For other uses, see Thesis (disambiguation).
"Dissertation" redirects here. For the novel, see The Dissertation.
A thesis or dissertation is a document submitted in support of candidature for an academic degree or professional qualification presenting the author's research and findings. In some contexts, the word "thesis" or a cognate is used for part of a bachelor's or master's course, while "dissertation" is normally applied to a doctorate, while in other contexts, the reverse is true. The term graduate thesis is sometimes used to refer to both master's theses and doctoral dissertations.
The required complexity or quality of research of a thesis or dissertation can vary by country, university, or program, and the required minimum study period may thus vary significantly in duration.
The word "dissertation" can at times be used to describe a treatise without relation to obtaining an academic degree. The term "thesis" is also used to refer to the general claim of an essay or similar work.
The term "thesis" comes from the Greek θέσις, meaning "something put forth", and refers to an intellectual proposition. "Dissertation" comes from the Latindissertātiō, meaning "path".
Structure and presentation style
A thesis (or dissertation) may be arranged as a thesis by publication or a monograph, with or without appended papers, respectively, though many graduate programs allow candidates to submit a curated collection of published papers. An ordinary monograph has a title page, an abstract, a table of contents, comprising the various chapters (e.g., introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion), and a bibliography or (more usually) a references section. They differ in their structure in accordance with the many different areas of study (arts, humanities, social sciences, technology, sciences, etc.) and the differences between them. In a thesis by publication, the chapters constitute an introductory and comprehensive review of the appended published and unpublished article documents.
Dissertations normally report on a research project or study, or an extended analysis of a topic. The structure of a thesis or dissertation explains the purpose, the previous research literature which impinges on the topic of the study, the methods used and the findings of the project. Most world universities use a multiple chapter format : a) an introduction, which introduces the research topic, the methodology, as well as its scope and significance; b) a literature review, reviewing relevant literature and showing how this has informed the research issue; c) a methodology chapter, explaining how the research has been designed and why the research methods/population/data collection and analysis being used have been chosen; d) a findings chapter, outlining the findings of the research itself; e) an analysis and discussion chapter, analysing the findings and discussing them in the context of the literature review (this chapter is often divided into two—analysis and discussion); f) a conclusion.
Degree-awarding institutions often define their own house style that candidates have to follow when preparing a thesis document. In addition to institution-specific house styles, there exist a number of field-specific, national, and international standards and recommendations for the presentation of theses, for instance ISO 7144. Other applicable international standards include ISO 2145 on section numbers, ISO 690 on bibliographic references, and ISO 31 on quantities or units.
Some older house styles specify that front matter (title page, abstract, table of content, etc.) uses a separate page number sequence from the main text, using Roman numerals. The relevant international standard and many newer style guides recognize that this book design practice can cause confusion where electronic document viewers number all pages of a document continuously from the first page, independent of any printed page numbers. They, therefore, avoid the traditional separate number sequence for front matter and require a single sequence of Arabic numerals starting with 1 for the first printed page (the recto of the title page).
Presentation requirements, including pagination, layout, type and color of paper, use of acid-free paper (where a copy of the dissertation will become a permanent part of the library collection), paper size, order of components, and citation style, will be checked page by page by the accepting officer before the thesis is accepted and a receipt is issued.
However, strict standards are not always required. Most Italian universities, for example, have only general requirements on the character size and the page formatting, and leave much freedom for the actual typographic details.
A thesis or dissertation committee is a committee that supervises a student's dissertation. In the US, these committees usually consist of a primary supervisor or advisor and two or more committee members, who supervise the progress of the dissertation and may also act as the examining committee, or jury, at the oral examination of the thesis (see below).
At most universities, the committee is chosen by the student in conjunction with his or her primary adviser, usually after completion of the comprehensive examinations or prospectus meeting, and may consist of members of the comps committee. The committee members are doctors in their field (whether a PhD or other designation) and have the task of reading the dissertation, making suggestions for changes and improvements, and sitting in on the defense. Sometimes, at least one member of the committee must be a professor in a department that is different from that of the student.
Regional and degree-specific practices and terminologies
In the Latin American docta, the academic dissertation can be referred to as different stages inside the academic program that the student is seeking to achieve into a recognized Argentine University, in all the cases the students must develop original contribution in the chosen fields by means of several paper work and essays that comprehend the body of the thesis. Correspondingly to the academic degree, the last phase of an academic thesis is called in Spanish a defensa de grado, defensa magistral or defensa doctoral in cases in which the university candidate is finalizing his or her licentiate, master's, or PhD program. According to a committee resolution, the dissertation can be approved or rejected by an academic committee consisting of the thesis director, the thesis coordinator, and at least one evaluator from another recognized university in which the student is pursuing his or her academic program. All the dissertation referees must already have achieved at least the academic degree that the candidate is trying to reach.
At English-speaking Canadian universities, writings presented in fulfillment of undergraduate coursework requirements are normally called papers, term papers or essays. A longer paper or essay presented for completion of a 4-year bachelor's degree is sometimes called a major paper. High-quality research papers presented as the empirical study of a "postgraduate" consecutive bachelor with Honours or Baccalaureatus Cum Honore degree are called thesis (Honours Seminar Thesis). Major papers presented as the final project for a master's degree are normally called thesis; and major papers presenting the student's research towards a doctoral degree are called theses or dissertations.
At Canadian universities under the French influenced system, students may have a choice between presenting a "mémoire"', which is a shorter synthetic work (roughly 75 pages) and a thèse which is one hundred pages or more. A synthetic monograph associated with doctoral work is referred to as a "thèse". See also compilation thesis. Either work can be awarded a "mention d'honneur" (excellence) as a result of the decision by the examination committee, although these are rare.
A typical undergraduate paper or essay might be forty pages. Master's theses are approximately one hundred pages. PhD theses are usually over two hundred pages. This may vary greatly by discipline, program, college, or university. However, normally the required minimum study period is primarily depending on the complexity or quality of research requirements.
Theses Canada acquires and preserves a comprehensive collection of Canadian theses at Library and Archives Canada' (LAC) through partnership with Canadian universities who participate in the program.
At most university faculties in Croatia, a degree is obtained by defending a thesis after having passed all the classes specified in the degree programme. In the Bologna system, the bachelor's thesis, called završni rad (literally "final work" or "concluding work") is defended after 3 years of study and is about 30 pages long. Most students with bachelor's degrees continue onto master's programmes which end with a master's thesis called diplomski rad (literally "diploma work" or "graduate work"). The term dissertation is used for a doctoral degree paper (doktorska disertacija).
In the Czech Republic, higher education is completed by passing all classes remaining to the educational compendium for given degree and defending a thesis. For bachelors programme the thesis is called bakalářská práce (bachelors thesis), for master's degrees and also doctor of medicine or dentistry degrees it is the diplomová práce (master's thesis), and for Philosophiae doctor (PhD.) degree it is dissertation dizertační práce. Thesis for so called Higher-Professional School (Vyšší odborná škola, VOŠ) is called absolventská práce.
The following types of thesis are used in Finland (names in Finnish/Swedish):
- Kandidaatintutkielma/kandidatavhandling is the dissertation associated with lower-level academic degrees (bachelor's degree), and at universities of applied science.
- Pro gradu(-tutkielma)/(avhandling )pro gradu, colloquially referred to simply as 'gradu', is the dissertation for master's degrees, which make up the majority of degrees conferred in Finland, and this is therefore the most common type of thesis submitted in the country. The equivalent for engineering and architecture students is diplomityö/diplomarbete.
- The highest-level theses are called lisensiaatintutkielma/licentiatavhandling and (tohtorin)väitöskirja/doktorsavhandling, for licentiate and doctoral degrees, respectively.
In France, the academic dissertation or thesis is called a thèse and it is reserved for the final work of doctoral candidates. The minimum page length is generally (and not formally) 100 pages (or about 400,000 characters), but is usually several times longer (except for technical theses and for "exact sciences" such as physics and maths).
To complete a master's degree in research, a student is required to write a mémoire, the French equivalent of a master's thesis in other higher education systems.
The word dissertation in French is reserved for shorter (1,000–2,000 words), more generic academic treatises.
The defense is called a soutenance.
In Germany, an academic thesis is called Abschlussarbeit or, more specifically, the basic name of the degree complemented by -arbeit (e.g., Diplomarbeit, Masterarbeit, Doktorarbeit). For bachelor's and master's degrees, the name can alternatively be complemented by -thesis instead (e.g., Bachelorthesis).
Length is often given in page count and depends upon departments, faculties, and fields of study. A bachelor's thesis is often 40–60 pages long, a diploma thesis and a master's thesis usually 60–100. The required submission for a doctorate is called a Dissertation or Doktorarbeit. The submission for a Habilitation, which is an academic qualification, not an academic degree, is called Habilitationsschrift, not Habilitationsarbeit. PhD by publication is becoming increasingly common in many fields of study.
A doctoral degree is often earned with multiple levels of a Latin honors remark for the thesis ranging from summa cum laude (best) to rite (duly). A thesis can also be rejected with a Latin remark (non-rite, non-sufficit or worst as sub omni canone). Bachelor's and master's theses receive numerical grades from 1.0 (best) to 5.0 (failed).
In India the thesis defense is called a viva voce (Latin for "by live voice") examination (viva in short). Involved in the viva are two examiners and the candidate. One examiner is an academic from the candidate's own university department (but not one of the candidate's supervisors) and the other is an external examiner from a different university.
In India, PG Qualifications such as MSc Physics accompanies submission of dissertation in Part I and submission of a Project (a working model of an innovation) in Part II. Engineering qualifications such as Diploma, BTech or B.E., MTech or M.Des. also involves submission of dissertation. In all the cases, the dissertation can be extended for summer internship at certain research and development organizations or also as PhD synopsis.
In Indonesia, the term thesis is used specifically to refer to master's theses. The undergraduate thesis is called skripsi, while the doctoral dissertation is called disertasi. In general, those three terms are usually called as tugas akhir (final assignment), which is mandatory for the completion of a degree. Undergraduate students usually begin to write their final assignment in their third, fourth or fifth enrollment year, depends on the requirements of their respective disciplines and universities. In some universities, students are required to write a proposal skripsi, proposal thesis or thesis proposal before they could write their final assignment. If the thesis proposal is considered to fulfill the qualification by the academic examiners, students then may proceed to write their final assignment.
In Italy there are normally three types of thesis. In order of complexity: one for the Laurea (equivalent to the UK Bachelor's Degree), another one for the Laurea Magistrale (equivalent to the UK Master's Degree) and then a thesis to complete the Dottorato di Ricerca (PhD). Thesis requirements vary greatly between degrees and disciplines, ranging from as low as 3–4 ECTS credits to more than 30. Thesis work is mandatory for the completion of a degree.
Malaysian universities often follow the British model for dissertations and degrees. However, a few universities follow the United States model for theses and dissertations. Some public universities have both British and US style PhD programmes. Branch campuses of British, Australian and Middle East universities in Malaysia use the respective models of the home campuses.
In Pakistan, at undergraduate level the thesis is usually called final year project, as it is completed in the senior year of the degree, the name project usually implies that the work carried out is less extensive than a thesis and bears lesser credit hours too. The undergraduate level project is presented through an elaborate written report and a presentation to the advisor, a board of faculty members and students. At graduate level however, i.e. in MS, some universities allow students to accomplish a project of 6 credits or a thesis of 9 credits, at least one publication  is normally considered enough for the awarding of the degree with project and is considered mandatory for the awarding of a degree with thesis. A written report and a public thesis defense is mandatory, in the presence of a board of senior researchers, consisting of members from an outside organization or a university. A PhD candidate is supposed to accomplish extensive research work to fulfill the dissertation requirements with international publications being a mandatory requirement. The defense of the research work is done publicly.
In the Philippines, an academic thesis is named by the degree, such as bachelor/undergraduate thesis or masteral thesis. However, in Philippine English, the term doctorate is typically replaced with doctoral (as in the case of "doctoral dissertation"), though in official documentation the former is still used. The terms thesis and dissertation are commonly used interchangeably in everyday language yet it generally understood that a thesis refers to bachelor/undergraduate and master academic work while a dissertation is named for doctorate work.
The Philippine system is influenced by American collegiate system, in that it requires a research project to be submitted before being allowed to write a thesis. This is mostly given as a prerequisite writing course to the actual thesis and is accomplished in the term period before; supervision is provided by one professor assigned to a class. This is later to be presented in front of an academic panel, often the entire faculty of an academic department, with their recommendations contributing to the acceptance, revision, or rejection of the initial topic. In addition, the presentation of the research project will help the candidate choose their primary thesis adviser.
An undergraduate thesis is completed in the final year of the degree alongside existing seminar (lecture) or laboratory courses, and is often divided into two presentations: proposal and thesis presentations (though this varies across universities), whereas a master thesis or doctorate dissertation is accomplished in the last term alone and is defended once. In most universities, a thesis is required for the bestowment of a degree to a candidate alongside a number of units earned throughout their academic period of stay, though for practice and skills-based degrees a practicum and a written report can be achieved instead. The examination board often consists of 3 to 5 examiners, often professors in a university (with a Masters or PhD degree) depending on the university's examination rules. Required word length, complexity, and contribution to scholarship varies widely across universities in the country.
In Poland, a bachelor's degree usually requires a praca licencjacka (bachelor's thesis) or the similar level degree in engineering requires a praca inżynierska (engineer's thesis/bachelor's thesis), the master's degree requires a praca magisterska (master's thesis). The academic dissertation for a PhD is called a dysertacja or praca doktorska. The submission for the Habilitation is called praca habilitacyjna" or dysertacja habilitacyjna". Thus the term dysertacja is reserved for PhD and Habilitation degrees. All the theses need to be "defended" by the author during a special examination for the given degree. Examinations for PhD and Habilitation degrees are public.
Portugal and Brazil
In Portugal and Brazil, a dissertation (dissertação) is required for completion of a master or PhD degree. The defense is done in a public presentation in which teachers, students, and the general public can participate. For the PhD a thesis (tese) is presented for defense in a public exam. The exam typically extends over 3 hours. The examination board typically involves 5 to 6 scholars (including the advisor) or other experts with a PhD degree (generally at least half of them must be external to the university where the candidate defends the thesis, but may depend on the University). Each university / faculty defines the length of these documents, but typical numbers of pages are around 60–80 for MSc and 150–250 for PhD.
Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine
In Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine an academic dissertation or thesis is called what can be literally translated as a "master's degree work" (thesis), whereas the word dissertation is reserved for doctoral theses (Candidate of Sciences). To complete a master's degree, a student is required to write a thesis and to then defend the work publicly. Length of this manuscript usually is given in page count and depends upon educational institution, its departments, faculties, and fields of study
At universities in Slovenia, an academic thesis called diploma thesis is a prerequisite for completing undergraduate studies. The thesis used to be 40–60 pages long, but has been reduced to 20–30 pages in new Bologna process programmes. To complete Master's studies, a candidate must write magistrsko delo (Master's thesis) that is longer and more detailed than the undergraduate thesis. The required submission for the doctorate is called doktorska disertacija (doctoral dissertation). In pre Bologna programmes students were able to skip the preparation and presentation of a Master's thesis and continue straightforward towards doctorate.
In Slovakia, higher education is completed by defending a thesis, which is called bachelors thesis "bakalárska práca" for bachelors programme, master's thesis or "diplomová práca" for master's degrees and also doctor of medicine or dentistry degrees and dissertation "dizertačná práca" for Philosophiae doctor (PhD.) degree.
In Sweden, there are different types of theses. Practices and definitions vary between fields but commonly include the C thesis/Bachelor thesis, which corresponds to 15 HP or 10 weeks of independent studies, D thesis/'/Magister/one year master's thesis, which corresponds to 15 HP or 10 weeks of independent studies and E Thesis/two-year master's thesis, which corresponds to 30 HP or 20 weeks of independent studies. After that there are two types of post graduate degrees, Licentiate dissertation and PhD dissertation. A licentiate degree is approximately "half a PhD" in terms of size and scope of the thesis. Swedish PhD studies should in theory last for four years, including course work and thesis work, but as many PhD students also teach, the PhD often takes longer to complete.
Outside the academic community, the terms thesis and dissertation are interchangeable. At universities in the United Kingdom, the term thesis is usually associated with PhD/EngD (doctoral) and research master's degrees, while dissertation is the more common term for a substantial project submitted as part of a taught master's degree or an undergraduate degree (e.g. BA, BSc, BMus, BEd, BEng etc.).
Thesis word lengths may differ by faculty/department and are set by individual universities.
A wide range of supervisory arrangements can be found in the British academy, from single supervisors (more usual for undergraduate and Masters level work) to supervisory teams of up to three supervisors. In teams, there will often be a Director of Studies, usually someone with broader experience (perhaps having passed some threshold of successful supervisions). The Director may be involved with regular supervision along with the other supervisors, or may have more of an oversight role, with the other supervisors taking on the more day-to-day responsibilities of supervision.
In some U.S. doctoral programs, the "dissertation" can take up the major part of the student's total time spent (along with two or three years of classes), and may take years of full-time work to complete. At most universities, dissertation is the term for the required submission for the doctorate, and thesis refers only to the master's degree requirement.
Thesis is also used to describe a cumulative project for a bachelor's degree, and is more common at selective colleges and universities, or for those seeking admittance to graduate school or to obtain an honors academic designation. These are called "senior projects" or "senior theses;" they are generally done in the senior year near graduation after having completed other courses, the independent study period, and the internship or student teaching period (the completion of most of the requirements before the writing of the paper ensures adequate knowledge and aptitude for the challenge). Unlike a dissertation or master's thesis, they are not as long, they do not require a novel contribution to knowledge, or even a very narrow focus on a set subtopic. Like them, they can be lengthy and require months of work, they require supervision by at least one professor adviser, they must be focused on a certain area of knowledge, and they must use an appreciable amount of scholarly citations. They may or may not be defended before a committee, but usually are not; there is generally no preceding examination before the writing of the paper, except for at very few colleges. Because of the nature of the graduate thesis or dissertation having to be more narrow and more novel, the result of original research, these usually have a smaller proportion of the work that is cited from other sources, though the fact that they are lengthier may mean they still have total citations.
Specific undergraduate courses, especially writing-intensive courses or courses taken by upperclassmen, may also require one or more extensive written assignments referred to variously as theses, essays, or papers. Increasingly, high schools are requiring students to complete a senior project or senior thesis on a chosen topic during the final year as a prerequisite for graduation. The extended essay component of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, offered in a growing number of American high schools, is another example of this trend.
Generally speaking, a dissertation is judged as to whether or not it makes an original and unique contribution to scholarship. Lesser projects (a master's thesis, for example) are judged by whether or not they demonstrate mastery of available scholarship in the presentation of an idea.[dubious– discuss]
The required complexity or quality of research of a thesis may vary significantly among universities or programs.
One of the requirements for certain advanced degrees is often an oral examination (a.k.a. viva voce examination or just viva). This examination normally occurs after the dissertation is finished but before it is submitted to the university, and may comprise a presentation (often public) by the student and questions posed by an examining committee or jury. In North America, an initial oral examination in the field of specialization may take place just before the student settles down to work on the dissertation. An additional oral exam may take place after the dissertation is completed and is known as a thesis or dissertation "defense," which at some universities may be a mere formality and at others may result in the student being required to make significant revisions. In the UK and certain other English-speaking countries, an oral examination is called a viva voce.
The result of the examination may be given immediately following deliberation by the examiners (in which case the candidate may immediately be considered to have received his or her degree), or at a later date, in which case the examiners may prepare a defense report that is forwarded to a Board or Committee of Postgraduate Studies, which then officially recommends the candidate for the degree.
Potential decisions (or "verdicts") include:
- Accepted/pass with no corrections.
- The thesis is accepted as presented. A grade may be awarded, though in many countries PhDs are not graded at all, and in others, only one of the theoretically possible grades (the highest) is ever used in practice.
- The thesis must be revised.
- Revisions (for example, correction of numerous grammatical or spelling errors; clarification of concepts or methodology; an addition of sections) are required. One or more members of the jury or the thesis supervisor will make the decision on the acceptability of revisions and provide written confirmation that they have been satisfactorily completed. If, as is often the case, the needed revisions are relatively modest, the examiners may all sign the thesis with the verbal understanding that the candidate will review the revised thesis with his or her supervisor before submitting the completed version.
- Extensive revision required.
- The thesis must be revised extensively and undergo the evaluation and defense process again from the beginning with the same examiners. Problems may include theoretical or methodological issues. A candidate who is not recommended for the degree after the second defense must normally withdraw from the program.
- The thesis is unacceptable and the candidate must withdraw from the program. This verdict is given only when the thesis requires major revisions and when the examination makes it clear that the candidate is incapable of making such revisions.
At most North American institutions the latter two verdicts are extremely rare, for two reasons. First, to obtain the status of doctoral candidates, graduate students typically write a qualifying examination or comprehensive examination, which often includes an oral defense. Students who pass the qualifying examination are deemed capable of completing scholarly work independently and are allowed to proceed with working on a dissertation. Second, since the thesis supervisor (and the other members of the advisory committee) will normally have reviewed the thesis extensively before recommending the student proceed to the defense, such an outcome would be regarded as a major failure not only on the part of the candidate but also by the candidate's supervisor (who should have recognized the substandard quality of the dissertation long before the defense was allowed to take place). It is also fairly rare for a thesis to be accepted without any revisions; the most common outcome of a defense is for the examiners to specify minor revisions (which the candidate typically completes in a few days or weeks).
At universities on the British pattern it is not uncommon for theses at the viva stage to be subject to major revisions in which a substantial rewrite is required, sometimes followed by a new viva. Very rarely, the thesis may be awarded the lesser degree of M.Phil (Master of Philosophy) instead, preventing the candidate from resubmitting the thesis.
In Australia, doctoral theses are usually examined by three examiners although some, like the Australian Catholic University and the University of New South Wales, have shifted to using only two examiners; without a live defense except in extremely rare exceptions. In the case of a master's degree by research the thesis is usually examined by only two examiners. Typically one of these examiners will be from within the candidate's own department; the other(s) will usually be from other universities and often from overseas. Following submission of the thesis, copies are sent by mail to examiners and then reports sent back to the institution.
Similar to a master's degree by research thesis, a thesis for the research component of a master's degree by coursework is also usually examined by two examiners, one from the candidate's department and one from another university. For an Honours year, which is a fourth year in addition to the usual three-year bachelor's degree, the thesis is also examined by two examiners, though both are usually from the candidate's own department. Honours and Master's theses sometimes require an oral defense before they are accepted.
In Germany, a thesis is usually examined with an oral examination. This applies to almost all Diplom, Magister, master's and doctoral degrees as well as to most bachelor's degrees. However, a process that allows for revisions of the thesis is usually only implemented for doctoral degrees.
There are several different kinds of oral examinations used in practice. The Disputation, also called Verteidigung ("defense"), is usually public (at least to members of the university) and is focused on the topic of the thesis. In contrast, the Rigorosum is not held in public and also encompasses fields in addition to the topic of the thesis. The Rigorosum is only common for doctoral degrees. Another term for an oral examination is Kolloquium, which generally refers to a usually public scientific discussion and is often used synonymously with Verteidigung.
In each case, what exactly is expected differs between universities and between faculties. Some universities also demand a combination of several of these forms.
Like the British model, the PHD or MPhil student is required to submit their theses or dissertation for examination by two or three examiners. The first examiner is from the university concerned, the second examiner is from another local university and the third examiner is from a suitable foreign university (usually from Commonwealth countries). The choice of examiners must be approved by the university senate. In some public universities, a PhD or MPhil candidate may also have to show a number publications in peer reviewed academic journals as part of the requirement. An oral viva is conducted after the examiners have submitted their reports to the university. The oral viva session is attended by the Oral Viva chairman, a rapporteur with a PhD qualification, the first examiner, the second examiner and sometimes the third examiner.
Branch campuses of British, Australian and Middle East universities in Malaysia use the respective models of the home campuses to examine their PhD or MPhil candidates.
In the Philippines, a thesis is followed by an oral defense. In most universities, this applies to all bachelor, master, and doctorate degrees. However, the oral defense is held in once per semester (usually in the middle or by the end) with a presentation of revisions (so-called "plenary presentation") at the end of each semester. The oral defense is typically not held in public for bachelor and master oral defenses, however a colloquium is held for doctorate degrees.
In Portugal, a thesis is examined with an oral defense, which includes an initial presentation by the candidate followed by an extensive questioning/answering period. Typical duration for the total exam is 1 hour 30 minutes for the MSc and 3 hours for the PhD.
In North America, the thesis defense or oral defense is the final examination for doctoral candidates, and sometimes for master's candidates.
The examining committee normally consists of the thesis committee, usually a given number of professors mainly from the student's university plus his or her primary supervisor, an external examiner (someone not otherwise connected to the university), and a chair person. Each committee member will have been given a completed copy of the dissertation prior to the defense, and will come prepared to ask questions about the thesis itself and the subject matter. In many schools, master's thesis defenses are restricted to the examinee and the examiners, but doctoral defenses are open to the public.
The typical format will see the candidate giving a short (20–40-minute) presentation of his or her research, followed by one to two hours of questions.
At some U.S. institutions, a longer public lecture (known as a "thesis talk" or "thesis seminar") by the candidate will accompany the defense itself, in which case only the candidate, the examiners, and other members of the faculty may attend the actual defense.
Russia and Ukraine
A student in Ukraine or Russia has to complete a thesis and then defend it in front of their department. Sometimes the defense meeting is made up of the learning institute's professionals and sometimes the students peers are allowed to view or join in. After the presentation and defense of the thesis, the final conclusion of the department should be that none of them have reservations on the content and quality of the thesis.
A conclusion on the thesis has to be approved by the rector of the educational institute. This conclusion (final grade so to speak) of the thesis can be defended/argued not only at the thesis council, but also in any other thesis council of Russia or Ukraine.
The Diploma de estudios avanzados (DEA) can last two years and candidates must complete coursework and demonstrate their ability to research the specific topics they have studied. After completing this part of the PhD, students begin a dissertation on a set topic. The dissertation must reach a minimum length depending on the subject and it is valued more highly if it contains field research. Once candidates have finished their written dissertations, they must present them before a committee. Following this presentation, the examiners will ask questions.
United Kingdom, Ireland and Hong Kong
In Hong Kong, Ireland and the United Kingdom, the thesis defense is called a viva voce (Latin for "by live voice") examination (viva for short). A typical viva lasts for approximately 3 hours, though there is no formal time limit. Involved in the viva are two examiners and the candidate. Usually, one examiner is an academic from the candidate's own university department (but not one of the candidate's supervisors) and the other is an external examiner from a different university. Increasingly, the examination may involve a third academic, the 'chair'; this person, from the candidate's institution, acts as an impartial observer with oversight of the examination process to ensure that the examination is fair. The 'chair' does not ask academic questions of the candidate.
In the United Kingdom, there are only two or at most three examiners, and in many universities the examination is held in private. The candidate's primary supervisor is not permitted to ask or answer questions during the viva, and their presence is not necessary. However, some universities permit members of the faculty or the university to attend. At the University of Oxford, for instance, any member of the University may attend a DPhil viva (the University's regulations require that details of the examination and its time and place be published formally in advance) provided he or she attends in full academic dress.
A submission of the thesis is the last formal requirement for most students after the defense. By the final deadline, the student must submit a complete copy of the thesis to the appropriate body within the accepting institution, along with the appropriate forms, bearing the signatures of the primary supervisor, the examiners, and, in some cases, the head of the student's department. Other required forms may include library authorizations (giving the university library permission to make the thesis available as part of its collection) and copyright permissions (in the event that the student has incorporated copyrighted materials in the thesis). Many large scientific publishing houses (e.g. Taylor & Francis, Elsevier) use copyright agreements that allow the authors to incorporate their published articles into dissertations without separate authorization.
Failure to submit the thesis by the deadline may result in graduation (and granting of the degree) being delayed. At most U.S. institutions, there will also be various fees (for binding, microfilming, copyright registration, and the like), which must be paid before the degree will be granted.
Once all the paperwork is in order, copies of the thesis may be made available in one or more university libraries. Specialist abstracting services exist to publicize the content of these beyond the institutions in which they are produced. Many institutions now insist on submission of digitized as well as printed copies of theses; the digitized versions of successful theses are often made available online.
- ^Originally, the concepts "dissertation" and "thesis" (plural, "theses") were not interchangeable. When, at ancient universities, the lector had completed his lecture, there would traditionally follow a disputation, during which students could take up certain points and argue them. The position that one took during a disputation was the thesis, while the dissertation was the line of reasoning with which one buttressed it. Olga Weijers: The medieval disputatio. In: Hora est! (On dissertations), p.23-27. Leiden University Library, 2005
- ^ abcInternational Standard ISO 7144: Documentation—Presentation of theses and similar documents, International Organization for Standardization, Geneva, 1986.
- ^Douwe Breimer, Jos Damen et al.: Hora est! (On dissertations). Leiden University Library, 2005
- ^"The Graduate Thesis".
- ^Thomas, Gary (2009) Your Research Project. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
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On the morning of Tom Marshall's PhD defence, he put on the suit he had bought for the occasion and climbed onto the stage in front of a 50-strong audience, including his parents and 6 examiners. He gave a 15-minute-long presentation, then faced an hour of cross-examination about his past 5 years of neuroscience research at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. A lot was at stake: this oral examination would determine whether he passed or failed. “At the one-hour mark someone came in, banged a stick on the floor and said 'hora est',” says Marshall — the ceremonial call that his time was up. “But I couldn't. I had enjoyed the whole experience far too much, and ended up talking for a few extra minutes.”
Marshall's elaborate, public PhD assessment is very different from that faced by Kelsie Long, an Earth-sciences PhD candidate at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. Her PhD will be assessed solely on her written thesis, which will be mailed off to examiners and returned with comments. She will do a public presentation of her work later this year, but it won't affect her final result. “It almost feels like a rite of passage,” she says.
PhDs are assessed in very different ways around the world. Almost all involve a written thesis, but those come in many forms. In the United Kingdom, they are usually monographs, long explanations of a student's work; in Scandinavia, science students typically top-and-tail a series of their publications. The accompanying oral examination — also called a viva voce or defence — can be a public lecture, a private discussion or not happen at all. There is wide variation across disciplines and from one institution to the next. “It is a complicated world in doctoral education. One format does not fit all,” says Maresi Nerad, founding director of the Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education at the University of Washington in Seattle.
This isn't necessarily a problem in itself, but some researchers worry that the decades-old doctoral assessment system is showing strain. Time-pressured examiners sometimes lack training and preparation for PhD assessments, which can lead to lack of rigour. “Two or three examiners come together to go through the thesis in a perfunctory way. They tick the boxes, everyone is happy, and then a PhD walks away,” says Jeremy Farrar, director of the biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust in London.
Farrar, like other scientists, suspects that the PhD assessment is not keeping up with the times. Single-author tomes seem outdated when much of research has become a multidisciplinary, team endeavour. Research is becoming more open, but PhD assessments can lack transparency: vivas are sometimes held behind closed doors. Some PhD theses languish, little-used, on office shelves or in archives. “We're seeing some students who are still submitting paper theses to us — they don't have electronic theses yet,” says Austin McLean, director of scholarly communication and dissertation publishing at ProQuest in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which has the largest database of PhD theses in the world. What's more, little attention is given in the PhD assessment to soft skills such as management, entrepreneurship and teamwork, even though these are an essential part of life beyond the PhD, and students are increasingly leading that life outside academia. “The assessment of the PhD hasn't been updated to fit the modern definition of a PhD,” Farrar says.
“There are a lot of pressures to make changes to the thesis,” says Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington DC, one of a number of groups discussing the issue. The council organized a workshop in January this year called Future of the PhD Dissertation, and in March, the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) in Melbourne examined changes to the thesis as part of a review on researcher training. Some scientists and education experts welcome the attention. “I don't think the current model for thesis examination is ideal, but there are positive movements towards changing it,” says Inger Mewburn, director of research training at ANU and editor of the blog The Thesis Whisperer, which is dedicated to those completing a thesis.
Passing the test
Academics agree about one thing regarding the PhD assessment — its aim. The traditional goal is to demonstrate the candidate's ability to conduct independent research on a novel concept and to communicate the results in an accessible way. Where the academics differ is on how best to achieve that goal.
Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist and former president of Princeton University in New Jersey, sees merit in the monograph form of the thesis. It demonstrates scholarly ability by requiring students to “frame the historical context of a problem, describe in detail the purpose and execution and then come to a credible conclusion”, she says.
But should the thesis include academic publications, too? That's the norm at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, where most theses are a compilation of the student's original papers, along with a relatively short discussion, perhaps 50 pages long. The rationale is that publishing should be part of training because it better equips students for academic life and securing jobs.
Some students who complete a monograph end up wishing that they had spent more time on writing papers. James Lewis successfully defended his physics PhD at Imperial College London in October 2015, but he thinks that his one published paper landed him his postdoc at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The job market for postdoc positions is very competitive,” he says, “so if you can get a paper published during your PhD then you're helping yourself.” While he waits to start, Lewis is spending his days writing papers based on his research. “I'm wondering: would it not have been better to write these instead of the thesis, which took me five months to write?”
But others argue that the pressure to publish could rob PhD students of valuable parts of their studies, such as the time to shape their research path and to think creatively and independently. “The PhD might become driven by papers only,” says Farrar. “Students might end up spending their time focusing only on what papers they can produce, then staple them together with a summary and they're done — adding to the sense that the whole scientific enterprise is a paper factory rather than an exploration.”
Long is working at ANU towards a thesis-by-publication: she's written and submitted one paper and has started on a second. But she's struggling. “I am finding this one much harder to write, mostly because it isn't as new or exciting as the previous one,” she says. What's more, her strategy depends on things at least partly outside her control — on her PhD generating enough complete studies for publication and on a reasonably timely peer-review process.
Completed PhD theses are typically stored in university libraries — but that doesn't mean that they are read or used. Some 60% of submissions to the ProQuest database fall under the category of science, technology or mathematics, but they are the ones that are accessed least. “We think this is because the communication is more journal-focused,” says McLean. Scientists do tend to keep a copy of their theses in their office or lab for use by students and colleagues. Neil Curson, a physicist at the London Centre for Nanotechnology, says that his PhD, written more than 20 years ago, is still consulted by his students when they come into his lab. Many theses, however, end up collecting dust.
Viva la viva
Whatever form the thesis takes, it has to be assessed — in most countries, by a panel of experts, and often involving an oral exam. But the viva “doesn't have the same level of consistency as the written form of examination”, says Allyson Holbrook, an education researcher at Australia's University of Newcastle. In Israel, the viva is optional and very few students choose to have one; in the Netherlands, it is formal and ceremonial; in the United Kingdom, it's typically a private affair with two or three examiners; and in Australia, it's hardly performed at all. “One hundred per cent of the doctoral examination is about the thesis here,” says Holbrook. That's largely because, historically, there weren't enough experts in the country to examine the work in person and it was costly to fly them in, she says.
Holbrook and her research team published a study last year that compared the assessment methods used in Australia with those in New Zealand and the United Kingdom (T. Lovat et al. Higher Ed. Rev.47, 5–23; 2015). They concluded that doing an oral defence rarely changed the result, and that the thesis itself was the “determinative step” of passing. The review on Australian research training published in March didn't support adding a viva either, but it did recommend a move towards more continuous assessment of a student, rather than waiting until the end of the training.
Some researchers see problems with the viva. It's not uncommon for nerves to get the better of a student, and for them to freeze in front of their audience, however small it is. Examiners could worsen the situation by asking very difficult questions, says David Bogle, a chemical engineer at University College London. “There are cases where undue pressure is placed on the candidate by the examiners. This shouldn't be allowed.”
Trial by error
Most researchers don't support a global standard for the PhD assessment. A one-size-fits-all approach would be impossible to implement, they say, and the type of assessment — be it continuous appraisal, written thesis or oral exam — should depend on discipline, project, student, supervisor and institution. “If you take away the variability in assessment and form of the thesis then you lose all creativity and innovation from the PhD,” Nerad says.
But many feel that the system could be improved — by making the thesis shorter, for one. Data from ProQuest, which stores 4 million theses, show that the average length of biology, chemistry and physics PhDs soared to nearly 200 pages between 1945 and 1990. That could be because students are analysing more complex questions, performing longer literature reviews and using increasingly complicated methods that require lengthier explanations (see 'The expanding thesis'). “It's unnecessary to have such a long thesis,” says Farrar, who recently assessed one such tome. “'The thicker my PhD, the better' has become a myth in the PhD community, and is taking it down the wrong direction.”
Farrar says that a slimmed-down document would be more appropriate. That could follow the concise format of a research paper, and include a review of the field, then short chapters on methods, analysis and discussion. “It would be more succinct and focused. And the examiners will probably read it all.”
That isn't necessarily the case now. Examiners have to find time to review theses in between research, teaching, grant-writing and many other demands. “Something has to give, and what gives is the amount of time spent on any of those individual tasks,” says Farrar. That means an examiner might skim through years of a PhD student's work in just a couple of hours. “I think we owe it to the students to examine them properly and help prepare them for their future careers,” he says.
The modern thesis
One way to better reflect the team-based nature of science would be to write a joint thesis, an approach that has been used in arts and humanities graduate education in the past. However, this can make it difficult to assign credit. “If you have worked on a collaborative dissertation, a potential employer might struggle to see whether you really are an independent thinker or could you read a lead a research project,” says Ortega.
There is another matter to wrestle with — the fact that half of science PhD graduates in the United States are choosing careers outside of academia, according to the National Science Foundation's 2014 Survey of Earned Doctorates. “Under those conditions, the standard assessment should include the skills in what they'll need when going on to future careers,” says Michael Teitelbaum, labour economist at Harvard Law School.
Increasingly, institutions offer courses to PhD students in skills such as teamwork, management and research ethics, but these skills aren't usually assessed formally. The viva would be one opportunity to do so, perhaps by seeing how students react to various scenarios. Alternatively, as the ACOLA review suggested, PhD candidates could accrue credits in transferable skills through professional-development activities that are recorded in a portfolio. “You can't just assume that if you throw them into an environment they will meaningfully learn from that environment,” says psychologist Michael Mumford, a director of the Center for Applied Social Research at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “We need exams that ask students to deal with both real-world problems as well as ambiguous academic problems.”
Farrar thinks that a change in emphasis could help. Rather than thinking of the thesis and viva as an exam, it should be viewed as the culmination of a long project. “You need to look at the PhD in the context of those four years of research, not just as revision for one big test.”
Mewburn stresses that whatever form the assessment takes, it should focus more on the individual than on their work. “My preference is to assess the researcher,” she says, “but we haven't developed the tools and curriculum to do that.”
It's difficult to find figures on how many students fail their PhD if they get to the point of submitting a thesis but, anecdotally, scientists say that few flunk it outright. More often, students are sent away with minor or major corrections that have to be completed before the PhD is awarded.
There are theories that few students fail because universities want to keep their number of graduates high for the rankings. But most researchers dispute this, and point to other reasons. One is that weak students are likely to have dropped out before they reach the final assessment. Furthermore, supervisors and the supporting institutions typically work hard — through regular reviews and assessments — to make sure that a candidate and project are of a sufficient standard before the thesis is submitted. “You haven't done your due diligence as a university if a student is getting to a stage where they are sending out theses that are going to fail,” says Simon Hay, a global-health researcher at the University of Washington.
Nerad sees no need to reform the final PhD assessment. For her, the problem lies with the variability of graduate education as a whole. “Now that research is becoming more globalized, the PhD needs to be too.” That process is under way, Nerad says: the pressures of economic globalization, international policies and national drives to house world-class universities have led to a more standardized PhD experience across the world.
During her tenure as Princeton's president, Tilghman was often asked if there was a perfect way to assess a PhD course. Not many liked her answer — that she could only really evaluate a student at the 25-year reunion. “In the end, the only way you can assess it is whether the graduates of the programme become successful scientists. If they do, you've done a good job. If they haven't, you haven't.”
Illustration by Oliver Munday
“'The thicker my PhD, the better' has become a myth in the PhD community.”
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