Thesis or Dissertation Writing: How Many Pages or Words?

One of the often unspoken worries of dissertation and thesis writers is length: what is the minimum number of pages or words that the writer should produce? The very question may seem too crude for writers to ask their directors or committees-indeed, there are faculty members who may think that the question is amateurish or self-serving in some way.

Editors, however, think precisely in such terms. And not just the editors who help you with your project: academic and trade press editors always are focused on length. You should be, too. It is a truism that different fields, departments, and institutions have different standards of how long a thesis (in the United States) or a dissertation (often called a “thesis” outside the United States) should be. In my view, your task is to locate the minimum pages or words required.  You may have a mentor who will answer a straightforward question. But if not, your first step is to look over as many dissertations as possible that have been passed by the appropriate committees, particularly in the last two years.

In my own case, my institution’s graduate handbook actually published a suggested minimum: 150 pages (double-spaced). I found that some writers had pulled off 450 pages or more, but I doubted that many committee members had read all those pages carefully. (A lot of dissertation conventions need to be stripped out for eventual publishing anyway, such as the direct literature search, though that is a separate topic.)

Though you may work with a thesis or dissertation director who wants you to write far past the minimum length, I have found this attitude to be rare. Instead, your director and your thesis or dissertation committee will appreciate a well-developed argument, analysis, or experiment that does not wander through thickets of words. Looking over other successful dissertations and theses will help you understand not just length, but quality of content as well.  Thesis and dissertation editors work with writers to help them develop and expand ideas, but also to focus and refine them as well, while keeping that minimum page or word goal in sight.

Jeff Karon
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