What is a Dissertation?

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dissertationIf you're contemplating grad school, you're probably wondering what a dissertation is and if you can complete one. Finishing a dissertation is the final step in earning a doctoral degree and is far easier than it seems. You'll spend graduate school taking classes and conducting research with the goal of writing a dissertation at the end. Even if you feel overwhelmed by the idea now, don't worry. Your school will give you the tools you need to succeed.

Basics of a Dissertation

In a doctoral program, you will do research. You'll spend the first section of your degree learning the methodologies and ethics of your field before you start researching. Afterwards, you might be in a lab, working under the direction of an experienced researcher, or in the field gathering your own data. For professional fields like education, public health or social work, your research is often based on previous work you've done in your career. For example, if you've been a high school teacher in a low-income school for ten years, you might research adolescent development or the effects of public funding for education. You probably wouldn't work with kindergarten policy or higher education retention, although it's possible to work in a new area if you don't mind taking longer to finish your degree. In contrast to professional degrees, a dissertation in the liberal arts or sciences usually require you to start from scratch with original research.

No matter your field of study, the end result of your efforts will be a dissertation. This is a book-length paper with one chapter describing every aspect of your research: Your methodologies, the literature you consulted, your data, your analysis choices, your results and the impact of your findings. It will summarize the results of years of effort on your part, and you can use it to launch an academic career or establish yourself as a subject expert.


Doctoral students are in a different class than undergraduate or master's students. Universities understand that you have subject knowledge and work experience that make you valuable. Most programs will hire you to do research, teach classes or assist faculty. In exchange, you'll receive free tuition, a living stipend and valuable experience. Some universities are even considering classifying Ph.D students as employees, according to the Guardian. You won't get rich working on your dissertation, but you will be able to support yourself.


Ideally, you will publish portions of your dissertation for a broader audience. After all, you will have spent years conducting original research into an important topic, so you will want to ensure that future researchers can build on your efforts. Dissertations themselves are often published by your university, where they will sit in the school's library gathering dust. To help your work reach a wider audience, it's important to publish journal articles and, ideally, a scholarly book. In addition, if you're planning a career in academia, hiring committees will want to see your ability to publish your research findings. However, this isn't as hard as it seems; it's common for dissertation chapters to be published as journal articles with only slight modifications.

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The idea of a dissertation may seem daunting, but you will have the tools you need. Your university will see to it that you not only know what a dissertation is but will be able to successfully complete one.