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A dissertation or thesis is a requirement for many graduate-level programs. They are the written form of original research or creative activity created by the student during their master's or doctoral program.
In the United States, the written product is most often called a thesis at the master's level and a dissertation at the doctoral level. However, in other countries--like Australia--both works are called theses regardless of the graduate program.
You can sometimes find new research results and theories in dissertations and theses before finding them in the journal article literature.
CSUEB Library has an entire database for finding dissertations and theses: Digital Dissertations.
Identifying Dissertations & Theses
Dissertation and Thesis Characteristics:
Title Page: Language that is similar to "This is submitted to partially fulfill the requirements for a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)/Master's Degree
Signature Page: Has a page listing the committee members and often includes their signatures.
Note: Reading the dissertation/thesis abstract is not equivalent to reading the dissertation/thesis. If you want to use a dissertation/thesis as a resource in a research paper, you need to read more than the abstract--same as with journal articles.
Differentiating Dissertations and Theses:
Title Page: The title page will usually have language that states whether the document was created in fulfillment of a PhD or a Master's Degree. A PhD = dissertation in the United States. Master's degree = thesis in the United States.