Know the difference: PhD thesis v/s PhD dissertation

by Madhura Panse
PhD thesis vs PhD dissertation

One of the biggest turning points of any PhD student’s journey is the submission of a research writing project in the form of either a PhD thesis or a PhD dissertation. From an academic perspective, the thesis/dissertation is in many ways a major indicator of the abilities and expertise that you have gained as a doctoral candidate. The mere task of understanding the requirements and compiling a thesis/dissertation is in itself huge. However, what may be confusing to understand, especially if you are just embarking upon your doctoral journey, are the differences when it comes to PhD thesis v/s PhD dissertation.

These two terms are often used interchangeably when referring to doctoral studies as there are a number of similarities between them:

  1. The very first commonality between thesis and dissertation is that the submission of both is considered to be an official culmination of the doctoral work of the candidate.
  2. Both the thesis and the dissertation demonstrate the ability of a doctoral candidate to effectively communicate their process of resolving a problem statement.
  3. The thesis and dissertation both test a candidate’s ability toward analytical reasoning and critical thinking, while showcasing his/her expertise in a particular subject area.
  4. Both the thesis and the dissertation are evaluated by an official review committee consisting of internal as well as external examiners who are experts in the specific subject area being explored in the doctoral study.
  5. Based upon the reviews of the committee members, both of these documents are then subject to changes and re-submission as required.
  6. Lastly, both a thesis and a dissertation can be treated as official publications that may be available as resources in the university library.

Owing to the above-mentioned similarities, the confusion between the correct usage of these two terms is quite understandable. In order to ensure the proper usage of these two terms, it’s crucial to understand the differences in a PhD thesis v/s PhD dissertation. Here are some quick pointers that may be useful.

Differences between thesis and dissertation

Since most academic institutions will continue to use these terms interchangeably, it is imperative that you confirm the intricate details regarding the expected structure of a PhD thesis/dissertation with your respective institution. However, for now, we hope that the above article helps in clarifying some of the major doubts that you may have had regarding a PhD thesis v/s dissertation.

  • Understanding differences in the meaning of the two terms

In order to better understand the meaning of thesis vs dissertation, let us go back to the origin of the terms. The term ‘thesis’ originates from the Greek word ‘tithenai’, which means ‘to place a proposition’, while the term ‘dissertation’ has a Latin origin, which essentially means ‘disserere’/’dissertare’, i.e., ‘to (continue to) examine and discuss’.1 To simplify further, a thesis by itself may simply represent an argument that you put forth and describe in depth, while a dissertation may represent a written summary/discussion of a particular work.2

  • Difference between thesis and dissertation based upon geographical location

In countries/institutions that follow the British education system, it is common to term the final doctoral research writing project as a PhD thesis, while the countries/institutions that follow the American education system prefer to call it a PhD dissertation. In case you are unsure which education system is followed by your institution, it may be a good idea to verify this with the respective personnel, so that you can plan your doctoral journey effectively.

  • Understanding a difference in content for a PhD thesis v/s PhD dissertation

While the above two points may be useful to understand the differences between thesis and dissertation on a surface level, as a PhD student it is crucial for you to understand the deeper differences in the content and the type of work that goes into each of them. Let us do this by revisiting the differences in the origin of the two terms: ‘dissertare’ or to discuss (dissertation) v/s ‘to place a proposition’ (thesis). In my experience, the content of a PhD dissertation often comprises peer-reviewed publications that are published by the doctoral candidate during their doctoral work, along with supplementary chapters. On the other hand, while compiling a PhD thesis, a doctoral candidate may need to describe the doctoral work in detail with the help of distinct chapters comprising: abstract, introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion, conclusion and bibliography/references. Thus, the main difference between thesis and dissertation, lies in the way the written document is being presented although the doctoral work done by the candidate will mostly remain the same.


1.         What is the Difference Between a Dissertation and a Thesis? |

2.         The PhD Thesis |

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