What is a Thesis?

In the background, a girl is sitting with her head down on a desk. She is wondering, “What is a thesis?” The foreground contains a pair of glasses and a large coffee mug with "Caution, thesis writing in progress" printed across the front.
Writing a thesis or dissertation takes a lot of
time and energy; do you know what you're
getting yourself into? Nenyaki ©2008

Making the decision to pursue a PhD degree is a significant commitment. Even if undertaken on a full-time basis, you will be committing several years of your life to a process with no certain outcome. Writing a dissertation will be rewarding and, at times, frustrating. To better equip you for the challenges ahead, we have compiled a series of articles, a "how-to" guide for writing a doctoral dissertation (also known as a thesis). In Part One, we address some commonly asked questions about the PhD and dissertation; namely, what is it and is it right for me?

What is a thesis? What is a dissertation?

To put it simply, a PhD is a significant research contribution to your chosen field of study. What constitutes "significant" is debatable; however, at the end of your program, you are expected to have produced a written body of work (a dissertation or thesis) that presents the results of "original" research. If you find that concept daunting, do not despair. Unless you have your eyes set on an immediate appointment to a research chair at an exclusive university following graduation, you won't be expected to come up with a novel concept for your thesis. There are many ways to be "original" when writing a dissertation, and most of the research conducted in academia contributes to an accretive process in which small, cumulative contributions build upon previous work. In other words, paradigm-shifting research in a PhD thesis is an exceptionally rare event.

Most PhD programs and dissertations are scheduled for completion in 12 semesters, or approximately four years. The length of your program will vary depending on the field of study and the prerequisites for graduation, which are dictated by the institution you attend. However, across institutions in Europe and the United States, a general trend toward increasing program length has been observed in recent years.

Is writing a thesis and completing a PhD right for me?

The answer to this question rests solely on your intentions. If you intend to pursue an academic career, a PhD will be a necessary qualification to compete for a post-doctoral fellowship or tenure-track position in a university or college. Outside academia, a PhD can be useful in a range of industries and positions in the private and public (i.e., government) sectors.

A number of skills are cultivated in the process of writing a dissertation and completing a PhD education, irrespective of the field of study. As a graduate student, you may have the opportunity to serve as either a teaching assistant or lecturer on a part-time basis—these jobs will serve to enhance your leadership and communication skills and are well worth the investment in time and energy. In many doctoral thesis programs, you will be encouraged to present the results of your research at conferences or symposia. Your contribution to these functions will be oral or written presentations, which are valuable components of your academic training. You may also discover (especially in the sciences) that the process of negotiating research funding for your dissertation will require you to interact with both public- and private-sector organizations. In addition to honing your writing skills through formulating research proposals, you may also find that so-called people skills are important in establishing and maintaining private-sector research collaborations. Regardless of your field of study, you will cultivate a number of core competencies during your dissertation and PhD studies. These include the skills of critical analysis, time management, communication, and leadership—all of which are broadly applicable to careers outside of academia.

Practical considerations

A number of practical considerations should be taken into account when making the decision to enroll in a PhD thesis program. The first is financial. Some PhD programs include financial support, which can be applied to cover tuition and living expenses, but the level of funding available varies dramatically among research fields, university departments, and research supervisors.

Probably the most important consideration involves the personal commitment of the student. Unlike an undergraduate program, there are no summer breaks and few vacations during the four or more years required to complete a thesis and PhD program. And in contrast with their peers, who may have entered the working world immediately after a four-year undergraduate degree, many PhD students find themselves living on a limited budget during a stage of life in which many people are starting a family. In addition, although a PhD can theoretically be completed on a part-time basis, the requirements of funding agencies often preclude anything but a full-time commitment on the part of the student.

Take the next step

In the next installment of this three-part series, we outline how to begin the process of thesis editing. We will also explore a number of issues relating to the selection of a thesis topic, a supervisor, and a thesis committee. We will delve into the mechanics of dissertation research and thesis writing, and discuss coping strategies for the various contingencies that might arise along the way. And remember, if you have a rough draft of your thesis or thesis proposal, send it to our thesis editors for expert revision.

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