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What Is a Thesis?

majors
liberal arts
Last updated on November 12, 2020

Writing a thesis is often required in US university degree programs. But what exactly is a thesis? Do you know the difference between a thesis statement and a thesis project? Read on to learn more.

A male international student works on his thesis at a table in the library while a female professor looks over his shoulder

If you are considering studying in the US, you may have come across the term “thesis” in your research. Writing a thesis is an important part of completing your degree. Read our guide to find out what a thesis is in the US, the benefits of writing a thesis, and why colleges in the US value them.

What Is a Thesis? 

In the US, students may use the term “thesis” to describe two distinct academic requirements:

  1. Thesis statement—the focus of an academic paper. Papers with a clear thesis statement are typically required in liberal arts classes, such as literature or history, and can vary in length and citation style.

  2. Final thesis—a longer academic paper required to complete a degree program. These often require months (or even years) of research and may be defended in front of a university committee.

Let us take a closer look at both meanings. 

What Is a Thesis Statement?

A thesis statement is one to three sentences in the introduction of an academic essay outlining what the reader can expect. It is an argument, or claim, that will be defended through your research. A strong thesis statement identifies the topic to be discussed, summarizes the main arguments, and persuades your audience to continue reading.

Typically, a good thesis statement consists of two components:

  1. Topic—tells the reader what your essay is about.

  2. Argument about the topic—explains your logical claims and ideas about the topic.

What Are the Different Types of Thesis Statements?

The thesis statement you write may vary depending on the type of academic paper you are writing.

  • Argumentative—presents a topic which is debatable and reasons supporting the topic.

  • Analytical—presents a claim and explains how it is supported.

  • Expository—presents a topic and explains what the reader will learn in your paper.

Which Subjects Require a Thesis Statement in Academic Papers?

Many college professors assign academic papers for students to explore subject topics further—this information can be found on your course syllabus, giving you plenty of time to prepare! In almost every undergraduate-level subject you study, you may be required to develop thesis statements for your academic papers. Writing a thesis statement paper helps improve your critical thinking skills, as it requires you to identify and analyze multiple sources of information to form strong arguments—a useful skill in both the classroom and the workplace. 

How Is a Thesis Statement Graded?

Your thesis statement will be evaluated based on how well you have used research to support your argument, and how effectively you have communicated your ideas (e.g., whether your paper is well written, clear, and specific). How your thesis statement is evaluated will vary depending on your subject area and the university, but your course syllabus should include detailed grading requirements. 

What Is a Final Thesis or Dissertation?

A final thesis, sometimes known as a dissertation, is a compilation of research on a specific topic. Typically, a thesis or dissertation is required to complete a master’s degree in the US. While it is not common, you may be expected to write a thesis to complete your bachelor’s degree. For example, in some liberal arts colleges, writing a thesis is a degree requirement, a way to showcase what you have learned over your program of study, and may even add to the body of research in your specialization. A final thesis or dissertation is significantly longer than a thesis statement, and may take months or even years to complete.

What Are the Main Components of a Final Thesis or Dissertation?

Generally, a final thesis consists of five major sections.

  1. Introduction—The introduction of your thesis explains the topic and central argument to the reader at a high level. The introduction should go over why you chose the topic, and act as a summary of what you will be covering in the pages to follow.

  2. Literature Review—This section includes research papers, studies, and articles related to your topic area. You also are expected to identify gaps and weaknesses in existing research, which helps you build counterarguments and develop a strong claim.

  3. Methodology—This section explains the methods and data used to conduct your research.

  4. Results—The results section presents the findings of your study.

  5. Discussion and Conclusion—This section summarizes why and how you conducted your research, the results of your research, and presents conclusions based on the results.

What Is a Citation in a Thesis?

When writing either a shorter academic paper with a thesis statement or a final thesis, you are required to include your research sources. Throughout your work, when you directly quote another text or paraphrase ideas, you must cite the source. There are two types of citations:

  1. In-text citation—this reference is included in the text at the point of mention, such as an on-page footnote or parenthetical citation.

  2. End-of-paper citation—also known as endnotes, these are references included at the end of your paper or dissertation.

How Long Does it Take to Complete a Thesis?

A final thesis to earn a master’s degree requires you to be familiar with previous work in the field and demonstrate your capability of carrying out independent research. From conducting in-depth research to listening to feedback from professors, completing a thesis can be a major commitment.

Many universities in the US may require you to dedicate a semester or longer to complete your research. You will have to work with a faculty committee member to ensure your research and writing is on track. As you compare different graduate programs, you can get a better sense of each program’s dissertation requirements (looking at time, research, and more) and which best align with your academic and professional plans.  

How Is a Thesis Graded?

Generally, a master’s thesis or dissertation in the US is not graded, but you will have to defend it, or present your research and findings before a university committee. For example, at American University, a thesis is evaluated based on how students demonstrate their capacity to conduct independent research. However, the evaluation of your thesis may vary depending on the university and your subject area. 

So, once you have completed your thesis, the next important step is to prepare well for your thesis defense.  

What Is a Thesis Defense? 

If you are pursuing a master’s degree, you are required to meet with a thesis committee upon completion of your thesis to defend what you worked on. At this stage, you will have already worked closely with faculty advisors and received ongoing evaluations. A thesis defense can take many forms, from presenting in front of a panel and taking questions and answers to a more informal discussion with select faculty and advisors. Your individual program will have a clear and established process regarding this important final task required for your degree. 

Are a Thesis and a Dissertation the Same? 

The terms thesis and dissertation may be used interchangeably. While they are similar in terms of the structure, in the US, there are differences between a thesis and a dissertation.

Is Writing a Thesis Mandatory?

Whether writing a thesis is required or not depends upon the program you choose to study. For example, if you are pursuing a liberal arts degree consisting of a wide variety of majors, including literature, history, and philosophy, writing a thesis can help you make connections across subjects. 

Some universities and colleges in the US may offer both a thesis and a non-thesis option. For example, if you are a student who is interested in taking more classes to learn about your subject, you could choose the non-thesis option. So, instead of writing a thesis, you could either work on a research project or complete supervised fieldwork.

Whether you are writing a shorter paper with a thesis statement for a single class or working on a longer final thesis for your degree, making an argument and supporting that argument with established research gives you a skillset that is versatile and applicable to many fields. While conducting research for the thesis, you will refer to multiple sources, analyze information, and learn how to form strong arguments that will set you up for success wherever you go.

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