How to find examples of completed theses and dissertations: what’s inside the box?
You would love to enrol for a masters or doctoral degree. You have done your homework, and you know that the degree you have in mind requires you to put together a research project of some kind. But… you have no idea what the “end product” of this research project will look like, which makes it difficult to envision what you are letting yourself in for.
When I enrolled for my masters, I did not have a clue how big the research project should be or even what it would entail. I know there is some excitement in not knowing what the future holds, and while I love surprises, these unpredictabilities are not for me. Now, when a prospective postgraduate student asks me about doing a postgraduate degree, I always advise them to have a look at a few examples.
I am a big fan of zooming out to the bird’s eye view and checking the final product out first, then zooming back in and mapping out the road to get there. Almost like looking at the road between Johannesburg and Cape Town on Google Maps – you are first given the zoomed-out view, then you start the journey and Google Maps takes you there one turn at a time.
The best way to get to know what the end product looks like is to look at examples of theses and dissertations. Learning from others is perfectly acceptable while copying what others have done is not. Know the difference. Allow others to be your role models while you maintain your own identity.
But before you go and google "thesis and dissertation examples", do consider the following:
1. Different countries and universities use different terminologies
I often get asked, "what is the difference between a thesis and a dissertation?" Become familiar with the terminology of the university and country where you plan to enrol. At the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa, we refer to a thesis (theses when referring to the plural) as the research project you complete when you do a PhD and a dissertation as the research project done for a masters degree. A research report is the research project you submit when you do a masters by coursework where the research project counts 50% or less of the total degree. Even in South Africa, the different universities use these three names differently. Knowing what the written-up research project is called will ensure you find examples of the “right thing”.
2. Find examples from your target university
While it is great to look at examples of theses and dissertations from all universities out there, to get an idea of what is required of you when you enrol at a specific university, locate a few examples from your target university. Different universities have different guidelines when it comes to writing up the thesis, although the size of the project should not differ. Most universities have an open-access repository where they store their theses and dissertations. I added some useful links lower down.
3. Download the examples associated with the appropriate degree
If you plan to enrol for a PhD, make sure you download examples of PhDs as the size of a research project associated with a PhD is larger than that of an MSc. Also, if you are doing a masters in engineering, those will look different than one in the social sciences.
4. Just ask
If you have a connection at your target university, then ask for a few examples. Be specific in your request now that you know what is important.
5. Different formats
Once you find a few examples and you start scrolling through them, be aware that students write their final research product up in different formats, which may be the reason why they look different. Some theses or dissertations will consist of a number of different studies, while others will be in a “monograph” format. I made a video describing the different formats of writing up a PhD. Watch it here.
How to find examples of theses or dissertations
The best place to start is to Google your university’s name combined with “theses and dissertations”. If you can’t find that university’s repository, then try a few other universities close by. Here are a few links to find theses or dissertations from different universities:
Yale University has put together a whole list of resources to find theses and dissertations
Maybe it's time we tackle the most important part of this equation – what should you look out for as you browse through these precious examples?
You certainly don’t need to read each word but do take your time and make some notes as you scroll down. The table of contents is a good place to start and is very useful as it serves as an outline of the entire write-up. Also, see if you can find a concept map or conceptual framework – this may be a section in the text or a diagram explaining the theoretical basis of the project and how each of the parts fits together. Have a look at the size of the project, especially at the overall contribution that the PhD is making to the research/evidence base or, as we call it, the “literature”. Also, note if the thesis or dissertation consists of various smaller studies and how these studies fit into the bigger whole, i.e., how they are linked to one another and ultimately contribute to the entire project.
You are now well-equipped to find the right examples and to get the most out of those theses and dissertations. Have fun!
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