Can someone shed some light on the subtle difference between a master thesis and a doctoral thesis so that a master student can arrange his or her research strategy geared to produce work at near the level doctoral thesis assuming that time is not a factor.

Note: I come from an engineering background so research encompasses both theoretical work (derivation of equations, modeling) and experiments (software analysis, characterization of physical devices)

Please also feel free to comment on the feasibility of actually producing PhD level dissertation at the master level

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    In some fields the main difference is simply the requirement of original research. Could you specify your field? May 21, 2015 at 6:59
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    + 1 to Tobias; knowing your particular field in STEM will help you get a more accurate answer. Generally speaking, it is entirely possible but quite unlikely for a MSc thesis to be at the same level of PhD thesis. Even if you say time is not a factor, I would assume that it would wasteful from the student's perspective. MSc requirements are easier to fulfill than PhD requirements so I do not see the reason to invest so much time and effort without getting an actual PhD.
    – user8458
    May 21, 2015 at 8:04
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    Sorry, I don't quite get it: "so that a master student can arrange his or her research strategy geared to produce work at near the level doctoral thesis assuming that time is not a factor." You want to produce research which is at the level of a PhD thesis and which takes more time than an ordinary master's thesis. So....don't you want to be a PhD student? What am I missing? May 22, 2015 at 0:49

1 Answer 1


Requirements vary widely from program to program and from institution to institution.

Some programs require a doctoral candidate to publish in a peer-reviewed journal (probably most programs would take issue if you didn't publish or present anything). Most programs (or committees) wouldn't let you graduate with a PhD unless you published at least once, and would expect at least twice.

My general hunch is that a doctoral dissertation (rarely called a "doctoral thesis") is generally several times longer. While a masters thesis might be 20-50 pages, dissertations are routinely 80-150 pages...and sometimes way more (this varies widely by discipline, by the academic culture of your institution, and by your committee). Some programs allow the doctoral candidate to use three publications, combined into a single manuscript, as his or her dissertation.

Lastly, the doctoral degree is intended to show that the recipient can perform original research. Masters degrees have a wide variety of understandings or intents, from "the recipient passed our comprehensive exams", to "the recipient performed an original research project and published it".

Whatever you've done for your masters thesis, focus on research for your PhD. Learn what interesting questions are in your field and choose one to focus on. Read the background literature to learn how others have approached the problem. Work with your advisor and committee to figure out how you can contribute something new and useful to the field, and then do it. Publish your findings in a journal; present your results and network with peers at conferences. Finally, write it all up in your dissertation, defend it, and graduate. That sums up getting a PhD. The rest are details.

You may find this page useful.

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    There's another few steps to getting your PhD: either you, your advisor, or somebody at a conference will bring you to the breaking point sometime during your time as a grad student. At these times, commiserate with your fellow grads, encourage each other, drink beer (if that's your thing) or start a new hobby on the side to maintain your sanity. Rinse and repeat.
    – jvriesem
    May 21, 2015 at 8:00
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    rarely called a "doctoral thesis" — I hear "thesis" and "dissertation" used interchangeably all the time.
    – Mad Jack
    May 21, 2015 at 14:06
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    80 pages sounds more like masters thesis to me :-) May 21, 2015 at 14:33
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    @O.R.Mapper My point is just that there are plenty of cases where students do not publish, and this is not a problem for their PhD, not that no students with a sealed thesis publish. At least in the UK, there is generally no requirement to publish in order to graduate, the thesis is judged purely on its own merits.
    – MJeffryes
    May 21, 2015 at 19:31
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    "Some programs require a doctoral candidate to publish in a peer-reviewed journal (probably all would take serious issue if you didn't)." This is wildly false at the level of all STEM disciplines. Please scope your statement accordingly and include information about why or how you believe this to be the case. May 22, 2015 at 0:49

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