So what is the difference between a university thesis and a university dissertation? Is there even a difference? Having printed and bound thousands of both, even we were confused, so decided to find out.

Dictionary definitions of ‘thesis’ and ‘dissertation’

Our first stops were a couple of popular English Dictionaries, which showed the following definitions:

Thesis:

(Oxford English Dictionary): “A long essay or dissertation involving personal research, written by a candidate for a university degree.”

(Collins English Dictionary): “A dissertation resulting from original research, especially when submitted by a candidate for a degree or diploma.”

Hmmm. So they’re both using ‘dissertation’ to partly explain ‘thesis’. Not a hugely clear start, although they do mention the involvement of “personal research” or “original research” which might well have some significance, as we’ll see later.

Dissertation:

(Oxford English Dictionary):“A long essay on a particular subject, especially one written for a university degree or diploma.”

(Collins English Dictionary): “A written thesis, often based on original research, usually required for a higher degree.”

Hmmm. Again, they don’t really tell us much about the difference, if any; one uses ‘thesis’ as part of the definition of a ‘dissertation’, which doesn’t help us understand any difference clearly and, again, one (but in this case not both) definitions mention the ‘original research’ detail. So, for me, the jury is still out.

We tried another source … and another … and another. It seems that, to an extent, the terms ‘thesis’ and ‘dissertation’ seem to be interchangeable and both refer to an extensive paper that is assigned to a student studying for a degree at a university or other institution. But we already knew that, of course. However, there are differences for some institutions and for some countries. We’ll concentrate here on the UK though.

One apparent difference that’s accepted by some, and is shown currently in Google’s top result1, is that a thesis is undertaken while studying for a master’s degree, while a dissertation is usually undertaken for a doctorate degree. Years back I studied for a Bachelor’s degree, specifically a BA(Hons), I too wrote what we then referred to as a dissertation. However, this theory about the difference being linked to the type of higher degree doesn’t hold water for me, as I fit into neither the doctorate nor the master’s category as I was studying for an undergraduate degree!

Another school of thought, according to a few2 (but I’m now not convinced) is that a thesis requires the author to demonstrate his or her understanding of a particular field of study, citing research and work previously undertaken by others within that field, without necessarily having to generate any new, original research. Based upon that, the student formulates their proposition, forms a conclusion following analysis of all the research, resulting in their ‘thesis’ on the matter.

In contrast to that, they go on to suggest that a dissertation’s key focus is original (new) research on the part of the student — i.e. a contribution of new knowledge. One of the key aims of a dissertation, they say, is to focus on a very specific area of study that has previously not been researched. Moreover, the student in question is required to come up with a hypothesis and to use their original research in order to make some kind of conclusion about their initial hypothesis.

So, based at least upon that description above, one would think that I wrote a thesis rather than a dissertation, after all. However, it seems that my question has opened a can of worms because the more I visit online forums and even ‘authority’ websites, the more I realise that most definitions completely switch those two meanings around. It seems that the complete opposite is true, at least according to the majority of the sources I checked. I carried on digging …

University definitions

University College London describes a PhD thesis3 as:
“the acquisition and dissemination of new knowledge … It is important that “new” is not just new to the researcher, but also to the community.”
So it’s switched around. A thesis requires new research.

Oxford University’s description of its thesis requirements seems to agree4, stating “Most of the thesis should be devoted to the matters to which you have made a contribution. Your own work must be presented in reasonable detail and with clarity … A concluding chapter should summarise what has been learned as a result of your work, show its significance, its relation to other work“. I read the part about ‘matters to which you have made a contribution‘ as being more along the lines of ‘new research’ once again.

However, bouncing it back around yet again is the University of Cambridge which states5 that they need to be satisfied that a dissertation (as opposed to thesis) “takes account of previously published work on the subject” AND “represents a contribution to learning”.

It’s infuriating!

In conclusion

For me, it’s evident that ‘dissertation’ and ‘thesis’ are interchangeable in practice but not all institutions will agree that this should be the case. It’s also evident that the alleged link to the type of higher degree (master’s vs. doctorate) doesn’t totally hold water as undergraduates also write dissertations (or … ahem… theses?). Lastly I’d say that, based upon the evidence I’ve seen, ‘new research’ and ‘new knowledge’ is most commonly associated with a thesis rather than a dissertation, but even that is not the case for everyone (including, you’ll have noted above, the University of Cambridge). So …

Advice to university students

In light of the evident and widespread confusion — or at least conflicting beliefs around what constitutes a thesis or dissertation — it will be incredibly important that students clarify which of the two types of research the examiners are looking for — original research contributing new knowledge and a hypothesis, or a demonstration of their understanding of existing research and a concluding theory. The difference sounds subtle enough but the nature and intention of the journey is completely different. And each university, or indeed individual faculties, may well apply different terminology.

Printing & binding

So what’s it to us? Well, we print and bind theses and dissertations for many of the UK’s university students. All are produced to university guidelines (except, of course, where a bespoke bookbinding approach is requested). We offer a walk-in thesis/dissertation printing and binding service at our London shop and a full online ordering alternative. We don’t mind whether your university paper is called a thesis or dissertation, of course, but what we do care about is high quality, great craftsmanship (bookbinding is still largely done by hand), great customer service, value for money and a timely turnaround. All of this is available for university theses and dissertations along with many options for finish, extras (register ribbons, pockets etc.), delivery and turnaround. See our online ordering pagefor more detail or call us on 020 7928 9738 and we’ll be delighted to help.