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    What is a Dissertation? Everything You Need to Know 

    By Cait Williams

    Cait Williams is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cait recently graduated from Ohio University with a degree in Journalism and Strategic Communications. During her time at OU, was active in the outdoor recreation community.

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    Reviewed by Cari Shultz

    Cari Schultz is an Educational Review Board Advisor at Scholarships360, where she reviews content featured on the site. For over 20 years, Cari has worked in college admissions (Baldwin Wallace University, The Ohio State University, University of Kentucky) and as a college counselor (Columbus School for Girls).

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Posted: July 19th, 2023
    What is a Dissertation? Everything You Need to Know 

    Your dissertation, the final piece of the puzzle that stands between you and the completion of your doctoral degree. Okay, so that’s not the actual definition of the word “dissertation,” but when you’re writing one, that can feel true at times! Keep reading to learn the academic definition and take a more in depth look at what a dissertation is and how to navigate writing one. So, let’s go!  

    Related: Top fully funded PhD programs

    Dissertation vs. thesis 

    While dissertation and thesis are sometimes used interchangeably, they actually refer to two different pieces of writing. A thesis is traditionally completed at the end of a masters program. It is based on pre-existing research and showcases your ability to understand the information you have been learning about in your program. 
     

    A dissertation is much longer than a thesis and is completed at the end of a PhD or doctorate program. It is the last thing you need to complete in order to earn your doctorate in your chosen field. It will be about a topic of your choosing that is within your field of study. Instead of using all pre-existing information though, you will conduct a portion of your own research and propose new ideas.

    See also: Top scholarships for graduate students  

    What do you write about when completing a dissertation?

    What you write about will depend on what field of study you are in. A dissertation is designed to be your own. Meaning that what you write about should be a new idea, a new topic, or question that is still unanswered in your field. Something that you will need to collect new data on, potentially interview people for and explore what information is already available.  

    Generally, an idea will need to be approved or at least discussed with whoever is overseeing your dissertation before you begin writing. It’s important to put time and effort into choosing a topic that you will be able to find either existing research for and add to, or a topic that you will be able to establish your own methods of data collection for. Again, the goal of your dissertation is to add to your field.   

    How long does a dissertation need to be? 

    Your dissertation length will vary, but you can generally count on it to be around 2-3 times the length of your thesis. A standard thesis is roughly 80 to 100 pages. So, on the short end you’re looking at a 200 pages dissertation, while the longer end can reach as high as 400 pages.  

    How long does it take to write? 

    The page count for a dissertation is enough to scare even the best writers away, but take a breath and rest easy knowing that this is not something you complete in just one semester or even two. On the short end you will have a year to write your dissertation, while the longer end can offer as much as two years to complete your dissertation. During this time, you will work with an advisor who can watch over you and help you along the way.  

    The parts of a dissertation  

    A dissertation is not just one long paper you must write. Thankfully, it is broken down into manageable pieces that you complete over time.  

    Choosing a topic 

    The first thing you will do is come up with your topic. Again, your topic will need to be approved by whoever is overseeing your dissertation. If they think that it may not be a strong topic, they will let you know. Even if a topic is approved though, you’ll need to do research around that topic first to make sure that it has not already been covered, or if it has that you take into consideration what has been done and add to the topic in a new way.  

    Research 

    Research can mean looking at what already exists, as well as conducting your own research to add to a proposed idea of yours. Your research can take many different forms depending on what field you are in. Research can be costly at times, so be sure to check out what funding opportunities are available for doctoral research. There are even post PhD research grants you should be familiar with if you intend to continue researching.  

    Chapter break down 

    A dissertation generally consists of five chapters. We’ve written them out below with a brief description of each and what they include.   

    Introduction – Just as you would expect, this is where you will introduce your topic and what you plan to discuss  

    Literature review – This section will address the research you have found that has already been done, or found has not been done, that pertains to your topic  

    Methodology – How you go about collecting information for your dissertation, whether it be conducting your own research or delving deep into what has already been done, will be discussed in the methodology section 

    Results – Your results will analyze the information you gathered  in regard to your topic 

    Discussion – Finally, your discussion section will assess the meaning of your results and it is also where you will add your own ideas, rooted in research, about what those results mean in a broader context in regard to your field 

    There will be more parts of your dissertation that are not included in the chapters, but the bulk of your dissertation will be made up by these five chapters. Things like title pages, references, appendices, and table of contents will also be included.  

    Defending your dissertation 

    Believe it or not, it’s not enough just to write your dissertation–you also have to defend your dissertation. This is another reason why taking a thorough amount of time to choose your topic is so important. You’ll likely need to propose your initial dissertation idea, but that will be much simpler and shorter. Your final defense will be much lengthier and in depth.  

    During your defense, you will present your dissertation to a committee. It’s likely that you’ll be at least somewhat familiar with those on the committee; they are not just randomly picked. They will ask you questions about your research, and you will need to respond to each question. A defense generally takes around two hours. The point of a defense is not to have people try to undermine your work, but for you to exemplify your expertise in your field.  

    Failing your dissertation 

    Nobody wants to think about failing, but unfortunately, you can fail your dissertation. However, let’s talk about a few things before we just leave it at that. First, if you are afraid of failing your dissertation, this is something that you should speak to your advisor about. They can help you determine if there should be legitimate concerns or if you are getting in your own head.  

    Second, even if you do fail your dissertation, you are usually allowed to resubmit one time. This of course is not ideal, but it does give you a little room to breathe. Your goal is to do great from the start, but remember this is not an easy task. You’ll likely have plenty of bumps along the way! 

    Again, if you have concerns about failing, address them sooner rather than later and seek help. There are bound to be plenty of people and services around you, as well as additional services that you can pay for which will help review your materials and guide you along.

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • Dissertations are completed as the last step of your PhD or doctorate degree 
    • Your dissertation will be related to a topic or question in your field of study that you choose 
    • Dissertations take anywhere from one to two years to complete and can be upwards of three hundred pages long 
    • Your dissertation is designed to showcase your expertise in your field and your addition of new ideas to the field about a particular question or area 
    Key Takeaways

    Frequently asked questions about dissertations 

    Do all doctorates require a dissertation?

    Dissertations are pretty standard across the world of academia. So, if you want to receive your PhD or doctorate, you should pretty much count on having to write a dissertation. MDs and DOs are the exception. Their degrees, while they are doctors, are different. So, if you plan to become a medical doctor, you shouldn’t need to worry about a dissertation. 

    How difficult is a dissertation?

    Dissertations are not meant to feel impossible to complete. They are a lot of work, but with proper planning, guidance, and dedication, they should feel attainable. How hard a dissertation is depends on you, your topic, the effort you put in, and the help you have around you.

    Who reads your dissertation?

    Your dissertation is read by a small group of academic people that you’ll likely be familiar with. This may include your advisor who has helped you through the process and other experts in your field. Generally, the number of people who read your work will be small.


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