There is no clear distinction between theses and dissertations. In most cases, these terms are used interchangeably to refer to long essays involving personal research that are often completed as part of a university degree. In some jurisdiction such as the United States, the term thesis is often used in reference to empirical research conducted at the master’s degree level while the term dissertation refers to that conducted at the doctoral level. This distinction is, however, not universally accepted. Despite the inconsistency surrounding the understanding of the two terms, there is a general consensus regarding the general purpose for undertaking these academic tasks.
From the learning institutions’ perspective, the main purpose of theses and dissertations is to assess students’ competency in conducting empirical research that generates knowledge on a vital issue. Thesis and dissertation processes give students the opportunity to apply principles and knowledge of problem definition, literature review and synthesis, research designs, data collection, and statistics among others. They highlight the student’s ability to apply research skills to solve problems. Another function of theses and dissertations is to examine the student’s mastery of specific areas within their field of study. These projects often require students to focus on a specific issue that is of relevance to their field of study. The emphasis is often on generating new knowledge that solves a pertinent problem. From the student’s perspective, completing a thesis or dissertation not only enable you to obtain your degree but helps you to gain skills that would be valuable after graduation. It also gives you an opportunity to pursue further research, answer new questions, and solve valid problems.
Although the thesis and dissertation writing process may be lengthy and involving, don’t get too intimidated. The key to success is often the ability to breakdown the writing process into small manageable pieces. Formats for theses and dissertations are institution specific; hence, you need to learn about the specific requirements and norms within your faculty before you begin your project. A good place to start would be to look at the work completed by other students; this will give you an idea of how your thesis/ dissertation should look like. In most institutions, the general format of theses and dissertations comprises of five major sections: (1) the introduction, (2) literature review, (3) the methodology section, (4) results and discussion sections, (5) the conclusion and recommendation section.
The introduction section provides the background of the study and describes the problem/ question that the study intends to address. It also provides a justification for the study in terms of the need for information and benefits that may accrue from it. The literature review section examines what has already been written about your issue/ topic of study. The literature review serves various purposes including identifying what has already been covered by other researchers to avoid duplication, identifying gaps within the existing bodies of literature, identifying methods that have been successfully used to investigate your study issue in other settings, and to position your study within the body of literature. The methodology section provides details regarding the design of the study, research participants, subject selection methods, data collection instruments and procedures, and data analysis techniques and procedures. The aim of this section is to make your study replicable.
The results and discussion section presents the outcome of the data analysis accompanied by the researcher’s interpretations. Some institutions separate the results from the discussion section. In such formats, the result section only presents the outcomes of the analysis without incorporating any interpretations or explanations. The non-statistical explanations of results are instead presented in the discussion section. The conclusion and recommendation section discusses the implication of results in light of the theoretical background and literature readings. You should point out whether there are consistencies or inconsistencies between the results and the studies cited in the literature review section. You should also highlight the contribution that the study has made to practice and research. You should also discuss some of the limitations of the study and recommend areas that should be addressed in future studies.
If you successfully complete the sections discussed above, you will have completed over 90% of your dissertation. The only remaining bit would be presenting the work to faculty and disseminating the same to members of the public. Research is an ultimate learning experience. Planning is essential, but it is important to note that thesis/ dissertation writing is an iterative and dynamic rather than a rigid process. You should be willing to adjust and evolve your plans as you progress through the various parts of your project.
Are you in the process of writing your thesis/ dissertation? Feel free to share your experiences and challenges in the comments section. You can also ask questions; we will be happy to assist where we can.
Cone, J. and Foster, S. (2006). Dissertations and Theses from Start to Finish: Psychology and Related Fields. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Joyner, R., Rouse, W., & Glatthorn, A. (2012). Writing the Winning Thesis or Dissertation: A Step-by-Step Guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.