What are the differences between a Bachelor’s and Master’s dissertation?


Introduction

Whether it’s a Bachelor’s or Master’s thesis, the process of writing a thesis basically is the same. However, that doesn’t mean that both documents that come out of this process will be exactly the same. In this post, I will discuss 3 points on which a Master’s thesis typically differs from a Bachelor’s thesis:

I’ll also share one of the most common questions I get asked on this topic: “Does this mean that a Master’s thesis is (much) longer than a Bachelor’s thesis?” Check out my answer to this question at the end of this post!

A Master’s thesis uses more advanced literature

Books vs. articles

When they start their Master’s program, most students notice a transition when it comes to how ‘knowledge’ is transferred. Whereas most knowledge would come from books in their Bachelor’s program, suddenly academic literature such as scientific articles are dominant in the curriculum. Indeed, articles are a more advanced way of learning: whereas the author of a text-book has interpreted the findings of studies for you, with articles you have to now interpret the quality, merit and implications of this knowledge yourself!


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Advanced topics

This is not the only thing that adds a level of complexity to a Master’s program: the articles that you will have to read generally also discuss more advanced topics, as compared to the literature you had to read during your Bachelor’s. For example: articles may discuss novel theories, complex models, or they may build on more ‘basic’ scientific knowledge, meaning you need at least some background in a topic to understand it (this ‘background’ could be: a Bachelor’s degree!). To make a long story short: it’s fair to say that a Master’s thesis will use more advanced literature as a Bachelor’s thesis. That’s the first difference between the two.

A Master’s thesis uses a more advanced research method

Similar to the previous point, during your Master’s you have probably learned all new kinds of research skills: a new set of statistical analysis tools, measurement instruments, or interview techniques. The idea, -of course-, is to show that you master these newly acquired skills by applying them in your Master’s thesis. In fact, your University may even prohibit you from using ‘simpler’ research methods in a Master’s thesis. In other words: research methods that you were allowed to use in your Bachelor’s thesis are no longer accepted for your Master’s thesis. A great example is: doing a Literature study, which is perfectly fine for when you are graduating from a Bachelor’s program, but which will usually not ‘cut the mustard’ when you want to receive your Master’s diploma!


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A Master’s thesis uses a more advanced data collection method

A final major difference between a Bachelor’s and Master’s thesis is the way in which data is collected. A typical Bachelor’s thesis will use secondary data: data that has already been collected for you.1

Data: you

However, in a Master’s thesis it’s more common to collect data yourself. For example, by administering a survey, conducting interviews, or by ‘scraping’ your own data from the Internet. Does this mean you cannot use secondary data sources in a Master’s thesis? No, not at all. In fact, for some disciplines such as Economics, most scientific research uses secondary data. In other words: there’s no escaping the fact that you have to use data that has already been collected. In this situation, it may be worth ‘going the extra mile’, for example by combining two (separate) data sources to get unique and ‘never used before’ data.


Popular secondary data sources that you can use for your dissertation research

Bachelor’s vs. Master’s thesis – Concluding words

The main takeaway of this post is: no, the process of writing a Bachelor or Master’s thesis is exactly the same: you need to find a topic, study it in a scientifically relevant way, and report your findings. Yes, there are some differences between a Bachelor’s and a Master’s thesis, but they are mostly related to the fact that a Master’s degree is “one level up” from a Bachelor’s degree. It’s more advanced, which is reflected in the literature, research method and data collection of a Master’s thesis.

Does this also mean that a Master’s thesis is longer than a Bachelor’s thesis?

In principle: no! Many students erroneously believe that the main difference between a Bachelor’s and Master’s thesis is: more text. That simply is not the case. Your thesis is judged on its quality, not its quantity. However, it is true that because of the differences between a Bachelor’s and Master thesis discussed in this post, there often are differences in length between both documents.

How much longer will a Master’s thesis be compared to a Bachelor’s thesis?

I get asked this question quite regularly, but in reality there is no straightforward answer to this question. You will sometimes hear “A Bachelor’s thesis needs to be X pages, and a Master’s thesis needs to by Y pages”, but honestly: these ball-park figures are inadequate guidelines for most students. Obviously, there are big differences between the writing-styles of academic disciplines (just compare a Mathematics thesis with a Philosophy thesis!). More importantly: writing a thesis based on a number of words usually does not result in the best report possible. Instead, use as many words as you need to answer your research question: no less, no more.

This is why I will give you my opinion on how much longer a Master’s thesis is, based on my experience as a thesis supervisor. Because a Master’s thesis typically discusses more advanced literature, and uses a more advanced research- and data collection method, it will on average be 15-25% longer than a Bachelor’s thesis. Again, this is my experience: your mileage may vary.

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