The Nature of Theses and Dissertations
"It's never been clear to me why I'm expected to do a thesis in order to earn my degree."
The threefold purpose of this chapter is to set the foundation for subsequent chapters by identifying functions that theses and dissertations can serve, by considering relationships among academic disciplines, and by describing the structure of the rest of the book.
(To avoid the tedium occasioned by our endlessly repeating the phrase thesis and dissertation throughout the book, we adopt the following alternatives as equivalents of that phrase--project, study, enterprise, investigation, research, and work.)
Traditionally in academia, the two main purposes of master's-degree and doctoral projects are (a) to provide graduate students guided practice in conducting and presenting research and (b) to make a contribution to the world's fund of knowledge or to improve the conduct of some activity.
The practice aspect goes well beyond the demands of a typical term paper or individual-study assignment, since the aim is to equip students to do research and writing of respectable, publishable quality in the future.
The contribution-to-knowledge aspect is intended to make the student's study more than just a learning exercise by using this opportunity to produce valued information or to introduce a point of view not available before. This aspect is what usually distinguishes a master's thesis from a doctoral dissertation, in that the contribution of the dissertation is expected to be of greater magnitude than that of the thesis. Several things may add to the import of a contribution--the difficulty of the problem that the study addresses, the number of people to be affected by a solution, the amount of controversy the problem has engendered in