What Is a Dissertation? Meaning, Types, and Tips

A dissertation is a paper explaining the individual research that a student has conducted to earn a degree. It usually consists of several sections or chapters and follows the rules of formal academic writing. The degree candidate chooses the research topic.

In the United States, a graduate student writes a dissertation to earn a doctorate degree. For instance, they may write a PhD dissertation to earn that degree after they have already completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree. There are some exceptions, though. One is that the paper a medical student must write in the US to earn an MD degree is often called a thesis.

However, this dissertation definition doesn’t apply in many other countries. For example, European universities typically call the document a dissertation if the candidate is working toward a bachelor’s or master’s degree but call it a thesis for a doctoral degree.

In short, a thesis and a dissertation are basically the same—long papers written to earn a degree. But the two words tend to be used in certain ways depending on the country or the academic field. Read on for some answers to basic questions about dissertation meaning and parts.

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How long is a dissertation?

The length of a dissertation depends on your field of study and your school’s specific requirements. It can also depend on the quality of your research and editing. It should be long enough to explore your topic fully but should not be wordy.

Your field of study plays a large role in dissertation length. For instance, data from the University of Minnesota shows the following rough estimates:

Your field of study plays a large role in dissertation length. For instance, data from the University of Minnesota shows the following rough estimates:

  • Humanities, political science, or communications: 250–300 pages
  • Engineering and other sciences: 150–200 pages
  • Math and economics: 100 pages

A dissertation is usually double-spaced, so each page contains about 250 words.

What are the parts of a dissertation?

Like the length, the sections you include in your dissertation will likely depend on your field and your university’s guidelines. The following are the eight basic parts of a dissertation:

  1. Abstract: a short summary of the research, usually 200–300 words
  2. Introduction: an overview of why you chose your topic, the question you’re aiming to answer, and what the reader should expect as they read
  3. Literature review: an examination of previous research on the topic, often the longest section of the dissertation
  4. Methodology: an explanation of the steps you took to research your topic and why you chose those methods
  5. Results: a detailed description of your findings and whether they answer your research question
  6. Discussion: an exploration of what your findings mean
  7. Conclusion: a wrap-up of your study’s usefulness, its limitations, and how it can lead to further research
  8. References: a list of the sources you cited in the other sections

It’s common to include front matter before the main sections. Front matter items might consist of a title page, copyright page, acknowledgments, table of contents, and lists of tables or figures. Some dissertations also have appendices at the end to present further information, such as raw data or the surveys used to collect it.

What are the types of dissertations?

The type of dissertation you might write depends on your field of study and the question you’re trying to answer. Here are some dissertation categories—a single dissertation may fall into more than one.

Empirical or non-empirical

Empirical research is about collecting and analyzing verifiable data, while non-empirical research focuses on analyzing a previous work by another creator.

An empirical research dissertation, for example, might study topics like these:

  • How working during high school affects graduation rates
  • How the mosquito population in South Florida affects tourism
  • How doctors’ level of empathy affects patient compliance

It relies on data that either the author or a previous researcher collected to fill gaps in knowledge or understanding. Data collection in empirical research might involve methods such as controlled experiments, multiple-choice questionnaires, and field observation.

On the other hand, a non-empirical dissertation might analyze topics like these:

  • Humiliation as a theme in Chinese cinema
  • Pragmatism in classical government documents
  • The potential to adapt a particular educational theory for teaching kids with ADHD

It critically reviews sources to create a new argument that fills gaps in theory or updates older views on the topic. In non-empirical studies, researchers often collect their data through focus groups, interviews, and textual reviews, among other methods.

A non-empirical dissertation may also leave out the methodology and results sections since it examines data in a different way. In this case, it will replace those sections with chapters looking at various aspects of the topic.

Qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods

A qualitative dissertation aims to understand concepts or theories, while a quantitative dissertation finds and analyzes testable numerical relationships. A mixed methods dissertation combines quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Since qualitative research is more subjective, or opinion-based, it often overlaps with non-empirical research, and quantitative research is often empirical. However, all three of these research types can be empirical or non-empirical.

Where can I get help with dissertation writing?

Now that you have the answer to the question “What is a dissertation paper?” you may be overwhelmed at the thought of writing one. It’s a Herculean task for sure, but you won’t have to do it completely on your own.

First, you’ll have the guidance of your dissertation supervisor, a professor at your university who knows your field and is rooting for you to succeed. They will walk you through how to write a dissertation. Their goal is to make sure you understand how to complete top-quality research and crush your school’s degree requirements.

You’ll also have QuillBot. When you’re up late at night and have no one to call about that thorny grammar rule or obscure source type, QuillBot offers a free Grammar Checker and Citation Generator that you can turn to anytime.

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We also offer a full slate of other expert writing tools:

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So whether you’re thinking about embarking on a dissertation journey or you’ve already made up your mind, you can set your stress aside. Using all the resources available to you, including QuillBot, you’ll reach your academic destination.

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Hannah Skaggs

Hannah, a writer and editor since 2017, specializes in clear and concise academic and business writing. She has mentored countless scholars and companies in writing authoritative and engaging content.