The Difference Between A Research Paper and a Thesis

The common aspect of a research paper, a term paper and a thesis is that they are all academic documents. Although there is some overlapping in the requirements, they differ by purpose, style and specific components.

One of the differences between a research paper and a thesis is the purpose as a thesis is a document written in support of obtaining an academic degree or qualification. It is usually longer than research paper and thus completed in a number of years. A thesis, also called dissertation, is usually associated with postgraduate studies, i.e. research or taught Master’s degree, PhD or M.Phil level and is carried out under a supervision of a professor or an academic of the university. A supervisor is a person whose job is to oversee and guide the progress of thesis writing. One of the supervisor’s assignments is to enable the development or enhancement of the student’s writing and presentation skills and capability of independent research. In most universities the supervisor has the obligation to meet with the student on regular basis and discuss the progress of the thesis writing, including the task of reading the draft of the thesis and make suggestions for changes and improvements where necessary. In some institutions there has been a move towards supervisory teams which consist of your supervisor plus combinations of co-supervisors, mentors and independent academics with or without knowledge of your research area.

One of the aspects of thesis completion is the oral examination taking place after submitting your thesis at the university. The oral examination means usually the presentation of your thesis in front of an examination board and answering their questions about the topic. The final results of your thesis will be given after the oral examination.

A research paper has usually been written as a part of a subject and does not commonly count as a separate subject or module and thus does not require an individual supervisor.

A thesis and a research paper, both require the demonstration of extent academic research and the evidence of capacity for critical analysis. The completion of thesis however requires also the input of original work and author’s findings in the field of chosen topic. When choosing a topic for a thesis the author must thus take into consideration the expectation of originality in the field or the input of some relevant new information or ideas.

Sometimes it is also accepted that the author simply provides constructive critical analysis of existing theories or viewpoints without necessarily offering any new ones. In short academic requirements for a thesis, especially the demand of originality, are much higher than for a research paper. Each university sets its own rules and regulations for presentation style and the length of a thesis depending on the research area. In some universities the rules can be stricter, foreseeing very specific style and format requirements. There are however certain components that are always prerequisite in thesis presentation style, such as table of contents or abstract. You may include a dedication or acknowledgement and depending on the research field, graphics, tables or research methods. All the aforementioned components might not be expected in a research paper. However, as both are academic documents bibliography together with accurate referencing must be presented.


There are some additional points that could be made:

  • Audience: While both a thesis and a research paper are typically intended for an academic audience, the specific audience may vary. A thesis is usually written for a graduate-level audience, whereas a research paper can be written for undergraduate or graduate-level audiences.
  • Length: A thesis is typically longer than a research paper. A master’s thesis is usually between 50-100 pages, while a research paper is usually between 10-20 pages.
  • Original contribution: While both a thesis and a research paper involve conducting original research, a thesis is expected to make a more significant and original contribution to the field. A research paper may simply summarize existing research or provide a new analysis of existing data.
  • Evaluation: A thesis is usually evaluated by a committee of experts in the field, whereas a research paper is typically evaluated by the course instructor or a small group of peers.
  • Timeframe: A thesis is usually completed over the course of several semesters, while a research paper is typically completed in a single semester.
  • Formality: A thesis is typically more formal and structured than a research paper. A thesis must follow a specific format and include several required sections, such as an introduction, literature review, methodology, results, and conclusion.