A graduate degree generally requires completing either a thesis or a dissertation, and there is a difference between thesis and dissertation. In Shakespeare’s day, a candidate for a master’s degree would write a thesis, an original paper in which he maintained a certain proposition. He would read his thesis to his committee, after which he sat in silence while two faculty members gave point by point refutations of everything he said. The focus here was on the student’s ideas and his ability to arrange and express them clearly. If a student wished to advance further in academia he could pursue a dissertation. This was more of a literature review. He would read widely in a particular area and write up his findings, discussing the various authorities and their opinions. The point was to demonstrate that he was well versed in the literature of the field.
Thesis vs. Dissertation: Europe
In Europe the original distinction between a thesis and a dissertation has been largely retained. A doctoral thesis is a focused piece of original research which is performed in order to obtain a PhD. A dissertation is part of a broader post-graduate research project. However, the thesis has evolved since original research nowadays requires plenty of background research. So, a thesis will contain extensive citations and references to earlier work, although the focus remains on the original work that comes out of it.
Thesis vs. Dissertation: USA
In the United States, the definition of a thesis is almost the opposite of that in Europe. Because a thesis is shorter than a dissertation it gradually came to mean a preliminary degree on the way to a doctorate. A thesis is now performed to earn a Master’s degree. In scientific fields a master’s candidate takes advanced coursework and gains hands on experience in a research project but does not direct the project to the same extent that he would in a doctoral program. In a master’s project the student’s ideas are welcomed and expected but the focus is on obtaining technical expertise, not doing original research. Engineering students commonly obtain Master’s degrees and seldom go on to get PhDs. In other fields such as Chemistry, the opposite is true, with a Master’s degree no longer being required as a first step for a doctorate. Almost everyone I know who received a Master’s degree in Chemistry got one because they dropped out of graduate school and wrote their truncated research as a Master’s project.
What They Have in Common
Both a thesis and a dissertation require a lot of work and should be treated seriously. I attended a thesis defense recently in which the student was not well prepared. The visuals were poor and disorganized and the student did not handle questions well. I knew that he had achieved a good level of technical ability, but you would never know it from his presentation. An effort that takes years of your life surely deserves better treatment than this.