Written By - Derick de Souza

Edited By Gabriel D.

Review & Contribution By Erik L. Cato

When graduate students hear the word ‘dissertation,’ it can feel overwhelming due to the uncertainty of what is expected to complete it. A dissertation is generally a document that is submitted in support of the candidature for an academic degree or to prove professional qualification by presenting the research and findings the author has undertaken. What is a Dissertation, then specifically? 
A master’s dissertation can be considered a lengthy form of work or study that is written on a unique topic that one has chosen. It is typically completed with the help and advisement of a faculty supervisor and involves undertaking comprehensive research, writing, and presenting the final results. Some U.S. programs requiring dissertation completion include masters in Chemistry, Geography, English, Education, etc.

What is a Dissertation

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What is the Difference Between a Dissertation and a Thesis?

Graduate students will have different assignments, capstones, and more as part of their coursework that can be challenging. However, one of the most significant and cumbersome parts of their graduate program will be to work on their thesis or master’s during curriculum completion. A thesis is generally a scholarly research work critically evaluated and submitted by those graduating with a master’s degree. A thesis will demonstrate the knowledge and expertise gained within their study domain. A dissertation, however, is considered lengthier and accounts for one’s research work throughout the program. It is generally based on the original research one can take up or expand on the gaps of previous existing literature in the domain of study.

Format Differences

Both thesis and dissertation are considered final projects submitted by graduates reflecting their deep and apt understanding of the research gaps in their respective fields. Both are scholarly pieces of writing, addressing specific research questions as well. To write both, one must acquire a certain fundamental level of academic writing skills and follow ethical practices, ensuring there is no plagiarism and the submitted work is thoroughly edited and critically proofread before submission. However, there are specific crucial differences between both pieces of work, including

What is it?It is an academic work primarily based on one’s original research by evaluating previous research in prior dissertations and developing new methodologies or theories. It is typically a scholarly work that provides an in-depth analysis of prior research in a particular domain.
Who is it for?Generally, the doctoral or Ph.D. candidate is expected to do a dissertation. Typically, master’s students are expected to do a thesis
LengthSubstantially lengthier than the thesis and includes all research materials used. It is typically 100 pages in length. 
TimeNeeds a relatively long time to complete.One can complete it in less time.
FormatRequires oral presentations like viva, wherein one showcases their findings to academics asking questions about their research work. Requires argumentations to justify a certain point, includes viewpoints of findings, and doesn’t include oral presentations. 
Research source:It is wholly based on original research; secondary research sources are typically unused.Includes both primary and secondary data sources; generally, it doesn’t involve analyzing a particular domain of study. 
SubmissionIt is often required to be submitted as a book.It is mainly submitted as an academic research paper.

What is a Dissertation: Types of Dissertation

The direction in which you write your dissertation can often depend on your research topic. We can typically find three types of dissertations, including:

Empirical Dissertation

  • It generally involves executing original research on a smaller scale, including research study, data collection, analyzing primary data sources, and systematically presenting results. 
  • Most empirical dissertations include an introduction, literature review, method, results, discussion, conclusion, and references.
  • These are generally published in scholarly or peer-reviewed journals. 

Non-Empirical Dissertation

  • Here, graduates typically work with existing forms of research and other texts, presentation of original analysis, critique, and argumentations.
  • This approach is typically taken to work with arts and humanities subjects. 
  • One need not collect first-hand or empirical evidence.
  • The primary goal is to review and refine ideas that are already existing.

Narrative Dissertation

  • It is qualitative research includes the conduction of narrative inquiry, including stories, interviews, journals, photographs, life histories, and other artifacts.
  • Through these sources, the research tries to present and highlight the meanings of events and stories and establish narratives.
  • The researcher generally writes their findings, reviews them, and analyzes them to provide a conclusion.

What Are the Differences Between a Master’s and ph.d. Dissertations?

Ph.D. dissertations are requirements that one must fulfill to obtain a doctorate. It is an academic, formal, and stylized document to argue and put across the significant and original research you did by extending the state of scientific knowledge. The work should be able to highlight its importance and needs to be an original piece of work based on scientific data and has potential lasting value in the field. Depending on the topic, one can write either Empirical, Non-empirical, or narrative research. 

A Master’s dissertation, on the other hand, is referred to primarily as a thesis. ‘Dissertation’ as a word is typically referred to for doctoral programs. However, a master’s dissertation is typically undertaken with a faculty supervisor’s help and involves extended writing and research periods. The length and time it takes for one to complete will depend on their field of study; however, it is seen that those subjects that are heavily theory-based will require a longer time to complete the dissertation.
Some of the key differences between a Master’s and a Ph.D. Dissertations include

Master’s DissertationsPh.D. Dissertations
PurposeStudents are required to work on their respective subject domains in-depth.Complete individual and unique studies on a particular topic and get explicit knowledge about the subject of study. 
Expectations from studentsAnalyze previous research work critically and develop various theories and frameworks of methodology, narrowing down a particular area of work. Completely original and unique research conducted independently. Work should contribute to the field of study in a new manner. 
Required WorkRequires less work than original research.Longer and more in-depth work than masters. 
Dissertation WritingOne is expected to include some original research findings in their writing. The writing should be completely based on own research project, original findings, and conclusions. 
The dissertation StructureGenerally contains an abstract and literature review, methodology, analysis, conclusion, bibliography, and references. It mainly consists of a general introduction, literature review, Methodology (research design and methods), result (presentation of all research), summary, implications, findings, discussion, contacts, etc.
Word lengthOne can complete it in around 10,000 to 50,000 (depending on the specifications mentioned by the college).One can complete it in an average of 25,000 words or more.
Duration of studyOne can complete it in one year on average.One can complete it in three to four years on average.
SubmissionAssessed and submitted before degree completion.Assessed, raised, and both written and oral defense of the dissertation to be completed before doctoral completion. 

What Do You Need in a Master’s Dissertation

A master’s dissertation is one of the original pieces of scholarship written with the faculty advisor’s advisement. Its structure and formality are similar to a doctoral dissertation. However, it is more narrowly focused and can generally be shorter. It should typically be longer than an article or paper but can be publishable as a single article. It can be around 40-80 pages on average, depending on the specifications of the institutions (excluding bibliography, appendix, and more). 

Some essential elements required or expected in a dissertation are specified below:

  • Finding a topic
    One of the first elements of writing a good dissertation is finding a compatible topic. One can formulate a good research question must be developed based on existing literature and gaps in past research.
  • Advisor and Committee
    Generally, there are faculty members who serve as advisors and help a student through their journey of master’s dissertation completion. This faculty advisor can be one’s primary point of contact throughout the process. However, there are other members of the committee one needs to be aware of when close to completion.
  • Dissertation Proposal
    Many institutions require one to explain or examine what is intended to collect and analyze data. Writing the proposal can help one identify the direction for their dissertation.
  • Order of presentation
    Different institutions may have their own structure or way of presenting the master’s dissertation.

However, the structure may generally include the following chapters written below:

  1. Title Page
    This contains the title, name, department, degree program, submission date, and more.
  2. Acknowledgment
    It includes information about research participants, supervisors, and other people one may want to mention, like peers and family, and more.
  3. Abstract
    Summary of the dissertation, around 150-300 words, stating the main aim, methodology, summary, conclusions, and so on.
  4. Content
    List all chapters and subheadings, along with their page numbers.
  5. Introduction
    Establish what the research topic is about by providing necessary background information to contextualize the work, narrow down the focus and specify the scope of research, discuss the existing research problems, state objects, and research questions, and provide a complete overview of the dissertation structure.
  6. Review of Literature
    Collect data sources like books, journals, and more, and evaluate and draw connections, specific gaps, and conflicts in the research. Take a new theoretical approach, propose a solution, advance theory, build on existing knowledge, and more.
  7. Research Methodology
    Should reflect the type of research conducted, methods to collect data, where and when research took place, ways to analyze data, tools or materials used, and so on.
  8. Result
    Reporting results supporting objectives or research questions. It can include graphs, charts, and tables.
  9. Discussion
    Interpretation of results about the research objectives. One can make recommendations for future researchers here.
  10. Conclusion
    Write a clear and concise conclusion answering the main research question and reflecting on the paper; it can include a recommendation for practice or research.
  11. Reference list
    Must include details of all sources citing the reference list. Each style has a specific requirement for formatting sources in the reference list. Some common types include MLA style[1], APA style[2] of referencing, and more.
  12. Appendices
    Contain essential data contributing to answering research questions like interview transcripts, survey questions, tables with figures, and more.

Below is a dissertation breakdown idea for students to follow

Sections of DissertationAverage Word Count/Page
Timeline of completing Research Proposal
Abstract100-350 Words
Introduction1 page on average
Statement of Problem1 page
Rational/Research Question1 page
Review of Literature7 pages
Methodology3 pages
Implication1 page
Timeline 1 page
Timeline of completing Dissertation
Abstract of Dissertation200-300 words
Introduction of Dissertation10% of the whole word count (average of 15-20 pages)
Literature Review30-40 pages
Methodology15-20 pages
Discussion10-15 pages
Summary10-15 pages

*Students should note that these page lengths will differ and may change slightly according to institutional guidelines

Checklist to Start Your Dissertation

Writing a dissertation can be a comprehensive and multifaceted process that can be stressful for individuals. With the right skills, one can comfortably finish their dissertation, some of which include

  • Planning and Organization
    Planning for one’s dissertation includes compiling many research papers, developing a timeline, and producing highly detailed outlines that combine everything researched. At this stage, they can target primary sources more than secondary ones; they must choose topics validating their thesis. This process can be pretty laborious, so one must organize the quality of their work efforts; one of the ways to do so can be through devising timelines that can chart out the entire course of the project. A detailed outline can put together all fragmented pieces of information that have been retrieved during research. It aids in the final process of writing.
  • Good writing skills
    One must have good writing skills to succinctly and put their points in the research paper succinctly and clearly. Just researching a point well isn’t enough; for a dissertation, how the topic is delivered in a written presentation and how the data is concluded in the document will prove the quality of one’s research.
  • Logical reasoning
    Writing a dissertation is a logical and rational process. Through your journey of writing the document, you develop the ability to conclude based on your ability to make conclusions. One can assist in mapping out the methodology behind the research, making logical assumptions about information collected, and developing hypotheses and educated conjectures based on research conducted.
  • Creativity
    This skill enables one to find overarching connections among data that has been compiled. It allows one to present their subject theories or matter in a manner that is genuine to one’s research and has not been conceived by others. The novelty and originality of the research will distinguish one’s dissertation from others in the field.
  • Diligence and punctuality
    Those pursuing their dissertation must remain punctual through all stages of their doctorate. They will need to ensure their dissertations meet the deadlines, as failure to meet the dates can affect one’s grade drastically. Being diligent will help one maintain their pace and not fall short of the expectations one must fulfill as a doctoral candidate. It will also help one overcome the obstacles associated with conducting research, going through sources, integrating everything worked through in a coherent paper, and more.

When preparing for one’s doctoral candidacy, one needs to know a basic framework for preparing for a dissertation. Typically, a dissertation has five chapters, including an introduction, a comprehensive literature review supporting the research, a discussion of research design, data collection, and analysis, details of research steps, data analyses, and results, and a final evaluation and interpretation of results. It can feel difficult to navigate through the progress one is making through their doctoral program. Below are steps designed to help one make concrete progress on their dissertation in smaller, manageable chunks. Some of these steps include

  1. Step 1: Project Ideation- This includes understanding the theories and practices that could be central to understanding their field of study.
  2. Step 2: Project Development- In this step, one should narrow their choice of topics and build a detailed project format. One also develops a detailed research plan that outlines the theoretical basis for their research, the questions one hopes to answer, the research methodology, and the data analysis one can use.
  3. Step 3: Project Implementation- This step includes submitting one’s study for approval from the Institutional Review Board and reviewing one’s project to ensure it meets the standards and policies prescribed for ethical research.
  4. Step 4: Project Conclusion- In this step, one completes all the data collection and analysis of results. 
  5. Step 5: University Approvals- In this step, one completes their dissertation and submits their project for formal editing and approval from their faculty. 

One needs to follow the formal requirements of their program when enrolled in a master’s program. It may require one to hold their oral defense enough to complete and submit their thesis. Here is a checklist for the components of one’s dissertation

  1. Title page
  2. Copyright page (with a disclaimer)
  3. Abstract
  4. Acknowledgment, dedication, or preface (generally optional)
  5. Table of contents along with page number
  6. Introduction giving a good idea to the reader about what your study is about
  7. Literature review (exploring research, finding themes, highlighting gaps, and possible research areas)
  8. Methodology describing all methods and practices taken throughout the research
  9. Analysis and discussion (can include implications)
  10. Conclusion reiterating significant aspects of research
  11. List of tables, figures, illustrations, title, and page number
  12. List of abbreviations (if applicable to research)
  13. List of symbols (if applicable to research)
  14. Chapters that include an introduction and main body, with heading and subheadings, are maintained appropriately
  15. Appendices
  16. Endnotes (if applicable)
  17. References (sometimes listed as bibliography)

What is a Dissertation: Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

How many hours a week should you spend on your dissertation?

The average number of hours one spends on their dissertation, including researching, writing, integrating what is written, meeting one’s supervisor, completing mandatory coursework, and so on, could range around 20 hours per week to finish dissertation work. It could include lab time, teaching, job applications, departmental meetings, etc. Many students block a daily time slab for their dissertation preparation; however, the minimum daily time should ideally be around 1.5-4 hours, depending on one’s capacity and priorities.

How quickly can you write a dissertation?

How is the dissertation graded?

What does it mean to defend a dissertation?

What is the hardest part of a dissertation?

What happens if you fail a dissertation?

Additional Resources to Help With Your Dissertation

One should scrutinize the university resources when deciding where to earn one’s doctoral degree. Some of the resources include

  • Library and Research Support- These are a set of services provided by institutions of higher education, allowing members of academic staff to spend less time on work that is not research-related and enabling them to concentrate on their specific research roles.
  • Personal advisors- These can be faculty advisors or other professionals who assist students in developing skills that will help them live independently and transition into the next stages of their lives. 
  • Technical Support- These services are provided to graduates while preparing and submitting their dissertations. These could include email support, online tutorials, formatting templates, one-on-one consultations, and more.
  • Fundamental skills support- Some colleges provide support to improve skills aiding in completing the dissertation, including research skills, problem-solving, numerical skills, specialist information, communication, project management, etc.

Completing a dissertation is often about accessing the right resources and choosing the right approach. When one is in the dissertation proposal stage, they are looking to find relevant literature to their field. Literature reviews are needed to provide a context to conduct a unique study and inform or expand the larger body of knowledge in their domain. “Literature” can refer to scholarly articles, dissertations, conferences, proceedings, and academic texts. When exploring these texts, some of the databases that can help students include

  • Google Scholar
    This resource provides an easy and efficient way to broadly search for different scholarly kinds of literature and search across various domains and sources, including thesis, books, abstracts, and more.
  • ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global (PQDT) Database
    This database is one of the most comprehensive curated collections of dissertations and theses found globally, which offers millions of citations and full-text works from across thousands of institutions.
  • Gale Academic OneFile
    This resource provides millions of resources from over 17,000 scholarly peer-reviewed articles, leading journals, and other legitimate authoritative sources. It includes podcasts and transcripts from CNN, NPR, and BBC Worldwide Learning. 
  • CORE
    This website provides researchers with the tools to find and explore open-access research. They provide access to raw data using API, Dataset, FastSync, and more. One feature includes a dashboard where one can manage their content well.
  • WorldCat
    This is an excellent resource for those who want trustworthy and unique materials and find thousands of library collections in one place and browse from various world libraries.
  • LexisNexis Academic
    This website provides students access to current and historical archives of thousands of regional, national, local, and international journals and newspapers. It explores different newsletters, magazines, and press reports across several languages.
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