Dissertation vs Research Paper – What’s The Main Differences


Often students who are approaching a dissertation fail to grasp the gravity of this type of project. It is easy to view it as just another research paper, but a dissertation is so much more than that. Let’s do a brief comparison and look at the main differences between a dissertation and a standard research paper.

What is a Dissertation?

If you are not already aware of what a dissertation is then it is basically a final project that is used to support your candidacy for a masters degree or other professional qualification. It is almost like an extended research paper, but the student is responsible for all aspects of it. You will develop your own thesis, perform your own research and write up your findings independently. The final project that you submit for marking should be completed to a professional, publishable standard.

Dissertations Are Much Longer

One of the most obvious differences between a dissertation and a research paper is the length or word count. A standard research paper is usually fairly short. You will be expected to write somewhere between 1500 and 3000 words. In comparison, a dissertation is going to be much longer. A lot of the time you will not be given a target word count, because by the very nature of a dissertation you should simply keep going until you have covered everything. As a general rule of thumb you are going to be writing at least 10,000 words, but you could go as high as 50,000! Interestingly, the first use of the term ‘dissertation’ dates back to 1651 and is defined as ‘an extended written treatment of a subject’.

Dissertations Require More Independent Study

When you are allocated a research paper, you will probably be told what to write about. Even if you are not given a specific question, you will at least be steered towards a particular topic or area of the subject. However, with a dissertation you are completely independent. You must develop your own thesis and it can involve any aspect of the course you are studying. Aside from developing your own thesis, you are also going to be responsible for all aspects of your dissertation. You will need to carry out all of the research and planning yourself and you will be responsible for editing and redrafting until you have a complete project ready for publication. You will be allocated an advisor, but they are only there to offer advice, the bulk of the work must be completed independently.

These are the key differences between a standard research paper and a dissertation. There are, of course, many other differences which will become apparent as you get to work on your dissertation, but the length and the amount of independent work involved are two of the main factors that set these types of projects apart.