Dissertation vs Thesis:
What are the differences (and similarities)?

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | 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 methodology to choose and how to analyse the data.

One of the more common questions we receive is the following: “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.

Dissertation vs thesis: the key differences

First, a disclaimer…

Before tackling the dissertation vs thesis debate, it’s important to understand that there are over 26,000 universities in the world and every university has their nuances in terms of terminology. The terminology surrounding higher education also varies between countries, so keep this in mind. Your university might have a very specific definition of what a dissertation or thesis is, so check with one of your faculty to be 100% sure.

Universities can have different definitions of dissertations vs theses

First, let’s understand the similarities.

Dissertations and theses are both academic research projects. That is to say, they are academic projects that involve you undertaking research in a structured, systematic way that involves the following steps:

  1. Asking a well-articulated and meaningful research question(s).
  2. Assessing what other researchers have said in relation to that question (this is usually called a literature review)
  3. Building onto the existing research by undertaking your own research (generally involving some sort of fieldwork such as interviews or surveys)
  4. Deriving an answer to your research question(s).

In other words, theses and dissertations are both formal, structured research projects that involve using a research methodology to derive insights and answers to your questions. In this respect, they are the same thing.

Dissertations and theses are similar

Dissertation vs thesis: The differences

The key difference between a dissertation and a thesis is, for the most part, simply the level of study – for example, undergrad, Masters or PhD – and therefore, the complexity and rigorousness of the research.

For example, in the UK, a dissertation is (generally) the research project undertaken at the end of a Masters-level degree, whereas a thesis is completed for a Doctoral-level degree (e.g. PhD, DBA, etc).

Things tend to be the other way around in the US and some other countries – that is to say, a thesis is completed for a Masters-level degree, while a dissertation is completed for PhD.

In other words, a dissertation and a thesis are essentially the same thing, but at different levels of study (and therefore, the expected level of complexity). The chosen terminology varies from country to country, and sometimes it even varies between universities in the same country.

Dissertations theses are the same thing at different levels

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 dissertation or thesis?

Struggling to move your research project forward? 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 (for free)

This post is part of our research writing mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.

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