What is the Definition of dissertation?
: an extended usually written treatment of a subject; specifically : one submitted for a doctorate (m-w.com)The word “thesis” comes from the Greek θέσις, meaning “position”, and refers to an intellectual proposition. “Dissertation” comes from the Latin dissertātiō, meaning “discourse.” (wikipedia)
(I know, I know, quoting definitions is lame! But the word nerd in me just can’t resist dictionary definitions and etymologies.)
While the holidays are never exactly restful, I have taken the opportunity to get some distance from my dissertation (and the fellowship proposal I’ve been writing for weeks). I’ve also been making some headway on reading some books about long-form writing; unlike the books I often use in my undergraduate writing courses, these are books specifically about writing books, theses, and dissertations.
I’ve started with How to Write a Better Thesis. Written primarily for students in the physical and social sciences, and based on the standards at the University of Melbourne, the book is not an exact how-to guide for every graduate student (nor is it intended to be, as the authors point out). Rather, it’s an interesting mix of pointers for students not in my discipline, along with broader principles-based discussion that extends to academic writing more generally. For example, the authors discuss the tensions between rational and creative modes of thinking and writing, and outline strategies for making that tension actually productive, rather than paralyzing. (And actually, reading about the conventions governing dissertations in other disciplines has helped me to crystallize the expectations in my own.)
But what has really caught my attention is their opening discussion: what is a thesis? Evans and Gruba start with the guidelines identified by their institution (the University of Melbourne). Here are the attributes of a passing thesis:
- The thesis demonstrates authority in the candidate’s field and shows evidence of command of knowledge in relevant fields.
- It shows that the candidate has a thorough grasp of the appropriate methodological techniques and an awareness of their limitations.
- It makes a distinct contribution to knowledge.
- Its contribution to knowledge rests on originality of approach and/or interpretation of the findings and, in some cases, discovery of new facts.
- It demonstrates an ability to communicate research findings effectively in the professional arena and in an international context.
- It is a careful, rigorous and sustained piece of work demonstrating that a research ‘apprenticeship’ is complete and the holder is admitted to the community of scholars in the discipline.
As Evans and Gruba point out, most of these criteria are really about the PhD candidate, not the thesis itself.