What is a Dissertation? | Top Universities

What is a Dissertation?

By Sabrina Collier

Updated April 19, 2021 Updated April 19, 2021

The majority of degrees end with this assignment, but just what is a dissertation? 

Sometimes known as a thesis (in some countries, this term is used only for the final assignments of PhD degrees, while in other countries ‘thesis’ and ‘dissertation’ are interchangeable), a dissertation is a research project completed as part of an undergraduate or postgraduate degree. Typically, a dissertation allows students present their findings in response to a question or proposition that they choose themselves. The aim of the project is to test the independent research skills students have acquired during their time at university, with the assessment used to help determine their final grade. Although there is usually some guidance from your tutors, the dissertation project is largely independent.

For most students this will be the longest, most difficult and most important assignment completed at university, requiring months of preparation and hard work (the library might become a second home). However, it can also be very rewarding, particularly if you’re passionate about your choice of topic. It’s therefore definitely a good idea to make sure you choose a subject you’re genuinely interested in.

Types of dissertation 

Lab work

The type of dissertation you complete will vary depending on your course of study. One of the main differences is between empirical and non-empirical dissertations.

Empirical dissertations are dissertations which involve collecting data, for example in a psychology degree. This may mean putting into practice professional and ethical guidelines when collecting data from members of the public. Empirical dissertations in natural and life science subjects may involve or be entirely centered on laboratory work.

Non-empirical dissertations are based on existing data and arguments in the work of others. This is likely to mean spending a lot of time with your head in a book! In this type of dissertation, you need to make sure you don’t just describe what others are saying, but critically analyze the work and explore its practical applications.

Skills you need to show

No matter what type of dissertation you write, and what topic you choose, you’ll need to demonstrate the following skills:

  • Defining and outlining a research area with a clear question
  • Identifying the leading issues
  • Sourcing the relevant information
  • Assessing its reliability and legitimacy
  • Evaluating the evidence on all sides of a debate
  • Coming to a well-argued conclusion
  • Organizing and presenting the outcomes of your work critically, convincingly, and articulately, following all the guidelines on how to format your essay

How long is a dissertation?

The length of a dissertation varies between study level and country, but is generally around 10,000-12,000 words at undergraduate level, 15,000-25,000 words at master’s level and up to 50,000 words or more at PhD level.

Oral examinations (vivas)

For some advanced degrees (particularly PhDs) you may need to attend an oral examination, which is known as a viva in some countries (short for viva voce, which is Latin for ‘live voice’). The viva will usually start with you giving a short presentation of your work to two or three professors, which is then followed by a questioning/answering period which could last up to two hours.  

Don’t cheat!

Finally, it pretty much goes without saying, but it’s definitely not advisable to pay someone to write your dissertation for you or otherwise cheat in any way. It’s not worth the risk, and the dissertation is meant to be your chance to let your skills shine through. However, asking a supervisor, friend or family member to take a look at your dissertation is fine. Your supervisor is on hand to guide you, so don’t worry if you need to ask for help.

This article was originally published in January 2016 . It was last updated in April 2021

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Written by

The former Assistant Editor of TopUniversities.com, Sabrina wrote and edited articles to guide students from around the world on a wide range of topics. She has a bachelor's degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University and grew up in Staffordshire, UK.