I'm not a real word whiz or anything (as if a real word whiz would write something as silly sounding as "word whiz"), but I'm doing my best to keep up with my college's essay requirements and stuff like that. In fact, I'm thinking of writing a senior thesis, which is something I never thought I would do. Students who are working on a thesis say it's a lot of work. I have a cousin who has been working on her dissertation for a while now and my mother claims he’s going totally nuts! But I also don't think those two things are quite the same thing, are they? What's the difference between a thesis and a dissertation? Do you have any tips for figuring out whether I'm qualified to or capable of writing one of either of those?

You don't have to be a "word whiz" (your words, of course) to write a thesis or a dissertation, but there can be no doubt that both are serious undertakings even for the most qualified of writers. Both are major academic works in which students go beyond the bounds of typical essay and paper subjects. Working on a thesis or dissertation can involve exploring new concepts, making new connections, and even conducting new research. But, of course, a thesis and a dissertation are not the same thing. So let's break down what each of them are then outline the differences before talking about how ambitious it might be for you to take on a thesis next year.

A thesis is a large paper that is submitted upon the completion of a Master's degree — or, as is the case with you, upon the completion of one's four-year undergraduate studies. The purpose of a thesis, more than its traits, is generally what defines it (especially in relation to a dissertation), but there are a few other things we should note about theses. One thing often held to be true of theses is that a thesis should develop a new hypothesis and test it with new research. Of course, how strictly you interpret this will depend on your university and your position. A Master's thesis in a cutting-edge edge science at a prestigious university would no doubt require the student writer to conduct rigorous new research, while an undergraduate thesis in English might be a bit different.

A dissertation is a large paper that is submitted upon the completion of a doctorate, or PhD. Again, the fact that it's for a PhD is a big part of the distinction here, but it's also worth noting that dissertations generally involve the synthesis of lots of recent research and scholarship. The student writer really has to know his or her stuff to write a dissertation because they'll be expected to be thorough, accurate, and entirely up-to-date.

In the end, the difference between a dissertation and a thesis largely comes down to semantics: a thesis is written for a Master's degree or a Bachelor's degree, while a dissertation is written as part of a student's quest for a PhD. But it's also generally true that a thesis is more likely to require independent research and experimentation, while a dissertation is more about synthesizing all of the latest information from around a given academic discipline or research area.

Some schools use these terms interchangeably, and your senior thesis is unlikely to be as demanding as the sort of thesis or dissertation that a graduate student would be required to write. So try not to worry too much about the semantics, and ask this instead: what, exactly, are the requirements of your school's thesis program? You'll want to think carefully about word counts, as they can vary quite a bit in requirements and actual results, and research hours. You'll also want to chat more with students who you know have tackled this task. We have no doubt that you can write an exceptional thesis in whatever area of study you choose, but it's extremely important that you take this decision seriously and sign up only if you're truly committed to making the time for research, writing, and meeting with your thesis advisor.

If you're really ready to commit to this project, rest assured that your passion for your subject and your hard work will matter more than your writing skills. Just remember to pay a visit to your university's writing center if you need it, and to work closely with your advisor to make your thesis as readable and elegant as possible. You'll also find plenty of great writing help online, say experts who write custom dissertations. With all of those resources, you should have no trouble making your vision for your thesis a reality — provided, of course, that's really what you want!

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