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How to Write a Thesis Statement | 4 Steps & Examples

Published on January 11, 2019 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 14, 2022 by Eoghan Ryan.

A thesis statement is a sentence that sums up the central point of your paper or essay . It usually comes near the end of your introduction .

Your thesis will look a bit different depending on the type of essay you’re writing. But the thesis statement should always clearly state the main idea you want to get across. Everything else in your essay should relate back to this idea.

You can write your thesis statement by following four simple steps:

Table of contents

What is a thesis statement, placement of the thesis statement, step 1: start with a question, step 2: write your initial answer, step 3: develop your answer, step 4: refine your thesis statement, types of thesis statements, frequently asked questions about thesis statements.

A thesis statement summarizes the central points of your essay. It is a signpost telling the reader what the essay will argue and why.

The best thesis statements are:

The thesis statement generally appears at the end of your essay introduction or research paper introduction .

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You should come up with an initial thesis, sometimes called a working thesis , early in the writing process . As soon as you’ve decided on your essay topic , you need to work out what you want to say about it—a clear thesis will give your essay direction and structure.

You might already have a question in your assignment, but if not, try to come up with your own. What would you like to find out or decide about your topic?

For example, you might ask:

After some initial research, you can formulate a tentative answer to this question. At this stage it can be simple, and it should guide the research process and writing process .

Now you need to consider why this is your answer and how you will convince your reader to agree with you. As you read more about your topic and begin writing, your answer should get more detailed.

In your essay about the internet and education, the thesis states your position and sketches out the key arguments you’ll use to support it.

The negatives of internet use are outweighed by its many benefits for education because it facilitates easier access to information.

In your essay about braille, the thesis statement summarizes the key historical development that you’ll explain.

The invention of braille in the 19th century transformed the lives of blind people, allowing them to participate more actively in public life.

A strong thesis statement should tell the reader:

The final thesis statement doesn’t just state your position, but summarizes your overall argument or the entire topic you’re going to explain. To strengthen a weak thesis statement, it can help to consider the broader context of your topic.

These examples are more specific and show that you’ll explore your topic in depth.

Your thesis statement should match the goals of your essay, which vary depending on the type of essay you’re writing:

A thesis statement is a sentence that sums up the central point of your paper or essay . Everything else you write should relate to this key idea.

The thesis statement is essential in any academic essay or research paper for two main reasons:

Without a clear thesis statement, an essay can end up rambling and unfocused, leaving your reader unsure of exactly what you want to say.

Follow these four steps to come up with a thesis statement :

The thesis statement should be placed at the end of your essay introduction .

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what's a phd thesis

Know How to Structure Your PhD Thesis

Table of Contents

In your academic career, few projects are more important than your PhD thesis. Unfortunately, many university professors and advisors assume that their students know how to structure a PhD. Books have literally been written on the subject, but there’s no need to read a book in order to know about PhD thesis paper format and structure. With that said, however, it’s important to understand that your PhD thesis format requirement may not be the same as another student’s. The bottom line is that how to structure a PhD thesis often depends on your university and department guidelines.

But, let’s take a look at a general PhD thesis format. We’ll look at the main sections, and how to connect them to each other. We’ll also examine different hints and tips for each of the sections. As you read through this toolkit, compare it to published PhD theses in your area of study to see how a real-life example looks.

Main Sections of a PhD Thesis

In almost every PhD thesis or dissertation, there are standard sections. Of course, some of these may differ, depending on your university or department requirements, as well as your topic of study, but this will give you a good idea of the basic components of a PhD thesis format.

Tips for your PhD Thesis Format

As you put together your PhD thesis, it’s easy to get a little overwhelmed. Here are some tips that might keep you on track.

PhD Thesis Editing Plus

Want some support during your PhD writing process? Our PhD Thesis Editing Plus service includes extensive and detailed editing of your thesis to improve the flow and quality of your writing. Unlimited editing support for guaranteed results. Learn more here , and get started today!

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How To Structure A PhD Thesis

Nov 21, 2019

How To Structure A PhD Thesis


Universities and supervisors often assume that PhD students know how to structure their PhD theses. But often this assumption is false, which can cause considerable headache and uncertainty.  It can also waste a lot of time and money as you engage in a process of trial and error working out what goes where.

If you go to your university’s library, you’ll find whole shelves of   books on how to structure or write your PhD . Many of these are great, and I highly recommend you check them out, but here I want to present to you a thesis structure 101 lesson.

I’ve read those books,   proofread hundreds of PhDs   and   coached   dozens of students and want to take what I know and run you through a basic introduction to structuring your PhD   thesis .

In what follows, I’ll talk you through the basic outline of a typical thesis. This mirrors and expands upon the   PhD Writing Template   I’ve created. If you haven’t already downloaded it, you can find it   here .  

Now, I want to make an important observation: what I present below is an outline of the   typical   thesis. Yours may differ, whether considerably or just a little. That’s fine. The purpose is to give you an overarching summary so that when you do approach the books and guides that exist, you’ve already got a basic understanding of what goes where and why.

So, in what follows, I’ll walk you through each of the main sections and talk about what the purpose of each is, offer some tips for planning and writing them, and show you how they relate to one another.

At the end, I’ll tell you about an   email based course   I’ve put together that will teach you how to plan, structure and write your thesis. It goes into a lot more detail than I’ve presented here, so check it out if you’d like to learn more. 

How to Structure an Abstract

Your abstract should be a short summary at the beginning of the thesis that sums up the research, summarises the separate sections of the thesis and outlines the contribution.

Above all, your PhD abstract should answer the question: ‘So what?’ In other words, what is the contribution of your thesis to the field?

One thing that should be obvious is that you can’t write your abstract until the study itself has been written. It’ll typically be the last thing you write (alongside the acknowledgements).

The tricky thing about writing a great PhD abstract is that you haven’t got much space to answer the six questions above. There are a few things to consider though that will help to elevate your writing and make your abstract as efficient as possible:

How to Structure an Introduction

The introduction serves three purposes:

The reader should be able to understand the whole thesis just by reading the introduction. It should tell them all they need to know about:

How to Structure a Literature Review

Imagine you’re making a new model of mobile phone. You’d need to look at old models to see how other people are designing them (and so you know how yours will differ) and to see how they are made. You’ll need to look for their flaws, and get an idea of where they can be improved.

That’s because you can’t make something new if you don’t know what the old one looks like.

The literature review is the same. You use it to make the case for your research by surveying the work that’s already been done in your discipline (and sometimes beyond). It’s a bit like a family tree. You use it to trace the lineage of your study. Putting it in its place.

A literature review has three objectives:

what's a phd thesis

Your PhD Thesis. On one page.

Use our free PhD Structure Template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.

How to Structure a Theory Framework Chapter

The theory framework is the scaffolding upon which your thesis is built. When you’re done writing your theory framework chapter or section, your reader should be able to answer these questions:

That means that a theory framework can take different forms: 

It can state the theoretical assumptions underpinning the study.

Broadly speaking, a theory framework can be used to either derive certain testable assumptions or as a way of making sense of your data. In both cases, it structures your data collection by focusing your attention on a small subset of concepts.

You can, therefore, think of it as a toolbox. In your literature review, you outlined the problem that needs ‘fixing’. The theory framework is a toolbox stuffed full of concepts, variables, or hypotheses (your tools) that you’ll then use to address the problem and do the fixing.

You can find an   extended guide on creating your theory framework . Check it out if you’re still struggling.

When you discuss theory, you are seeking to provide a background examination of what other researchers think about a phenomenon and how they have conceptualised it. You should discuss the relevance of particular theoretical approaches for your study, and you should take care to consider the dominant theoretical schools in your field. This shows the examiner you have understood the state of the art.

But, you should do so critically, and question the suitability of any theories that exist or that you are creating to your particular study. That means that you should discuss previous applications of theory in order to discuss what implications they have for your own research.

The reason you do this is that your discipline likely has accepted and ’tried and tested’ ways of doing things. In many cases, this is an advantage, because it can serve as inspiration for your choice of concepts, hypotheses or variables, and can influence your choice of methods.

In other cases, it may be that the existing theory is ill-equipped to account for your particular phenomenon. In either case, you need to demonstrate a good understanding of what that theory is discussing, both to demonstrate your skills as a researcher and scholar, but also to justify your own theoretical and methodological position. 

How to Structure a Methods Chapter

The job of a methods chapter is:

Your reader should be able to answer the following questions when they’re done reading it:

How to Structure an Empirical Chapter

Having your PhD proofread will save you time and money

Our top-rated PhD proofreaders check your writing, formatting, references and readability. The goal? To make sure your research is written and presented in the most compelling manner possible. 

That way, you’ll have complete peace of mind prior to submission and save yourself months of costly revisions. 

How to Structure a Discussion Chapter 

The discussion chapter is the place in which you discuss your empirics. Many people find it the hardest chapter, primarily because it’s the stage at which you start to flex your academic muscles and speak like a doctor. It is here that you start to push the boundaries of knowledge.

That’s a hard thing to do, largely because you’ve probably never had to do it before. All through your masters and undergraduate work you’ve learnt what other people have found. Now you’re finding out things that no-one else knows.

The difference between a discussion and an empirical chapter is subtle, but I’ve written   a detailed guide   that will clear up any confusion you’ve got.

How to Structure a Conclusion

The job of the conclusion is to:

It is not the place to introduce new ideas and concepts, or to present new findings.

Your job is to reflect back on your original aims and intentions and discuss them in terms of your findings and new expertise.

Three things to do in a conclusion:

Wrapping Up 

There’s clearly a lot more that can be said about how to structure each of these sections. Go to your university library and you’ll find dozens of books on how to write a PhD. Google it and you’ll find thousands of posts. It’s hard to know where to start.

That’s why  I’ve put together an  email based course on How To Write Your Thesis . Over twelve emails you’ll get detailed chapter guides that expand on the above, a ton of templates, checklist and worksheets, and lots of curated videos and external resources to really cement your learning. By the end, you’ll understand what goes where and why and would have saved yourself a bunch of time and energy sifting through all those books and posts.

That way, you can write more, worry less and graduate sooner.

To sign up,   click here . 

Hello, Doctor…

Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Be able to call yourself Doctor sooner with our five-star rated How to Write A PhD email-course. Learn everything your supervisor should have taught you about planning and completing a PhD.

Now half price. Join hundreds of other students and become a better thesis writer, or your money back. 

Share this:



This is seriously and absolutely helpful but some terminologies used may not be understood by most beginners in research methodology. Beginners would better understand the use of chapter1, etc. Thank you.

Dr. Max Lempriere

Thanks for the useful feedback. Enjoy the rest of your day.

Lallé M. ZOUBA

Wonderful…. It is really practical to have such tips… Many thanks….

You’re welcome!

Ahmed aldhafeeri

Well done Max, very informative post.

Great. Thanks for the kind words.

Dean -

Cheers Max! Sent it on to many friends starting the journey

Great. Thanks Dean!


Hi Dr Lumpriere,

Thanks for creating this website, it is really helpful to situate oneself – I am really new to this. In your experience, how many hours does one (roughly. – of course depending on the scope of the project) have to dedicate to a PhD weekly on average?

Thanks again, Maureen

Hi Maureen – it really depends on so many factors, including how much familiarity you already have with research and how quickly you want to finish. It’s hard to say! I devoted around 3/4 of full time to mine per week – so roughly 30 hours. But then I had never conducted research before, didn’t have any caregiving responsibilities, and wanted to complete quickly.


Thanks a lot for dedicating your time and effort to helping those who are still struggling with writing up their PhD!

Best, Felix

You’re welcome Felix.

Adebayo Adeleye

Good job. Thanks for the information here.

You’re welcome! Glad you found it useful.


This is great, I am impressed by the guideline. I shall consult these steps as I work on my Thesis for my PhD.


Thanks for this information keep it up.

Carlo Butera

Very interesting and useful job!

Stephen Ubah

Well done Dr Max. Quite helpful, thanks

Adebanjo Babawale

I am really grateful for this tip. God bless the writer in Jesus’ name

Iyua Mbah

Thank you for this guide.

Salin Gurung

Thank you very much for the information. It’s very useful.


This article is insanely helpful. Especially the questions that should be answered in each part. Even though I was aware of most of it, seeing it all put together so neatly helps a lot. Thank you!

Wow. Such great praise. Thanks!

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what's a phd thesis

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what's a phd thesis

It’s no secret that one of the most challenging aspects of a PhD degree is the volume of work that goes into writing your thesis . So this raises the question, exactly how long is a thesis?

Unfortunately, there’s no one size fits all answer to this question. However, from the analysis of over 100 PhD theses, the average thesis length is between 80,000 and 100,000 words. A further analysis of 1000 PhD thesis shows the average number of pages to be 204 . In reality, the actual word count for each PhD thesis will depend on the specific subject and the university it is being hosted by. This is because universities set their own word length requirements, with most found to be opting for around 100,000.

To find out more about how these word limits differ between universities, how the average word count from STEM thesis differ from non-STEM thesis and a more detailed breakdown from the analysis of over 1000 PhDs, carry on reading the below.

Word Count Differences Between Universities

For any PhD student writing a thesis, they will find that their document will be subject to a word limit set by their university. In nearly all cases, the limit only concerns the maximum number of words and doesn’t place any restrictions on the minimum word limit. The reason for this is that the student will be expected to write their thesis with the aim of clearly explaining their research, and so it is up to the student to determine what he deems appropriate.

Saying this, it is well accepted amongst PhD students and supervisors that the absence of a lower limit doesn’t suggest that a thesis can be ‘light’. Your thesis will focus on several years worth of original research and explore new ideas, theories or concepts. Besides this, your thesis will need to cover a wide range of topics such as your literature review, research methodology, results and conclusion. Therefore, your examiners will expect the length of your thesis to be proportional to convey all this information to a sufficient level.

Selecting a handful of universities at random, they state the following thesis word limits on their website:

The above universities set upper word limits that apply across the board, however, some universities, such as the University of Birmingham and the University of Sheffield, set different word limits for different departments. For example, the University of Sheffield adopts these limits:

Although there’s a range of limit, it’s safe to say that the majority fall within the 80,000 to 100,000 bracket.

Word Count Based on Data from past Theses

A poll of 149 postdocs.

In mid-2019, Dr Eva Lantsoght, a published author, academic blogger and Structural Engineering Professor, conducted a poll which asked postgraduate doctoral students to share the length of their final thesis. 149 PostDoc students responded to the survey, with the majority reporting a length falling within the ‘80,000 – 120,000 words’ bracket as seen below.


Analysis of 1000 PhD Theses

Over a three-year time period, Dr Ian Brailsford, a then Postgraduate Learning Adviser at the University of Auckland, analysed 1000 doctoral thesis submitted to his university’s library. The PhD theses which formed the basis of his analysis were produced between 2008 to 2017 and showed:

We should note that the above metrics only cover the content falling within the main body of the thesis. This includes the introduction, literature review, methods section, results chapter, discussions and conclusions. All other sections, such as the title page, abstract, table of contents, acknowledgements, bibliography and appendices were omitted from the count.

Although it’s impossible to draw the exact word count from the number of pages alone, by using the universities recommended format of 12pt Times New Roman and 1.5 lines spacing, and assuming 10% of the main body are figures and footnotes, this equates to an average main body of 52,000 words.


As part of Dr Ian Brailsford’s analysis, he also compared the length of STEM doctorate theses to non-STEM theses. He found that STEM theses tended to be shorter. In fact, he found STEM theses to have a medium page length of 159 whilst non-STEM theses had a medium of around 223 pages. This is a 40% increase in average length!

Can You Exceed the Word Count?

Whilst most universities will allow you to go over the word count if you need to, it comes with the caveat that you must have a very strong reason for needing to do so. Besides this, your supervisor will also need to support your request. This is to acknowledge that they have reviewed your situation and agree that exceeding the word limit will be absolutely necessary to avoid detriment unnecessary detriment to your work.

This means that whilst it is possible to submit a thesis over 100,000 words or more, it’s unlikely that your research project will need to.

How Does This Compare to a Masters Dissertation?

The average Masters dissertation length is approximately 20,000 words whilst a thesis is 4 to 5 times this length at approximately 80,000 – 100,000.

The key reason for this difference is because of the level of knowledge they convey. A Master’s dissertation focuses on concluding from existing knowledge whilst a PhD thesis focuses on drawing a conclusion from new knowledge. As a result, the thesis is significantly longer as the new knowledge needs to be well documented so it can be verified, disseminated and used to shape future research.

Finding a PhD has never been this easy – search for a PhD by keyword, location or academic area of interest.

Related Reading

Unfortunately, the completion of your thesis doesn’t mark the end of your degree just yet. Once you submit your thesis, it’s time to start preparing for your viva – the all-to-fun thesis defence interview! To help you prepare for this, we’ve produced a helpful guide which you can read here: The Complete Guide to PhD Vivas.

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Dissertation vs Thesis: The Differences that Matter


As a graduate student, you will have many different types of challenging coursework and assignments. However, the biggest project that you’ll work on when earning your master’s or doctoral degree will be your thesis or dissertation . The differences between a dissertation vs thesis are plenty. That’s because each of these pieces of writing happen at different times in one’s educational journey.

Let’s break down what a dissertation and thesis are so that you have a strong handle on what’s expected. For both a thesis and a dissertation, there is an obvious fluency and understanding of the subject one studies.

Let’s take a look at their similarities and differences.

Photo by  Glenn Carstens-Peters  on  Unsplash

What is a dissertation.

When you enter a doctoral program to earn a PhD, you will learn a lot about how to conduct your own research. At the culmination of your degree program, you’ll produce a dissertation.

A dissertation is a lengthy piece of written work that includes original research or expanded research on a new or existing topic. As the doctoral student, you get to choose what you want to explore and write about within your field of study.

What is a Thesis?

A thesis is also a scholarly piece of writing, but it is for those who are graduating from a master’s program. A thesis allows students to showcase their knowledge and expertise within the subject matter they have been studying.

Main Differences Between a Thesis vs. Dissertation

The biggest difference between a thesis and a dissertation is that a thesis is based on existing research.

On the other hand, a dissertation will more than likely require the doctoral student to conduct their own research and then perform analysis. The other big difference is that a thesis is for master’s students and the dissertation is for PhD students.

Structural Differences Between a Thesis and a Dissertation

Structurally, the two pieces of written analysis have many differences.

Research Content and Oral Presentation

Once completed, some programs require students to orally present their thesis and dissertation to a panel of faculty members.

Typically, a dissertation oral presentation can take several hours. On the other hand, a thesis only takes about an hour to present and answer questions.

Let’s look at how the two scholarly works are similar and different:



The Differences in Context: Location Matters

The united states.

In the US, everything that was previously listed is how schools differentiate between a thesis and a dissertation. A thesis is performed by master’s students, and a dissertation is written by PhD candidates.

In Europe, the distinction between a thesis and dissertation becomes a little more cloudy. That’s because PhD programs may require a doctoral thesis to graduate. Then, as a part of a broader post-graduate research project, students may complete a dissertation.

Photo by  Russ Ward  on  Unsplash

The purpose behind written research.

Each piece of writing is an opportunity for a student to demonstrate his or her ability to think critically, express their opinions in writing, and present their findings in front of their department.

Graduate degrees take a lot of time, energy, and hard work to complete. When it comes to writing such lengthy and informative pieces, there is a lot of time management that is involved. The purpose of both a thesis and a dissertation are written proof that you understand and have mastered the subject matter of your degree.

Degree Types

A doctoral degree, or PhD, is the highest degree that one can earn. In most cases, students follow the following path to achieve this level of education: Earn a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, and then a PhD. While not every job title requires this deep educational knowledge, the salaries that come along with each level of higher education increase accordingly.

Earning Your Degree

Whether you are currently a prospective student considering earning your higher education degree or a student enrolled in a master’s or doctoral program, you know the benefits of education.

However, for some, earning a traditional degree on-campus doesn’t make sense. This could be because of the financial challenges, familial obligations, accessibility, or any other number of reasons.

For students who are seeking their higher education degrees but need a flexible, affordable, and quality alternative to traditional college, take a look at the programs that the University of the People has to offer.

University of the People is an entirely online, US accredited and tuition-free institution dedicated to higher education. You can earn your Master’s in Business Administration or your Master’s in Education . Not to mention, there are a handful of associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs to choose from as well.

If you want to learn more, get in touch with us !

The Bottom Line

Regardless of where and when you earn your master’s or doctoral degree, you will likely have to complete a thesis or dissertation. The main difference between a thesis and dissertation is the level at which you complete them. A thesis is for a master’s degree, and a dissertation is for a doctoral degree.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the prospect of having to research and write so much. Your educational journey has prepared you with the right time management skills and writing skills to make this feat achievable!

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What’s the point of the PhD thesis?

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Doctoral courses are slowly being modernized. Now the thesis and viva need to catch up.

what's a phd thesis

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.”

what's a phd thesis

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.

what's a phd thesis

“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.

what's a phd thesis

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?”

what's a phd thesis

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.”

what's a phd thesis

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.

what's a phd thesis

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.”

'The thicker my PhD, the better' has become a myth in the PhD community.

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.

what's a phd thesis

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.”

what's a phd thesis

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.”

Few failures

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.

what's a phd thesis

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.”

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what's a phd thesis



PhD thesis inspires film about South Africa’s waste pickers

2 March 2023

A PhD thesis about waste pickers in South Africa has led to a new film exploring their lives which is being screened at UCL Laws on Wednesday 8 March.

Siyabonga, a waste picker in Johannesburg, at a screening for the film Reclaiming Now.

Waste pickers are informal workers who collect and sell recyclables for a living. In South Africa, an estimated 90,000 waste pickers collect 80-90% of everything that is recycled, playing a vital role in protecting the country’s environment, yet they are often stigmatised, face legal problems and are vulnerable to crime.

The new documentary, entitled Reclaiming Now , portrays waste pickers in Johannesburg as they struggle to make a living, sorting through hazardous waste in skips, tips and on the street.

Dr Allison Lindner, an interdisciplinary scholar and Lecturer at UCL Laws, interviewed waste pickers in South Africa as part of her PhD thesis investigating how legal ideas shaped the lives of vulnerable workers.

She worked with directors Premilla Murcott and Tricia Hlongwa to translate her thesis findings into a widely accessible medium that could reach a large number of people.

“The film shows a dimension of the global recycling economy that we often don’t think about,” she says. “That plastic bottle you recycle may end up being collected by a waste picker like in South Africa.”

Dr Lindner explains that South Africa’s constitution guarantees the right to sustainable development (that is, to enjoy a protected environment and improved economic, and social conditions) but this is not the case in practice for waste pickers, who often live in poverty.

“They are making such an amazing contribution – extending the use of landfills, keeping cities clean… Yet there is no real prospect for the average waste picker to improve their lot in life, through training or a better job,” she says.

Dr Lindner is now engaging with policymakers in South Africa to ensure waste pickers’ voices are heard in the development of policies for the sector. Waste pickers have traditionally been excluded from this process and face widespread problems such as a lack of access to waste facilities and can be criminalised or face fines for working in certain areas without a permit.

Better integration of waste pickers into policy-making may not only lead to better working conditions and more training and job opportunities, but, by harnessing their expertise, could also increase the amount that is recycled.

Dr Allison Lindner, left, and waste pickers in a still from the documentary.

Dr Lindner’s PhD drew on ethnographic ideas, looking at how people interact with legal institutions, concepts and frameworks. “This kind of inquiry produces a different kind of knowledge to a standard legal inquiry. You might look at a case, for instance, but also speak to the two sides to see how they understand the legal process and how it’s affecting them.”

She says: “I hope this film can be used as an educational tool for academics as well as the general public. It can help people connect the dots between lofty legal ideas and realities on the ground.”

The screening of Reclaiming Now will take place at 18.00-19.45 on Wednesday 8 March. It is a hybrid event, taking place at UCL Laws and online, and will include a Q&A with Dr Allison Lindner and the film directors. Register here: CLE - Spotlight on Waste: Film Screening and Policy Brief launch Tickets, Wed 8 Mar 2023 at 18:00 | Eventbrite

Top: Siyabonga, his son and other waste pickers at the Rough Cut screening of Reclaiming Now in Johannesburg in June 2022.  Middle: Dr Allison Lindner, left, and Mr Mmatshipi Wilson Mporetsi and Mr Thomas Mangweta, in a still from the documentary.

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Suggested Format for Thesis Proposal Style General Examination

Your charge is to write a dissertation proposal in the area of "TOPIC", with the aim of GOALS/EXPLANATION. The proposal should be no more than 20 pages long, exclusive of references. Thus, you will not have space to relate everything you know or plan--you must choose the details carefully to convey the key ideas. The document should contain at least the following parts (in an order determined by you):


Related work.

This section will be around half of the report. Discuss foundational work upon which yours builds, as well as alternate approaches to the problem. Critically evaluate that work, beyond its own claims. Discuss themes in the literature, so that a reader gets an overview of the whole field rather than a mere list of previous results. Relate previous work to one another and to your approach. Explain what is different about your approach and why others have not attempted it before.

Proposed work

Describe the main challenges and innovations that are needed to accomplish the proposed hypotheses, with as much description as possible of how you will tackle each one. Describe the strengths and weaknesses of your approach, including what it can and cannot do. Describe methodology for evaluating whether your ideas work or your hypotheses are correct. Indicate whether each part of the work is complete or remains to be done. For work you have already completed, give only a brief summary. For work that remains to be done, give a more detailed plan, including any major risks, sufficient for an outsider to evaluate its chances of success. The proposal should be concrete enough that the committee can evaluate whether it would make a good dissertation. Furthermore, when you wish to graduate, the proposal will provide guidance to both you and the committee regarding whether you have completed the promised work. (Plans can and do change, and all parties will take account of that as appropriate.)

Contributions or discussions, as appropriate. Scoping: future work that will not be covered in the dissertation research.

The committee will evaluate whether you are prepared to proceed to writing your dissertation. In doing this evaluation, we will ask ourselves: Are the proposed hypotheses significant and novel? Are the proposed evaluation methods capable of demonstrating the hypothesis? Is the scope of the work needed to complete the thesis plausible to be completed within the next year? What likelihood do you have of completing a successful thesis within the next year (with regard to scope of remaining work and risks, for example?) Does the related work demonstrate the mastery of the research area? Is the related work and the comparison to the proposed work accurately represented? Are the student's writing and presentation skills adequate?

We look forward to seeing your work!

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Stephen Hawking: Everything you need to know about the thesis that 'broke the Internet'

Your cheat sheet into the mind of one of the world’s greatest physicists.

Stephen Hawking headshot

Scribbled in pencil on one of its early pages is "no copying without the author's consent". In October 2017, Stephen Hawking (opens in new tab) allowed his PhD thesis — Properties of Expanding Universes (opens in new tab) — to be made available online through the University of Cambridge's Apollo portal. The website crashed almost immediately under the sheer weight of traffic. It was downloaded almost 60,000 times in the first 24 hours alone.

Hawking was 24 years old when he received his PhD in 1966 and, despite being diagnosed with motor neurone disease at just 21, could still handwrite that "this dissertation is my original work." In a statement (opens in new tab) to accompany its release, the late physicist said: "By making my PhD thesis Open Access, I hope to inspire people around the world to look up at the stars and not down at their feet; to wonder about our place in the universe and to try and make sense of the cosmos." 

Here, we break it down, guiding you through the physics until we reach the conclusion that made Hawking a household name.

Step 1: What’s it about?

Hawking's PhD thesis relates to Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity (opens in new tab) — the more accurate theory of gravity that replaced Isaac Newton (opens in new tab) 's original ideas. Newton said gravity was a pull between two objects. Einstein said that gravity is the result of massive objects warping the fabric of space and time (space-time) around them. According to Einstein, Earth orbits the sun because we're caught in the depression our star makes in space-time.

Hawking applies the mathematics of general relativity to models of the birth of our universe ( cosmologies (opens in new tab) ). The earliest cosmologies had our universe as a static entity that had existed forever. This idea was so ingrained that when Einstein's original calculations suggested a static universe was unlikely, he added a "cosmological constant" to the math in order to keep the universe static. He would later reportedly call it his "greatest blunder".

Things began to change when Edwin Hubble (opens in new tab) made an important discovery. Hawking writes: "the discovery of the recession of the nebulae [galaxies] by Hubble led to the abandonment of static models in favor of ones in which we're expanding."

Step 2: Our expanding universe

Some astronomers seized the idea of an expanding universe to argue that the universe must have had a beginning — a moment of creation called the Big Bang (opens in new tab) . The name was coined by Fred Hoyle, an advocate of the alternative Steady State Model. This theory states that the universe has been around forever, and that new stars form in the gaps created as the universe expands. There was no initial creation event.

Hawking spends chapter one of his thesis taking down the premise, formally encapsulated in a model called Hoyle-Narlikar theory. Hawking laments that although the General Theory of Relativity is powerful, it allows for many different solutions to its equations. That means many different models can be consistent with it. He says that's "one of the weaknesses of the Einstein theory."

The famous physicist then shows that a requirement of Hoyle-Narlikar theory appears to "exclude those models that seem to correspond to the actual universe." In short, the Steady State Model fails to match observation.

Step 3: Space: It looks the same everywhere

Hawking says that the assumptions of the Hoyle-Narlikar theory are in direct contradiction of the Robertson-Walker metric, named after American physicist Howard P. Robertson and British mathematician Arthur Walker. Today it is more widely called the Friedmann–Lemaître–Robertson–Walker (FLRW) metric. A metric is an exact solution to the equations of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Devised in the 1920s and 1930s, FLRW forms the basis of our modern model of the universe. Its key feature is that it assumes matter is evenly distributed in an expanding (or contracting) universe — a premise backed up by astronomical observations. 

Interestingly, Hawking offers Hoyle and Narlikar a ray of hope. "A possible way to save the Hoyle-Narlikar theory would be to allow masses of both positive and negative sign," he writes, before adding: "There does not seem to be any matter having these properties in our region of space." Today, we know that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, perhaps due to dark energy — a shadowy entity with an anti-gravitational property perhaps akin to particles with a negative mass.

Step 4: The problem with galaxies

Even geniuses get it wrong sometimes. Hawking's second chapter covers perturbations — small variations in the local curvature of space-time — and how they evolve as the universe expands. He says that a small perturbation “will not contract to form a galaxy." Later in the chapter he goes on to say: "We see that galaxies cannot form as the result of the growth of small perturbations."

That couldn't be further from our modern-day picture of how galaxies form. The key ingredient Hawking was missing is dark matter (opens in new tab) , an invisible substance thought to be spread throughout the universe, which provides a gravitational glue that holds galaxies together. Dark matter gathered around small space-time perturbations, eventually drawing in more and more material until early galaxies formed.

Our modern working cosmological picture is known as the ΛCDM model (pronounced Lambda CDM). Lambda is the Greek letter cosmologists use to denote the cosmological constant that Einstein originally introduced (albeit for the wrong reasons). CDM stands for cold dark matter. These two factors have been added to the FLRW model since Hawking wrote his thesis.

Step 5: Gravitational waves don’t disappear

Where Hawking was wrong on galaxies, he was very right on gravitational waves —ripples in the fabric of space-time that move outwards through the universe. They were predicted by Einstein when he first devised his Theory of General Relativity back in 1915, and in Hawking's time were also known as gravitational radiation.

Hawking uses Einstein's equations to show that gravitational waves aren't absorbed by matter in the universe as they travel through it, assuming the universe is largely made of dust. In fact, Hawking says that "gravitational radiation behaves in much the same way as other radiation fields [such as light]."

The physicist does note how esoteric the topic is in the 1960s. "This is slightly academic since gravitational radiation has not yet been detected, let alone investigated."

It would take physicists until September 2015 to detect gravitational waves for the first time using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (opens in new tab) (LIGO). They were produced by the collision of two black holes — one 36- and the other 29-times the mass of the sun — about 1.3-billion-light-years away.

Related: Lab-grown black hole analog behaves just like Stephen Hawking said it would (opens in new tab)

Step 6: Are we living in an open, closed, or flat cosmos?

Hawking is heading for a groundbreaking conclusion, but first he sets himself up by introducing the idea of the overall shape of space. There are three general forms the curvature of space can take: open, closed, or flat.

A closed universe resembles Earth's surface — it has no boundary. You can keep traveling around the planet without coming to an edge. An open universe is shaped more like a saddle. A flat universe, as the name suggests, is like a sheet of paper. 

Imagine a triangle drawn onto the surface. We all learn at school that the angles inside a triangle sum to 180 degrees. However, that's only the case for triangles on flat surfaces, not open or closed ones. Draw a line from the Earth's North Pole down to the equator, before taking a 90-degree turn to travel along it. Then make another 90-degree turn back towards the North Pole. The angle between your path away from and towards the North Pole cannot be zero, so the angles inside that triangle must add up to more than 180 degrees.

Step 7: The universe is flat!

Hawking then links the idea of open and closed universes to Cauchy surfaces, named after the French mathematician and physicist Augustin-Louis Cauchy (1789—1857). A Cauchy surface is a slice through space-time, the equivalent of an instant of time. All points on the surface are connected in time. A path along a Cauchy surface cannot see you revisit a previous moment. In Hawking's own words: “A Cauchy surface will be taken to mean a complete, connected space-like surface that intersects every time-like and null line once and once only.”

He then says that closed universes are known as "compact" Cauchy surfaces, and open universes as “non-compact” ones. The former example is said to have "positive" curvature, the latter "negative" curvature. 

A flat universe has zero curvature. He moves on to set up the landmark assertions he's about to make about singularities by saying they are “applicable to models... with surfaces... which have negative or zero curvature.” Modern astronomers believe the universe is flat, meaning its zero curvature satisfies Hawking's conditions. 

Step 8: Hawking drops a bombshell

Most of the early chapters of Hawking's thesis are unremarkable — they don't offer anything particularly revolutionary, and he even gets a few things wrong. However, in his final chapter the physicist drops a bombshell that will make his name and ignite a stellar career, during which he will become one of the most famous scientists on the planet.

He says that space-time can begin and end at a singularity (opens in new tab) , and what's more he can prove it. A singularity is an infinitely small and infinitely dense point. It literally has zero size, and space and time both end (or begin) at a singularity. They had been predicted for decades, particularly when physicists started to apply Einstein's General Theory of Relativity (opens in new tab) to the picture of an expanding universe. 

If the universe is expanding today then it was smaller yesterday. Keep working back, and you find all matter in the universe condensed into a tiny, hot point — the moment of creation, a Big Bang. But just how do you prove that you can indeed get singularities in space-time?

Step 9: Hawking’s proof that the Big Bang happened

Hawking's proof leans on a very old method for proving a mathematical theory: Proof by contradiction. First you assume the thing you are trying to prove isn't true, then show that the resulting conclusions are demonstrably false. In fact, Hawking's most important section begins with the words "assume that space-time is singularity-free." There then follows some very complicated maths to show that such a universe would be simultaneously both open and closed — compact and non-compact at the same time. "This is a contradiction," Hawking said. "Thus the assumption that space-time is non-singular must be false." 

In one swoop, Hawking had proven that it is possible for space-time to begin as a singularity — that space and time in our universe could have had an origin. The Big Bang theory had just received a significant shot in the arm. Hawking started to write his PhD in October 1965, just 17 months after the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (opens in new tab) — the leftover energy from the Big Bang. Together, these discoveries buried the Steady State Model for good.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: [email protected]

Colin Stuart is an award-winning astronomy author, speaker and tutor based in the UK. His popular science books have sold over 400,000 copies worldwide and have been translated into 21 languages. The asteroid (15347) Colinstuart is named after him and he runs an online Astrophysics for Beginners course and a science writing course .

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Think of yourself as a member of a jury, listening to a lawyer who is presenting an opening argument. You'll want to know very soon whether the lawyer believes the accused to be guilty or not guilty, and how the lawyer plans to convince you. Readers of academic essays are like jury members: before they have read too far, they want to know what the essay argues as well as how the writer plans to make the argument. After reading your thesis statement, the reader should think, "This essay is going to try to convince me of something. I'm not convinced yet, but I'm interested to see how I might be."

An effective thesis cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." A thesis is not a topic; nor is it a fact; nor is it an opinion. "Reasons for the fall of communism" is a topic. "Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe" is a fact known by educated people. "The fall of communism is the best thing that ever happened in Europe" is an opinion. (Superlatives like "the best" almost always lead to trouble. It's impossible to weigh every "thing" that ever happened in Europe. And what about the fall of Hitler? Couldn't that be "the best thing"?)

A good thesis has two parts. It should tell what you plan to argue, and it should "telegraph" how you plan to argue—that is, what particular support for your claim is going where in your essay.

Steps in Constructing a Thesis

First, analyze your primary sources.  Look for tension, interest, ambiguity, controversy, and/or complication. Does the author contradict himself or herself? Is a point made and later reversed? What are the deeper implications of the author's argument? Figuring out the why to one or more of these questions, or to related questions, will put you on the path to developing a working thesis. (Without the why, you probably have only come up with an observation—that there are, for instance, many different metaphors in such-and-such a poem—which is not a thesis.)

Once you have a working thesis, write it down.  There is nothing as frustrating as hitting on a great idea for a thesis, then forgetting it when you lose concentration. And by writing down your thesis you will be forced to think of it clearly, logically, and concisely. You probably will not be able to write out a final-draft version of your thesis the first time you try, but you'll get yourself on the right track by writing down what you have.

Keep your thesis prominent in your introduction.  A good, standard place for your thesis statement is at the end of an introductory paragraph, especially in shorter (5-15 page) essays. Readers are used to finding theses there, so they automatically pay more attention when they read the last sentence of your introduction. Although this is not required in all academic essays, it is a good rule of thumb.

Anticipate the counterarguments.  Once you have a working thesis, you should think about what might be said against it. This will help you to refine your thesis, and it will also make you think of the arguments that you'll need to refute later on in your essay. (Every argument has a counterargument. If yours doesn't, then it's not an argument—it may be a fact, or an opinion, but it is not an argument.)

This statement is on its way to being a thesis. However, it is too easy to imagine possible counterarguments. For example, a political observer might believe that Dukakis lost because he suffered from a "soft-on-crime" image. If you complicate your thesis by anticipating the counterargument, you'll strengthen your argument, as shown in the sentence below.

Some Caveats and Some Examples

A thesis is never a question.  Readers of academic essays expect to have questions discussed, explored, or even answered. A question ("Why did communism collapse in Eastern Europe?") is not an argument, and without an argument, a thesis is dead in the water.

A thesis is never a list.  "For political, economic, social and cultural reasons, communism collapsed in Eastern Europe" does a good job of "telegraphing" the reader what to expect in the essay—a section about political reasons, a section about economic reasons, a section about social reasons, and a section about cultural reasons. However, political, economic, social and cultural reasons are pretty much the only possible reasons why communism could collapse. This sentence lacks tension and doesn't advance an argument. Everyone knows that politics, economics, and culture are important.

A thesis should never be vague, combative or confrontational.  An ineffective thesis would be, "Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because communism is evil." This is hard to argue (evil from whose perspective? what does evil mean?) and it is likely to mark you as moralistic and judgmental rather than rational and thorough. It also may spark a defensive reaction from readers sympathetic to communism. If readers strongly disagree with you right off the bat, they may stop reading.

An effective thesis has a definable, arguable claim.  "While cultural forces contributed to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the disintegration of economies played the key role in driving its decline" is an effective thesis sentence that "telegraphs," so that the reader expects the essay to have a section about cultural forces and another about the disintegration of economies. This thesis makes a definite, arguable claim: that the disintegration of economies played a more important role than cultural forces in defeating communism in Eastern Europe. The reader would react to this statement by thinking, "Perhaps what the author says is true, but I am not convinced. I want to read further to see how the author argues this claim."

A thesis should be as clear and specific as possible.  Avoid overused, general terms and abstractions. For example, "Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because of the ruling elite's inability to address the economic concerns of the people" is more powerful than "Communism collapsed due to societal discontent."

Copyright 1999, Maxine Rodburg and The Tutors of the Writing Center at Harvard University

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Satisfied with quality of your thesis?

what's a phd thesis

I aim (hope) to submit my thesis tomorrow. It has been an extremely long, tedious journey.

I now find myself stressing about the quality of my thesis. It has gone though reviews with supervisors and -lots- of work; but I know (feel) that some sections are definitely weak and could be stronger (e.g. better insights, stronger conclusions). There is a fear that examiners will also pickup on these areas. But I just don't have the energy to improve them... so tomorrow is my submission day, I cannot work on it any longer.

I know that a PhD is not a Nobel Prize, and that the best PhD is a done PhD. How does everyone else feel about their thesis?

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I think my master's thesis is pretty dumb tbh. Hoping the PhD is better.

That is expected for a masters tho. You're expected to produce an academic piece of work, with no to minimal related training in about 3 months time. Unless it's a seasoned academic, with the data already collected, producing a quality document in that time period is unlikely.

I cringe now looking at my masters thesis lol. Only way to go from there is up in the PhD.

I mean, not really. Sort of. It’s fine. The science is mostly good, though my last chapter is reaching a bit. It’s boring and long and dry. I hope I nor anyone else ever has to read it again.

The best part about it is that it’s over.

I am very satisfied with my PhD thesis! I did spot mistakes in editing (alignment here, an italic there, etc) after printing and it brought me down for 5 seconds until I realised it is done DONE lol

This happened to me too with my masters thesis. Once i finished it, i was like: haaah, that was a wild journey 😂

things may seem weak to you since you are the expert and know possible weak points. dont beat yourself up you re done and should be happy! congrats on finishing!

Did you do your best?

I know what you mean. I look back on some written work I have done in the past and feel cringe. Or realize there are holes. But it is what it is.

Do you feel like you could explain why or talk more about those areas you feel are weaker if the examiners ask questions? That's the most important thing at this stage.

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What is a PhD?

Written by Mark Bennett

A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is a doctoral research degree and the highest level of academic qualification you can achieve. A PhD degree normally takes between three and four years of full-time work to complete. You'll research and write a thesis offering an original contribution to your subject.

This page explains what a PhD is, what it involves and what you need to know if you’re considering applying for a PhD research project , or enrolling on a doctoral programme .

On this page

Get your questions answered at our free study fair.

In the UK? Come along to Postgrad LIVE Liverpool and chat to universities and students about studying your PhD.

If you're not in the UK, take advantage of our Postgrad LIVE Virtual Study Fair on Wednesday 1 or Thursday 2 March.

The definition of a PhD

The PhD can take on something of a mythic status. Are they only for geniuses? Do you have to discover something incredible? Does the qualification make you an academic? And are higher research degrees just for people who want to be academics?

Even the full title, ‘Doctor of Philosophy’, has a somewhat mysterious ring to it. Do you become a doctor? Yes, but not that kind of doctor. Do you have to study Philosophy? No (not unless you want to ).

So, before going any further, let's explain what the term 'PhD' actually means and what defines a doctorate.

What does PhD stand for?

PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy. This is one of the highest level academic degrees that can be awarded. PhD is an abbreviation of the Latin term (Ph)ilosophiae (D)octor . Traditionally the term ‘philosophy’ does not refer to the subject but its original Greek meaning which roughly translates to ‘lover of wisdom’.

PhD vs doctorate

A doctorate is any qualification that awards a doctoral degree. In order to qualify for one you need to produce advanced work that makes a significant new contribution to knowledge in your field. Doing so earns you the title 'Doctor' – hence the name.

So, what is the difference between a PhD and a doctorate? A PhD is a type of doctorate .

The PhD is the most common type of doctorate. It is awarded in almost all subjects at universities around the world. Other doctorates tend to be more specialised or for more practical and professional projects.

Essentially, all PhDs are doctorates, but not all doctorates are PhDs.

How long is a PhD?

The typical length of a PhD is three to four years full-time, or five to six years part-time. How long it takes to complete your PhD will depend on the structure of your programme, your funding arrangements and any additional training you're required to complete.

Do you need a Masters to get a PhD?

Not necessarily. It's common for students in Arts and the Humanities to complete an MA (Master of Arts) before starting a PhD in order to acquire research experience and techniques. Students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) don't always need an MSc (Master of Science) to do a PhD as you'll gain training in lab techniques and other skills during your undergraduate degree.

Whether a Masters is a requirement for a PhD degree also varies by country. Australian PhDs may require a Masters as the equivalent of their own 'honours year' (where students work on research). US PhD programmes often include a Masters.

We have a whole guide dedicated to helping you decide whether a PhD without a Masters is the right route for you.

The origin of the PhD

Despite its name, the PhD isn't actually an Ancient Greek degree. Instead it's a much more recent development. The PhD degree as we know it was developed in nineteenth-century Germany, alongside the modern research university.

Higher education had traditionally focussed on mastery of an existing body of scholarship and the highest academic rank available was, appropriately enough, a Masters degree .

The PhD degree was brought in as the focus shifted more onto the production of new knowledge and ideas.

What can you get a PhD in?

Pretty much anything! A PhD is the most common type of doctorate, and it's awarded in almost all subjects. Many other doctorates are specific to particular subject areas. These include professional doctorates such as the Doctor of Engineering (EngD) and the Doctor of Education (EdD).

The PhD process – what does a PhD involve?

So, what's actually required to get a PhD? Unlike most Masters courses (or all undergraduate programmes), a PhD is a pure research degree. But that doesn’t mean you’ll just spend years locked away in a library or laboratory. In fact, the modern PhD is a diverse and varied qualification with many different components.

Whereas the second or third year of a taught degree look quite a lot like the first (with more modules and coursework at a higher level) a PhD moves through a series of stages.

A typical PhD involves:

If you're thinking of pursuing a PhD, here's a year-by-year snapshot of what you can expect during a typical full-time programme:

The first year of a PhD

The beginning of a PhD is all about finding your feet as a researcher and getting a solid grounding in the current scholarship that relates to your topic.

You’ll have initial meetings with your supervisor and discuss a plan of action based on your research proposal.

The first step in this will almost certainly be carrying out your literature review . With the guidance of your supervisor you’ll begin surveying and evaluating existing scholarship. This will help situate your research and ensure your work is original.

Your literature review will provide a logical jumping off point for the beginning of your own research and the gathering of results. This could involve designing and implementing experiments, or getting stuck into a pile of primary sources.

The year may end with an MPhil upgrade . This occurs when PhD candidates are initially registered for an MPhil degree and then ‘upgraded’ to PhD candidates upon making sufficient progress. You’ll submit material from your literature review, or a draft of your research findings and discuss these with members of your department in an upgrade exam . All being well, you’ll then continue with your research as a PhD student.

PhDs in other countries

The information on the page is based on the UK. Most countries follow a similar format, but there are some differences. In the USA , for example, PhD students complete reading assignments and examinations before beginning their research. You can find out more in our guides to PhD study around the world .

The second year of a PhD

Your second year will probably be when you do most of your core research . The process for this will vary depending on your field, but your main focus will be on gathering results from experiments, archival research, surveys or other means.

As your research develops, so will the thesis (or argument) you base upon it. You may even begin writing up chapters or other pieces that will eventually form part of your dissertation.

You’ll still be having regular meetings with your supervisor. They’ll check your progress, provide feedback on your ideas and probably read any drafts your produce.

The second year is also an important stage for your development as a scholar. You’ll be well versed in current research and have begun to collect some important data or develop insights of your own. But you won’t yet be faced with the demanding and time-intensive task of finalising your dissertation.

So, this part of your PhD is a perfect time to think about presenting your work at academic conferences , gaining teaching experience or perhaps even selecting some material for publication in an academic journal. You can read more about these kinds of activities below .

The third year of a PhD

The third year of a PhD is sometimes referred to as the writing up phase.

Traditionally, this is the final part of your doctorate, during which your main task will be pulling together your results and honing your thesis into a dissertation.

In reality, it’s not always as simple as that.

It’s not uncommon for final year PhD candidates to still be fine-tuning experiments, collecting results or chasing up a few extra sources. This is particularly likely if you spend part of your second year focussing on professional development.

In fact, some students actually take all or part of a fourth year to finalise their dissertation. Whether you are able to do this will depend on the terms of your enrolment – and perhaps your PhD funding .

Eventually though, you are going to be faced with writing up your thesis and submitting your dissertation.

Your supervisor will be very involved in this process. They’ll read through your final draft and let you know when they think your PhD is ready for submission.

All that’s left then is your final viva voce oral exam. This is a formal discussion and defence of your thesis involving at least one internal and external examiner. It’s normally the only assessment procedure for a PhD. Once you’ve passed, you’ve done it!

Looking for more information about the stages of a PhD?

How do you go about completing a literature review? What's it like to do PhD research? And what actually happens at an MPhil upgrade? You can find out more in our detailed guide to the PhD journey .

Doing a PhD – what's it actually like?

You can think of the stages outlined above as the basic roadmap for a PhD, but the actual ‘journey’ you’ll take as a research student involves a lot of other sights, a few optional destinations and at least one very important fellow passenger.

Carrying out research

Unsurprisingly, you’ll spend most of your time as a PhD researcher… researching your PhD. But this can involve a surprisingly wide range of activities.

The classic image of a student working away in the lab, or sitting with a pile of books in the library is true some of the time – particularly when you’re monitoring experiments or conducting your literature review.

Your PhD can take you much further afield though. You may find yourself visiting archives or facilities to examine their data or look at rare source materials. You could even have the opportunity to spend an extended period ‘in residence’ at a research centre or other institution beyond your university.

Research is also far from being a solitary activity. You’ll have regular discussions with your supervisor (see below) but you may also work with other students from time to time.

This is particularly likely if you’re part of a larger laboratory or workshop group studying the same broad area. But it’s also common to collaborate with students whose projects are more individual. You might work on shorter projects of joint interest, or be part of teams organising events and presentations.

Many universities also run regular internal presentation and discussion groups – a perfect way to get to know other PhD students in your department and offer feedback on each other’s work in progress.

Working with your supervisor

All PhD projects are completed with the guidance of at least one academic supervisor . They will be your main point of contact and support throughout the PhD.

Your supervisor will be an expert in your general area of research, but they won’t have researched on your exact topic before (if they had, your project wouldn’t be original enough for a PhD).

As such, it’s better to think of your supervisor as a mentor, rather than a teacher.

As a PhD student you’re now an independent and original scholar, pushing the boundaries of your field beyond what is currently known (and taught) about it. You’re doing all of this for the first time, of course. But your supervisor isn’t.

They’ll know what’s involved in managing an advanced research project over three years (or more). They’ll know how best to succeed, but they’ll also know what can go wrong and how to spot the warning signs before it does.

Perhaps most importantly, they’ll be someone with the time and expertise to listen to your ideas and help provide feedback and encouragement as you develop your thesis.

Exact supervision arrangements vary between universities and between projects:

It’s also becoming increasingly common for PhD students to have two (or more) supervisors. The first is usually responsible for guiding your academic research whilst the second is more concerned with the administration of your PhD – ensuring you complete any necessary training and stay on track with your project’s timetable.

However you’re supervised, you’ll have regular meetings to discuss work and check your progress. Your supervisor will also provide feedback on work during your PhD and will play an important role as you near completion: reading your final dissertation draft, helping you select an external examiner and (hopefully) taking you out for a celebratory drink afterwards!

Professional development, networking and communication

Traditionally, the PhD has been viewed as a training process, preparing students for an academic career.

As such, it often includes opportunities to pick up additional skills and experiences that are an important part of a scholarly CV. Academics don’t just do research after all. They also teach students, administrate departments – and supervise PhDs.

The modern PhD is also viewed as a more flexible qualification. Not all doctoral graduates end up working in higher education. Many follow alternative careers that are either related to their subject of specialism or draw upon the advanced research skills their PhD has developed.

PhD programmes have begun to reflect this. Many now emphasise transferrable skills or include specific training units designed to help students communicate and apply their research beyond the university.

What all of this means is that very few PhD experiences are just about researching and writing up a thesis.

The likelihood is that you’ll also do some (or all) of the following during your PhD:

PhD researchers are often given the opportunity to teach undergraduates at their university. This generally involves leading small group teaching exercises, demonstrating methods and experiments and providing mentoring.

The work is usually paid and is increasingly accompanied by formal training and evaluation.

Conference presentation

As a PhD student you’ll be at the cutting edge of your field, doing original research and producing new results. This means that your work will be interest to other scholars and that your results could be worth presenting at academic conferences .

Doing this is very worthwhile, whatever your career plans. You’ll develop transferrable skills in public speaking and presenting, gain feedback on your results and begin to be recognised as an expert in your area. Conferences are also great places to network with other students and academics.


As well as presenting your research, you may also have the opportunity to publish work in academic journals, books, or other media.

This can be a challenging process. Your work will be judged according to the same high standards as any other scholar’s and will normally go through extensive peer review processes.

But it’s also highly rewarding. Seeing your work ‘in print’ is an incredible validation of your PhD research and a definite boost to your academic CV.

Public engagement and communication

Academic work may be associated with the myth of the ‘ivory tower’ – an insular community of experts focussing on obscure topics of little interest outside the university. But this is far from the case.

More and more emphasis is being placed on the ‘impact’ of research and its wider benefits to the public – with funding decisions being made accordingly.

Thankfully, there are plenty of opportunities to try your hand at public engagement as a PhD student. Universities are often involved in local events and initiatives to communicate the benefits of their research, ranging from workshops in local schools to public lectures and presentations.

Some PhD programmes include structured training in order to help students with activities such as the above.

Your supervisor may also be able to help by identifying suitable conferences and public engagement opportunities, or by involving you in appropriate university events and public engagement initiatives.

These experiences will be an important part of your development as a researchers - and will enhance the value of your PhD regardless of your career plans.

What is the difference between a Masters and a PhD?

Many students wonder what to expect in the transition from Masters to PhD study. Our guide covers the most important differences between the two, including applications, course structure and assessment.

What is a PhD for – and who should study one?

So, you know what a PhD actually is, what’s involved in completing one and what you might get up to whilst you do. That just leaves one final question: should you do a PhD?

Unfortunately, it’s not a question we can answer for you.

A PhD is difficult and uniquely challenging. It requires at least three years of hard work and dedication after you’ve already completed an undergraduate degree (and probably a Masters degree too).

You’ll need to support yourself during those years and, whilst you will be building up an impressive set of skills, you won’t be directly progressing in a career.

But a PhD is also immensely rewarding. It’s your chance to make a genuine contribution to the sum of human knowledge and produce work that other researchers can (and will) build on in future. However obscure your topic feels, there’s really no such thing as a useless PhD.

A PhD is also something to be incredibly proud of. A proportionately tiny number of people go on to higher education at this level. Whatever you end up doing after your doctorate you’ll have an impressive qualification – and a title to match. What’s more, non-academic careers and professions are increasingly recognising the unique skills and experience a PhD brings.

Other PhDs - do degree titles matter?

The PhD is the oldest and most common form of higher research degree, but a few alternatives are available. Some, such as the DPhil (which also stands of Doctor of Philosophy) are essentially identical to a PhD. Others, such as the Professional Doctorate or DBA are slightly different. You can find out more in our guide to types of PhD .

Is a PhD for me?

There’s more advice on the value of a PhD – and good reasons for studying one – elsewhere in this section. But the following are some quick tips if you’re just beginning to consider a PhD.

Speak to your lecturers / tutors

The best people to ask about PhD study are people who’ve earned one. Ask staff at your current or previous university about their experience of doctoral research – what they enjoyed, what they didn’t and what their tips might be.

If you’re considering a PhD for an academic career, ask about that too. Are job prospects good in your field? And what’s it really like to work at a university?

Speak to current PhD students

Want to know what it’s like studying a PhD right now? Or what it’s like doing research at a particular university? Ask someone who knows.

Current PhD students were just like you a year or two ago and most will be happy to answer questions.

If you can’t get in touch with any students ‘face to face’, pop over to the Postgraduate Forum – you’ll find plenty of students there who are happy to chat about postgraduate research.

Take a look at advertised projects and programmes

This may seem like a strange suggestion. After all, you’re only going to study one PhD, so what’s the point of reading about lots of others?

Well, looking at the details of different PhD projects is a great way to get a general sense of what PhD research is like. You’ll see what different PhDs tend to have in common and what kinds of unique opportunity might be available to you.

And, with thousands of PhDs in our database , you’re already in a great place to start.

Make sure you've considered all your options

As we've explained, a PhD is the most common type of doctorate, but it's not the only type. Could another degree, such as a professional doctorate, better serve your aims? Read through our advice on other types of doctorate to find out more about what's available.

Read our other advice articles

Finally, you can also check out some of the other advice on the FindAPhD website. We’ve looked at some good (and bad) reasons for studying a PhD as well as the value of a doctorate to different career paths.

More generally, you can read our in-depth look at a typical PhD journey , or find out more about specific aspects of doctoral study such as working with a supervisor or writing your dissertation .

We add new articles all the time – the best way to stay up to date is by signing up for our free PhD newsletter .

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Understand what a successful PhD research proposal needs to include and how to go about writing one for your project application.

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Thesis Vs. Dissertation — Know the difference and similarities!

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The academic world is filled with many different types of writing assignments, each with its own unique set of requirements and expectations. One common source of confusion for students is the distinction between a thesis and a dissertation. Both are long-form academic works, but there are several key differences between the two that are important to understand.

In Shakespeare’s day, a candidate for a master’s degree would write a thesis, an original paper in which he maintained a certain proposition. Whereas, completion of a doctoral program required submission and defense of a dissertation. He would read his thesis to his committee, after which he sat in silence while two faculty members gave point-by-point refutations of everything the candidate said.

The focus here was on the student’s ideas and his ability to arrange and express them clearly. If a student wished to advance further in academia he could pursue a dissertation. This was more of a  literature review . He would read widely in a particular area and write up his findings, discussing the various authorities and their opinions. The point was to demonstrate that he was well-versed in the literature of the field. While the confusion between the two terms is understandable, we shall tackle the dissertation vs. thesis topic in this article and provide unambiguous insights on it.

Table of Contents

What Is a Thesis?

A thesis is a critically written scholarly piece of research work. Typically, it is submitted by students graduating from a master’s program. The purpose of a thesis is to allow students to showcase their knowledge and expertise within the subject matter they have been studying as part of the program.

What Is a Dissertation?

A dissertation is a comparatively lengthier piece of scholarly writing that accounts for your research work throughout the doctoral program. A researcher earns the Ph.D. after submitting and defending his/her dissertation. It includes all information about the original research or expanded research on a new or existing topic conducted by the Ph.D. candidate.

Dissertation vs. Thesis: Differences

Dissertation vs. Thesis: Similarities

Dissertation vs. Thesis: Europe

In Europe, the original distinction between a thesis and a dissertation has been largely retained. A doctoral thesis is a focused piece of original research that is performed to obtain a Ph.D. A dissertation is part of a broader post-graduate research project.


However, the thesis has evolved since original research nowadays requires plenty of background research . So, a thesis will contain extensive citations and references to earlier work, although the focus remains on the original work that comes out of it.

Dissertation vs. Thesis: USA

In the United States, the definition of a thesis is almost the opposite of that in Europe. Because a thesis is shorter than a dissertation it gradually came to mean a preliminary degree on the way to a doctorate. A thesis is now performed to earn a Master’s degree. In scientific fields, a master’s candidate takes advanced coursework and gains hands-on experience in a research project but does not direct the project to the same extent that he would in a doctoral program. In a master’s project, the student’s ideas are welcomed and expected but the focus is on obtaining technical expertise, not doing original research. Engineering students commonly obtain Master’s degrees and seldom go on to get PhDs. In other fields such as Chemistry, the opposite is true, with a Master’s degree no longer being required as the first step for a doctorate. Almost everyone I know who received a Master’s degree in Chemistry got one because they dropped out of graduate school and wrote their truncated research as a Master’s project.

In a Nutshell

Needless to say, the dissertation vs. thesis facts are real. Therefore, using one term instead of another is not acceptable as an academic. One must remember the purpose of each and use them accordingly. However, one is not undermined by the other. Whether you are writing a thesis or a dissertation, both must be done with the same seriousness. Both require critical technical and soft skills. Improving your time management and academic writing skills plays a major role in acing both forms of scholarly writing.

How do you decipher dissertation vs. thesis? Should the interchanged usage of these terms be acceptable? How is your approach to writing a thesis different from that of a dissertation? What are the other differences associated with the thesis and dissertation? Let us know in the comments section below!

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What is a PhD Thesis?

Anyone who decides to pursue a Ph.D. will be required to put a thesis together in order to be awarded a degree. Understanding this key component of a Ph.D. program is essential to decide whether this degree is in your future. Time, dedication and research are all required while composing a thesis.

Ph.D. Research

Harvard University Professor H.T. Kung details that students need to choose an area to research before getting into the process of examining a specific subject. The research topic must be very specialized for Ph.D. candidates, and students can expect to spend a lot of time building up general knowledge about the subject before moving to the in-depth research.

Becoming a serious researcher is not an easy transition for every Ph.D. candidate. However, successfully completing a Ph.D. program is dependent on a student's ability to learn how to conduct thorough, valid research. Professional publications are typically available to students through their university. A fee may be charged to every student attending a university to allow students to access subscriptions to research databases that are relevant to their major area of study.

It is important to remember to put some focus on newer technology when researching a subject. Research that only relates to the technologies that were available a decade ago will not provide valuable insights into the subject area. A Ph.D. thesis must provide new information or a different way of looking at a subject. Ph.D. candidates are expected to become experts in their area of study.

Formulating a Thesis Proposal

Students need to formulate a thesis proposal to present to professors for approval. This proposal must outline the question that the student intends to answer by conducting research. The University of Glasgow reminds Ph.D. candidates that their thesis is expected to contribute to the body of knowledge about a particular subject instead of simply reiterating information that is already known.

It is not necessary for students to talk about something that has never been discussed by academics in the past, but it is important for Ph.D. candidates to take a fresh approach to a subject. Deciding on a thesis requires a student to choose something that can be appropriately researched. However, students need to choose a specific topic instead of a broad subject matter.

Thesis Length

Many potential Ph.D. students are overwhelmed by the idea of writing a lengthy paper for their thesis. While a thesis does need to be long enough to thoroughly explore the topic at hand, the exact length of a Ph.D. thesis varies according to the school and program. For example, the University College of London School of Computer Science suggests a thesis length of 150 pages. Other schools may require as little as 50 pages, but students must be able to provide value to the reader in these 50 pages.

Writing a Ph.D. thesis is a difficult process, but the rewards of earning a Ph.D. are many. Students who graduate with this degree can become professors, researchers and top professionals in their chosen field.

10 tips for writing a PhD thesis

Ingrid curl shares simple rules for keeping your work clear and jargon-free.

Woman writing using laptop computer

Writing up a PhD can often take place in a frenzy of activity in the last few months of your degree study, after years of hard work. But there are some steps that you can take to increase your chances of success.

If you stick to these simple rules, your writing will be clear and jargon-free. Above all, take to heart Orwell’s advice: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

Ingrid Curl is associate editor of  Times Higher Education , and a former PhD student.

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what's a phd thesis

What is a Ph.D. Dissertation?

[I wrote this in 1993 as a letter to a student concerning a draft of his dissertation. in 2003 I edited it to remove some specific references to the student and present it as a small increment to the information available to my grad students. --spaf]

Let me start by reviewing some things that may seem obvious:

Let's revisit the idea of the thesis itself. It is a hypothesis, a conjecture, a theorem. The dissertation is a formal, stylized document used to argue your thesis. The thesis must be significant, original (no one has yet demonstrated it to be true), and it must extend the state of scientific knowledge.

The first thing you need to do is to come up with no more than three sentences that express your thesis. Your committee must agree that your statements form a valid thesis statement. You too must be happy with the statement -- it should be what you will tell anyone if they ask you what your thesis is (few people will want to hear an hour presentation as a response).

Once you have a statement of thesis, you can begin to develop the dissertation. The abstract, for instance, should be a one-page description of your thesis and how you present the proof of it. The abstract should summarize the results of the thesis and should stress the contributions to science made thereby.

Perhaps the best way to understand how an abstract should look would be to examine the abstracts of several dozen dissertations that have already been accepted. Our university library has a collection of them. This is a good approach to see how an entire dissertation is structured and presented. MIT press has published the ACM doctoral dissertation award series for over a decade, so you may find some of those to be good examples to read -- they should be in any large technical library.

The dissertation itself should be structured into 4 to 6 chapters. The following is one commonly-used structure:

Let's look at these in a little more detail

Chapter I, Introduction. Here, you should clearly state the thesis and its importance. This is also where you give definitions of terms and other concepts used elsewhere. There is no need to write 80 pages of background on your topic here. Instead, you can cover almost everything by saying: "The terminology used in this work matches the definitions given in [citation, citation] unless noted otherwise." Then, cite some appropriate works that give the definitions you need. The progress of science is that we learn and use the work of others (with appropriate credit). Assume you have a technically literate readership familiar with (or able to find) common references. Do not reference popular literature or WWW sites if you can help it (this is a matter of style more than anything else -- you want to reference articles in refereed conferences and journals, if possible, or in other theses).

Also in the introduction, you want to survey any related work that attempted something similar to your own, or that has a significant supporting role in your research. This should refer only to published references. You cite the work in the references, not the researchers themselves. E.g., "The experiments described in [citation] explored the foo and bar conditions, but did not discuss the further problem of baz, the central point of this work." You should not make references such as this: "Curly, Moe and Larry all believed the same in their research [CML53]" because you do not know what they actually believed or thought -- you only know what the paper states. Every factual statement you make must have a specific citation tied to it in this chapter, or else it must be common knowledge (don't rely on this too much).

Chapter II. Abstract Model. Your results are to be of lasting value. Thus, the model you develop and write about (and indeed, that you defend) should be one that has lasting value. Thus, you should discuss a model that is not based on Windows, Linux, Ethernet, PCMIA, or any other specific technology. It should be generic in nature, and should capture all the details necessary to overlay the model on likely environments. You should discuss the problems, parameters, requirements, necessary and sufficient conditions, and other factors here. Consider that 20 years ago (ca 1980) the common platform was a Vax computer running VMS or a PDP-11 running Unix version 6, yet well-crafted theses of the time are still valuable today. Will your dissertation be valuable 20 years from now (ca 2020), or have you referred to technologies that will be of only historical interest?

This model is tough to construct, but is really the heart of the scientific part of your work. This is the lasting part of the contribution, and this is what someone might cite 50 years from now when we are all using MS Linux XXXXP on computers embedded in our wrists with subspace network links!

Chapters III & IV, Proof. There are basically three proof techniques that I have seen used in a computing dissertation, depending on the thesis topic. The first is analytic, where one takes the model or formulae and shows, using formal manipulations, that the model is sound and complete. A second proof method is stochastic, using some form of statistical methods and measurements to show that something is true in the anticipated cases.

Using the third method, you need to show that your thesis is true by building something according to your model and showing that it behaves as you claim it will. This involves clearly showing how your implementation model matches the conditions of your abstract model, describing all the variables and why you set them as you do, accounting for confounding factors, and showing the results. You must be careful to not expend too much effort describing how standard protocols and hardware work (use citations to the literature, instead). You must clearly express the mapping of model to experiment, and the definition of parameters used and measured.

Chapter V. Additional results. This may be folded into Chapter III in some theses, or it may be multiple chapters in a thesis with many parts (as in a theory-based thesis). This may be where you discuss the effects of technology change on your results. This is also a place where you may wish to point out significant results that you obtained while seeking to prove your central thesis, but which are not themselves supportive of the thesis. Often, such additional results are published in a separate paper.

Chapter VI. Conclusions and Future work. This is where you discuss what you found from your work, incidental ideas and results that were not central to your thesis but of value nonetheless, (if you did not have them in Chapter V) and other results. This chapter should summarize all the important results of the dissertation --- note that this is the only chapter many people will ever read, so it should convey all the important results.

This is also where you should outline some possible future work that can be done in the area. What are some open problems? What are some new problems? What are some significant variations open to future inquiry?

Appendices. Appendices usually are present to hold mundane details that are not published elsewhere, but which are critical to the development of your dissertation. This includes tables of measurement results, configuration details of experimental testbeds, limited source code listings of critical routines or algorithms, etc. It is not appropriate to include lists of readings by topic, lists of commercial systems, or other material that does not directly support the proof of your thesis.

Here are some more general hints to keep in mind as you write/edit:

As a rule of thumb, a CS dissertation should probably be longer than 100 pages, but less than 160. Anything outside of that range should be carefully examined with the above points in mind.

Keep in mind that you -- the Ph.D. candidate -- are expected to become the world's foremost expert on your topic area. That topic area should not be unduly broad, but must be big enough to be meaningful. Your advisor and committee members are not supposed to know more about the topic than you do -- not individually, at least. Your dissertation is supposed to explain your findings and, along with the defense, demonstrate your mastery of the area in which you are now the leading expert. That does not mean writing everything you know -- it means writing enough about the most important points that others can agree with your conclusions.

Last of all, don't fall into the trap that ties up many a candidate, and causes some of them to flame out before completion: your thesis does not need to be revolutionary. It simply needs to be an incremental advancement in the field. Few Ph.D. dissertations have ever had a marked impact on the field. Instead, it is the set of publications and products of the author that may change the field.

If your dissertation is like most, it will only be read by your committee and some other Ph.D. candidates seeking to build on your work. As such, it does not need to be a masterwork of literature, nor does it need to solve a long-standing problem in computing. It merely needs to be correct, to be significant in the judgement of your committee, and it needs to be complete. We will all applaud when you change the world after graduation. And at that you will find that many well-known scientists in CS have made their careers in areas different from their dissertation topic. The dissertation is proof that you can find and present original results; your career and life after graduation will demonstrate the other concerns you might have about making an impact.

So get to work!

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All About PhD Thesis

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How to Write a PhD Thesis (1)

The conclusion and understanding of a workflow at the end of a research project defines the entire process of a mainstream PhD. Writing a PhD thesis, which is the conclusion of years of research, maybe a difficult task. However, learning from individuals who have already completed this chore can make the process go more smoothly for you. You can ask Recent alumni and students to reflect on their experiences and what worked—and what didn’t—for them or read this blog. We’ve covered everything you need to know about your PhD  Thesis & Dissertation to make your job easier.

This Blog Includes:

What is a phd thesis, phd thesis vs dissertation, acknowledgments, introduction section of a phd thesis, literature review, research methodology, conclusion of a phd thesis, recommendations , how do i format my thesis, phd thesis structure, phd thesis research, what should the length of a phd thesis be, what should a phd thesis include, how do i publish my thesis, what happens after your thesis is completed.

A thesis is a PhD’s principal output since it describes how you arrived at the conclusions you did while conducting the research. As a result, your thesis will be heavily reliant on your chapters of original work. Your thesis must adequately support your case and provide a novel or expanded insight into your field that was not previously available to be successful. As a result, you can’t rely on other people’s ideas or results to write your thesis; it must be a unique piece of writing that belongs to you and no one else.

Also Read: PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Although it is popular to use the words like PhD thesis and dissertation interchangeably, the two titles have distinct meanings.

Simply put, you submit a dissertation, but the thesis it tries to prove will serve as the foundation for your PhD. This also means that the dissertation writing process usually follows the formation of your thesis. When describing PhD research, however, universities and scholars commonly use either (or both) designations.

Also Read: PhD in Mass Communication

How To Write A PhD Thesis? 

Although each thesis will be different, they will all follow the same basic format. To show you how to do this, mentioned below is a sample PhD thesis format and describes what you should include in each section below.

The Title of the Research must be declared on the ‘Cover Page’ of a PhD thesis. On this page, the researcher might put a watermark about the case or the university.

The title of the thesis appears on the ‘Title Page’ page. It needs to be accompanied by the following details:

This is an area where you can include or exclude your personal information. The vast majority of students include it, thanking and acknowledging their supervisor, university, sponsor/funder, and anybody else who has helped them along the route.

Give a brief description of why you’re conducting your research project and what you intend to accomplish by doing so. Explain the structure of your argument after that to give the reader a sense of what he or she is about to read.

Set the stage for your research by describing the present state of knowledge in your subject, as well as recent developments and knowledge gaps. The literature review should end with a summary of the research project’s overall goals and objectives.

This section will make up the majority of your thesis, as it will cover all aspects of your original study. This section will typically include your research/data gathering methodology, your findings, a thorough analysis of your findings, and a detailed explanation of your findings.

Depending on your project, each chapter may follow the framework outlined above on its own, or in some cases, each chapter may focus just on one component (e.g. a standalone results chapter). Each of these chapters should ideally be formatted in such a way that they may be turned into papers and submitted to peer-reviewed publications. As a result, once you’ve completed your PhD, you should be able to submit articles for peer review utilizing content you’ve previously created.

The conclusion will be a summary of your most important discoveries, with a focus on the new contributions you’ve made to your field. It’s critical to connect your conclusion to your initial study goals, objectives, and hypotheses when writing it. Make sure you’ve answered the question you were asked.

Recommendations and Future Research is crucial since it sets the path for solutions and future research methods in the relevant domains. This is a very significant phase in the study because it gives the research a sense of direction.

Also Read: PhD Biomedical Engineering

There can be many different ways the thesis can be formatted according to the aspirant’s requirements and the university requirements. The common way of formatting a thesis is as follows.

A PhD thesis structure is one of the most important aspects of writing a thesis as the purpose of a structure is to provide you with an overall summary of the thesis so that when you start drafting your PhD thesis you already know what source is to be included when and where. The traditional structure of a PhD thesis is as mentioned below:

A PhD thesis research is supposed to present an original contribution to the respective academic field. A PhD thesis must include independent research, either from primary or secondary sources. However, the research may vary depending upon your discipline. 

Arts and Humanities

A PhD thesis research in Arts and Humanities usually includes investigating different texts, sources and theoretical frameworks.

Social Sciences  

A PhD thesis research in Social Science is expected to focus more on qualitative or quantitative surveys and case studies. 

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)

A PhD thesis research in STEM majors generally involves designing, recording and analyzing experiments, using the data to prove or disprove a set theory.

The length of a PhD thesis varies by discipline, but they are all significantly longer than those for undergraduate or master’s degrees. Your university will usually specify a maximum length – often between 70,000 and 100,000 words, with the majority of dissertations falling somewhere in the middle.

Also Read: PhD in the UK

A PhD thesis must include a general introduction that represents the purpose of your thesis, a literature review on the topic you’ve chosen for research, main body including an overall description of the materials and methods, a presentation of all the results, discussion of the results, conclusion that reviews the results and theoretically explains your opinions after the end of your PhD thesis research.

You cannot publish your thesis as a whole in a journal but universities may allow others to read your thesis through their library system. If you want to submit your thesis in a journal, you’ll have to expand your thesis into one or more peer-reviewed papers. You’ll be required to do a lot of work to meet the standards of the journal you may be targeting, this will mainly include reformatting, condensing and tailoring of your work.

You will have a viva when you have submitted your thesis. A viva is an interview-style examination in which you must defend and answer questions on your thesis. The goal of the viva is to persuade your examiners that your work meets the standards for a doctorate. 

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Published: 28th February 2023     

IISER Pune: Plagiarising of thesis plus alleged sexual, mental harassment — the ordeal of this PhD scholar

The student's sister, Dr Shilpi Goel claims that her health is still delicate, but despite that the institute has not taken any action

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Last Updated: 28th February 2023   |   A+ A  A-   |  


Here's what happened to Garima Aggarwal over two years | (Pic: EdexLive)

Garima Aggarwal, a PhD scholar from IISER Pune attempted suicide in 2022 due to alleged plagiarism of her thesis. Her sister, Dr Shilpi Goel, with whom she presently resides, claims that her health is still delicate, and alleges that despite this, the institute has not taken any action. Last month, the All India Research Scholars' Association (AIRSA) wrote to Rakesh Ranjan, Additional Secretary (TE) and Research Coordination, IISERs, seeking an appointment to discuss Garima's case.

"We would like to bring your kind attention to the matter of harassment (of all sorts including sexual harassment) and atrocities done with a brilliant female student at IISER, Pune (running under the Ministry of Education, Govt of India), forcing the innocent female scholar to attempt suicide," the letter states.

Read Also :  IIIT Allahabad: PhD scholar alleges harassment, discrimination at the hands of faculty

Dr Lal Chandra Vishwakarma, President of AIRSA said, "We have not received any reply to our communication yet. But we want the government to take note. There are thousands of similar harassment incidents happening in a majority of institutions. Only a handful of them is reported because most of the scholars are afraid of the authorities."

He added that AIRSA has been requesting the government to employ some mechanism in the higher education institutions to keep such incidents in check. On February 17, the organisation held a nationwide protest over various issues, the chief among which were a hike in stipends and harassment of scholars in institutes. And the IISER Pune case was referred to in their press release.

Garima Aggarwal's narrative

Dr Shilpi Goel tells that her sister was pursuing an integrated PhD in Mathematics under Dr Anindya Goswami at IISER Pune. She has been living with Dr Goel since the outbreak of COVID in 2020. However, Garima was presenting her thesis from home to Goswami through online meetings, which were also attended by an MSc student Shristi Gupta. When Shristi presented her MSc thesis, Dr Goel alleges that she had copied her sister's work entirely.

Dr Goswami had previously made sexual advances at Garima but she had refused, Garima alleged in her statement to the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), adding that the consequence was the plagiarised thesis. She also mentioned to the institute several times that she wasn't feeling safe with her supervisor. "Just because my sister refused to compromise her modesty, she was treated in this way. It is highly unfair," she stated. However, fearing that Dr Goswami would damage her career if she complained, Garima started working on a fresh thesis, which was ready to be published by July 2022.

"However, Gupta's name was once more put out as the author of this thesis. When questioned by Garima, Dr Goswami stated that he wanted to launch Gupta academically. Her request for a new supervisor was also denied by the institute. Unable to take it in, Garima attempted suicide," alleges a tearful Dr Goel. She lodged an FIR and also mailed a detailed complaint to the director of IISER Pune. But she further alleges that no action was taken. Garima's degrees are pending at the institute, she said.

IISER Pune's reply

When questioned by  EdexLive , IISER Pune denied all the claims. An official from the institute, who wishes to remain anonymous, shared IISER Pune's statement on the incident, which was published on January 12 this year. "Despite the best efforts of the institute towards redressal, it is unfortunate that the student and her family could not be convinced of the institute’s response and have chosen to file an FIR against the supervisor and the IISER Pune administration," the statement reads.

According to the document, after receipt of Dr Goel's complaint, "The institute's academic ethics committee conducted an inquiry into the complaint. The committee found the PhD and master's research work to be collaborative in nature and have not found evidence for plagiarism as alleged. The committee found that the supervisor did not ensure proper sharing of credit between two collaborating PhD and master's students, and that the master's thesis did not acknowledge the PhD student's academic contribution."

"Thus, commensurate with the lapse, the supervisor has been disallowed from admitting any new thesis students in his research group for a year, and the Master's thesis has been asked to be modified in order to acknowledge the PhD student's academic contribution," the statement reads further. It also notes that an independent faculty member was assigned the work of collaborating between Garima and Dr Goswami. Garima was additionally offered counsellor support. 

But Dr Goel claims that these measures were inadequate. Garima did not require counselling nor was the published thesis a collaborative work. Meanwhile, asked about the sexual harassment complaints, the official from IISER Pune stated that the institute had only received a complaint of plagiarism.


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  1. (PDF) PhD Thesis

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  2. Usyd phd thesis format

    what's a phd thesis

  3. (PDF) PhD Thesis

    what's a phd thesis

  4. (PDF) PhD-Thesis

    what's a phd thesis

  5. (PDF) PhD Thesis

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    what's a phd thesis


  1. The Thesis

  2. Introduction Chapter of your PhD thesis

  3. Is it just me or… 💡💭🤣

  4. How to Find a Research Topic

  5. Tutorial 11- How to write your PhD thesis??

  6. Why it's essential that you know yourself as a thesis writer


  1. What Is a Thesis?

    A thesis is a long-form piece of academic writing, often taking more than a full semester to complete. It is generally a degree requirement for Master's programs, and is also sometimes required to complete a bachelor's degree in liberal arts colleges. Note

  2. What Is a PhD Thesis?

    A PhD thesis is a concentrated piece of original research which must be carried out by all PhD students in order to successfully earn their doctoral degree. The fundamental purpose of a thesis is to explain the conclusion that has been reached as a result of undertaking the research project.

  3. How to Write a Thesis Statement

    A thesis statement is a sentence that sums up the central point of your paper or essay. It usually comes near the end of your introduction. Your thesis will look a bit different depending on the type of essay you're writing. But the thesis statement should always clearly state the main idea you want to get across.

  4. Know How to Structure Your PhD Thesis

    Work with your thesis supervisor to plan the structure and format of your PhD thesis. Be prepared to rewrite each section, as you work out rough drafts. Don't get discouraged by this process. It's typical. Make your writing interesting. Academic writing has a reputation of being very dry.

  5. The PhD Thesis

    The PhD thesis is the most important part of a doctoral research degree: the culmination of three or four years of full-time work towards producing an original contribution to your academic field.

  6. How To Structure A PhD Thesis

    Broadly speaking, a theory framework can be used to either derive certain testable assumptions or as a way of making sense of your data. In both cases, it structures your data collection by focusing your attention on a small subset of concepts. You can, therefore, think of it as a toolbox.

  7. Dissertation Helper

    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 Get Started Types of dissertation

  8. Thesis Services

    Dissertation writing is a complex matter and most students need professional help from a safe and affordable service. Thesis writing can be extremely tricky. There's so much riding on it and there's so many sections that all need to be included.

  9. How Long Is a PhD Thesis?

    Unfortunately, there's no one size fits all answer to this question. However, from the analysis of over 100 PhD theses, the average thesis length is between 80,000 and 100,000 words. A further analysis of 1000 PhD thesis shows the average number of pages to be 204. In reality, the actual word count for each PhD thesis will depend on the ...

  10. Dissertation vs Thesis: The Differences that Matter

    A thesis is performed by master's students, and a dissertation is written by PhD candidates. Europe In Europe, the distinction between a thesis and dissertation becomes a little more cloudy. That's because PhD programs may require a doctoral thesis to graduate.

  11. What's the point of the PhD 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 ...

  12. PhD thesis inspires film about South Africa's waste pickers

    A PhD thesis about waste pickers in South Africa has led to a new film exploring their lives which is being screened at UCL Laws on Wednesday 8 March. Waste pickers are informal workers who collect and sell recyclables for a living. In South Africa, an estimated 90,000 waste pickers collect 80-90% of everything that is recycled, playing a vital ...

  13. Suggested Format for Thesis Proposal Style General Examination

    For work you have already completed, give only a brief summary. For work that remains to be done, give a more detailed plan, including any major risks, sufficient for an outsider to evaluate its chances of success. The proposal should be concrete enough that the committee can evaluate whether it would make a good dissertation.

  14. Stephen Hawking: Everything you need to know about the thesis that

    Hawking's PhD thesis relates to Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity — the more accurate theory of gravity that replaced Isaac Newton 's original ideas. Newton said gravity was a pull ...

  15. Developing A Thesis

    Developing A Thesis. Think of yourself as a member of a jury, listening to a lawyer who is presenting an opening argument. You'll want to know very soon whether the lawyer believes the accused to be guilty or not guilty, and how the lawyer plans to convince you. Readers of academic essays are like jury members: before they have read too far ...

  16. Satisfied with quality of your thesis? : r/PhD

    I now find myself stressing about the quality of my thesis. It has gone though reviews with supervisors and -lots- of work; but I know (feel) that some sections are definitely weak and could be stronger (e.g. better insights, stronger conclusions). There is a fear that examiners will also pickup on these areas.

  17. Thesis

    A thesis (plural: theses), or dissertation (abbreviated diss.), 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.

  18. What is a PhD?

    A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is a doctoral research degree and the highest level of academic qualification you can achieve. A PhD degree normally takes between three and four years of full-time work to complete. You'll research and write a thesis offering an original contribution to your subject.

  19. Thesis Vs. Dissertation

    The primary difference between a thesis and a dissertation is the time when they are completed. As mentioned earlier, a thesis is presented at the culmination of a master's program, whereas, a dissertation is presented to earn a Ph.D. A thesis is a compilation of research ensuring that the researcher is well-informed and has knowledge about ...

  20. What is a PhD Thesis?

    A Ph.D. thesis must provide new information or a different way of looking at a subject. Ph.D. candidates are expected to become experts in their area of study. Formulating a Thesis Proposal Students need to formulate a thesis proposal to present to professors for approval.

  21. 10 tips for writing a PhD thesis

    Think carefully about your writing. Write your first draft, leave it and then come back to it with a critical eye. Look objectively at the writing and read it closely for style and sense. Look out for common errors such as dangling modifiers, subject-verb disagreement and inconsistency.

  22. What is a Ph.D. Dissertation?

    Your dissertation is part of the requirements for a PhD. The research, theory, experimentation, et al. also contribute. ... The dissertation is a formal, stylized document used to argue your thesis. The thesis must be significant, original (no one has yet demonstrated it to be true), and it must extend the state of scientific knowledge. The ...

  23. PhD Thesis

    The length of a PhD thesis varies by discipline, but they are all significantly longer than those for undergraduate or master's degrees. Your university will usually specify a maximum length - often between 70,000 and 100,000 words, with the majority of dissertations falling somewhere in the middle.

  24. IISER Pune: Plagiarising of thesis plus alleged sexual, mental

    The committee found the PhD and master's research work to be collaborative in nature and have not found evidence for plagiarism as alleged. The committee found that the supervisor did not ensure proper sharing of credit between two collaborating PhD and master's students, and that the master's thesis did not acknowledge the PhD student's ...

  25. PhD Thesis "The blood-brain barrier in rare neurodevelopmental diseases"

    You work on the role of the blood-brain barrier in rare neurodevelopmental diseases such as rasopathies. You elucidate alterations in blood-brain barrier functionality based on mutations underlying the diseases. You investigate the role of the communication between brain endothelial cells and CNS cells such as astrocytes, pericytes and neurons ...