Friday, October 7, 2016

The Thesis and the Dissertation: Peas in a Pod


We call the document for the master’s degree a “thesis,” and the longer one for the doctorate a “dissertation,” and perhaps you wonder why.

Well, many thoughts on the nature of theses and dissertations have been buzzing through our office lately. Over the past four weeks, we held our fall slate of presentations, workshops, and brown-bag sessions for students working on one or the other kind of document. Several of our programs cover important details behind the Graduate School’s document-formatting requirements. When we look through these requirements closely, it becomes clear that they’re nearly identical for either a thesis or dissertation.

So, then, if the format looks nearly identical, what distinguishes the thesis from the dissertation? A glance at the histories of the two words makes for an interesting way to highlight some differences and similarities between these two important writing projects.

"How do I put it?"

Thesis writers, do you sometimes find yourself wondering how to put your ideas in writing while working on your project? If so, you're not only human (nearly all writers, at some point, wrestle with how to put thoughts on paper or screen) but also hinting at some of the history behind the word "thesis." Like many terms in academia, the words “thesis” and “dissertation” come to us from Greek through Latin. "Thesis" originally derives from the Indo-European root *dhe-, which had the meaning of ‘to set’ or ‘to put.’ The root later formed the central element in the Greek verb tithenai, meaning ‘to place, put, or set,’ as well as the noun thesis. In Latin, thesis referred to the unstressed and later the stressed syllables in a line of poetry. (Stress for thesis writers today is usually of a different nature!) In the English of the late 1500s, “thesis” began to refer to a statement to be proved through logic—in other words, a thesis statement. By the next century, the word’s meaning broadened to include what we in the twenty-first century think of when we speak of a master’s thesis--the formal document presented for the master’s degree.


Scholars at a lecture. Engraving by William Hogarth, 1736
"Contrary to what others have said, I argue that…"

Dissertators, when you explain your project, do you sometimes linger around that point where you need to arrange your thoughts to emphasize how your work stands apart from previous scholarship? Such efforts invoke something of the original spirit of the word "dissertation." It's rooted in the Latin verbs dissertare ‘to debate, argue, examine, harangue’ and disserere, a combination of dis- ‘apart’ and serere ‘to arrange.’ The etymology zeroes in on the general task doctoral candidates must carry out today: arrange an argument based on original evidence as well as on an examination of the surrounding scholarly debate, write it out clearly and convincingly at length, share it with the world, and live to tell about it. (Long sentence, longer ordeal!) The word began to refer to such a thing in the 1650s, around the same time "thesis" began to refer to a similar piece. According to the OED, the meaning of "dissertation" began to be restricted to the monograph produced for the doctorate in the 1930s.

Peas in a Pod

Thus, once established in academic circles, the terms "thesis" and "dissertation,” along with the documents they refer to, grew up alongside each other. No wonder, then, that their format requirements overlap and that we sometimes speak of these two types of documents in the same breath. But in addition to the etymological and historical hints at what these documents do, universities usually separate the two by degree and kind. The thesis is shorter and is a kind of knowledge display. The dissertation is longer and is a kind of original research and significant new contribution to a field.

Of course, the Graduate School also offers clear and succinct definitions for a thesis and a dissertation. Check them early and often. And you can always turn to us if you seek further information or guidance. We’re happy to help!

In case you missed one of our fall programs, note that we’ll be offering presentations, workshops, and brown bags once again at the start of the spring semester. In the meantime, we’re available through email, phone, or walk-in. And remember that our writing group for thesis and dissertation writers, Write Place/Write Time, meets on the second Thursday of every month from 6 to 9 p.m. in Founders Memorial Library (4th Floor East). Look for us there this coming Thursday, October 13. Happy writing!   

Source for the above images: Wikimedia Commons.

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