What Is a Thesis or Dissertation?
A dissertation or a thesis is a document prepared and submitted by a student in support of his or her attempt to earn an advanced degree. While the words "thesis" and "dissertation" are often used interchangeably, it is conventional to refer to a thesis as a document used in defense of a master's degree and a dissertation as one produced in support of a doctorate.
The word "thesis" comes from the Greek meaning "position" and originally referred to any essay that took a position on an issue and defended it using logic, reasoning, and evidence. The word "dissertation" derives from the Latin for "discourse" and referred to a document that thoroughly analyzes and discusses a given subject. However, the history of the dissertation is little studied and is not very well known.
While the dissertation and the thesis have become the standard by which master's and doctoral degrees are awarded, this has not always been the case. In fact, the standard dissertation with an oral defense (in the US, Canada, or the UK—oral defense isn't used in Australia) has only been used in the awarding of degrees since the early 20th century. Prior to that, degrees were awarded according to whatever standards and individual university used, which typically included some form of original research but not necessarily all the parts associated with today's dissertation and defense.
The first doctorate was awarded in the 12th century, but the Doctor of Philosophy degree is only a little more than 150 years old (though a different degree with that name was awarded in Paris in 1150), and the dissertation about the same age. The dissertation arrived in the United States in the 19th century as a derivative of the research requirement in German universities, which at the time were preeminent in the world and attracted students from across the globe, including many from the United States.
When Yale instituted the first PhD program in America in 1861, they used the German model from the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin to require an original research dissertation as a graduation requirement. James Morris Whiton earned the first American PhD. His dissertation was six pages long.
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