribution to the field of study. Where the line between a thesis and dissertation often becomes less clear is that some schools will actually reverse these terms and refer to a “doctoral thesis” and lower levels of “dissertation.”

In other regions such as the United Kingdom (UK), “thesis” is commonly associated with doctoral work and “dissertation” usually refers to lower level work. Again, however, some schools or instructors can potentially switch these two terms. It is often easiest to keep the meanings of thesis and dissertation clear through considering the context in which the terms are used. Many times people will also use an indicator with them such as “master’s thesis” and “doctoral dissertation” to eliminate potential confusion. The two terms can also be considered synonymous and used interchangeably to refer to the same thing, even within a single context.

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Thesis and dissertation are two facets of academic research; the former leading to a PhD and the latter to a Master’s degree like MPhil.

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