What is a Dissertation? Undergrad, Masters & PhD

A dissertation is a long written piece of academic research completed as part of a university degree.

The dissertation will be the longest thing you write at university. It might be anywhere from:

  • Shortest: 5000 words long (a baby undergraduate dissertation), up to
  • Longest: 100,000 words (a PhD dissertation in the social sciences).

Your dissertation will explain the processes and results of research that you conducted. You would also write an analysis of the results and recommendations for further research.

You usually complete your dissertation at the end of your degree, so in North America you might hear people calling it the “capstone project”.

Difference between a Dissertation and Thesis

We often use the terms ‘dissertation’ and ‘thesis’ interchangeably. I’ve also read a lot of articles out there on the internet that claim that there are clear differences between the two. There aren’t.

I’ve completed an undergraduate and a doctoral dissertation. I’ve supervised well over 100 dissertation students at undergraduate, masters and PhD level. I’ve taught at universities in Europe, Australia and North America. In all my time, it’s been quite apparent to me that people use the terms interchangeably.

Now, there is also another time we use the term ‘thesis’. A thesis is also known as your main argument in an essay and/or dissertation.

So, technically, a dissertation contains a thesis. The dissertation is the written report that you can pick up and carry around. The thesis is the key argument you’re making within the written report.

But save yourself the stress of trying to differentiate between the two: in 90% of all situations, when someone says ‘dissertation’ or ‘thesis’ they mean the same thing: they just mean “that big project you’ve been working on for the past 2 years of your life and you want to throw out the window.”

What is a Dissertation Supervisor?

When you start your dissertation, you’ll be allocated a dissertation supervisor. Your supervisor will guide you through the process.

For undergraduate students, this may be the first time you’ve worked closely in a one-to-one environment with a university professor before. You’ll meet up for regular meetings and they’ll look over drafts of your work and tell you how to improve it.

The 3 Levels of Dissertation

Dissertations can be written during undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Here are the three different levels:

Honors or Undergraduate Dissertation

You may be asked to write a dissertation to get your undergraduate degree. Outside of North America, this is a requirement if you want to graduate “with honors”.

An undergraduate dissertation will range from about 5,000 to 30,000 words. Most undergraduate dissertations that I’ve come across usually come out at about 10,000 words and take their full senior to complete. However, different universities have different standards.

Undergraduate students are not usually asked to do complicated research studies. It’s an introduction to academic research, so you’re likely only going to do a small pilot study, but it’s good for learning how research happens and getting your toes wet.

You’ll also get to zoom-in on a topic of your choice, so it’s a chance to show future employers what your interests are and how you’ve pursued them at university level.

Masters Dissertation

A masters dissertation is completed by people who choose to do a masters degree “by research”. Some masters by coursework degrees don’t have a dissertation component, so you may not have to do a dissertation at all.

At masters level, you’ll need to step up your game a little. Masters-level dissertations typically range from 15,000 to 50,000 words and involve a small but rigorous research study.

Many of the masters students who I have supervised in the past have conducted case study or ‘action research’ projects where they did a study in their own workplace.

Others have done standalone studies where they’ve come up with a topic to research and gone ahead to conduct the research over about a 12 to 24 month period.

PhD Dissertation

A PhD or doctorate dissertation is the big kahuna of dissertations. If you successfully write one of these, you can call yourself ‘Doctor’ for the rest of your days (but you won’t be one of those doctors – you know, the ones with stethoscopes).

Most PhD dissertations are 80,000 to 100,000 words long – or about the length of your average novel. Now that’s a lot of words!

Your PhD absolutely has to (at a minimum) make a unique contribution to knowledge. That means you need to study something no one else has ever studied before and convince experts in the field that it was a well-done and valid study. Ideally you should also be able to tell people that you’re a world-leading expert in the topic you studied.

What is the Structure of a Dissertation?

There are many different ways you can structure your dissertation. Different disciplines have different expectations and standards.

Many of my students freak out that they have to write such long pieces of work. But, by splitting the dissertation up into sections like I have done below, they come to realize that it’s just a whole lot of short pieces all glued together to make a coherent, interesting story.

Here’s one of the most common structures that 95% of all of my students in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences follow:

1. Introduction (10%)

The introduction gives an overview of the topic to readers and lets them know of its importance. It will introduce the reader to the research topic and the question you’re studying. It might also introduce some key terms and give an overview of the structure of the piece to come.

2. Literature Review (15 – 25%)

A literature review will give a detailed overview of everything that’s currently known about the topic. It’ll show the reader that you have deep knowledge of the topic and that you’re qualified to conduct the study.

Ideally, you’ll also use the literature review to show how your study builds upon what’s already known. You don’t want to just do a study that’s already been done, but you can learn a lot from previous studies and use their knowledge to make your work better.

3. Theoretical Framework (15 – 25%)

This section isn’t always used (you’ll probably skip it for an undergraduate dissertation), but it is common in some Masters and PhD level studies. It outlines what lens you’re using to critique concepts. Maybe you’ll use a theory like ‘grounded theory’, ‘postmodernism’, ‘critical theory’ or ‘feminist theory’ to study something from a particular perspective. You’ll need to show your reader that you have deep knowledge of that theory that you’re using, and why the theory is worth employing in your study.

If this is all too confusing to you now, never mind: you may not even need to use a theoretical framework, depending on the requirements of your course.

4. Methodology (15 – 25%)

A methodology section outlines how you will conduct your study. What methods, procedure and ethical guidelines will you use? How will you ensure your work is honest, trustworthy, reliable or accurate?

5. Results (10%)

The results section outlines what you found out. Particularly in quantitative work (that’s a study that uses methods that measure things using numbers and algorithms), you’ll have a results section separate from the analysis section. In qualitative work, often the results and analysis are blended together.

6. Analysis (15 – 25%)

The analysis is the section where you critique the results. What do the results reveal about your topic? How do your results show us something new or provide fresh insights into an old topic?

7. Conclusion (10%)

The conclusion will usually sum up what you’ve said and explain its relevance for researchers or practitioners. You will give recommendations to future researchers on what studies they might want to undertake, or you might tell practitioners how your findings could be used to improve their workplace.

Conclusions also often outline weaknesses or challenges you faced. This is important to show that you’ve reflected on your blindspots and acknowledged them. No study is perfect.

How to Conduct a Research Study for a Dissertation

You’ll have to choose a research topic, study it in depth, and conduct original research on it. It seems like a daunting task, but with your dissertation supervisor, you’ll work together to break it down into manageable chunks.

An Example: Laura’s Undergraduate Dissertation

Let’s say Laura has to write a 10,000 word undergraduate dissertation in her Education Studies degree. This would be pretty common if she wants to graduate with honors. Here’s what she might do:

1. Choose a Topic

Laura needs to choose a topic to write about. She is really interested in play-based learning, so she chose this as her topic for her dissertation.


2. Conduct a Literature Review

Laura started reading up about the topic and write a 2,500 word review of all of the literature that’s out there on play-based learning. She found a few themes in the articles she read, so she split it up into 6 sections for the 5 themes she found, with 500 words in each section.

3. Come up with a Research Question

Now that Laura has some in-depth knowledge about her topic, she’s going to have to conduct some original research of her own to prove her expertise in the topic. Usually, we ask students to do research that no one has done before so that it is unique and tells us something new about the topic. Fortunately, because she’s done her literature review, Laura will now have deep knowledge of the topic and know things about play-based learning that haven’t been researched in the past.

Let’s say Laura decided that she wanted to interview teachers about the challenges they face during play-based learning lessons. She has decided to go out and interview, say, 10 teachers at the local school.

4. Devise a Methodology

Because it’s an academic study, Laura needs to prove that she did the research systematically. If she doesn’t have a procedure to follow, her results won’t be valid. So, she has to write a section in her dissertation about how she conducted the research to ensure it is reliable. This might be another 2,500 words and explain her methodology (procedure) and how she did it ethically (didn’t cheat or harm anyone).

5. Get Approval to Conduct the Study

Before Laura conducts the study, she’ll have to get it approved by:

  • Her supervisor
  • Her university’s research ethics committee

Usually, she’ll have to present a written research proposal that outlines her plans and shows she’s thought about her methodology and literature review. This can be a long process, but it’s helped by the fact that he’s already conducted her literature review, written her methodology, and gotten them checked by her supervisor on a regular basis.

6. Conduct the Study

Once she’s gotten approval, Laura will have to go out and conduct the study!

She’ll go out to schools and interview the 10 teachers using a recording device – asking them all the same questions – and then come back to university and look over their answers.

7. Analyze the Results

Laura will have to look through the interviews to see what key points were that kept coming up in her interviews. We call these recurring points ‘key themes’.

The first thing Laura will do is transcribe the interviews. This means she’ll listen to the interviews and type them up word-for-word (‘verbatum’). Then, she’ll print them out and highlight important or revealing quotes that she thinks appeared multiple times in each interview.

Sometimes, people use software to help them find these themes.

8. Write up the Results

Now that Laura thinks she has some key themes from the interviews, she’ll write her ‘analysis’ and /or ‘results’ sections of her dissertation. She will write about all the themes she found and provide some quotes from the teachers to back up her points.

9. Write an Introduction and Conclusion

Lastly, Laura needs to write her introduction and conclusion. These come last when everything else was written. The introduction will give the reader a fly-by of what is said throughout the dissertation. The conclusion will highlight the importance of the results, maybe discuss some weaknesses of her study, and make recommendations for practitioners or future researchers based on her newfound knowledge.

How to Get Started

what is a dissertation?

I’ve got a ton of resources on this website to help you write your dissertation. My goal is to show you how to do it in easy to understand language – no academic B.S.! I recommend you get started with your dissertation by reading my post on how to choose a dissertation topic.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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