What is a Dissertation?

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Updated August 4, 2020

If you're considering a doctoral program, you've probably been wondering exactly what a dissertation is. You may have heard rumors about the difficulty, expense or stress of producing this important document, but there's no reason to worry. A dissertation is the culmination of your scholarly work in graduate school, and Ph.D programs are designed to walk you through every step of the journey.


Just like undergraduate and master's degrees, your Ph.D studies will start with academic courses. However, you'll have smaller classes and more challenging work. It's not uncommon to have only a handful of other students in your courses or to be asked to read 150 pages of dense academic writing per week. It may seem daunting, but these requirements will help you finish your degree. Your dissertation will incorporate the readings and scholarly skills that you learn in your courses. Your school will also offer research methodology classes to teach you how to gather the data you'll need to complete your Ph.D.


The purpose of a Ph.D program is to transform you into an academic researcher, so it makes sense that your dissertation will be based on an original research project that you conduct. Although many doctoral programs allow you to build on research you may have performed as an undergraduate or an employee, most will require you to gather new data for your dissertation. If you're in the hard sciences, you'll be expected to design and run experiments in a laboratory. In social sciences like anthropology, plan to spend at least a year gathering data away from your university. For humanities graduate programs, the library will be the main site of your research efforts. No matter how you gather your data, you'll need to document your methodology, take extensive notes and prepare to analyze your findings.


Academic research is a two-step process: after you collect data, you must interpret it. Luckily, graduate programs will extensively train you in the proper methods of analysis for your field. Your foundational courses will teach you everything necessary to conduct detailed examination of your research data. You will also learn how to place your findings in the larger context of your field's existing body of knowledge.


As a doctoral student, you will be an integral part of your university. You will be asked to teach undergraduates, represent your school at academic conferences and use your burgeoning research skills to help established professors conduct their own investigations. Further, you can expect a level of support you may not have experienced as an undergraduate. Your instructors will see you as a young colleague and may hire you as a research assistant. Universities are giving record amounts of funding to Ph.D students, so you may even be paid to finish your studies, according to The Guardian.

Related Resource: What is a Thesis?

Your Ph.D isn't finished until you've completed and defended your dissertation, but your university will provide you the support to make it to the finish line. By completing doctoral school, you will learn exactly what a dissertation is: a monument to your scholarly knowledge, motivation and discipline.

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