Characteristic Similarities and Differences Between THESIS AND DISSERTATION Research in Professional and Academic Disciplines

Similarities : The same three elements must be present in all acceptable THESIS AND DISSERTATION work in both the professional and the academic disciplines: originality, individuality, and rigor. Originality means that the research has not been done before in the same way. It is rare to find a topic that has not been researched before to some extent and by some procedure. So, originality does not mean that the research questions or hypotheses are entirely new. Instead, the originality criterion is met if the student continues to study an unresolved problem in a way that is substantially different from prior approaches and that has a reasonable prospect of adding to an understanding of the problem. Also, replication of prior research meets the originality criterion if features are added to the replication that make it possible to check on the procedures and findings of the earlier study, thus making the replication more meritorious research than that replicated.

Individuality means that the study is conceived, conducted, and reported primarily by the student. Topics may often be suggested by others. Also, advisors may help in thinking through the concepts and the procedures to be used. But, the chief decisions about whether to study the topic, how to study it, and how to report it must be made, rationalized, and defended by the student. When one applies the individuality criterion, it is difficult to accept a THESIS AND DISSERTATION that is simply “a piece of” a large research project being carried on by the advisor. If a stu-dent’s THESIS AND DISSERTATION is to be related to the research program of the advisor (and that idea has much to recommend it), special care must be taken to ensure real independence for the student in conceptualizing and conducting the study.

The third element common to THESIS AND DISSERTATION work in the academic and professional disciplines is rigor. To attain rigor means to be characterized by strict accuracy and scrupulous honesty and to insist on precise distinctions among facts, implications, and suppositions. Rigor is achieved by sticking to demonstrable facts when reporting procedures and results, by building on a foundation of facts when drawing conclusions, by specifying links to facts when inferring implications, by always bringing forward all relevant data, and by being both self-critical and logical in reporting and when projecting needed research.

The individuality, originality, and rigor criteria are common requisites for investigations in both the academic and professional disciplines, even though research in the two kinds of disciplines may differ markedly otherwise. And, there are real differences both in objectives and in procedures, as elaborated in the next section. Many students and faculty members take up work in professional schools after study and experience in academic disciplines. For them, especially, as well as for THESIS AND DISSERTATION students in general, it is valuable to compare and contrast research in the two settings.

Despite overlap in the topics studied, we have found seven points on which there are conceptual or administrative differences (see Fig. 1-3). To make the differences explicit, read item 1 under “Academic Discipline Research” and then item 1 under “Professional Discipline Research.” Note the contrast. Then, do the same through the seven-item lists.

These seven comparisons should help students and faculty members to clarify their thinking as well as to recognize and rationalize the differences listed. It should be evident that there is no special quality in any THESIS AND DISSERTATION work that does not have its roots in the social-professional mission it is intended to support and foster. Thus, the better one understands the social role and function of a profession or an academic discipline, the better prepared one is to conduct or direct THESIS AND DISSERTATION study within it.

Note also that, within a professional discipline, there may be distinctions between “applied or practice-oriented” THESIS AND DISSERTATION and “theoreti-cal or concept-oriented” THESIS AND DISSERTATIONs. Now is the time to ascertain whether your school or department values that distinction and what it might mean for you.

The next section turns to the following questions: What factors go together to make up a high-quality THESIS AND DISSERTATION? How can students make those factors operational in getting started on their own work?


In a thesis or dissertation , it is the integrity and objectivity of the investigator that count most. These criteria prevail regardless of the form of investigation or analysis used. Integrity is shown when every component of the study is carried out with scrupulous honesty. The criterion for objectivity is met if the investigator recognizes and, as much as possible, sets aside personal interests and desires and maintains a steady state of academic or professional inquiry from the beginning to the end of the project.

Area of difference   Academic discipline researcha
Purpose of the research 1. The chief purpose is to increase knowledge in a particular disciplinary field.
Nature of the problems researched 2. The topics studied are clearly linked to other problems previously studied within the prescribed and academically recognized bounds of the discipline. Thus, a physicist or philosopher might say of a proposed topic, “Interesting, but it isn’t physics (or philosophy), ” and fully expect that a great majority of colleagues would agree.
Criteria for assessing the worth of the research 3. The worth of a thesis or dissertation is assessed chiefly on the basis of the amount it advances knowledge, clarifies or adds to a theory, or stimulates further investigation.
Reasons for gathering knowledge through research 4. Knowledge is accrued for its own sake.
Position on the relevance of values 5. Matters of value are deliberately eschewed, except as primary data. The objectivity of the academic scholar is most closely tied to dealing with concepts, ideas, animate or inanimate objects, materials, documents, and events.
Methodology of research acceptable 6. Each academic discipline has certain respect methods, legitimized by the power they have shown in helping uncover or prove matters of importance to the discipline.Witness the controlled experiment in chemistry or the dig plus analysis and documentation in archaeology or physical anthropology.
Who may approve acceptance of a THESIS AND DISSERTATION 7. The thesis or dissertation is submitted to judges from within the discipline. The candidate’s examination may be relatively public (within the the university community), but its approval or disapproval is in the hands of three or four members of the discipline, perhaps with one additional voting examiner from a closely related discipline.
‘Compare with like-numbered statements under “Professional discipline research” in second part of figure.    

Figure 1-3 Distinctions between research in academic disciplines and professional disciplines.

Professional discipline research
1. The chief purposes are twofold: to increase knowledge about a matter relevant to the practice of the profession and to reinforce the attitude of using objective and systematic approaches to problem solving.
2. The problems studied may range anywhere in the realm of human concerns as long as they also have demonstrated implications for society’s professional enterprises.
3. The worth of theTHESIS AND DISSERTATION is judged mainly by the potential applications of the results and conclusions in professional practice and knowledge.
4. Knowledge is accrued to validate or to bring into question aspects of professional practice, to create better practices, and, generally, to foster and guide the improvement of the profession and its services.
5. Both matters of substance and of value can be legitimate and necessary topics of inquiry; sometimes values are the essential data subjected to study.
6. Methods of investigation used are invented or adapted to suit the problems that need to be probed. Investigators freely borrow procedures from the academic disciplines or from other professional disciplines if they seem to have promise.
7. The acceptability of the thesis or dissertation is judged by members of the profession who have backgrounds consonant with the topic of the investigation. Also, it is prevailing practice to invite the participation of specialists from academic disciplines or other professional disciplines whose competencies bear especially on the topic, Approval is usually by a maj jority vote of the four or five examining committee members who are also graduate faculty members of the university.


For a definitive analysis of these important concepts we recommend three works: Honor in Science (Sigma xi, 1991), On Being a Scientist (National Academy of Sciences, 1989), and “Breaking Faith” (Root-Bernstein, 1989).

Finally, high-quality research should be characterized by publication. Others deserve access to both the findings and the method used in the investigation. We call attention to publication now because we agree with Meloy (2002), who suggests that publication concerns need to be addressed much earlier than they usually are in the THESIS AND DISSERTATION research process (see Chapter 10).

What Is High-Quality Dissertation or Thesis Research?

Research cannot take the place of thoughtful reflection and even-handed deliberation. Research can produce facts and ideas that, in turn, can fuel thought. Research can help the investigator to know whether all relevant matters are being considered in the study of a problem. But, research itself does not produce solutions. Human thought-not research-is the sovereign problem solver. Only when thought is applied to the information unearthed by research is it probable that valid, reliable, and operationally useful outcomes can be expected. Thus, the quality of an investigation is a function both of the research that has been done and of the human cognition that has been applied in the process.

Some consider that the term research should be applied only to a very restricted form of controlled, experimental scientific inquiry. But, that point of view leaves out many important realities in the professions. Also, the investigations of historians, anthropologists, or sociologists would frequently not qualify for the title research under that rule, nor would many of the studies in the arts and in literature. Those who invent new theories, new psychosocial measures, new techniques of instruction or who design new curricula or do qualitative research would often be excluded, too, despite the fact that they may employ very sophisticated procedures leading to objective evaluations of what they do.

If the term research is to be used meaningfully in the context of THESIS AND DISSERTATION study, it must encompass not only controlled experimentation, but also many additional forms of planned, thoughtful, investigative activities. The definition should be broadly inclusive, encouraging full use of the ability and the creativity of the student and the advisor. The following definition of research best accommodates these needs: “Diligent and systematic inquiry or investigation into a subject in order to discover or revise facts, theories, applications, etc.” (Flexner, 1987, p. 1219). It is only fitting that the specific nature of THESIS AND DISSERTATION work, and how research is defined, should depend on the kinds of problems that need to be investigated to enhance the particular body of knowledge of concern in each discipline.

No one research approach is inherently better than another. Rather, there are research methods that match some problems well and others poorly. For example, morale factors among supervisors probably can be studied more adequately through polling, critical incidents, or case studies than by other methods. If the question is the effectiveness of a new or modified traffic control system, it is probably best attacked through an evaluation procedure. For decisions about long-range building programs, comparative financial projections and analyses may be important contributing studies. Research about changes in motivation or about improvement in human skills may be best undertaken through applied behavior analysis or other forms of controlled experimentation. Researchers need all forms of investigation, need to respect them equally, and need to attempt to link each problem to the research approach that has the best likelihood of helping to apply human thought to solve it.


Students and colleagues have urged us to add content about qualitative research to this edition. Their reasons are the following: They found many associates unfamiliar with that form of research and its potentialities for THESIS AND DISSERTATION work; they were concerned about possible misunderstandings between those who used qualitative and quantitative approaches to investigations; and they pointed out the increasing and spreading use of qualitative research beyond the disciplines and professions in which that style of research had its roots.

Those observations seemed to justify devoting added attention to the matter. Moreover, both of us have directed qualitative research for THESIS AND DISSERTATIONs and have published qualitative research on our own. Thus, in the following, we call on first-hand experience as well as on research methodology literature.

The Nature of Qualitative Research

Qualitative research represents the general name for a group of investigative procedures with common characteristics. Also, qualitative research is empirical in the same sense as other recognized forms of scientific inquiry. It relies on observation. It follows the principle that experience, especially of the senses, forms the primary source of scientific knowledge (Bogdan and Bikler, 1998; Hernandez, 1996; Lancy, 1993; Le Compte et al., 1993; Taylor and Bogdan, 1998).

Qualitative research encompasses several forms of the investigation. They all share this characteristic: The data used do not accommodate readily to quantification, specification, objectification, or classification. Because of that, common statistical procedures cannot be used for data display or analysis. Typical of such data might be reports of participant observation or the texts of in-depth and relatively unstructured interviews.

In qualitative investigations, the researcher strives for understanding of the phenomenon under study, for example, why people like certain foods, how an athlete prepares for optimum exertion, how opinions about political issues are formed, how it feels to be a “senior citizen, ” or how threats are expressed in Maori culture. The researcher keeps detailed records of events heard, seen, read, felt, or otherwise noticed in respect to the topic or situation under scrutiny. The primary objective is to gain knowledge (data) from the subject’s frame of reference.

Securing accurate information about feelings, sensitive behaviors, and other personal experiences is critical in many areas of research. It has been historically difficult to obtain unbiased and full reports from research subjects about, for example, their pain, mood, personal and social history, or dietary habits. Techniques have been developed in the last few decades to improve the reliability and accuracy of self-report and observer report; qualitative research studies often depend heavily on such methods. Such data then contribute to the evaluation of hypotheses or interventions and to the development of theories or prognostic indicators. Many researchers are already knowledgeable about prevailing quantitative methods of investigation. Therefore, a useful way to define qualitative research is to highlight how it compares and contrasts with the more familiar quantitative procedures. In the following, we amplify and extend the distinctions made by Ford (1997, p. 46) in an article aimed at psychologists.

Distinctions Between Qualitative and Quantitative Research

1. Qualitative research relies on deduction. It reaches conclusions by reasoning or inferring from general principles to particulars. Quantitative research relies on induction, arriving at generalizations by collecting, examining, and analyzing specific instances.
2. Qualitative research requires the investigator to engage with the persons, events and ambience studied as an integral part of the study process. Most often, quantitative research calls for the investigator to remain detached.
3. Qualitative research offers particular value in the process of generating new concepts or theories. Quantitative research focuses more on the testing of existing theories of generalizations.
4. Qualitative research seeks to provide full and accurate descriptions of phenomena in all their complexity. The aim of quantitative research is to reveal or establish cause-and-effect relationships in or among experiences or occurrences.
5. Qualitative research attempts to discover and show the assumptions that underlie events or actions. Quantitative research focuses more on testing the operation of assumptions.
6. Qualitative research uses natural settings as primary data. Qualitative studies deal mainly with statements and questions couched in words and with detailed descriptions of settings and events. Quantitative research constructs or controls settings and deals chiefly with amounts and numbers as primary data.
7. Qualitative research begins with broad questions or problems and attempts to narrow them. Quantitative research starts with narrow or specific phenomena and attempts to relate them to others as building blocks to illuminate larger matters.
8. Qualitative research tends to deal with small samples and uniqueness. Quantitative research encourages studying large samples and prizes representativeness.
9. Qualitative research considers the context of words and events an integral part of the primary data. Quantitative research tends to delete context or tightly control it to minimize the influence of affective nuances.
10. Qualitative research depends on thoroughness and depth of reporting to demonstrate significance. Quantitative research utilizes statistical analyses, particularly employing probabilities, to demonstrate significance.

From the above comparisons and contrasts, it becomes evident that qualitative research has a distinctive character. How the unique attributes of qualitative research might best serve the THESIS AND DISSERTATION student’s purpose should be resolved in discussions with the advisor and others who have the responsibility of guiding student research.

Rigor in Qualitative Research

Investigators using the more conventional forms of research believe that rigor, or strict and scrupulous accuracy and honesty in conducting and reporting, is illustrated in part by several markers. The most common are evidences of validity (both external and internal), reliability, and objectivity. Qualitative research has its own specific procedures that convey similar assurances of rigor.

Using the equivalency formulation put forward by Lincoln and Guba (1985), Ford (1997) draws parallels as follows between meanings of terms from the two types of research:

Qualitative research Quantitative research
Credibility External validity
Transferability Internal validity
Dependability Reliability
Confirmability Objectivity

If the conditions implied by the above terms can be firmly built into a qualitative research proposal, it is well on its way to meeting the high standards that THESIS AND DISSERTATION work should exemplify.

Pilot Studies

Pilot studies are tools in determining, in a preliminary fashion, the potentialities and perils of almost any research idea. For qualitative research proposals, we strongly agree with Krathwohl (1988) and Meloy (2002) that only the foolhardy begin without a pilot study that suggests how the full-blown study should be constructed. Pilot trials can sharpen the procedures, remind one of the permissions and approvals needed, assay likely costs in time, and check the feasibility of a larger study. Investment of energy in a pilot study (with advisor and committee support) can enhance the quality of a subsequent study and minimize the likelihood of unexpected delays and possible failure.

Applications of Qualitative Research

Qualitative research, sometimes called “naturalistic” or “field” research, has deep roots in the “social” research of the late 1800s. During that time, society’s concerns prompted investigations of the life conditions and the views and characteristics of industrial workers, rural families, dock laborers, criminals, and other groups defined by occupation or lifestyle.

At the same time, other beginnings of qualitative approaches to building knowledge came from the academic disciplines of anthropology, geography, and sociology. The naturalistic aspects of qualitative research also attracted attention from journalism and photography and from writers of history, biography, and fiction.

Whenever societal problems-or simply intriguing questions-pressed for dependable answers and scholars found it difficult or impossible to really quantify data firmly, it proved necessary to rely on the observations of thoughtful and careful investigators. Such reports and analyses, whether gleaned from interviews, visual inspection, or other sources, were critiqued and polished by peers. Finally, having survived a gauntlet of skeptical scholars, the observations attained re-

spectable positions in science. Otherwise, we might not have arrived at such scientifically useful notions as the color spectrum of light, biological taxonomies, gravity, or the theory of evolution and bodies of knowledge like etymology and paleontology.

Even the most qualitative and objective sciences sometimes face process questions that can best be studied by qualitative designs. A contemporary example is the ecology of human communities, with special reference to the preservation of environmental quality (i.e., air and water) through application of optimum conservation and civil engineering practices.

Using Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches

Differences between research styles do not necessarily make one better than another. Rather, one research approach may prove more suited to a given problem than another . Thus, we reemphasize that, in planning any research, it is essential to choose the investigative approach that best promises to match the problem and its setting and to result in the most believable and dependable solution. In some instances, a qualitative design may well be the approach of choice.

Role of the Research Advisor

Students may encounter faculty members who favor one research style over another. Some professors may seem almost messianic in their conviction that a certain investigative style should be employed. This can occur particularly when the faculty member tries to introduce a form of research not traditional to their academic or professional discipline.

Such advisors can sometimes actually prove helpful because their enthusiasm and commitment extends to students who elect to work with them. Alternatively, such single-mindedness in an advisor can put limits on the flexibility and on the encouragement of independence that best satisfies the needs of the beginning researcher.

For balance, we continue to urge the student to seek a broad range of information before committing to an advisor. Also, we suggest that students remain wary of advisors who let selection of the research method take precedence over the selection of the problem to be studied.


Qualitative research does have much in common with all other research. It calls for a statement of the problem, and a research design must guide the study toward its goal; data are gathered, organized, inspected, analyzed, synthesized in deliberate and replicable ways, and related to other data. For the THESIS AND DISSERTATION student, the keys to success in qualitative research appear fundamentally no different from those for success in any other research enterprise.

In the final analysis, the utility and the rigor of the product depend on the researcher’s integrity and mastery of the subtleties of the methodology and on a full, honest, and clear description of what occurred in every step of the research protocol.


A report of the National Collegiate Honors Council (1997) stated that it included 578 colleges and universities, all of which mount undergraduate honors programs or honors colleges. Such academic units emerged more than 30 years ago and are on the increase.

During the past two decades, a growing number of schools authorized undergraduate degree studies in which the completion of a thesis is required for graduation. Such courses of study are commonly known as honors programs or honors academic units.

Honors academic units vary greatly in structure and in operational characteristics from place to place, but they all are similar in one way: Each aims at locating highly able undergraduates and allowing them to advance in higher education at their own pace. A foremost concern is that students with unusual talent, drive, and curiosity should receive incentives and recognition for achievement with individualized opportunities for intellectual, artistic, and physical challenge, special advising, and demanding and rigorous instruction and content (University of Pittsburgh, 1992).

Generally, a university or college undergraduate honors program provides courses that, so far as intellectual challenge is concerned, match the highest undergraduate or the initial graduate levels. That is consistent with the high academic attainment focus typical of such offerings.

Ordinarily, study under the auspices of an honors faculty calls also for strong evidence of the student’s ability to carry out scholarly independent work consistently and in depth. The culminating evidence of that ability is the successful completion of an honors thesis.

All honors units emphasize student research in one or more forms. A large proportion of member schools include a research project similar to the master’s thesis in scholarly scope and quality as a standard requirement. Faculty members from all of the academic and professional disciplines are recruited into honors units to teach, to guide, and to evaluate student research.

The procedures employed by students and faculty members in moving toward completing an honors thesis are, in the programs we have reviewed, strikingly similar to those that apply to the master’s thesis. In fact, the faculty members who direct or chair honors thesis committees are often the same persons who do so for graduate THESIS AND DISSERTATIONs.

An honors program (sometimes called an honors college) is, in short, a distinctive undergraduate course of study that is more than ordinarily demanding academically, that requires consistently high achievement, and that culminates in a thesis, through which the student demonstrates a proven capacity for academic initiative and for independent scholarship. The guidance of the advisor and committee during the thesis preparation and defense is similar to that found in master’s degree study.

Because of the common elements in honors thesis and THESIS AND DISSERTATION objectives, policies, and procedures, we treat them together, making note, when necessary, of any special considerations.


The master’s degree is a highly valued degree that has been increasing both in number awarded and in prestige. The number awarded nearly doubled from 1970 to 1996. Since then, growth has been steady, rising to over 500,000 earned annually, most in the applied sectors like business and nursing (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 1999). Master’s recipients credit the degree program with helping to sharpen the ability to connect theory and practice, and to refine critical ability ( Clifton , 1993).In preparing a master’s thesis, the graduate student can present evidence of the competencies required to make use of accepted procedures of scholarly inquiry. For instance, the student can combine data from primary and secondary sources into a unified presentation in correct and readable prose. The general objective of the thesis as part of master’s degree study has been stated as follows:

It is reasonable to expect that, in a fifth year of academic work of respectable quality, a student will have had an intellectual adventure which can be described in writing . And such description gives an experience which will be obtained in no other way; by it, one is introduced to the methods employed in the acquisition, preparation and the analysis of material. Depending upon the field and the type of degree for which one is a candidate, this exercise may represent a small piece of research, the solution of a complex problem of design, a critical understanding of a sector of knowledge of considerable dimensions, or critical appreciation or creative work in literature or one of the arts. (Report of the Committee on Graduate Work of the Association of Ameri-can Universities, quoted in and adapted from the Style Manual of the School of Education, University of Pittsburgh, 1981, p. 88)

This statement did not differentiate between professional school and academic discipline master’s projects. Note, too, its similarity in substance to the master’s research requirement from an engineering school quoted above (Stuart, 1979).Both the honors and the master’s thesis can serve these functions:

  1. They can give first-hand experience in conducting investigations and can familiarize the student with the kind of effort and integrity demanded by research. That, in turn, can help to prepare those who aspire to the doctorate.
  2. They can make the student expert in at least one aspect of a professional or academic discipline.
  3. Either can serve as a capstone for a significant unit of advanced study.

Students and faculty alike are probably most interested in which characteristics a THESIS AND DISSERTATION should have to merit acceptance. That is what the student wants to know when seeking guidance in the selection of a topic and a procedure to use in studying it. That is what the faculty member wants to know when trying to decide whether to encourage a student to move ahead with a proposed investigation or, later, whether to settle for what the student has produced at the end of a period of study, analysis, and writing .

A landmark national study reported on practices in doctoral study in the more than 100 institutions in the United States that had doctoral programs in the profession of education (Robertson and Sist-ler, 1971). According to that study, the dissertation “is considered a training instrument in the techniques of scholarly research and of reporting findings; it also represents a contribution to the knowledge of a given field” (p. 183). The Council of Graduate Schools, in 1990, stated that a “Doctor of Philosophy program is designed to prepare a student to discover, integrate, and apply knowledge, as well as to communicate and disseminate it” (CGS, 1990b, p. 1). Thus, scholarly investigation and the presentation of findings to others are a pair of characteristics that has a historical association with doctoral research, whether in professional study or in the academic disciplines. Contemporary writing uniformly reports training in scholarly and research procedures and contributions to knowledge as the chief features the graduate student’s research should have (Barzun and Graff, 1985; Cortada and Winkler, 1979; CGS, 1991b; Krathwohl, 1988; Martin, 1980; Sternberg, 1981).

Another feature reported by Robertson and Sistler (1971) was its service as the subject of a final examination for doctoral students. The last examination of the student by the faculty covered only the research project in 85% of the queried institutions. Three-fourths of the time this examination was oral. No institution used only a final written examination of the student’s research. Approximately 10% used both, with the written test at certain schools invoked only if students did not perform satisfactorily in an oral interrogation. Less than 10% of doctoral programs had no final examination. The role of the final oral doctoral examination remains essentially the same today (CGS, 199lb).


Students may well ask, “What is involved in completing THESIS AND DISSERTATION work?” “Why should I do this work?” “What will it have to do with my professional and academic competence?” Faculty members, particularly new ones, can be plagued by related questions: “What am I supposed to be conveying to the students whose investigations I direct or on whose committees I serve? What really are the functions served by this phase of graduate study?” “What has this process to do with the purpose of the university?” A core element common to those questions is “Why?” For an answer, we look first at the commonly stated objectives of graduate student research found in institutional publications.

General Objectives

Published objectives, as mentioned above, emphasize evidence of scholarly work, research competence, and contribution to knowledge. These have the validity of academic consensus. Faculties agree that both theses and dissertations should aim at those objectives. Moreover, they agree that those qualities should be easily discerned in acceptable documents submitted by students.

Operational meanings for scholarly work , research competence , and contribution to knowledge are not easy to specify, however. Criteria for judging those three matters are highly individual. They vary from faculty member to faculty member and among the academic and professional disciplines. Our findings from interviews with students, faculty members, and other university institutional representatives, however, indicate that these general objectives are commonly accepted by academics, and scholars feel they can tell us when they are present in theses and dissertations.

Objectives of Students

Student objectives include those that are short range and those that look to the more distant future.

Professional and Academic Standing : Students often find that the qualifications they seek are linked to obtaining the master’s or doctoral degree. Thus, the attainment of an advanced degree may be tied to goals like being recommended for qualification as a specialist in teaching, doing research, promotion in rank, supervising, managing, counseling, or a specific realm of practice or administration. Foreign students are often under specific direction from the ministry that provides the scholarship and support (e.g., there is an expectation that a Ph.D. will be earned rather than another doctorate). Hence, it is appropriate that the THESIS AND DISSERTATION be recognized as an essential short-range objective, the outcome of which will be evaluated by others along the student’s way to some desired position, certification, or licensure.

Completing Course Work at a High Quality Level : When the stu-dent’s aim is doctoral study, the master’s degree becomes a short-range objective, one that must be reached at an acceptable level of quality before doctoral study can be undertaken. * Some schools set a limit on the residence time, the number of graduate credits, or the particular graduate courses a student may take before completing the thesis, thus operationally defining the thesis as a short-range objective.

Staying Within the Statute of Limitations : Almost all schools put a time limit on the completion of the dissertation , too. Commonly, a statute of limitations reads like this: “The dissertation must be completed within three years of the time the proposal received initial ap-proval.” The number of years allowed may vary from school to school, but some time constraint is all but universal, although extensions may be granted for cause.

Finding Good Advisors and Models : Students do detective work, trying to find out what faculty members consider an acceptable THESIS AND DISSERTATION. This effort to define what might find favor with potential advisors and committee members can be motivated by a sincere desire to do a worthwhile job because of what it means for self-esteem and to gain added respect from the faculty. In pursuing this objective, students

*Some schools permit or encourage students to move from the bachelor’s degree directly to the doctorate. Students in those cases, we believe, should be advised to do directed independent study equivalent to master’s thesis work along the way to help prepare them for the dissertation experience. Honors thesis students may be at an advantage here.

look for models primarily in the recently completed THESIS AND DISSERTATIONs of other students.

Foreign students are often especially dependent on their advisors, so for them the choice of an advisor may also involve affective considerations of empathy, learning styles, and personal relationships. Such considerations, while possibly important to all students, seem to be less an issue when cultural differences between students and faculty are small or well understood by both parties (Mallinkrodt and Leong, 1992; Mauch and Spaulding, 1992; Parr et al., 1992).

Objectives of the Higher Education Institution

Institutional objectives are stated in broad terms. Hence, it would be unusual to find them phrased in language specific to student research. It can be inferred, however, that the THESIS AND DISSERTATION elements of a student’s advanced preparation are expected to be consistent with the institution’s mission. The three statements below represent how a professional school faculty might phrase institutional objectives.

Providing Leadership : Preparation of leaders for the profession for communities, for state and federal agencies, for colleges and universities, and for other components of the public and private sectors.

Expanding Knowledge : Fostering theory building and conducting studies that create new and better approaches to our profession and encouraging and carrying out demonstrations that illustrate and disseminate information about improved practices developed at the university and elsewhere.

Improving Professional Practice : Development of master practitioners who will bring professional and humanistic advances to the fields in which they apply their skills.

These statements say little about THESIS AND DISSERTATION activities. Yet, embedded in those objectives are clues to the kinds of proposals that ought to be well received at this particular institution. Students should look for statements of institutional objectives and discuss them with their advisors. Not only will that trigger ideas about possible topics, but also it may help to establish part of the rationale for the selection of a topic.

Objectives of the Faculty

Faculty objectives for THESIS AND DISSERTATION activity are to enhance scholarship in the sense of looking for truth, to build on the existing body of knowledge, and to create original works. Steggna (1972) speaks of scholarship as an activity inherent in the mission of a university, one that should be exemplified in the work of the faculty. He calls it a faculty duty to search for the truth, add to knowledge, and produce new cultural materials. That role for scholarship is reemphasized, directly or implicitly, in more recent publications (W. G. Bowen, 1981; Ziolkowski, 1990). Certainly, the faculty efforts devoted to guiding student investigations should contribute to the discharge of that duty to an appreciable degree.

Yet, here we turn to the questions “What is scholarship?” and “What is scholarly work?” The expressions are often used, but seldom defined. This need for definition is more than a matter of intellectual curiosity–more than an academic question. For example, students who are told that their work will have to be “more scholarly” to be accepted really deserve to be given a definition in operational terms, plus examples. Likewise, assistant professors who have, after due process, been refused tenure because their publications were not sufficiently scholarly should have illustrations for comparison and criteria for reference. Tenure and promotion committees in universities are hard put also to define scholarly in sufficiently specific and objective terms to allow them to develop reasonable standards for the up-or-out decisions they must make. A more behavioral definition is needed. Any one chosen will not be entirely satisfactory. However, the definition below will be useful now, and it may lead to a better definition in the future.

Inculcation of Scholarly Standards

Following is a list of seven features that, in our judgment, characterize scholarly written work. Few scholarly works meet all seven criteria, but a work that meets none of them is almost certain to be in trouble with the scholars. Faculty members try to inculcate these seven scholarly qualities during THESIS AND DISSERTATION work.

1. A scholarly work is published in a respected, refereed journal or in book form.
2. It has been available for a sufficient period of time to be subjected to the criticism of other scholars in the same field, and it has stood up successfully to that criticism.
3. It is based on the expert wisdom and literature of the field. The work indicates that the author is familiar with the conventional wisdom of the field, and if it departs in new directions, it presents a sound and rational defense for its departure.
4. It demonstrates the workings of a thorough, careful, critical, and analytical mind, looking at all sides of any proposition, examining and testing hypotheses, setting up and knocking down arguments, and marshaling in a complete and fair way all the facts in the process of critically analyzing the study’s findings. A scholar will, of course, believe and support the findings of a careful investigation, but a scholar is not an advocate or a promoter. The scholar is evenhanded and is willing to entertain the possibility that errors can be made by even the most watchful investigator. Scholars should be happy to find error in their own positions when such errors exist, for only in this way can truth be sought.
5. It demonstrates to other scholars that the writer is a competent specialist who understands the theories and concepts of the domain and who has a systematic knowledge of the chosen field rather than a smattering of insights here and there.
6. It is nonpolitical or amoral. It may, of course, be concerned with political and moral judgments and related phenomena as fields of study and specialization, but a scholarly work is not a polemic. It is not selectively cleaned up or toned down or otherwise slanted because it may be popular or unpopular with the contracting agency, the government, the church, the boss, or professional colleagues. An essential ingredient to scholarship is the assumption that politically, socially, and morally unpopular and even repugnant works may be scholarly, and decisions about whether one should work in these areas and about whether or not they should be published, examined, and debated should be based on the scholarship of the work and not its political correctness. Scholars seem to agree on this, but the point has to be made because everyone at times can find the commitment to free and open scholarship weakening under the various pressures that can be brought to bear so skillfully, subtly, and punitively by defenders of sacred cows.
7. It must be useful, as indicated by how often others cite the work. This also constitutes an index of scholarship. A well-regarded, innovative, or provocative publication will be referred to frequently by others. Thereby, it demonstrates that it has qualities that are of significant value.
Evidence or Promise of Scholarly Work

As one reviews these seven standards, it becomes evident that student research would need to be on public view for some time before it could receive the in-depth testing implied in several of them. Moreover, it would be too much to expect that THESIS AND DISSERTATION work by students should match the productions of seasoned and polished investigators.

Therefore, it is the indications of and the promise of scholarly work, as characterized by the list, that advisors and committee members look for in the productions of their students. There are occasions when student work is qualitatively equal to the best of that of well-established investigators and theorists. But, more often, the faculty member is satisfied to lead students toward that level of attainment and to judge by comparison and inference whether students finally reach a respect for and an understanding of scholarship as a concept, internalize it as a goal, and demonstrate by their own work that they show substantial potential for attaining it.

Preparation for the Advisor’s Role

In addition to the faculty’s objectives that have to do with the stu-dent’s attainment of a scholarly point of view and the promise of scholarly productivity, there are others. A major one concerns the stu-dent’s possible future role as an advisor or committee member for others. Faculty members who guide graduate students recognize that their own performances are models for their students-perhaps the only such models the students will ever know so close at hand and with such intensity. It is also plain to those faculty members that they will be both judge and jury in determining the extent to which their graduates are ready to help other students as fledging advisors.

Emphasizing Responsibility and Development

Especially important is balance in assessing graduate research scholarship quality. Above, we noted the blend that needs to be achieved of pragmatic technology and pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Al-fred North Whitehead (1953, p. 199) said, “There is something between the gross specialized values of the mere practical man and the thin specialized values of the mere scholar….What is wanted is an appreciation of the infinite variety of vivid values achieved by an organism in its proper environment. We want concrete fact with a high light thrown on what is relevant to its preciousness.” That can be achieved by guiding students to insist that they be able to demonstrate that their work has relevance for the advancement of their disciplines, while at the same time, to show that it meets the requirements to search out truth, contribute to the sum of knowledge, and produce fresh material for the culture.


A time line is one of the first essentials for a student who wishes to embark on THESIS AND DISSERTATION work. It helps to develop a plan of action. It has increased value, too, when linked to an understanding of modern technology and of the meaning and purpose of graduate student research and to a grasp of the standards for acceptable work.

Students and faculty members, academic and professional, make important contributions through theses and dissertations. There is a historical time line, extending at least to the Middle Ages, that validates such investigations as culminating achievements in advanced study.

In recent years, academic disciplines and professional disciplines have moved to separate paths. The professions have matured, while continuing to acknowledge their roots in the arts and sciences. Thereare palpable differences now between the THESIS AND DISSERTATION in the academic disciplines and in the professions. Also, it is possible to specify some of their special characteristics. Purposes differ, depending on whether they are examined from the viewpoint of the student, the institution, or the faculty. Yet, they have much in common. THESIS AND DISSERTATION study is growing. Both students and faculty need and deserve more objective and specific information about the process than they have had available in the past.


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