meaning of doctoral thesis

  • What Is a PhD Thesis?
  • Doing a PhD

This page will explain what a PhD thesis is and offer advice on how to write a good thesis, from outlining the typical structure to guiding you through the referencing. A summary of this page is as follows:

  • A PhD thesis is a concentrated piece of original research which must be carried out by all PhD students in order to successfully earn their doctoral degree.
  • The fundamental purpose of a thesis is to explain the conclusion that has been reached as a result of undertaking the research project.
  • The typical PhD thesis structure will contain four chapters of original work sandwiched between a literature review chapter and a concluding chapter.
  • There is no universal rule for the length of a thesis, but general guidelines set the word count between 70,000 to 100,000 words .

What Is a Thesis?

A thesis is the main output of a PhD as it explains your workflow in reaching the conclusions you have come to in undertaking the research project. As a result, much of the content of your thesis will be based around your chapters of original work.

For your thesis to be successful, it needs to adequately defend your argument and provide a unique or increased insight into your field that was not previously available. As such, you can’t rely on other ideas or results to produce your thesis; it needs to be an original piece of text that belongs to you and you alone.

What Should a Thesis Include?

Although each thesis will be unique, they will all follow the same general format. To demonstrate this, we’ve put together an example structure of a PhD thesis and explained what you should include in each section below.

Acknowledgements

This is a personal section which you may or may not choose to include. The vast majority of students include it, giving both gratitude and recognition to their supervisor, university, sponsor/funder and anyone else who has supported them along the way.

1. Introduction

Provide a brief overview of your reason for carrying out your research project and what you hope to achieve by undertaking it. Following this, explain the structure of your thesis to give the reader context for what he or she is about to read.

2. Literature Review

Set the context of your research by explaining the foundation of what is currently known within your field of research, what recent developments have occurred, and where the gaps in knowledge are. You should conclude the literature review by outlining the overarching aims and objectives of the research project.

3. Main Body

This section focuses on explaining all aspects of your original research and so will form the bulk of your thesis. Typically, this section will contain four chapters covering the below:

  • your research/data collection methodologies,
  • your results,
  • a comprehensive analysis of your results,
  • a detailed discussion of your findings.

Depending on your project, each of your chapters may independently contain the structure listed above or in some projects, each chapter could be focussed entirely on one aspect (e.g. a standalone results chapter). Ideally, each of these chapters should be formatted such that they could be translated into papers for submission to peer-reviewed journals. Therefore, following your PhD, you should be able to submit papers for peer-review by reusing content you have already produced.

4. Conclusion

The conclusion will be a summary of your key findings with emphasis placed on the new contributions you have made to your field.

When producing your conclusion, it’s imperative that you relate it back to your original research aims, objectives and hypotheses. Make sure you have answered your original question.

Finding a PhD has never been this easy – search for a PhD by keyword, location or academic area of interest.

How Many Words Is a PhD Thesis?

A common question we receive from students is – “how long should my thesis be?“.

Every university has different guidelines on this matter, therefore, consult with your university to get an understanding of their full requirements. Generally speaking, most supervisors will suggest somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 words . This usually corresponds to somewhere between 250 – 350 pages .

We must stress that this is flexible, and it is important not to focus solely on the length of your thesis, but rather the quality.

How Do I Format My Thesis?

Although the exact formatting requirements will vary depending on the university, the typical formatting policies adopted by most universities are:

What Happens When I Finish My Thesis?

After you have submitted your thesis, you will attend a viva . A viva is an interview-style examination during which you are required to defend your thesis and answer questions on it. The aim of the viva is to convince your examiners that your work is of the level required for a doctoral degree. It is one of the last steps in the PhD process and arguably one of the most daunting!

For more information on the viva process and for tips on how to confidently pass it, please refer to our in-depth PhD Viva Guide .

How Do I Publish My Thesis?

Unfortunately, you can’t publish your thesis in its entirety in a journal. However, universities can make it available for others to read through their library system.

If you want to submit your work in a journal, you will need to develop it into one or more peer-reviewed papers. This will largely involve reformatting, condensing and tailoring it to meet the standards of the journal you are targeting.

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Guide to writing your thesis/dissertation, definition of dissertation and thesis.

The dissertation or thesis is a scholarly treatise that substantiates a specific point of view as a result of original research that is conducted by students during their graduate study. At Cornell, the thesis is a requirement for the receipt of the M.A. and M.S. degrees and some professional master’s degrees. The dissertation is a requirement of the Ph.D. degree.

Formatting Requirement and Standards

The Graduate School sets the minimum format for your thesis or dissertation, while you, your special committee, and your advisor/chair decide upon the content and length. Grammar, punctuation, spelling, and other mechanical issues are your sole responsibility. Generally, the thesis and dissertation should conform to the standards of leading academic journals in your field. The Graduate School does not monitor the thesis or dissertation for mechanics, content, or style.

“Papers Option” Dissertation or Thesis

A “papers option” is available only to students in certain fields, which are listed on the Fields Permitting the Use of Papers Option page , or by approved petition. If you choose the papers option, your dissertation or thesis is organized as a series of relatively independent chapters or papers that you have submitted or will be submitting to journals in the field. You must be the only author or the first author of the papers to be used in the dissertation. The papers-option dissertation or thesis must meet all format and submission requirements, and a singular referencing convention must be used throughout.

ProQuest Electronic Submissions

The dissertation and thesis become permanent records of your original research, and in the case of doctoral research, the Graduate School requires publication of the dissertation and abstract in its original form. All Cornell master’s theses and doctoral dissertations require an electronic submission through ProQuest, which fills orders for paper or digital copies of the thesis and dissertation and makes a digital version available online via their subscription database, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses . For master’s theses, only the abstract is available. ProQuest provides worldwide distribution of your work from the master copy. You retain control over your dissertation and are free to grant publishing rights as you see fit. The formatting requirements contained in this guide meet all ProQuest specifications.

Copies of Dissertation and Thesis

Copies of Ph.D. dissertations and master’s theses are also uploaded in PDF format to the Cornell Library Repository, eCommons . A print copy of each master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation is submitted to Cornell University Library by ProQuest.

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How To Write A Dissertation Or Thesis

8 straightforward steps to craft an a-grade dissertation.

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

Writing a dissertation or thesis is not a simple task. It takes time, energy and a lot of will power to get you across the finish line. It’s not easy – but it doesn’t necessarily need to be a painful process. If you understand the big-picture process of how to write a dissertation or thesis, your research journey will be a lot smoother.  

In this post, I’m going to outline the big-picture process of how to write a high-quality dissertation or thesis, without losing your mind along the way. If you’re just starting your research, this post is perfect for you. Alternatively, if you’ve already submitted your proposal, this article which covers how to structure a dissertation might be more helpful.

How To Write A Dissertation: 8 Steps

  • Clearly understand what a dissertation (or thesis) is
  • Find a unique and valuable research topic
  • Craft a convincing research proposal
  • Write up a strong introduction chapter
  • Review the existing literature and compile a literature review
  • Design a rigorous research strategy and undertake your own research
  • Present the findings of your research
  • Draw a conclusion and discuss the implications

Start writing your dissertation

Step 1: Understand exactly what a dissertation is

This probably sounds like a no-brainer, but all too often, students come to us for help with their research and the underlying issue is that they don’t fully understand what a dissertation (or thesis) actually is.

So, what is a dissertation?

At its simplest, a dissertation or thesis is a formal piece of research , reflecting the standard research process . But what is the standard research process, you ask? The research process involves 4 key steps:

  • Ask a very specific, well-articulated question (s) (your research topic)
  • See what other researchers have said about it (if they’ve already answered it)
  • If they haven’t answered it adequately, undertake your own data collection and analysis in a scientifically rigorous fashion
  • Answer your original question(s), based on your analysis findings

 A dissertation or thesis is a formal piece of research, reflecting the standard four step academic research process.

In short, the research process is simply about asking and answering questions in a systematic fashion . This probably sounds pretty obvious, but people often think they’ve done “research”, when in fact what they have done is:

  • Started with a vague, poorly articulated question
  • Not taken the time to see what research has already been done regarding the question
  • Collected data and opinions that support their gut and undertaken a flimsy analysis
  • Drawn a shaky conclusion, based on that analysis

If you want to see the perfect example of this in action, look out for the next Facebook post where someone claims they’ve done “research”… All too often, people consider reading a few blog posts to constitute research. Its no surprise then that what they end up with is an opinion piece, not research. Okay, okay – I’ll climb off my soapbox now.

The key takeaway here is that a dissertation (or thesis) is a formal piece of research, reflecting the research process. It’s not an opinion piece , nor a place to push your agenda or try to convince someone of your position. Writing a good dissertation involves asking a question and taking a systematic, rigorous approach to answering it.

If you understand this and are comfortable leaving your opinions or preconceived ideas at the door, you’re already off to a good start!

 A dissertation is not an opinion piece, nor a place to push your agenda or try to  convince someone of your position.

Step 2: Find a unique, valuable research topic

As we saw, the first step of the research process is to ask a specific, well-articulated question. In other words, you need to find a research topic that asks a specific question or set of questions (these are called research questions ). Sounds easy enough, right? All you’ve got to do is identify a question or two and you’ve got a winning research topic. Well, not quite…

A good dissertation or thesis topic has a few important attributes. Specifically, a solid research topic should be:

Let’s take a closer look at these:

Attribute #1: Clear

Your research topic needs to be crystal clear about what you’re planning to research, what you want to know, and within what context. There shouldn’t be any ambiguity or vagueness about what you’ll research.

Here’s an example of a clearly articulated research topic:

An analysis of consumer-based factors influencing organisational trust in British low-cost online equity brokerage firms.

As you can see in the example, its crystal clear what will be analysed (factors impacting organisational trust), amongst who (consumers) and in what context (British low-cost equity brokerage firms, based online).

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meaning of doctoral thesis

Attribute #2:   Unique

Your research should be asking a question(s) that hasn’t been asked before, or that hasn’t been asked in a specific context (for example, in a specific country or industry).

For example, sticking organisational trust topic above, it’s quite likely that organisational trust factors in the UK have been investigated before, but the context (online low-cost equity brokerages) could make this research unique. Therefore, the context makes this research original.

One caveat when using context as the basis for originality – you need to have a good reason to suspect that your findings in this context might be different from the existing research – otherwise, there’s no reason to warrant researching it.

Attribute #3: Important

Simply asking a unique or original question is not enough – the question needs to create value. In other words, successfully answering your research questions should provide some value to the field of research or the industry. You can’t research something just to satisfy your curiosity. It needs to make some form of contribution either to research or industry.

For example, researching the factors influencing consumer trust would create value by enabling businesses to tailor their operations and marketing to leverage factors that promote trust. In other words, it would have a clear benefit to industry.

So, how do you go about finding a unique and valuable research topic? We explain that in detail in this video post – How To Find A Research Topic . Yeah, we’ve got you covered 😊

Step 3: Write a convincing research proposal

Once you’ve pinned down a high-quality research topic, the next step is to convince your university to let you research it. No matter how awesome you think your topic is, it still needs to get the rubber stamp before you can move forward with your research. The research proposal is the tool you’ll use for this job.

So, what’s in a research proposal?

The main “job” of a research proposal is to convince your university, advisor or committee that your research topic is worthy of approval. But convince them of what? Well, this varies from university to university, but generally, they want to see that:

  • You have a clearly articulated, unique and important topic (this might sound familiar…)
  • You’ve done some initial reading of the existing literature relevant to your topic (i.e. a literature review)
  • You have a provisional plan in terms of how you will collect data and analyse it (i.e. a methodology)

At the proposal stage, it’s (generally) not expected that you’ve extensively reviewed the existing literature , but you will need to show that you’ve done enough reading to identify a clear gap for original (unique) research. Similarly, they generally don’t expect that you have a rock-solid research methodology mapped out, but you should have an idea of whether you’ll be undertaking qualitative or quantitative analysis , and how you’ll collect your data (we’ll discuss this in more detail later).

Long story short – don’t stress about having every detail of your research meticulously thought out at the proposal stage – this will develop as you progress through your research. However, you do need to show that you’ve “done your homework” and that your research is worthy of approval .

So, how do you go about crafting a high-quality, convincing proposal? We cover that in detail in this video post – How To Write A Top-Class Research Proposal . We’ve also got a video walkthrough of two proposal examples here .

Step 4: Craft a strong introduction chapter

Once your proposal’s been approved, its time to get writing your actual dissertation or thesis! The good news is that if you put the time into crafting a high-quality proposal, you’ve already got a head start on your first three chapters – introduction, literature review and methodology – as you can use your proposal as the basis for these.

Handy sidenote – our free dissertation & thesis template is a great way to speed up your dissertation writing journey.

What’s the introduction chapter all about?

The purpose of the introduction chapter is to set the scene for your research (dare I say, to introduce it…) so that the reader understands what you’ll be researching and why it’s important. In other words, it covers the same ground as the research proposal in that it justifies your research topic.

What goes into the introduction chapter?

This can vary slightly between universities and degrees, but generally, the introduction chapter will include the following:

  • A brief background to the study, explaining the overall area of research
  • A problem statement , explaining what the problem is with the current state of research (in other words, where the knowledge gap exists)
  • Your research questions – in other words, the specific questions your study will seek to answer (based on the knowledge gap)
  • The significance of your study – in other words, why it’s important and how its findings will be useful in the world

As you can see, this all about explaining the “what” and the “why” of your research (as opposed to the “how”). So, your introduction chapter is basically the salesman of your study, “selling” your research to the first-time reader and (hopefully) getting them interested to read more.

How do I write the introduction chapter, you ask? We cover that in detail in this post .

The introduction chapter is where you set the scene for your research, detailing exactly what you’ll be researching and why it’s important.

Step 5: Undertake an in-depth literature review

As I mentioned earlier, you’ll need to do some initial review of the literature in Steps 2 and 3 to find your research gap and craft a convincing research proposal – but that’s just scratching the surface. Once you reach the literature review stage of your dissertation or thesis, you need to dig a lot deeper into the existing research and write up a comprehensive literature review chapter.

What’s the literature review all about?

There are two main stages in the literature review process:

Literature Review Step 1: Reading up

The first stage is for you to deep dive into the existing literature (journal articles, textbook chapters, industry reports, etc) to gain an in-depth understanding of the current state of research regarding your topic. While you don’t need to read every single article, you do need to ensure that you cover all literature that is related to your core research questions, and create a comprehensive catalogue of that literature , which you’ll use in the next step.

Reading and digesting all the relevant literature is a time consuming and intellectually demanding process. Many students underestimate just how much work goes into this step, so make sure that you allocate a good amount of time for this when planning out your research. Thankfully, there are ways to fast track the process – be sure to check out this article covering how to read journal articles quickly .

Dissertation Coaching

Literature Review Step 2: Writing up

Once you’ve worked through the literature and digested it all, you’ll need to write up your literature review chapter. Many students make the mistake of thinking that the literature review chapter is simply a summary of what other researchers have said. While this is partly true, a literature review is much more than just a summary. To pull off a good literature review chapter, you’ll need to achieve at least 3 things:

  • You need to synthesise the existing research , not just summarise it. In other words, you need to show how different pieces of theory fit together, what’s agreed on by researchers, what’s not.
  • You need to highlight a research gap that your research is going to fill. In other words, you’ve got to outline the problem so that your research topic can provide a solution.
  • You need to use the existing research to inform your methodology and approach to your own research design. For example, you might use questions or Likert scales from previous studies in your your own survey design .

As you can see, a good literature review is more than just a summary of the published research. It’s the foundation on which your own research is built, so it deserves a lot of love and attention. Take the time to craft a comprehensive literature review with a suitable structure .

But, how do I actually write the literature review chapter, you ask? We cover that in detail in this video post .

Step 6: Carry out your own research

Once you’ve completed your literature review and have a sound understanding of the existing research, its time to develop your own research (finally!). You’ll design this research specifically so that you can find the answers to your unique research question.

There are two steps here – designing your research strategy and executing on it:

1 – Design your research strategy

The first step is to design your research strategy and craft a methodology chapter . I won’t get into the technicalities of the methodology chapter here, but in simple terms, this chapter is about explaining the “how” of your research. If you recall, the introduction and literature review chapters discussed the “what” and the “why”, so it makes sense that the next point to cover is the “how” –that’s what the methodology chapter is all about.

In this section, you’ll need to make firm decisions about your research design. This includes things like:

  • Your research philosophy (e.g. positivism or interpretivism )
  • Your overall methodology (e.g. qualitative , quantitative or mixed methods)
  • Your data collection strategy (e.g. interviews , focus groups, surveys)
  • Your data analysis strategy (e.g. content analysis , correlation analysis, regression)

If these words have got your head spinning, don’t worry! We’ll explain these in plain language in other posts. It’s not essential that you understand the intricacies of research design (yet!). The key takeaway here is that you’ll need to make decisions about how you’ll design your own research, and you’ll need to describe (and justify) your decisions in your methodology chapter.

2 – Execute: Collect and analyse your data

Once you’ve worked out your research design, you’ll put it into action and start collecting your data. This might mean undertaking interviews, hosting an online survey or any other data collection method. Data collection can take quite a bit of time (especially if you host in-person interviews), so be sure to factor sufficient time into your project plan for this. Oftentimes, things don’t go 100% to plan (for example, you don’t get as many survey responses as you hoped for), so bake a little extra time into your budget here.

Once you’ve collected your data, you’ll need to do some data preparation before you can sink your teeth into the analysis. For example:

  • If you carry out interviews or focus groups, you’ll need to transcribe your audio data to text (i.e. a Word document).
  • If you collect quantitative survey data, you’ll need to clean up your data and get it into the right format for whichever analysis software you use (for example, SPSS, R or STATA).

Once you’ve completed your data prep, you’ll undertake your analysis, using the techniques that you described in your methodology. Depending on what you find in your analysis, you might also do some additional forms of analysis that you hadn’t planned for. For example, you might see something in the data that raises new questions or that requires clarification with further analysis.

The type(s) of analysis that you’ll use depend entirely on the nature of your research and your research questions. For example:

  • If your research if exploratory in nature, you’ll often use qualitative analysis techniques .
  • If your research is confirmatory in nature, you’ll often use quantitative analysis techniques
  • If your research involves a mix of both, you might use a mixed methods approach

Again, if these words have got your head spinning, don’t worry! We’ll explain these concepts and techniques in other posts. The key takeaway is simply that there’s no “one size fits all” for research design and methodology – it all depends on your topic, your research questions and your data. So, don’t be surprised if your study colleagues take a completely different approach to yours.

The research philosophy is at the core of the methodology chapter

Step 7: Present your findings

Once you’ve completed your analysis, it’s time to present your findings (finally!). In a dissertation or thesis, you’ll typically present your findings in two chapters – the results chapter and the discussion chapter .

What’s the difference between the results chapter and the discussion chapter?

While these two chapters are similar, the results chapter generally just presents the processed data neatly and clearly without interpretation, while the discussion chapter explains the story the data are telling  – in other words, it provides your interpretation of the results.

For example, if you were researching the factors that influence consumer trust, you might have used a quantitative approach to identify the relationship between potential factors (e.g. perceived integrity and competence of the organisation) and consumer trust. In this case:

  • Your results chapter would just present the results of the statistical tests. For example, correlation results or differences between groups. In other words, the processed numbers.
  • Your discussion chapter would explain what the numbers mean in relation to your research question(s). For example, Factor 1 has a weak relationship with consumer trust, while Factor 2 has a strong relationship.

Depending on the university and degree, these two chapters (results and discussion) are sometimes merged into one , so be sure to check with your institution what their preference is. Regardless of the chapter structure, this section is about presenting the findings of your research in a clear, easy to understand fashion.

Importantly, your discussion here needs to link back to your research questions (which you outlined in the introduction or literature review chapter). In other words, it needs to answer the key questions you asked (or at least attempt to answer them).

For example, if we look at the sample research topic:

In this case, the discussion section would clearly outline which factors seem to have a noteworthy influence on organisational trust. By doing so, they are answering the overarching question and fulfilling the purpose of the research .

Your discussion here needs to link back to your research questions. It needs to answer the key questions you asked in your introduction.

For more information about the results chapter , check out this post for qualitative studies and this post for quantitative studies .

Step 8: The Final Step Draw a conclusion and discuss the implications

Last but not least, you’ll need to wrap up your research with the conclusion chapter . In this chapter, you’ll bring your research full circle by highlighting the key findings of your study and explaining what the implications of these findings are.

What exactly are key findings? The key findings are those findings which directly relate to your original research questions and overall research objectives (which you discussed in your introduction chapter). The implications, on the other hand, explain what your findings mean for industry, or for research in your area.

Sticking with the consumer trust topic example, the conclusion might look something like this:

Key findings

This study set out to identify which factors influence consumer-based trust in British low-cost online equity brokerage firms. The results suggest that the following factors have a large impact on consumer trust:

While the following factors have a very limited impact on consumer trust:

Notably, within the 25-30 age groups, Factors E had a noticeably larger impact, which may be explained by…

Implications

The findings having noteworthy implications for British low-cost online equity brokers. Specifically:

The large impact of Factors X and Y implies that brokers need to consider….

The limited impact of Factor E implies that brokers need to…

As you can see, the conclusion chapter is basically explaining the “what” (what your study found) and the “so what?” (what the findings mean for the industry or research). This brings the study full circle and closes off the document.

In the final chapter, you’ll bring your research full circle by highlighting the key findings of your study and the implications thereof.

Let’s recap – how to write a dissertation or thesis

You’re still with me? Impressive! I know that this post was a long one, but hopefully you’ve learnt a thing or two about how to write a dissertation or thesis, and are now better equipped to start your own research.

To recap, the 8 steps to writing a quality dissertation (or thesis) are as follows:

  • Understand what a dissertation (or thesis) is – a research project that follows the research process.
  • Find a unique (original) and important research topic
  • Craft a convincing dissertation or thesis research proposal
  • Write a clear, compelling introduction chapter
  • Undertake a thorough review of the existing research and write up a literature review
  • Undertake your own research
  • Present and interpret your findings

Once you’ve wrapped up the core chapters, all that’s typically left is the abstract , reference list and appendices. As always, be sure to check with your university if they have any additional requirements in terms of structure or content.  

meaning of doctoral thesis

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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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20 Comments

Romia

thankfull >>>this is very useful

Madhu

Thank you, it was really helpful

Elhadi Abdelrahim

unquestionably, this amazing simplified way of teaching. Really , I couldn’t find in the literature words that fully explicit my great thanks to you. However, I could only say thanks a-lot.

Derek Jansen

Great to hear that – thanks for the feedback. Good luck writing your dissertation/thesis.

Writer

This is the most comprehensive explanation of how to write a dissertation. Many thanks for sharing it free of charge.

Sam

Very rich presentation. Thank you

Hailu

Thanks Derek Jansen|GRADCOACH, I find it very useful guide to arrange my activities and proceed to research!

Nunurayi Tambala

Thank you so much for such a marvelous teaching .I am so convinced that am going to write a comprehensive and a distinct masters dissertation

Hussein Huwail

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Eva

This was straightforward. Thank you!

Ken

I can say that your explanations are simple and enlightening – understanding what you have done here is easy for me. Could you write more about the different types of research methods specific to the three methodologies: quan, qual and MM. I look forward to interacting with this website more in the future.

Thanks for the feedback and suggestions 🙂

Osasuyi Blessing

Hello, your write ups is quite educative. However, l have challenges in going about my research questions which is below; *Building the enablers of organisational growth through effective governance and purposeful leadership.*

Dung Doh

Very educating.

Ezra Daniel

Just listening to the name of the dissertation makes the student nervous. As writing a top-quality dissertation is a difficult task as it is a lengthy topic, requires a lot of research and understanding and is usually around 10,000 to 15000 words. Sometimes due to studies, unbalanced workload or lack of research and writing skill students look for dissertation submission from professional writers.

Nice Edinam Hoyah

Thank you 💕😊 very much. I was confused but your comprehensive explanation has cleared my doubts of ever presenting a good thesis. Thank you.

Sehauli

thank you so much, that was so useful

Daniel Madsen

Hi. Where is the excel spread sheet ark?

Emmanuel kKoko

could you please help me look at your thesis paper to enable me to do the portion that has to do with the specification

my topic is “the impact of domestic revenue mobilization.

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A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing a Ph.D. Dissertation

An Independent Research Project for Ph.D. Candidates

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A dissertation, also known as a doctoral thesis , is the final required part of completing a student's doctoral study. Undertaken after a student completes coursework and passes a comprehensive examination , the dissertation is the final hurdle in completing a Ph.D. or other doctoral degree. The dissertation is expected to make a new and creative contribution to a field of study and to demonstrate the student's expertise. In social science and science programs, the dissertation usually requires conducting empirical research.

Elements of a Strong Dissertation

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, a strong medical dissertation relies heavily on the creation of a specific hypothesis that can be either disproven or supported by data collected by independent student research. Further, it must also contain several key elements starting with an introduction to the problem statement, conceptual framework and research question as well as references to literature on already published on the topic. 

A dissertation must also be relevant (and proven to be such) as well as capable of being researched independently by the student. Though the required length of these dissertations varies by school, the governing body overseeing the practice of medicine in the United States standardizes this same protocol. Also included in the dissertation is the methodology for research and data collection as well as instrumentation and quality control. A stated section on population and sample size for the study is imperative to defending the thesis once it comes time to do so.

Like most scientific publications, the thesis must also contain a section of published results and an analysis of what this entails for the scientific or medical community. The discussion and conclusion sections let the review committee know that the student understands the full implications of his or her work as well as its real-world application to their field of study (and soon, professional work). 

Approval Process

Although students are expected to conduct the bulk of their research and pen the entire dissertation on their own, most graduate medical programs provide an advisory and review committee to the student upon starting their studies. Through a series of weekly reviews over their course of schooling, the student and his or her advisor hone in on the hypothesis of the dissertation before they submit it to the review committee to begin work on writing the thesis. 

From there, the student can take as long or as short of a time as they need to complete their dissertation, often resulting in students who have finished their entire courseload achieving ABD status ("all but dissertation"), just shy of receiving their full Ph.D. In this interim period, the student — with the occasional guidance of his or her advisor —  is expected to research, test and write a dissertation that can be defended in a public forum. 

Once the review committee accepts the finalized draft of the thesis, the doctoral candidate will then get the chance to publicly defend his or her statements. If they pass this test, the dissertation is submitted electronically to the school's academic journal or archive and the candidate's full doctoral degree is issued once the final paperwork has been submitted.

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How to write a Doctoral Thesis

Prof. HR Ahmad, Department of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, The Aga Khan University, Karachi, Pakistan. E-mail: [email protected]

Note: * Ahmad HR. In: Medical Writing. Eds. SA Jawaid, MH Jafary & SJ Zuberi. PMJA, 1997 Ed II: 133-142.

PATIENT care and teaching are rather well established components of our medical career. However, with the passage of time a third component has started to influence our medical culture, namely research. 1 - 4 How to accept this challenge is a question. 5 Indeed, teaching and research form a dialectic unit, meaning that teaching without a research component is like a soup without salt. It is a well-established fact that the research activity of an institution is directly proportional to the number of qualified and committed PhD candidates. An inspiring infrastructure, laboratory facilities and libraries are pre-requisites for a research culture to grow. 6 - 8 This forms the basis of a generation cycle for an institution, so that research activity and its culture continues to grow from one generation to the next. The main objective of doctoral work in biomedical sciences is to develop a galaxy of scientist physicians and surgeons possessing high degree of humility, selflessness and ethical superiority. Such a programme will add a scholastic dimension to the clinical faculty.

Education in how to write a doctoral thesis or dissertation should be a part of the postgraduate curriculum, parallel to the laboratory work and Journal Club activities during the PhD studies and/or residency levels. 9 , 10 The overall structure of a doctoral thesis is internationally standardized. However, it varies in style and quality, depending upon how original the work is, and how much the author has understood the work. Therefore a thorough discussion with supervisor, colleagues and assistance from other authors through correspondence can be useful sources for consultation.

The choice of a topic for a doctoral thesis is a crucial step. It should be determined by scanning the literature whether the topic is original or similar work has already been done even a hundred years ago. It is the responsibility of both the supervisor and the PhD candidate to sort out this problem by continuous use of internet and a library. 11 The work leading to the PhD degree can originate from research in following spheres: 12

  • b) Methodology
  • c) Diagnostic
  • d) Therapeutic and Management
  • e) Epidemiology

The availability of internationally standardized methods, as well as research committed supervisors can enable physicians and surgeons to do PhD work in both basic and clinical health sciences. The importance of research in basic health sciences cannot be overemphasized. It is rather the base of the applied sciences. There are many instances where the elucidation of a mechanism involved in a process awaits the development of an adequate methodology. 13 In such a scenario; a new method is like a new eye. Research activity in the field of (a) and (b) illuminates the research directions for (c) (d) and (e). It is worth noting that sometimes important basic questions can come from (e) and stimulate research activity in the domain of basic health sciences. 14 , 15

Types of Doctoral Thesis

TYPE-I: Book Form: a classical style. The blueprint of this form is shown in Table-I .

Type-I: The Classical Book Form

TYPE-II: Cumulative Doctoral thesis: A modem but quite useful practice.

INTRODUCTION

A book containing the pearls of a PhD work has standardized divisions and formats, where the number of pages should be weighted in terms of content rather than container. The book includes summary, introduction, materials and methods, results, discussion, conclusions, references and acknowledgements.

Two exercises are mandatory before starting a PhD programme:

  • Literature survey using a regular library hours and internet surfing
  • Familiarization with the hands-on-experience of methodology involved in the work
  • The importance of a continuous literature survey using library, internet and direct correspondence with authors across the globe in the same field cannot be over-emphasized. The main goal of this exercise is to pinpoint the unresolved problem in the literature. An attempt to solve this problem now becomes the topic of the PhD thesis. All the relevant references should be collected, and carefully preserved in the form of a card system arranged alphabetically according to themes and authors. The introduction of the thesis should be styled like a review article with a critical analysis of the work of authors in the literature. The aims of the present PhD work can then also be addressed in the form of questions. The objectives would then deal with how to achieve the aims of the proposed study.

MATERIALS / SUBJECTS AND METHODS

Now comes the most crucial and functional part of the doctoral work, the materials/subjects and methods section. This part can be considered as the motor of the PhD work. The reliability, sensitivity and specificity of the motor must be checked before embarking on a long journey. Controlling the controls is the best guide for a precise and authentic work. Usually materials and methods contain components such as a description of the species involved, their number, age, weight and anthropometric parameters, types of surgical procedures and anesthesia if applied, and a detailed description of methodology. Continuous or point measurements should be thoroughly described. However, a dynamic method should always be preferred to static one.

The experimental protocol should be designed after a small pilot study, which is especially advisable in research on human subjects. A detailed and well-thought experimental protocol forms the basis of conditions under which the results would be obtained. Any deviation from the experimental protocol will affect the outcome, and the interpretation of results. It may be noted that great discoveries are usually accidental and without a protocol, based merely on careful observation! However, for the sake of a publication, a protocol has to be designed after the discovery. After having described the different phases of the experimental protocol with the help of a schematic diagram e.g., showing variables, time period and interventions, the selection of a statistical method should be discussed. Negative results should not be disregarded because they represent the boundary conditions of positive results. Sometimes the negative results are the real results.

It is usual practice that most PhD candidates start writing the methodological components first. This is followed by writing the results. The pre-requisites for writing results are that all figures, tables, schematic diagrams of methods and a working model should be ready. They should be designed in such a way that the information content of each figure should, when projected as a frame be visually clear to audience viewing it from a distance of about fifty feet. It is often observed that the presenters themselves have difficulty in deciphering a frame of the Power-Point being projected in a conference.

The results of a doctoral thesis should be treated like a bride. The flow of writing results becomes easier if all figures and tables are well prepared. This promotes the train of thoughts required to analyze the data in a quantitative fashion. The golden rule of writing results of a thesis is to describe what the figure shows. No explanation is required. One should avoid writing anything which is not there in a figure. Before writing one should observe each diagram for some time and make a list of observations in the form of key words. The more one has understood the information content of a figure; the better will be the fluency of writing. The interruption of the flow in writing most often indicates that an author has not understood the results. Discussion with colleagues or reference to the literature is the only remedy, and it functions sometimes like a caesarean procedure.

Statistical methods are good devices to test the degree of authenticity and precision of results if appropriately applied. The application of statistical technique in human studies poses difficulties because of large standard deviations. Outliers must be discussed, if they are excluded for the sake of statistical significance. Large standard deviations can be minimized by increasing the number of observations. If a regression analysis is not weighted, it gives faulty information. The correlation coefficient value can change from 0.7 to 0.4 if the regression analysis is weighted using Fisher’s test. The dissection of effect from artifact should be analysed in such a way that the signal to noise ratio of a parameter should be considered. A competent statistician should always be consulted in order to avoid the danger of distortion of results.

The legend of a figure should be well written. It contains a title, a brief description of variables and interventions, the main effect and a concluding remark conveying the original message. The writing of PhD work is further eased by a well maintained collection of data in the form of log book, original recordings, analyzed references with summaries and compiling the virgin data of the study on master plan sheet to understand the original signals before submitting to the procedures of statistics. The original data belong to the laboratory of an institution where it came into being and should be preserved for 5-7 years in the archive for the sake of brevity.

This is the liveliest part of a thesis. Its main goal is to defend the work by staging a constructive debate with the literature. The golden rule of this written debate should be that a rigid explanation looks backward and a design looks forward. The object is to derive a model out of a jig-saw puzzle of information. It should be designed in such a way that the results of the present study and those of authors from the literature can be better discussed and interpreted. Agreement and disagreement can be better resolved if one considers under what experimental conditions the results were obtained by the various authors. It means that the boundary conditions for each result should be carefully analyzed and compared.

The discussion can be divided into the following parts:

  • criticism of material/subjects and methods
  • a list of important observations of the present study
  • interpretation and comparison of results of other authors using a literature table
  • design of a model
  • claim of an original research work
  • The criticism of the methodological procedure enables a candidate to demonstrate how precisely the research work has been carried out. The interpretation of results depends critically on the strict experimental protocol and methods. For example, an epidemiological work is a study of a population. However, if the population sampling is done regularly at a specific location; the question arises as to how a result derived from a localized place can be applied to the whole population.
  • After having discussed at length the strong and weak points of material/subjects and methods, one should list in a telegraphic design the most important observations of the present study. This may form a good agenda to initiate interpretation, argument, reasoning and comparison with results of other authors. The outcome of this constructive debate should permit the design of a working model in the form of a block diagram. All statements should be very carefully referenced. The ratio of agreement and disagreement should indicate the ability of the author to reconcile conflicting data in an objective and quantitative way. Attempts should be made to design a solution out of the given quantum of information. It is also well known that most of the processes of human physiology can only be understood if their time course is known. The dynamic aspect of interpretation of results is therefore more powerful and superior to the static one. 16 Therefore a continuous record of variables should be preferred and sought to reveal the secrets hidden in the kinetics.
  • Finally, the discussion should conclude how far the study was successful in answering the questions being posed at the end of the introduction part. Usually a doctoral thesis raises more questions than it answers. In this way research does not come to a standstill and does become a life time engagement for a committed scientist. Also it is important to note that all scientific theses should be quantifiable and falsifiable, otherwise they lose the spirit and fragrance of a scientific research.
  • The author’s claim of original work is finally decided by the critical review of his research work by the literature and the number of times being cited. It can be easily read by a high rate of a citation index of a publication and invitation. When a methodological research clicks, one becomes a star overnight.

Type-II: CUMULATIVE DOCTORAL THESES

Another way of writing a doctoral work is a cumulative type of thesis. 11 It consists of a few original publications in refereed journals of repute. It is supplemented by a concise summary about the research work. This type of thesis is usually practiced in Sweden, Germany and other countries. It has the advantage of being doubly refereed by the journals and the faculty of health sciences. Additionally, papers are published during a doctoral work. A declaration has to be given to the faculty of science about the sharing of research work in publications, provided there are co-authors. The weightage should be in favour of the PhD candidate, so that the thesis can ethically be better defended before the team of august research faculty.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

A critical review of this manuscript by Dr. Roger Sutton, Dr. Khalid Khan, Dr. Bukhtiar Shah and Dr. Satwat Hashmi is gratefully acknowledged.

Dedicated to the memory of Mr. Azim Kidwai for his exemplary academic commitment and devotion to the science journalism in Pakistan.

Writing a Postgraduate or Doctoral Thesis: A Step-by-Step Approach

  • First Online: 01 October 2023

Cite this chapter

meaning of doctoral thesis

  • Usha Y. Nayak 4 ,
  • Praveen Hoogar 5 ,
  • Srinivas Mutalik 4 &
  • N. Udupa 6  

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A key characteristic looked after by postgraduate or doctoral students is how they communicate and defend their knowledge. Many candidates believe that there is insufficient instruction on constructing strong arguments. The thesis writing procedure must be meticulously followed to achieve outstanding results. It should be well organized, simple to read, and provide detailed explanations of the core research concepts. Each section in a thesis should be carefully written to make sure that it transitions logically from one to the next in a smooth way and is free of any unclear, cluttered, or redundant elements that make it difficult for the reader to understand what is being tried to convey. In this regard, students must acquire the information and skills to successfully create a strong and effective thesis. A step-by-step description of the thesis/dissertation writing process is provided in this chapter.

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Nayak, U.Y., Hoogar, P., Mutalik, S., Udupa, N. (2023). Writing a Postgraduate or Doctoral Thesis: A Step-by-Step Approach. In: Jagadeesh, G., Balakumar, P., Senatore, F. (eds) The Quintessence of Basic and Clinical Research and Scientific Publishing. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-99-1284-1_48

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What Is a Thesis? | Ultimate Guide & Examples

Published on 15 September 2022 by Tegan George . Revised on 5 December 2023.

Structure of a Thesis

A thesis is a type of research paper based on your original research. It is usually submitted as the final step of a PhD program in the UK.

Writing a thesis can be a daunting experience. Indeed, alongside a dissertation , it is the longest piece of writing students typically complete. It relies on your ability to conduct research from start to finish: designing your research , collecting data , developing a robust analysis, drawing strong conclusions , and writing concisely .

Thesis template

You can also download our full thesis template in the format of your choice below. Our template includes a ready-made table of contents , as well as guidance for what each chapter should include. It’s easy to make it your own, and can help you get started.

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Table of contents

Thesis vs. thesis statement, how to structure a thesis, acknowledgements or preface, list of figures and tables, list of abbreviations, introduction, literature review, methodology, reference list, proofreading and editing, defending your thesis, frequently asked questions about theses.

You may have heard the word thesis as a standalone term or as a component of academic writing called a thesis statement . Keep in mind that these are two very different things.

  • A thesis statement is a very common component of an essay, particularly in the humanities. It usually comprises 1 or 2 sentences in the introduction of your essay , and should clearly and concisely summarise the central points of your academic essay .
  • A thesis is a long-form piece of academic writing, often taking more than a full semester to complete. It is generally a degree requirement to complete a PhD program.
  • In many countries, particularly the UK, a dissertation is generally written at the bachelor’s or master’s level.
  • In the US, a dissertation is generally written as a final step toward obtaining a PhD.

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The final structure of your thesis depends on a variety of components, such as:

  • Your discipline
  • Your theoretical approach

Humanities theses are often structured more like a longer-form essay . Just like in an essay, you build an argument to support a central thesis.

In both hard and social sciences, theses typically include an introduction , literature review , methodology section ,  results section , discussion section , and conclusion section . These are each presented in their own dedicated section or chapter. In some cases, you might want to add an appendix .

Thesis examples

We’ve compiled a short list of thesis examples to help you get started.

  • Example thesis #1:   ‘Abolition, Africans, and Abstraction: the Influence of the “Noble Savage” on British and French Antislavery Thought, 1787-1807’ by Suchait Kahlon.
  • Example thesis #2: ‘”A Starving Man Helping Another Starving Man”: UNRRA, India, and the Genesis of Global Relief, 1943-1947’ by Julian Saint Reiman.

The very first page of your thesis contains all necessary identifying information, including:

  • Your full title
  • Your full name
  • Your department
  • Your institution and degree program
  • Your submission date.

Sometimes the title page also includes your student ID, the name of your supervisor, or the university’s logo. Check out your university’s guidelines if you’re not sure.

Read more about title pages

The acknowledgements section is usually optional. Its main point is to allow you to thank everyone who helped you in your thesis journey, such as supervisors, friends, or family. You can also choose to write a preface , but it’s typically one or the other, not both.

Read more about acknowledgements Read more about prefaces

An abstract is a short summary of your thesis. Usually a maximum of 300 words long, it’s should include brief descriptions of your research objectives , methods, results, and conclusions. Though it may seem short, it introduces your work to your audience, serving as a first impression of your thesis.

Read more about abstracts

A table of contents lists all of your sections, plus their corresponding page numbers and subheadings if you have them. This helps your reader seamlessly navigate your document.

Your table of contents should include all the major parts of your thesis. In particular, don’t forget the the appendices. If you used heading styles, it’s easy to generate an automatic table Microsoft Word.

Read more about tables of contents

While not mandatory, if you used a lot of tables and/or figures, it’s nice to include a list of them to help guide your reader. It’s also easy to generate one of these in Word: just use the ‘Insert Caption’ feature.

Read more about lists of figures and tables

If you have used a lot of industry- or field-specific abbreviations in your thesis, you should include them in an alphabetised list of abbreviations . This way, your readers can easily look up any meanings they aren’t familiar with.

Read more about lists of abbreviations

Relatedly, if you find yourself using a lot of very specialised or field-specific terms that may not be familiar to your reader, consider including a glossary . Alphabetise the terms you want to include with a brief definition.

Read more about glossaries

An introduction sets up the topic, purpose, and relevance of your thesis, as well as expectations for your reader. This should:

  • Ground your research topic , sharing any background information your reader may need
  • Define the scope of your work
  • Introduce any existing research on your topic, situating your work within a broader problem or debate
  • State your research question(s)
  • Outline (briefly) how the remainder of your work will proceed

In other words, your introduction should clearly and concisely show your reader the “what, why, and how” of your research.

Read more about introductions

A literature review helps you gain a robust understanding of any extant academic work on your topic, encompassing:

  • Selecting relevant sources
  • Determining the credibility of your sources
  • Critically evaluating each of your sources
  • Drawing connections between sources, including any themes, patterns, conflicts, or gaps

A literature review is not merely a summary of existing work. Rather, your literature review should ultimately lead to a clear justification for your own research, perhaps via:

  • Addressing a gap in the literature
  • Building on existing knowledge to draw new conclusions
  • Exploring a new theoretical or methodological approach
  • Introducing a new solution to an unresolved problem
  • Definitively advocating for one side of a theoretical debate

Read more about literature reviews

Theoretical framework

Your literature review can often form the basis for your theoretical framework, but these are not the same thing. A theoretical framework defines and analyses the concepts and theories that your research hinges on.

Read more about theoretical frameworks

Your methodology chapter shows your reader how you conducted your research. It should be written clearly and methodically, easily allowing your reader to critically assess the credibility of your argument. Furthermore, your methods section should convince your reader that your method was the best way to answer your research question.

A methodology section should generally include:

  • Your overall approach ( quantitative vs. qualitative )
  • Your research methods (e.g., a longitudinal study )
  • Your data collection methods (e.g., interviews or a controlled experiment
  • Any tools or materials you used (e.g., computer software)
  • The data analysis methods you chose (e.g., statistical analysis , discourse analysis )
  • A strong, but not defensive justification of your methods

Read more about methodology sections

Your results section should highlight what your methodology discovered. These two sections work in tandem, but shouldn’t repeat each other. While your results section can include hypotheses or themes, don’t include any speculation or new arguments here.

Your results section should:

  • State each (relevant) result with any (relevant) descriptive statistics (e.g., mean , standard deviation ) and inferential statistics (e.g., test statistics , p values )
  • Explain how each result relates to the research question
  • Determine whether the hypothesis was supported

Additional data (like raw numbers or interview transcripts ) can be included as an appendix . You can include tables and figures, but only if they help the reader better understand your results.

Read more about results sections

Your discussion section is where you can interpret your results in detail. Did they meet your expectations? How well do they fit within the framework that you built? You can refer back to any relevant source material to situate your results within your field, but leave most of that analysis in your literature review.

For any unexpected results, offer explanations or alternative interpretations of your data.

Read more about discussion sections

Your thesis conclusion should concisely answer your main research question. It should leave your reader with an ultra-clear understanding of your central argument, and emphasise what your research specifically has contributed to your field.

Why does your research matter? What recommendations for future research do you have? Lastly, wrap up your work with any concluding remarks.

Read more about conclusions

In order to avoid plagiarism , don’t forget to include a full reference list at the end of your thesis, citing the sources that you used. Choose one citation style and follow it consistently throughout your thesis, taking note of the formatting requirements of each style.

Which style you choose is often set by your department or your field, but common styles include MLA , Chicago , and APA.

Create APA citations Create MLA citations

In order to stay clear and concise, your thesis should include the most essential information needed to answer your research question. However, chances are you have many contributing documents, like interview transcripts or survey questions . These can be added as appendices , to save space in the main body.

Read more about appendices

Once you’re done writing, the next part of your editing process begins. Leave plenty of time for proofreading and editing prior to submission. Nothing looks worse than grammar mistakes or sloppy spelling errors!

Consider using a professional thesis editing service to make sure your final project is perfect.

Once you’ve submitted your final product, it’s common practice to have a thesis defense, an oral component of your finished work. This is scheduled by your advisor or committee, and usually entails a presentation and Q&A session.

After your defense, your committee will meet to determine if you deserve any departmental honors or accolades. However, keep in mind that defenses are usually just a formality. If there are any serious issues with your work, these should be resolved with your advisor way before a defense.

The conclusion of your thesis or dissertation shouldn’t take up more than 5-7% of your overall word count.

When you mention different chapters within your text, it’s considered best to use Roman numerals for most citation styles. However, the most important thing here is to remain consistent whenever using numbers in your dissertation .

If you only used a few abbreviations in your thesis or dissertation, you don’t necessarily need to include a list of abbreviations .

If your abbreviations are numerous, or if you think they won’t be known to your audience, it’s never a bad idea to add one. They can also improve readability, minimising confusion about abbreviations unfamiliar to your reader.

A thesis or dissertation outline is one of the most critical first steps in your writing process. It helps you to lay out and organise your ideas and can provide you with a roadmap for deciding what kind of research you’d like to undertake.

Generally, an outline contains information on the different sections included in your thesis or dissertation, such as:

  • Your anticipated title
  • Your abstract
  • Your chapters (sometimes subdivided into further topics like literature review, research methods, avenues for future research, etc.)

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Dissertation vs Thesis: The Differences that Matter

Updated: January 24, 2023

Published: April 26, 2020

Dissertation-vs-Thesis-The-Differences-that-Matter

As a graduate student, you will have many different types of challenging coursework and assignments. However, the biggest project that you’ll work on when earning your master’s or doctoral degree will be your thesis or dissertation . The differences between a dissertation vs thesis are plenty. That’s because each of these pieces of writing happen at different times in one’s educational journey.

Let’s break down what a dissertation and thesis are so that you have a strong handle on what’s expected. For both a thesis and a dissertation, there is an obvious fluency and understanding of the subject one studies.

Let’s take a look at their similarities and differences.

Photo by  Glenn Carstens-Peters  on  Unsplash

What is a dissertation.

When you enter a doctoral program to earn a PhD, you will learn a lot about how to conduct your own research. At the culmination of your degree program, you’ll produce a dissertation.

A dissertation is a lengthy piece of written work that includes original research or expanded research on a new or existing topic. As the doctoral student, you get to choose what you want to explore and write about within your field of study.

What is a Thesis?

A thesis is also a scholarly piece of writing, but it is for those who are graduating from a master’s program. A thesis allows students to showcase their knowledge and expertise within the subject matter they have been studying.

Main Differences Between a Thesis vs. Dissertation

The biggest difference between a thesis and a dissertation is that a thesis is based on existing research.

On the other hand, a dissertation will more than likely require the doctoral student to conduct their own research and then perform analysis. The other big difference is that a thesis is for master’s students and the dissertation is for PhD students.

Structural Differences Between a Thesis and a Dissertation

Structurally, the two pieces of written analysis have many differences.

  • A thesis is at least 100 pages in length
  • A dissertation is 2-3x that in length
  • A thesis expands upon and analyzes existing research
  • A dissertation’s content is mostly attributed to the student as the author

Research Content and Oral Presentation

Once completed, some programs require students to orally present their thesis and dissertation to a panel of faculty members.

Typically, a dissertation oral presentation can take several hours. On the other hand, a thesis only takes about an hour to present and answer questions.

Let’s look at how the two scholarly works are similar and different:

Similarities:

  • Each is considered a final project and required to graduate
  • Both require immense understanding of the material
  • Written skills are key to complete both
  • Neither can be plagiarized
  • Both are used to defend an argument
  • Both require analytical skills
  • You will have to draft, rewrite, and edit both pieces of writing
  • For both, it is useful to have another person look over before submission
  • Both papers are given deadlines

Differences:

  • A dissertation is longer than a thesis
  • A dissertation requires new research
  • A dissertation requires a hypothesis that is then proven
  • A thesis chooses a stance on an existing idea and defends it with analysis
  • A dissertation has a longer oral presentation component

The Differences in Context: Location Matters

The united states.

In the US, everything that was previously listed is how schools differentiate between a thesis and a dissertation. A thesis is performed by master’s students, and a dissertation is written by PhD candidates.

In Europe, the distinction between a thesis and dissertation becomes a little more cloudy. That’s because PhD programs may require a doctoral thesis to graduate. Then, as a part of a broader post-graduate research project, students may complete a dissertation.

Photo by  Russ Ward  on  Unsplash

The purpose behind written research.

Each piece of writing is an opportunity for a student to demonstrate his or her ability to think critically, express their opinions in writing, and present their findings in front of their department.

Graduate degrees take a lot of time, energy, and hard work to complete. When it comes to writing such lengthy and informative pieces, there is a lot of time management that is involved. The purpose of both a thesis and a dissertation are written proof that you understand and have mastered the subject matter of your degree.

Degree Types

A doctoral degree, or PhD, is the highest degree that one can earn. In most cases, students follow the following path to achieve this level of education: Earn a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, and then a PhD. While not every job title requires this deep educational knowledge, the salaries that come along with each level of higher education increase accordingly.

Earning Your Degree

Whether you are currently a prospective student considering earning your higher education degree or a student enrolled in a master’s or doctoral program, you know the benefits of education.

However, for some, earning a traditional degree on-campus doesn’t make sense. This could be because of the financial challenges, familial obligations, accessibility, or any other number of reasons.

For students who are seeking their higher education degrees but need a flexible, affordable, and quality alternative to traditional college, take a look at the programs that the University of the People has to offer.

University of the People is an entirely online, US accredited and tuition-free institution dedicated to higher education. You can earn your Master’s in Business Administration or your Master’s in Education . Not to mention, there are a handful of associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs to choose from as well.

If you want to learn more, get in touch with us !

The Bottom Line

Regardless of where and when you earn your master’s or doctoral degree, you will likely have to complete a thesis or dissertation. The main difference between a thesis and dissertation is the level at which you complete them. A thesis is for a master’s degree, and a dissertation is for a doctoral degree.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the prospect of having to research and write so much. Your educational journey has prepared you with the right time management skills and writing skills to make this feat achievable!

Related Articles

Think of yourself as a member of a jury, listening to a lawyer who is presenting an opening argument. You'll want to know very soon whether the lawyer believes the accused to be guilty or not guilty, and how the lawyer plans to convince you. Readers of academic essays are like jury members: before they have read too far, they want to know what the essay argues as well as how the writer plans to make the argument. After reading your thesis statement, the reader should think, "This essay is going to try to convince me of something. I'm not convinced yet, but I'm interested to see how I might be."

An effective thesis cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." A thesis is not a topic; nor is it a fact; nor is it an opinion. "Reasons for the fall of communism" is a topic. "Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe" is a fact known by educated people. "The fall of communism is the best thing that ever happened in Europe" is an opinion. (Superlatives like "the best" almost always lead to trouble. It's impossible to weigh every "thing" that ever happened in Europe. And what about the fall of Hitler? Couldn't that be "the best thing"?)

A good thesis has two parts. It should tell what you plan to argue, and it should "telegraph" how you plan to argue—that is, what particular support for your claim is going where in your essay.

Steps in Constructing a Thesis

First, analyze your primary sources.  Look for tension, interest, ambiguity, controversy, and/or complication. Does the author contradict himself or herself? Is a point made and later reversed? What are the deeper implications of the author's argument? Figuring out the why to one or more of these questions, or to related questions, will put you on the path to developing a working thesis. (Without the why, you probably have only come up with an observation—that there are, for instance, many different metaphors in such-and-such a poem—which is not a thesis.)

Once you have a working thesis, write it down.  There is nothing as frustrating as hitting on a great idea for a thesis, then forgetting it when you lose concentration. And by writing down your thesis you will be forced to think of it clearly, logically, and concisely. You probably will not be able to write out a final-draft version of your thesis the first time you try, but you'll get yourself on the right track by writing down what you have.

Keep your thesis prominent in your introduction.  A good, standard place for your thesis statement is at the end of an introductory paragraph, especially in shorter (5-15 page) essays. Readers are used to finding theses there, so they automatically pay more attention when they read the last sentence of your introduction. Although this is not required in all academic essays, it is a good rule of thumb.

Anticipate the counterarguments.  Once you have a working thesis, you should think about what might be said against it. This will help you to refine your thesis, and it will also make you think of the arguments that you'll need to refute later on in your essay. (Every argument has a counterargument. If yours doesn't, then it's not an argument—it may be a fact, or an opinion, but it is not an argument.)

This statement is on its way to being a thesis. However, it is too easy to imagine possible counterarguments. For example, a political observer might believe that Dukakis lost because he suffered from a "soft-on-crime" image. If you complicate your thesis by anticipating the counterargument, you'll strengthen your argument, as shown in the sentence below.

Some Caveats and Some Examples

A thesis is never a question.  Readers of academic essays expect to have questions discussed, explored, or even answered. A question ("Why did communism collapse in Eastern Europe?") is not an argument, and without an argument, a thesis is dead in the water.

A thesis is never a list.  "For political, economic, social and cultural reasons, communism collapsed in Eastern Europe" does a good job of "telegraphing" the reader what to expect in the essay—a section about political reasons, a section about economic reasons, a section about social reasons, and a section about cultural reasons. However, political, economic, social and cultural reasons are pretty much the only possible reasons why communism could collapse. This sentence lacks tension and doesn't advance an argument. Everyone knows that politics, economics, and culture are important.

A thesis should never be vague, combative or confrontational.  An ineffective thesis would be, "Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because communism is evil." This is hard to argue (evil from whose perspective? what does evil mean?) and it is likely to mark you as moralistic and judgmental rather than rational and thorough. It also may spark a defensive reaction from readers sympathetic to communism. If readers strongly disagree with you right off the bat, they may stop reading.

An effective thesis has a definable, arguable claim.  "While cultural forces contributed to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the disintegration of economies played the key role in driving its decline" is an effective thesis sentence that "telegraphs," so that the reader expects the essay to have a section about cultural forces and another about the disintegration of economies. This thesis makes a definite, arguable claim: that the disintegration of economies played a more important role than cultural forces in defeating communism in Eastern Europe. The reader would react to this statement by thinking, "Perhaps what the author says is true, but I am not convinced. I want to read further to see how the author argues this claim."

A thesis should be as clear and specific as possible.  Avoid overused, general terms and abstractions. For example, "Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because of the ruling elite's inability to address the economic concerns of the people" is more powerful than "Communism collapsed due to societal discontent."

Copyright 1999, Maxine Rodburg and The Tutors of the Writing Center at Harvard University

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Thesis Vs. Dissertation — Know the difference and similarities!

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The academic world is filled with many different types of writing assignments, each with its own unique set of requirements and expectations. One common source of confusion for students is the distinction between a thesis and a dissertation. Both are long-form academic works, but there are several key differences between the two that are important to understand.

In Shakespeare’s day, a candidate for a master’s degree would write a thesis, an original paper in which he maintained a certain proposition. Whereas, completion of a doctoral program required submission and defense of a dissertation. He would read his thesis to his committee, after which he sat in silence while two faculty members gave point-by-point refutations of everything the candidate said.

The focus here was on the student’s ideas and his ability to arrange and express them clearly. If a student wished to advance further in academia he could pursue a dissertation. This was more of a  literature review . He would read widely in a particular area and write up his findings, discussing the various authorities and their opinions. The point was to demonstrate that he was well-versed in the literature of the field. While the confusion between the two terms is understandable, we shall tackle the dissertation vs. thesis topic in this article and provide unambiguous insights on it.

Table of Contents

What Is a Thesis?

A thesis is a critically written scholarly piece of research work. Typically, it is submitted by students graduating from a master’s program. The purpose of a thesis is to allow students to showcase their knowledge and expertise within the subject matter they have been studying as part of the program.

What Is a Dissertation?

A dissertation is a comparatively lengthier piece of scholarly writing that accounts for your research work throughout the doctoral program. A researcher earns the Ph.D. after submitting and defending his/her dissertation. It includes all information about the original research or expanded research on a new or existing topic conducted by the Ph.D. candidate.

Dissertation vs. Thesis: Differences

  • The primary difference between a thesis and a dissertation is the time when they are completed. As mentioned earlier, a thesis is presented at the culmination of a master’s program, whereas, a dissertation is presented to earn a Ph.D.
  • A thesis is a compilation of research ensuring that the researcher is well-informed and has knowledge about the research topic learned in the study program. On the other hand, a dissertation provides an opportunity for the researcher to contribute new theories and information to the existing literature in the research field.
  • A thesis is a presentation of learned and existing information, while the purpose of a dissertation is to develop a unique concept and defend it based on theoretical and practical results.
  • A master’s thesis is approximately 100 pages in length. However, a Ph.D. dissertation should be much longer than a thesis and must include background and research information. A dissertation must include your research proposal, grant proposal, literature review , ideation of research topic, and every other minute detail about your research. Ideally, a dissertation inclusive of all details mentioned above should be three times the length of a master’s thesis.

Dissertation vs. Thesis: Similarities

  • Both a thesis and a dissertation are considered final projects and are required to graduate from respective programs.
  • The thesis and dissertation both require a deep and accurate understanding of the research problem.
  • Both forms of scholarly written pieces must address specific research questions.
  • Academic writing skills are imperative for a thesis as well as a dissertation.
  • Ethical practices must be followed while collating and documenting research data.
  • Plagiarism is not accepted in either.
  • Both require analytical skills to support the findings.
  • It is essential that both undergo intense dissertation/ thesis editing  and  critical proofreading  before final submission.

Dissertation vs. Thesis: Europe

In Europe, the original distinction between a thesis and a dissertation has been largely retained. A doctoral thesis is a focused piece of original research that is performed to obtain a Ph.D. A dissertation is part of a broader post-graduate research project.

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However, the thesis has evolved since original research nowadays requires plenty of background research . So, a thesis will contain extensive citations and references to earlier work, although the focus remains on the original work that comes out of it.

Dissertation vs. Thesis: USA

In the United States, the definition of a thesis is almost the opposite of that in Europe. Because a thesis is shorter than a dissertation it gradually came to mean a preliminary degree on the way to a doctorate. A thesis is now performed to earn a Master’s degree. In scientific fields, a master’s candidate takes advanced coursework and gains hands-on experience in a research project but does not direct the project to the same extent that he would in a doctoral program. In a master’s project, the student’s ideas are welcomed and expected but the focus is on obtaining technical expertise, not doing original research. Engineering students commonly obtain Master’s degrees and seldom go on to get PhDs. In other fields such as Chemistry, the opposite is true, with a Master’s degree no longer being required as the first step for a doctorate. Almost everyone I know who received a Master’s degree in Chemistry got one because they dropped out of graduate school and wrote their truncated research as a Master’s project.

In a Nutshell

Needless to say, the dissertation vs. thesis facts are real. Therefore, using one term instead of another is not acceptable as an academic. One must remember the purpose of each and use them accordingly. However, one is not undermined by the other. Whether you are writing a thesis or a dissertation, both must be done with the same seriousness. Both require critical technical and soft skills. Improving your time management and academic writing skills plays a major role in acing both forms of scholarly writing.

How do you decipher dissertation vs. thesis? Should the interchanged usage of these terms be acceptable? How is your approach to writing a thesis different from that of a dissertation? What are the other differences associated with the thesis and dissertation? Let us know in the comments section below!

Frequently Asked Questions

"Dissertation" and "thesis" are used interchangeably but differ in: Academic Level: Thesis for master's, dissertation for doctoral degrees (US). Scope and Depth: Thesis shorter, demonstrates mastery; dissertation extensive, original research. Originality: Thesis may involve original analysis; dissertation presents significant new insights. Time and Effort: Dissertations require more resources and time than theses.

The length of a dissertation varies depending on factors like academic discipline, research topic, institution, and country. Generally, dissertations are longer than theses, ranging from 10,000 to over 100,000 words. However, word count alone does not reflect the quality or depth of the research. Guidelines from the academic institution should be consulted for specific requirements.

The length of a thesis varies depending on factors like academic discipline, research topic, institution, and country. Generally, the word count ranges from around 10,000 to 50,000 words. Specific guidelines from the academic institution should be consulted for precise requirements.

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Definition of thesis

Did you know.

In high school, college, or graduate school, students often have to write a thesis on a topic in their major field of study. In many fields, a final thesis is the biggest challenge involved in getting a master's degree, and the same is true for students studying for a Ph.D. (a Ph.D. thesis is often called a dissertation ). But a thesis may also be an idea; so in the course of the paper the student may put forth several theses (notice the plural form) and attempt to prove them.

Examples of thesis in a Sentence

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'thesis.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

in sense 3, Middle English, lowering of the voice, from Late Latin & Greek; Late Latin, from Greek, downbeat, more important part of a foot, literally, act of laying down; in other senses, Latin, from Greek, literally, act of laying down, from tithenai to put, lay down — more at do

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 3a(1)

Dictionary Entries Near thesis

the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children

thesis novel

Cite this Entry

“Thesis.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/thesis. Accessed 16 May. 2024.

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COMMENTS

  1. What Is a PhD Thesis?

    A PhD thesis is a concentrated piece of original research which must be carried out by all PhD students in order to successfully earn their doctoral degree. The fundamental purpose of a thesis is to explain the conclusion that has been reached as a result of undertaking the research project. The typical PhD thesis structure will contain four ...

  2. What Is a Thesis?

    Revised on April 16, 2024. A thesis is a type of research paper based on your original research. It is usually submitted as the final step of a master's program or a capstone to a bachelor's degree. Writing a thesis can be a daunting experience. Other than a dissertation, it is one of the longest pieces of writing students typically complete.

  3. What Is a Dissertation?

    A dissertation is a long-form piece of academic writing based on original research conducted by you. It is usually submitted as the final step in order to finish a PhD program. Your dissertation is probably the longest piece of writing you've ever completed. It requires solid research, writing, and analysis skills, and it can be intimidating ...

  4. Guide to Writing Your Thesis/Dissertation : Graduate School

    Definition of Dissertation and Thesis. The dissertation or thesis is a scholarly treatise that substantiates a specific point of view as a result of original research that is conducted by students during their graduate study. At Cornell, the thesis is a requirement for the receipt of the M.A. and M.S. degrees and some professional master's ...

  5. A Guide to Writing a PhD Thesis

    A Guide to Writing a PhD Thesis. A PhD thesis is a work of original research all students are requiured to submit in order to succesfully complete their PhD. The thesis details the research that you carried out during the course of your doctoral degree and highlights the outcomes and conclusions reached. The PhD thesis is the most important ...

  6. How To Write A Dissertation Or Thesis

    Craft a convincing dissertation or thesis research proposal. Write a clear, compelling introduction chapter. Undertake a thorough review of the existing research and write up a literature review. Undertake your own research. Present and interpret your findings. Draw a conclusion and discuss the implications.

  7. Ph.D. Dissertation Writing: A Short Guide

    A dissertation, also known as a doctoral thesis, is the final required part of completing a student's doctoral study.Undertaken after a student completes coursework and passes a comprehensive examination, the dissertation is the final hurdle in completing a Ph.D. or other doctoral degree. The dissertation is expected to make a new and creative contribution to a field of study and to ...

  8. How to write a Doctoral Thesis

    The results of a doctoral thesis should be treated like a bride. The flow of writing results becomes easier if all figures and tables are well prepared. This promotes the train of thoughts required to analyze the data in a quantitative fashion. The golden rule of writing results of a thesis is to describe what the figure shows.

  9. Writing Your Doctoral Thesis with Style

    For a written document as complex as a doctoral thesis, it is essential to work from a solid outline to keep you on track and provide you with a framework for the various sections of text. ... Most people tend to agree on the following definition of what a PhD thesis is (and is not): A PhD Thesis is A formal document, quite substantial in ...

  10. How to Write a Dissertation or Thesis Proposal

    When starting your thesis or dissertation process, one of the first requirements is a research proposal or a prospectus. It describes what or who you want to examine, delving into why, when, where, and how you will do so, stemming from your research question and a relevant topic. The proposal or prospectus stage is crucial for the development ...

  11. Thesis

    Etymology. The term thesis comes from the Greek word θέσις, meaning "something put forth", and refers to an intellectual proposition. Dissertation comes from the Latin dissertātiō, meaning "discussion". Aristotle was the first philosopher to define the term thesis.. A 'thesis' is a supposition of some eminent philosopher that conflicts with the general opinion...for to take notice when ...

  12. PDF Guidelines for The PhD Dissertation

    thesis subscription, sales, and indexing services. In the PQ Publishing Options screen, access to one's dissertation may be delayed/restricted by placing an embargo on the electronic ProQuest submission. Delayed or Restricted Access (Embargoes) If an embargo is necessary, it is possible to embargo the dissertation for six months, one year, or two

  13. Writing a Postgraduate or Doctoral Thesis: A Step-by-Step ...

    The foundation of the entire postgraduate or doctoral research program is disciplinary knowledge. At most universities, one of the main requirements is that the research introduces or expands a novelty that contributes to the advancement of the subject [].Even though the writing is a clear component of higher-level coursework and is frequently acknowledged as a source of significant concern ...

  14. Thesis

    Thesis. Your thesis is the central claim in your essay—your main insight or idea about your source or topic. Your thesis should appear early in an academic essay, followed by a logically constructed argument that supports this central claim. A strong thesis is arguable, which means a thoughtful reader could disagree with it and therefore ...

  15. What Is a Thesis?

    A thesis is a type of research paper based on your original research. It is usually submitted as the final step of a PhD program in the UK. Writing a thesis can be a daunting experience. Indeed, alongside a dissertation, it is the longest piece of writing students typically complete. It relies on your ability to conduct research from start to ...

  16. Dissertation vs Thesis: The Differences that Matter

    A dissertation has a longer oral presentation component; The Differences in Context: Location Matters The United States. In the US, everything that was previously listed is how schools differentiate between a thesis and a dissertation. A thesis is performed by master's students, and a dissertation is written by PhD candidates. Europe

  17. Developing A Thesis

    A good thesis has two parts. It should tell what you plan to argue, and it should "telegraph" how you plan to argue—that is, what particular support for your claim is going where in your essay. Steps in Constructing a Thesis. First, analyze your primary sources. Look for tension, interest, ambiguity, controversy, and/or complication.

  18. What Is the Difference Between a Doctoral Study and a Dissertation

    A PhD is an academic degree focused on original research, data analysis, and the evaluation of theory. The result of that research is a dissertation. People who earn a PhD often pursue careers in research, academia, and leadership. A PhD is also called an academic doctoral degree or a terminal degree. What Is a Dissertation in a PhD Program?

  19. How to Write a Thesis or Dissertation Introduction

    To help guide your reader, end your introduction with an outline of the structure of the thesis or dissertation to follow. Share a brief summary of each chapter, clearly showing how each contributes to your central aims. However, be careful to keep this overview concise: 1-2 sentences should be enough. Note.

  20. Writing the doctoral thesis differently

    There are definitely many critical and reflexive doctoral theses (Wegener et al., 2016) that construct different kinds of management researchers. But like with academic publishing and writing, writing the doctoral thesis differently is far from the norm and is seldom explicitly discussed (Parker, 2014). Most doctoral theses remain private or ...

  21. Dissertation vs. Thesis: A Comparison

    A doctoral thesis is a focused piece of original research that is performed to obtain a Ph.D. A dissertation is part of a broader post-graduate research project. However, the thesis has evolved since original research nowadays requires plenty of background research. So, a thesis will contain extensive citations and references to earlier work ...

  22. Dissertation Definition & Meaning

    The meaning of DISSERTATION is an extended usually written treatment of a subject; specifically : one submitted for a doctorate. How to use dissertation in a sentence.

  23. Submission and Formatting 101: Master the Dissertation, Thesis, and

    Students who are completing a dissertation, thesis, or report are invited to join the Graduate School to learn about the resources available to them to assist in scheduling their defense, formatting their documents, and submitting their documents. In one afternoon, you can learn everything you need to be successful and complete your degree in a . . .

  24. Thesis Definition & Meaning

    The meaning of THESIS is a dissertation embodying results of original research and especially substantiating a specific view; especially : one written by a candidate for an academic degree. ... In high school, college, or graduate school, students often have to write a thesis on a topic in their major field of study. In many fields, ...

  25. The IMPACT of the Scholarly Practitioner Doctorate

    Description: The IMPACT of the Scholarly Practitioner Doctorate: Developing Socially-Just Leaders to Make Equitable Change is a collection of shared counternarratives between EdD alums and their supervising professor mentors, detailing their dissertation in practice (DiP) journeys as scholarly practitioners and the impact of the scholarly practitioner doctorate on their paths from doctoral ...