What is a Dissertation? A Quick and Simple Guide

The majority of degrees will culminate in a large assignment called a dissertation. But exactly what is a dissertation? And what does it involve?

The word dissertation is often used interchangeably with thesis. However, there are some important differences between dissertations and theses depending on where you are studying. In some areas of the world, the term thesis is reserved for a major assignment that marks the end of a PhD degree. However, in others, a dissertation and thesis are essentially the same.

For now, we’ll put the term thesis to one side and take a look at what dissertations are and what work they involve.

What is a Dissertation?

A dissertation is a research paper that is submitted as part of a bachelor’s or master’s degree program. The underlying purpose of the dissertation is to enable students to showcase their knowledge and research skills by answering a research question or exploring a proposal of their choosing.

Educational institutions set dissertations to put students’ independent research abilities and curriculum knowledge to the test. In the majority of cases, the dissertation will play a major role in deciding a student’s final grade.

Although your instructors will normally provide some assistance, the dissertation assignment is mostly a self-managed, independent exercise.

The dissertation will likely be the most time-consuming, challenging, and essential task you will complete at university. It can be a stressful experience that involves months of preparation and hard effort. Hint: If you’re putting in the right amount of effort Google Scholar will become your best friend (see our guide to essay tips for more useful tools).

However, if you allow yourself to look beyond the pain of long hours of study and research, you’ll recognize that you can gain a lot from writing a dissertation. It will enable you to explore a topic you are passionate about and, if you play your cards right, you may even be able to publish your research findings in a journal article. The best approach is to choose a research topic that really piques your curiosity.

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Different Types of Dissertation

Depending on your degree of study and the topic you are studying, the type of dissertation you write will differ.

Studies typically conform to one of two potential types:

Empirical Dissertations (Typically Sciences)

This form of dissertation entails conducting a small-scale piece of original research. It comprises designing a research project, gathering and analysing primary data, and presenting the findings in a logical and systematic manner.

Non-Empirical Dissertations (Typically Arts and Humanities)

The simplest way to distinguish a non-empirical dissertation from empirical research is to think of it as a piece of scholarship in which the work of others is scrutinised rather than the collection of new, primary data directly through a practical research study. Basically, when you complete a non-empirical study, you are concerned with the work that has already been conducted by others. So, what’s the point? Non-empirical studies play an important role because they help to assimilate existing understanding and research findings.  Furthermore, by studying the work of others, you can significantly increase your knowledge in your area of specialism.

Non-empirical studies extend beyond merely describing the work that has been done in a certain field. In fact, research questions for library-based studies must be as carefully planned for non-empirical studies as they are for any other type of study. The work may then be placed in a specified context, and a critical assessment of its importance, quality, and contribution to theory and application can be made. You must also analyse and assess the research methodologies utilised by the original researchers, make judgements regarding the validity of the studies, and recommend areas for further study.

The form your dissertation takes will depend on your focus and method of study. The table below presents a broad overview of basic differences you can expect between different types of dissertations.

Different Types of Dissertations

Empirical versus non-empirical dissertations. Different types of dissertations.

The Skills You Will Need to Write a Dissertation

Regardless of what form your dissertation takes, you’ll need to demonstrate a set of basic skills.

  • Defining and defining a study topic
  • Developing a research question to guide your study
  • Identifying the most important problems
  • Obtaining essential data and evaluating its credibility and legality
  • Considering both sides of the evidence
  • Arriving at a well-thought-out conclusion
  • Organizing and presenting the results of your study in a critical, compelling, and eloquent manner while adhering to all formatting rules (see our guide to APA formatting for more assistance).

How long should a dissertation be?

The word count for a dissertation depends on the level at which you are studying, the academic institution you are attending, and the subject you are studying. However, you can typically expect a dissertation to be around 10,000-12,000 words for undergraduates, 15,000-25,000 words for master’s students, and up to 50,000 words or more for PhD students. According to Harvard’s dissertation guidelines, when writing longer dissertations, it can be useful to organize your work in the form of chapters.

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The Dissertation and the Viva

In some countries, you may need to complete an oral examination on your dissertation findings. This is known as a viva (short for viva voca, which translates as “live voice” from Latin). However, generally speaking, only PhD candidates are required to complete a viva.

The viva normally begins with you making a brief presentation of your work to two or three professors, followed by a question-and-answer session that can run up to two hours.

Don’t take shortcuts!

Finally, it should go without saying that paying someone to write your dissertation for you or cheating in any other manner is not a good idea. It’s not worth the risk because the dissertation is intended as a practical activity to show off your abilities. However, it is acceptable to ask for a friend or qualified proofreading service to review your dissertation for spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors.

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