[Irtalk] Dissertation vs Thesis

Matizirofa, Lazarus lmatizirofa at uj.ac.za
Thu Mar 11 08:41:48 SAST 2010

Hi Everyone,

According to the Wikipedia, "A dissertation or thesis is a document submitted in support of candidature for a degree or professional qualification presenting the author's research<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research> and findings.<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissertation#cite_note-iso7144-1> In some countries/universities, the word thesis or a cognate is used as part of a bachelor's or master's course, while dissertation is normally applied to a doctorate<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctorate>".

So which is what now?

Kind regards,

Matizirofa, Lazarus | Institutional Repository & Scholarly Communication Specialist | Library & Information Centre | University of Johannesburg
* +27-11-559-2630  | 6 +27-11- 726-7723| Mobile +27-7323 46376 |Skype  Matizi27|Office 611 Auckland Park Kingsway Library Bldg | Postal Private Box 524, Auckland Park 2006

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From: irtalk-bounces at lists.lib.sun.ac.za [mailto:irtalk-bounces at lists.lib.sun.ac.za] On Behalf Of Smith, Ina <ismith at sun.ac.za>
Sent: Thursday, March 11, 2010 8:21 AM
To: irtalk at lists.lib.sun.ac.za
Subject: [Irtalk] Dissertation vs Thesis

Hi everybody

Would love to hear how you use the following at your institutions and whether all use it consistently throughout SA. According to this newsletter:

" In other words, a thesis is investigated in a dissertation. But often (in South Africa and elsewhere), the word dissertation is used to describe a Master's degree dissertation, while the word thesis is used to describe the Ph.D. dissertation." (Prof Eric Hofstede)


Disseration - Masters
Thesis - PhD

Kind regards

From: The Dissertation Bulletin (Exactica) [mailto:exactica at majesticinteractive.co.za]
Sent: 10 March 2010 11:26
To: ismith at sun.ac.za
Subject: Vol. 1: The Craft of the Dissertation

[cid:image002.gif at 01CAC0F6.B01D52C0]

Dear Ina

If there's one theme that's going to run consistently through the Dissertation Bulletin, it's that nothing about a dissertation should be left to chance. Good dissertations don't happen by chance. They're an expression of knowledge; knowledge of your academic subject, knowledge of how to research and write a dissertation, and ideally, knowledge of yourself.

As this is the first issue, I'm going to try convince you of the importance of learning about dissertations and dissertation writing before you go out and create one. Not a particularly heavy subject, but vitally important nonetheless. Knowledge is, after all, power.

At the end there'll be a short Q and A.

Dr Erik Hofstee

PO Box 78069
2146 Sandton
Tel: (0)12 807 1188
Fax: 086 501 1755



The Craft of the Dissertation

Probably more people drop out of their degrees while working on their dissertations than at any other part of their academic programme. It's not for nothing that ABD (All But Dissertation) is popularly believed to stand for All But Dead. The reason for this is that dissertation writers are often not in control of their work. They're lost right from the beginning.

By and large, it comes down to three problems: not really knowing what to do, not knowing how to do it, and a lack of planning (we'll leave a lack of discipline out of it). I'll deal with planning towards the end, because, obviously, you can only plan if you know where you want to go. Otherwise it's all just wishful thinking put down on paper.

What To Do

Let's deal with "not really knowing what to do" first. To take it down to the very basics, what you're supposed to do is hand in a passing dissertation so you can get your degree. It may sound obvious, but most dissertation writers don't take that as their point of departure. Most dissertation writers either try tackle their hobbies, try solve world hunger, or else try to create a masterpiece. Some simply try to please their supervisors on an ad hoc basis as best they can. They're all asking for trouble from the beginning.

You need to know and own the reason why you're writing a dissertation. Always. Explicitly ask yourself why you're doing the dissertation, what's most important about it to you, and then make all your actions consistent with your answer. Hint: For most people the correct answer is "Because I need to hand in a good dissertation to pass my degree."

Only once you've defined your goal, can you develop a strategy to reach that goal.

A dissertation is effort enough as it stands, and there is no reason to make it harder than it needs to be. Given that truth, practicality should be your guiding light when you think about your dissertation. You should be searching for a topic, problem, and thesis that will allow you to create a good dissertation with a minimum amount of risks. You should know the answers to practical questions like:

 *   Do I have a clear, focussed and worthwhile problem?
 *   Can I get to a reliable conclusion about it (i.e. "Can I figure out a method that will lead me to that conclusion?")
 *   Do I have the time and money to complete this particular project?
 *   If I choose to tackle this problem, can I get reliable data?
 *   Can I make a good thesis or a research hypothesis about the problem?
 *   Is there enough secondary literature, and can I get hold of it?
 *   If I do this, will I get the best possible advice from my supervisor?
These are just some of the practical matters that you should be considering before you start working seriously on your dissertation project. They, and others like them, are more important than whether you'll solve world hunger (you won't) or create a masterpiece (you might, but it's a lot more likely if you get the practicalities sorted out first).

How To Do It

The next one, "not knowing how to do it" is an ongoing process. For just about every important skill, people train themselves and learn how to do it properly before they go out and do it. Okay, parenting is an exception, but it's an exception. Strangely enough, most dissertation writers don't bother to learn how to plan, research, structure, write or edit a dissertation. And it's not that hard.

Learning to research and write a good dissertation is just like learning any other skill. There are rules, and things you just need to know if you're going to do it right. Inspiration counts, but without knowing how to turn it into a good dissertation, it's worthless. Learning how to create a good dissertation is probably not the most difficult intellectual task that you need to do to get your degree, but it may well be the most worthwhile one.

Reading the Dissertation Bulletin is a step in the right direction. So is reading a good book about dissertation writing. So is taking a practical course to teach you how. A careful reading of your department's guidelines is obligatory. It's simply the right way of going about it. You just can't afford to leave it to luck.


Once you know why you're doing the dissertation, and how to do it, you need to plan. You have to plan. There's no option.

If you're going to complete a dissertation, well and on time, you should be constantly in control of your project. There are going to be too many balls in the air for you to hope to hold them all in your mind at the same time and not to drop a few. The disasters that can be avoided by planning and making rational choices are endless. The frustrations that come from not planning are heart-wrenching (and expensive and a waste of time and ...)

Planning is about structure; structure and order. It's an art to do it really right, but any plan works better than no plan. The essentials of planning are naming the end goal, breaking the task that needs to be accomplished into manageable chunks, ordering those properly, and then attaching timelines to the various milestones you need to reach.

Of course things like breaking steps into specific tasks and checking beforehand to see if there are likely to be problems anywhere are a big part of it too. So is checking in with your supervisor at critical junctions. Once you have your plan on paper, it's a good idea to draw up a timeline too. A Gantt chart works well for this. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it should be clear, realistic and prominently displayed.

While every dissertation is unique, in broad lines there are a lot of similarities between good ones. The reason for this is that they all have the same end-goal: They need to arrive at a well-substantiated, non-obvious conclusion about a worthwhile problem. That means you can learn how to plan your dissertation properly from the beginning without having to reinvent the wheel.

Admittedly, there's a lot more to be said about good dissertation planning, far more than we have space for today. If there's enough interest, maybe in one of the future editions of the Dissertation Bulletin I'll discuss it in more depth.


I'll finish with a quote from Dave Allen: "So in order to achieve clarity and be fully and positively engaged in what you're doing, you must (1) know the goal or outcome you're intending and (2) decide and take the next physical move to propel you in that direction."

Creating a good dissertation is about knowing where you want to get, knowing how to get there, and bringing structure to the task at hand. It's about practical choices, keeping a sense of perspective and making sure you do your homework before you go out and commit yourself.

Do that, and you won't end up caught in the ABD stage indefinitely.

Comments, Suggestions and Questions

Editorial Comment

In some email programs, especially web-based ones, the formatting of the Dissertation Bulletin might not always be perfect. There may be things like extra spaces in words, font sizes showing inconsistently, and similar errors.

I've checked in most common browsers, but pre-checking in all is impossible. Besides, I want to keep the Dissertation Bulletin as light on bandwidth as possible. That's why it's largely text-based and without extra graphics. So if you do occasionally see strange formatting issues on your email program, please ignore them!

What's the difference between a thesis and a dissertation?

This is a question that crops up regularly. I'll take the answer straight from the FAQs on Exactica's web site.

"There is a fair amount of confusion as to the meaning of the words thesis and dissertation. Strictly speaking, a thesis is a hypothesis, a conjecture, proposition or a statement that can be tested or rationally argued. A dissertation is an academic work, a treatise that offers new insight as the result of structured research.

In other words, a thesis is investigated in a dissertation. But often (in South Africa and elsewhere), the word dissertation is used to describe a Master's degree dissertation, while the word thesis is used to describe the Ph.D. dissertation."

In the Dissertation Bulletin, we go with the dictionary definition: a dissertation is the document you're required to hand in, whether you're doing a Honours, Master's or Ph.D. degree.

Is it correct to include a summary and references in a Research Proposal?

It's a matter of university guidelines, but it certainly isn't incorrect unless your university explicitly says not to include them. I feel that there definitely should be references, and a list of references or works consulted at the end. A summary is a nice extra.

I want to enrol for a Masters degree in psychology. Which university should I choose?

I'm going to answer your question in general terms that apply to this kind of decision regardless of field of study. There's a lot to take into account, not least of all your personal circumstances and goals. Here are a couple of things you'll want to think about:

 *   Check the programme's accreditation status, especially if you're going to sign up with a university not based in South Africa.
 *   Look at costs upfront, especially if it's an MBA. They can vary widely. Also find out if there are financial support options.
 *   Universities, or more accurately, departments within universities, specialize. Know what the specialties are, and favour those that are strong in the areas you're interested in, especially (but not only) if you're planning an academic career.
 *   Especially if you're enrolling for a doctoral degree, try to get to know your supervisor before you commit.
 *   If you're doing a degree to advance a non-academic career, ask around in HR departments and the like how they rate the qualification. If it's for an academic career, ask around at universities.
 *   Look at the programme's pass and failure / incomplete stats. They're not the same between institutions. Balance this one against the reputation of the programme though.
 *   Read all the degree requirements carefully before you commit. They're not all the same either.
 *   Look at how the programme is put together, and whether that matches your goals, and very importantly, the amount of time you can realistically commit to your studies.
 *   Get feedback from people currently in the programme. Ask for references, make a list of questions and call them. More is better.
Doing a postgraduate degree is a major commitment of time, money and effort, and it's worth doing a bit of homework before you make up your mind.


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