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Some big piece of writing that I did

In the US and Canada, in my experience, the big piece of writing done at the end of an M.A. degree is called a Master's thesis, and the big piece of writing done at the end of a PhD is called a dissertation. This is why the system informally has the acronym ABD - "All But Dissertation" - to denote people who have passed their required coursework and exams for their PhD.

Now, in the UK, there is no coursework for a PhD, nor are there exams usually. Many places prefer PhD candidates who have done an MA or MPhil in the relevant field (i.e. coursework) to one who hasn't, but it's not generally a hard-and-fast rule.

This evening, at a reception after a talk on mathematics in Late Antiquity, a woman corrected me when I started to talk about my PhD dissertation. "You mean thesis. A dissertation is what you'd write at the M.A. level."

Have I somehow done an MA in this country and interacted with UK academics for this long and missed this fundamental distinction? It's possible. Was she right? Am I going to be endlessly confused when the terms are entirely reversed from one side of the ocean to the other?


( 50 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 27th, 2005 09:47 pm (UTC)
A PhD definitely requires a thesis. I've heard both terms used for a master's degree and a dissertation is sometimes required at undergrad level. Confused? You should be!
Oct. 27th, 2005 10:02 pm (UTC)
dissertation is the title used in the US for PHD and thesis for MA, opposite in UK. But only annoying people get picky about it.
Oct. 27th, 2005 10:09 pm (UTC)
It's a good thing there are no annoying people in academia.
(no subject) - aquitaineq - Oct. 27th, 2005 10:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 27th, 2005 10:08 pm (UTC)
'Fraid so mate.
Oct. 27th, 2005 10:19 pm (UTC)
I know defense and viva are synonyms. Just to be on the safe side, a "defense" doesn't mean anything else here as well in academia in particular, does it?

Just when I think I have all the important, basic vocabulary down, something this big and important tackles me.
(no subject) - chickenfeet2003 - Oct. 28th, 2005 12:20 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - owlfish - Oct. 28th, 2005 08:12 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - fjm - Oct. 28th, 2005 08:25 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - owlfish - Oct. 28th, 2005 08:38 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - fjm - Oct. 28th, 2005 08:44 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Oct. 29th, 2005 06:01 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - fjm - Oct. 29th, 2005 06:15 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Oct. 29th, 2005 06:27 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - fjm - Oct. 29th, 2005 06:43 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Oct. 29th, 2005 07:04 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 27th, 2005 10:10 pm (UTC)
My Doktorvater, aka thesis advisor, regularly calls the thing I wrote (tm) a thesis. He's from the US and I wrote it in the US. British colleagues also call it a thesis. I'm not sure that the line is quite as cut and dried, but you can always say "doctoral thesis" I suppose. Of course, I was lucky -- my program only required a thesis for a terminal MA. If the MA was granted as part of the PhD program, there was no thesis -- just grueling exams (written and oral), a dissertation prospectus, and a defense thereof against all comers (really -- department faculty and anyone else on campus at the postgrad level and above who wanted to ask questions).
Oct. 27th, 2005 10:17 pm (UTC)
I've heard the term thesis used to describe a really big paper that is written at the end of a degree at all levels in the U.S.

I wonder - is MA=dissertation/PhD=thesis the hard-and-fast rule here? More precisely, is a thesis only something written at the PhD level in the UK?

(no subject) - chickenfeet2003 - Oct. 28th, 2005 12:21 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - fjm - Oct. 28th, 2005 08:26 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 27th, 2005 10:13 pm (UTC)
Another question, though -- is there a difference in typical lengths for the works whose names are in question (between countries, I mean). The pages/words thing always gets confusing for me, but y'all know what I mean, I hope.
Oct. 28th, 2005 08:27 am (UTC)
This varies even between universities and between subjects. A PhD thesis in the sciences maybe 30,000 words. In the art its more likely to be 100,000.
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Oct. 29th, 2005 06:07 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - fjm - Oct. 29th, 2005 06:16 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Oct. 29th, 2005 06:34 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 27th, 2005 10:15 pm (UTC)
Oh, hey (sorry for the multiple posts -- Migraine-y today and should not be online, but have to check Blackboard) ...

Isn't the appropriate response to the snooty an equally snooty, "Oh? That's not how Toronto does it." ??
Oct. 27th, 2005 10:21 pm (UTC)
I wish I had the sort of personality that could get away with snooty.

Comment multiply away. None of us can help the limitation which is uneditable comments.
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Oct. 27th, 2005 10:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - owlfish - Oct. 27th, 2005 10:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - lazyknight - Oct. 28th, 2005 08:01 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - owlfish - Oct. 28th, 2005 08:13 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 27th, 2005 10:23 pm (UTC)
For some reason I got told, when writing my PhD [whatever its called!], that the thesis bit of it was the theory I was putting forward, but the actual body of writing that presented it along with supporting results etc. was called a dissertation.
The advisor who made this distinction, and insisted that it was called a dissertation within the actual text, was American but had been in the UK for a while. My supervisor, who was British, agreed with him. I did what I needed to get them to allow me to submit it.
Oct. 27th, 2005 10:32 pm (UTC)
You're not making this easy. For all I know, this means there's a difference in terminology between the humanities and the sciences in the UK.

A thesis as the theory you're putting forward makes sense, for in the terms I was trained in, every piece of argumentative writing requires a thesis, which is the argument itself, the heart of the discussion. No one in my department in Canada would dispute that a dissertation requires a thesis - but they wouldn't say I'd written a thesis.
(no subject) - rhube - Oct. 27th, 2005 10:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - fjm - Oct. 28th, 2005 08:30 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Oct. 29th, 2005 06:19 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rhube - Oct. 29th, 2005 02:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aerinah - Oct. 28th, 2005 12:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - owlfish - Oct. 28th, 2005 01:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Oct. 29th, 2005 06:20 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 27th, 2005 10:30 pm (UTC)
That's the way it is in St. Andrews. I was confused when i first came bak to North America. I once said something about my MLitt disertation and got confused looks...
Oct. 27th, 2005 10:41 pm (UTC)
I don't know if it's a hard and fast rule, but this is the terminology in my department too. A `dissertation' is usually a shorter document of about 20-80 pages (my MSc one was 60 pages) submitted for an MA/MSc or sometimes as a final-year undergraduate student.

Properly, though, the thesis is the point you're arguing, and the dissertation is the written document which contains the argument. But this distinction is usually glossed over, and the word thesis (or `big papery thing tied up with string - like the thing we burnt' (tm S Baldrick and E Blackadder) as it became known in our office) generally refers to the dissertation itself.

Now, in the UK, there is no coursework for a PhD, nor are there exams usually.
No, they throw us all in at the deep end, right at the beginning (my supervisor said ``Here's some of my recent papers. Have a read through and see if anything appeals'' which was as close as he ever got to suggesting a research problem for me). Although in our undergraduate degrees we specialise (usually in one subject, sometimes in two closely related subjects - and no requirements to take any courses which aren't specifically relevant to your chosen subjects) right from day one, too, so I guess the theory is that we're ready to start doing research right away.

In practice, though, everyone has to do some background study (reading and/or specialised graduate-level courses) to get up to speed in their chosen area. This is why many departments require PhD students to register for an MPhil or MA/MSc to start with, and then transfer to PhD after they've jumped through the required hoops - typically, some sort of oral exam or written report at the end of the first year. Some others require first-year PhD students to effectively do an MA/MSc in the first year (a couple of terms of graduate-level courses, plus exams), making the MA/MSc dissertation the first chapter or so of the PhD thesis.

But it varies from department to department, and university to university - there's no standard scheme of qualifying exams, like in the US, for example.
Oct. 27th, 2005 10:48 pm (UTC)
She was being pedantic because she could find no other way to feel better than you, that's the only reason I can find for her mentioning it. To be honest, the English system varies from subject to subject and Uni to Uni. Generally I haven't heard people call their PhDs 'dissertations' but I can't think of anyone who'd have felt it necessary to say so except that their own egos were in need of serious boosting.
Oct. 28th, 2005 08:14 am (UTC)
You have a wonderfully healthy attitude towards this subject. Thank you.
(no subject) - rhube - Oct. 29th, 2005 02:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 28th, 2005 12:16 am (UTC)
just to add another wrinkle
It's thesis in Canada, land of certain Briticisms. Heh. I never even thought about that ...
Oct. 28th, 2005 08:11 am (UTC)
Re: just to add another wrinkle
My department said I was writing a dissertation. And I was writing it in Canada. So clearly that's not consistent either.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 28th, 2005 03:37 pm (UTC)
Here's the bottom line:
"dissertation" has more letters and syllables than "thesis", therefore it sounds more complicated and important to me!!
Oct. 29th, 2005 07:09 am (UTC)
OOH! It's late and I'm hyped up on caffeine (conference today -- all pedagogy, all the time! Ask me about Brain-based learning! DOn't serve anything but coffee to the attendees!)

But a common student error here is tenure/ten year(s)

Just thought I'd share.
( 50 comments — Leave a comment )