How is a dissertation different from a thesis? If you plan to attend graduate school at the master’s or doctoral level, then you may have come across the terms thesis and dissertation on various school websites that outline the program requirements. Nearly all graduate-level programs in the United States require completion of a final thesis or dissertation, but some schools differ in their interpretation of this final project. Used to gauge comprehension and the ability to argue effectively, a thesis or dissertation represents a student’s understanding within her field of study. The following article will help you identify the differences between these two research documents.
Length and Structure
The length and structure of a thesis and dissertation vary according to program; however, most theses are significantly shorter than dissertations. Students seeking a master’s degree usually complete a thesis project in one full semester during which this is the only course they take. Doctoral candidates spend years completing their research so that they can write, edit and cite a research document that may comprise 400 pages. In some schools, a doctoral candidate’s entire course of study may be referred to as his dissertation. Length and structure also depend on the field of study. Science majors write less because they conduct more hands-on experiments; students in humanities and liberal arts programs write longer papers with more in-depth analysis.
Regardless of how schools use the terms thesis and dissertation, the purpose remains the same for both projects: Master’s level theses and doctoral dissertations require extensive research in order to prove that students have retained sufficient knowledge about their field. Theses typically require less external research because the project reflects a student’s own ideas and conclusions. Dissertations take several years to complete and may require hundreds of external sources.
The secondary focus is to see how well students can defend their own work. Both of these research projects typically conclude with an oral defense in which faculty members ask questions about the research and final paper. A dissertation defense can last several hours whereas a thesis defense may last only an hour.
You should also note a major cultural difference when it comes to final research projects. In the United States, the word “thesis” represents a paper that reflects a student’s ideas supported by thorough research. According to Enago, Europe understands this term in a different way: “A doctoral thesis is a focused piece of original research which is performed in order to obtain a Ph.D. A dissertation is part of a broader post graduate research project.” If you plan to attend a school in Europe or other parts of the world, you should contact your individual school to verify how they define these terms.
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Some master’s level programs in the United States do not require a research project as significant as a thesis, but almost all doctoral programs require a dissertation. Extensive research projects such as these force students to develop better analytical thinking skills and to put those skills into action by creating a tangible work. In addition, theses and dissertations are published in a limited academic capacity as part of the final requirement for most schools. When choosing a graduate program, make an appointment with your school’s research faculty so that you can ask, “How is your program’s dissertation different from a thesis?”
Doctoral Dissertation Proposals
Proposals constitute a specific genre of academic writing. A proposal presents a brief but explicit argument or claim that a particular subject of inquiry has merit. It also implicitly argues that the author of the proposal has enough command of the subject to pursue it successfully. Scholars in the arts and humanities typically write short proposals to join conference panels and to place essays in journals and collections. In addition to the dissertation proposal, scholars write longer proposals to obtain grants and to persuade publishers to take an interest in a book-length project.
Proposals assume an audience of educated readers who are not necessarily specialists in the proposal's specific subject of inquiry. The author's aim is to persuade this audience that the project will make an original and valuable contribution to some already on-going discussion or problem in one or more fields, or that it will break entirely new ground and even revise the existing structure of disciplinary fields.
The dissertation proposal is thus a persuasive rhetorical form, one that seeks to gain readers' assent to the proposition that the proposed study is well-founded and will advance inquiry or discussion in some important way.
Proposals can take many forms but strong proposals share certain characteristics:
- A strong proposal makes a central claim and exhibits a clear focus.
- A strong proposal makes clear the scope of the project. Many, though by no means all, strong proposals do so early in the text.
- A strong proposal demonstrates both that the project grows out of rich scholarly, theoretical, and/or aesthetic grounds and that it develops these grounds in a new way or towards a new fruition.
These two elements together constitute what the guidelines refer to as a "literature review." That is, the purpose of mentioning the scholarly, theoretical, and aesthetic traditions within which the project is situated is not merely to show that the author of the proposal has undertaken a search of the relevant work in the proposed field(s). Rather it is to show how the current project fits within or contests an already on-going discourse and how it will contribute to, amend, or displace that discourse.
Thus the "review of the literature" and the "contribution to the field" are both parts of a single effort: to make and support the claim that the proposed project is worthwhile because it grows out of and then extends or revises work currently under way in the arts and humanities and related disciplines. A dissertation supports its claim to originality by positioning its argument both within and against prior scholarship and practices.
- A strong proposal integrates the discussion of its methods into its claims to be presenting a new or distinct approach to some material or issue. Keep in mind that a method is not a technique: a strong proposal suggests the intellectual or creative perspectives it will employ (for example, close readings of original texts, "thick description" of social phenomena, or elaboration of a genre of writing) not the procedures the author will need to use (for example, collection of data or the searching of bibliographic databases).
Sample Doctoral Dissertation Proposals
The following dissertation proposals have been selected and annotated by members of the Graduate Studies Committee to suggest the various ways in which a successful proposal can be formulated.
These sample proposals should be considered as resources or models rather than as templates. Note that the samples may not conform to the current 2500-word limit.
Additional proposals will be added periodically.
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