What Is The Difference Between A Thesis And An Essay? How Is A Thesis And A Essay Similar?


I bet you are wondering to yourself about what is the difference between a thesis and an essay? As a professor, I have spent much of my life either writing or reading essays or looking at different theses. I have also been in technical fields (engineering) and less technical fields (social sciences). It struck me as funny that the line between writing an essay and writing a thesis is blurred. As a student, I don’t think I would have known the difference, and so this blog post is likely helpful for those of you who are curious about the difference. These are just my two cents. (If you like this post, you should read this one on how to stay calm and productive when writing your thesis / dissertation).

I thought I would write a short post about the difference between an essay and a thesis. I think there are several similarities with the documents. Here are the major similarities between an essay and a thesis:

  1. Essays and theses make a point or multiple points. They are directed.
  2. Essays and theses are often requirements for either courses or degrees.
  3. Essays and theses are meant to be thoughtful, and demonstrate your ability. The required skills are similar.
  1. Essays and theses make a point. Essays are likely to have similar parts as a thesis, such as an argument that you are supporting and references to others’ work. An essay will likely also have an introduction, body, and conclusion just like a thesis, however, the components of each of these are much larger in a thesis. For example, just imagine that a thesis is about X times as large as an essay.
  2. Essays and theses are often requirements for either courses or degrees. You will use both of these as a right of passage to get a degree or course requirement. Both an essay and a thesis is seen as training for a more scholarship in the future. Each step, and each document builds on top of the other. What is the difference between thesis and research paper? In graduate school and beyond, you will be asked to write research papers, and basically, it is just a more complex essay that is even more directed towards a research problem. Once you complete either the essay or the thesis, you often use them as components or starting ground for your research paper. You may use both the thesis and essay as a component of a research paper, however, it is easier to create a research paper using the thesis, rather than an essay because there is more work that has already been done in the thesis.
  3. Essays and theses are meant to be thoughtful, and demonstrate your ability. The required skills are similar. What skills do you need to write a thesis or an essay? Generally, you will need to have done many essays in your career before you get to be able to write a thesis and develop a larger argument. The ‘act’ of writing a thesis is similar to writing an essay. You just have to sit your butt down, think, and write. Once you write one, you demonstrate your ability to sit your butt down and do the work.

In my view, there are many differences between between a thesis and an essay.

  1. Theses are often a requirement for a degree, but essays are requirements for courses.
  2. Theses are often more complex.
  3. Essays tend to have more flexibility.
  4. Theses tend to be longer in length.
  1. Theses are often a requirement for a degree, but essays are requirements for courses. The main difference between a thesis and an essay is that a thesis is a requirement for an honor’s bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or a doctoral degree. Often, we will call PhD thesis as dissertations, but we do use them interchangeably. It really just depends on the conversation. It tends to be a more structured than an essay.

     You are likely going to submit an essay for a class, but the thesis will be a larger project that is required for a degree.
  2. Theses are often more complex and/or longer in length. You can imagine that an essay has preparing for the thesis, and that the essay is the combination of many essays about different topics that relate to the same underlying construct. When you do scientific writing, or any writing, you are always trying to build an argument about different topics. When you write a thesis, what you are trying to do is combine little essays about different topics, such as what is your research question. You will write 1-5 pages about your research question, and the importance of your research question. Thus, because of this complexity, thesis do tend to be longer. They are longer not because they need to be, but you are just explaining different parts in more depth.
  3. Essays tend to have more flexibility. When you write an essay, you definitely have more flexibility in what you write about than a thesis. A thesis often tends to be research oriented, but it does not need to be (depending on your discipline). When you perform research for a thesis, you may have hypotheses and results that you explore. However, with an essay, you just can provide a thought-piece about what you find interesting with a particular topic. Essays can and often do include data and much discussion.

    An essay just gives you more flexibility to discuss different topics. When you write an essay, you are likely going to have a lot more flexibility in what you can discuss and how much the evidence in your essay is supported by what other people have found (e.g. facts and evidence). 
  4. Theses tend to be longer in length. Because of the complexity of writing a thesis, they consequently, are likely different in the length of your essay and the length of your thesis. The average length of an essay is likely to be around 5-20 double spaced pages. You often don’t see many essays that are longer, however there might be exceptions for different classes. With a thesis, you are likely to have 60-400 pages, depending on the program that you are in. For example, a Master’s thesis will likely be in the middle ground of a dissertation/PhD thesis and an essay in length. You will likely see Bachelor’s theses around 30-50 pages, Master’s theses be around 50-100 pages, and PhD thesis / dissertations 100-400 pages.

Anyway, there you have it. There are the similarities and differences between a thesis and an essay.

The R3ciprocity Project

I should qualify who I am. I am David Maslach, an Associate Professor in Strategy, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, and am doing an interesting project. I wanted to create a sharing economy editing website where I could help out as many people as I could. I was thinking a lot about ways I could positively contribute to society (mid-life crisis anyone?) and reciprocity. Reciprocity is often discussed in the context of innovation where there are many people that do things online where they expect to get little back in return. Josh Lerner and Eric von Hippel had some interesting ideas that I wanted to explore further. There was also a credibility revolution that was occurring in science, which had a part in the project, but this was later on, and is a longer story.

Anyway, long story short, I created the r3ciprocity.com as a way to give back, but then I realized. Oh crap – nobody even knows this site exists. What do I do now? I did a bit of paid advertising, but then I thought, it might be better for me just to lean into this reciprocity idea, and try to give back even more. Thus, started my YouTube channel, and this blog where I try to give back even more than before.

If you like this blog post, you might want to check out these other awesome ones from the R3ciprocity Project:

Recent Posts