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What is the Difference Between a Dissertation and a Thesis?

It often seems that the terms dissertation and thesis are interchangeable. Many people will ask you how the thesis is going when as far as you're concerned you are writing a dissertation, and vice versa. And to make it even more confusing some institutions or departments will even use the terms differently! 

But what are we all really talking about when we refer to a dissertation or a thesis? And does the term you usue actually impact on what you actually end up writing? 

The root of the words 

The word dissertation has its root from the Latin ‘dissertare’ meaning to continue to discuss and the Latin word ‘disserere’ which means to examine and discuss.

The word thesis originally comes from a Latin word that means to place a proposition which comes itself from the Greek word ‘tithenai’ which means to place. 


It depends on where you are

As many of you will already know there are plenty of differences between different forms of English, such as British English and American English. Around the world different countries, that speak English as their first language, use the words dissertation and thesis differently. Generally, nations whose academic system are based on the British systems of university education use dissertation to refer to the body of work at the end of a undergraduate or masters level degree, and use the word thesis to refer to the body of work produced at the end of a PhD. In countries and institutions that are based on the American system of education, the words tend to be used in reverse. However, institutions and even different departments in the same university can use the words differently. If you're in doubt, then stick with the way the university and department you're currently attending use the words. 

Usage depends on what type of academic work you are doing

Generally speaking in the UK if you are completing a thesis then you're producing an original body of work based on research you have conducted and ideas that you have had. If you are writing a dissertation, then you are producing a review of the broad reading you have done in one particular field and showing your understanding of what you have learned. Of course, in the US this is the other way around. 

It can depend on the subject you're studying

In the UK the terms are generally applied equally across institutions and subjects. However, in the US different subject areas can also use the terms differently. The term thesis can have the same meaning as in the UK as it is the result of original research and ideas, but at masters level in the US in science subjects. Whereas you may complete a thesis in the US at masters level in another subject area that involves wide-ranging reading and understanding rather than original research and still call it a thesis. 

It's really all about your university and department 

Georgetown University in the US refers to a dissertation and a thesis as both adding to your 'field of knowledge'. The University of Edinburgh recommends that you refer to your individual course handbook for guides to dissertations, so each department will have their own guidelines to using the word dissertation and thesis. At University College London they refer to a thesis as the piece of work at the end of an EngD, MPhil, MD(Res) or PhD, which are all research degrees. 

In conclusion…

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter which word you use as both refer to a serious and lengthy piece of work where you can show what you have researched and understood. As long as you are referring to the piece of work that you are compiling in the same way as those in your department then you will avoid confusion. Writing a dissertation or a thesis requires a substantial amount of planning and work and you don't want to let yourself down at the last hurdle with poor presentation of your work, so always keep an eye on your course or departments guidelines.


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