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How is a Dissertation Different From a Thesis?
How is a dissertation different from a thesis? If you plan to attend graduate school at the master’s or doctoral level, then you may have come across the terms thesis and dissertation on various school websites that outline the program requirements. Nearly all graduate-level programs in the United States require completion of a final thesis or dissertation, but some schools differ in their interpretation of this final project. Used to gauge comprehension and the ability to argue effectively, a thesis or dissertation represents a student’s understanding within her field of study. The following article will help you identify the differences between these two research documents.
Length and Structure
The length and structure of a thesis and dissertation vary according to program; however, most theses are significantly shorter than dissertations. Students seeking a master’s degree usually complete a thesis project in one full semester during which this is the only course they take. Doctoral candidates spend years completing their research so that they can write, edit and cite a research document that may comprise 400 pages. In some schools, a doctoral candidate’s entire course of study may be referred to as his dissertation. Length and structure also depend on the field of study. Science majors write less because they conduct more hands-on experiments; students in humanities and liberal arts programs write longer papers with more in-depth analysis.
Regardless of how schools use the terms thesis and dissertation, the purpose remains the same for both projects: Master’s level theses and doctoral dissertations require extensive research in order to prove that students have retained sufficient knowledge about their field. Theses typically require less external research because the project reflects a student’s own ideas and conclusions. Dissertations take several years to complete and may require hundreds of external sources.
The secondary focus is to see how well students can defend their own work. Both of these research projects typically conclude with an oral defense in which faculty members ask questions about the research and final paper. A dissertation defense can last several hours whereas a thesis defense may last only an hour.
You should also note a major cultural difference when it comes to final research projects. In the United States, the word “thesis” represents a paper that reflects a student’s ideas supported by thorough research. According to Enago , Europe understands this term in a different way: “A doctoral thesis is a focused piece of original research which is performed in order to obtain a Ph.D. A dissertation is part of a broader post graduate research project.” If you plan to attend a school in Europe or other parts of the world, you should contact your individual school to verify how they define these terms.
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Some master’s level programs in the United States do not require a research project as significant as a thesis, but almost all doctoral programs require a dissertation. Extensive research projects such as these force students to develop better analytical thinking skills and to put those skills into action by creating a tangible work. In addition, theses and dissertations are published in a limited academic capacity as part of the final requirement for most schools. When choosing a graduate program, make an appointment with your school’s research faculty so that you can ask, “How is your program’s dissertation different from a thesis?”
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Studying a standard PhD by thesis isn’t the only way to get a Doctorate degree. Here are four other ways of gaining the qualification…
This four-year qualification, also known as the New Route PhD, involves studying a one-year research Masters degree (MRes) before progressing onto a three-year PhD.
Offered by a selective consortium of universities across the UK, integrated PhDs are supported by the government, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the British Council.
They expose you to a combination of taught materials, practical experience and advanced research. This allows you to learn subject-specific methodologies while building the transferable skills that will enable you to become a leader in your chosen profession.
Institutions can also develop personalised integrated PhD programmes to meet each individual student’s needs. For example, universities may offer you the opportunity to gain a postgraduate certificate (PGCert) in Learning and Teaching (CiLT) – perfect if you’re considering a career as a higher education lecturer .
Geared primarily towards current professionals in vocational sectors such as healthcare , teaching and education , and engineering and manufacturing , this type of Doctorate includes a significant taught component – and, therefore, a smaller research project.
Professional Doctorates are often taken on a part-time basis and can last anywhere between two and eight years. Like their standard PhD counterparts, they usually begin in October or January.
While you won’t typically be looking to get an academic job , your research is expected to contribute to theory as well as professional practice. Projects often revolve around a real-life issue that affects your employer. Several professional Doctorates, such as the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology (DClinPsy), are accredited by a professional body and may also lead to a professional qualification .
Common titles for graduates of professional Doctorate degrees include:
- Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
- Doctor of Education (EdD)
- Doctor of Medicine (MD)
- Doctor of Engineering (EngD).
Unlike many professional Doctorates, the EngD is typically offered as a full-time course and is aimed at young engineering graduates with little or no professional experience.
Phd by publication
This route involves submitting previously published work – such as books, book chapters and journal articles – which together form a coherent body of work and show evidence of an original contribution to a particular field of study.
It is often taken by mid-career academics who have not had the opportunity to undertake a standard Doctorate degree.
Generally, a minimum of between five and eight published pieces are required, but this varies between institutions and depends on their length. The published work will be assessed to the same rigorous standards as a traditional PhD by thesis.
You must also provide a written supporting statement, which can range from 5,000 to 20,000 words, and present your work to an academic committee. A supervisor will assist you with selecting which publications to submit and with the supporting statement.
Some universities accept only their own graduates for a PhD by publication, while others restrict this route to their academic staff. In general, you should have graduated from your first degree at least seven years ago to be eligible.
Distance learning PhD
As PhDs are based primarily on independent research rather than time spent in lectures and seminars, distance learning is a viable route for many students.
If you have family or work commitments, or are an international student, this gives you the chance to undertake a PhD without having to live close to your chosen university. It is also a good option if the subject you are researching or access to archive materials require you to be based in a specific location.
For the most part you will be in touch with your supervisor by phone, email or Skype. However, you will generally need to attend university for one or two weeks of each academic year for meetings and to receive training in research skills. Your final examination will also be taken on a face-to-face basis.
Distance learning PhDs are available at a growing number of UK universities, and you can usually register as a full- or part-time student. The level of fees you pay varies between institutions – some charge the same as for a standard PhD while others offer a reduced rate.
Check that any funding you plan to apply for is available to distance learning students, as this is not always the case.
Search for distance learning PhDs .
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- Search for PhD courses .
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Dan Mason, Senior editor
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