A Thesis or a Dissertation is a lengthy piece of academic writing based on research undertaken by a student and submitted by them in partial fulfillment of the requirement for completion of a Master's degree or a PhD (known also as a Doctorate, or Doctor of Philosophy degree).
Generally speaking (especially in the United States), theses and dissertations are completed by students who have already obtained a Bachelor's degree; however, some programs of undergraduate study also include the completion of a Senior Thesis, which may be the capstone of a cumulative research project lasting a semester or more, or is part of the requirements for obtaining an Honors degree from a selective or elite college or university. Here at West Point, some programs of study involve the completion of a Senior Thesis, which, while lengthy, detailed, and based on extensive research (and involving a presentation and defense before a number of faculty members), is not an exact equivalent to a post-graduate thesis or dissertation.
A Master's thesis is intended to demonstrate mastery of available scholarship in a particular field of study. A Doctoral dissertation is generally required to present an original and unique contribution to knowledge in a specific discipline.
Theses and dissertations written for post-graduate degrees are valuable for research because they involve original scholarship. That is, the author of the thesis or dissertation must conduct extensive research in a specific discipline, and at the Doctoral level, must perform studies or research that leads to a new conclusion in the selected field of study. For this reason, Doctoral dissertations can be valuable PRIMARY sources for research on a given topic, providing new insights and presenting the research to support those insights.
Remember, PRIMARY sources consist of original research, studies, data, surveys, interviews, documents, reports - newly created items that present original and unique contributions to a field of study, or items that were created at the time of the events you are studying. Thus, original work in the form of a dissertation can provide valuable data and information to support your research.
(Photo by Sean MacEntee, used through a Creative Commons License http://www.flickr.com/photos/smemon/4459776355/)
Try using one of the following databases when searching for theses and dissertations:
The USMA Library collects the theses and dissertations written by staff and faculty members, and catalogs them as part of our holdings. They are shelved in the 4th Floor Reading area. These specialized publications are part of our circulating collection, and serve as a reminder to all our patrons of the importance of academic scholarship - while highlighting the accomplishments of the members of our educational community.
There are many ways and places to search for theses and dissertations, depending on the topic or type of research you're looking for. Several of the databases that the USMA Library subscribes to include theses and dissertations, either at abstract or full-text levels. When using our subscription databases, perform a search for a subject using keywords as usual, but be on the lookout for ways to restrict your search to theses and dissertations. For example, when using Scout!, you can select "Dissertations and Theses" under the "Source Type" heading in the left margin of the webpage. If you do so, the ONLY results that will be returned from your search will be dissertations and theses.
While a few databases - namely, ProQuest - include dissertations and theses on a wide range of topics, it's usually best to select a database that caters to your specific subject area when searching for a thesis or dissertation. For example, if your area of interest is the social sciences, you may wish to try searching the database SocINDEX with Full Text, where you can limit your search to "Dissertations" under "Document Type." Use the Library's Subject Heading list of databases to narrow your selection to those that cover your specific area of interest.
For military topics, one database you should always search is DTIC (the Defense Technical Information Center). DTIC includes publications, reports, theses, dissertations, white papers, and many other publications by members of the military or defense industries, especially those individuals who are completing advanced coursework in a DoD program such as the Army War College, the Naval Postgraduate School, or the Strategic Studies Institute. Papers written in pursuit of those educational programs are often the equivalent of theses and dissertations completed for non-DoD schools.
Sometimes, searching for theses and dissertations can be frustrating, because many databases include only abstract-level indexing of these types of documents. If your searches bring you only the abstract-level information about a thesis or dissertation, and it looks as though that document would be valuable for your research, you can request a copy of the document through the USMA Library's Inter-Library loan service, Illiad.
You'll need to sign up for the service; from this page, follow the link for "First Time User?" and register. Once you have your account set up, you can easily submit a request for the document you're interested in using for your research. Note that it is not always possible to obtain copies of theses and dissertations, although the USMA Library ILL staff will do their best to fulfill your request. If we can't find your exact document, a Reference Librarian may be able to help you find something else that would work, so stop by the Information Desk on the second floor of Jefferson Hall to ask for assistance, or call one of the Librarians at x8325!