Dissertation vs Thesis vs Capstone Project
What’s the difference?

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewed By: Dr. Eunice Rautenbach | October 2020

At Grad Coach, we receive questions about dissertation and thesis writing on a daily basis – everything from how to find a good research topic to which research methods to use and how to analyse the data.

One of the most common questions we receive is “what’s the difference between a dissertation and thesis?”. If you look around online, you’ll find a lot of confusing and often contrasting answers. In this post we’ll clear it up, once and for all…

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Dissertation vs Thesis: Showdown Time

Before comparing dissertations to theses, it’s useful to first understand what both of these are and what they have in common.

Dissertations and theses are both formal academic research projects. In other words, they’re academic projects that involve you undertaking research in a structured, systematic way. The research process typically involves the following steps:

  1. Asking a well-articulated and meaningful research question (or questions).
  2. Assessing what other researchers have said in relation to that question (this is usually called a literature review – you can learn more about that up here).
  3. Undertaking your own research using a clearly justified methodology – this often involves some sort of fieldwork such as interviews or surveys – and lastly,
  4. Deriving an answer to your research question based on your analysis.

In other words, theses and dissertations are both formal, structured research projects that involve using a clearly articulated methodology to draw out insights and answers to your research questions. So, in this respect, they are, for the most part, the same thing.

But, how are they different then?

Well, the key difference between a dissertation and a thesis is, for the most part, the level of study – in other words, undergrad, master or PhD. By extension, this also means that the complexity and rigorousness of the research differs between dissertations and theses.

Dissertations and theses are both academic research projects that involve undertaking research in a structured, systematic way.

So, which is which?

This is where it gets a bit confusing. The meaning of dissertation or thesis varies depending on the country or region of study. For example, in the UK, a dissertation is generally a research project that’s completed at the end of a Masters-level degree, whereas a thesis is completed for a Doctoral-level degree.

Conversely, the terminology is flipped around in the US (and some other countries). In other words, a thesis is completed for a Masters-level degree, while a dissertation is completed for PhD (or any other doctoral-level degree).

Simply put, a dissertation and a thesis are essentially the same thing, but at different levels of study. The exact terminology varies from country to country, and sometimes it even varies between universities in the same country. Some universities will also refer to this type of project as a capstone project. In addition, some universities will also require an oral exam or viva voce, especially for doctoral-level projects. 

Given that there are more than 25,000 universities scattered across the globe, all of this terminological complexity can cause some confusion. To be safe, make sure that you thoroughly read the brief provided by your university for your dissertation or thesis, and if possible, visit the university library to have a look at past students’ projects. This will help you get a feel for your institution’s norms and spot any nuances in terms of their specific requirements so that you can give them exactly what they want.

The key difference between a dissertation and a thesis is, for the most part, simply the level of study - i.e. undergrad vs postgrad.

Let’s recap

Dissertations and theses are both formal academic research projects. The main difference is the level of study – undergrad, Masters or PhD. Terminology tends to vary from country to country, and even within countries.

Need help with your research project?

Get in touch with a friendly Grad Coach to discuss how we can help you fast-track your dissertation or thesis today. Book a free, no-obligation consultation here.

Psst... there’s more!

This post was based on one of our popular Research Bootcamps. If you're working on a research project, you'll definitely want to check this out...

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