Guide on Citing a Dissertation

One of the most common question our student-customers have is how to cite unusual documents, which may not have been published on a large scale, and may be difficult for the average reader to access. We often caution people against using sources that are not widely available. This is for a number of reasons, but the main reason has to do with questions about the reliability and validity of lesser-known sources.

However, there is one type of source that is considered an appropriate academic resource, but still may not be widely available. That is the dissertation.

Definition of Dissertation

While technically a dissertation is any long essay on a particular subject, the word has taken on a very specific meaning in academia.

The term dissertation refers to the major paper written by candidates for the Doctor of Philosophy degree and is generally a qualification for people to receive their doctorates. Therefore, dissertations are often the culmination of a student’s entire graduate school course of study and can provide a wealth of information and innovative research for the writing student looking for a great resource.

When a doctoral candidate has been in a research group, the dissertations of various people in the research group may be combined together to form a comprehensive body of evidence. Therefore, if you are looking for additional resources for your own writing, you may want to look at the various dissertations of research-group members.

Definition of Thesis

Like a dissertation, a thesis is a major paper written by people, oftentimes as a condition of their academic degrees. Theses are often parts of master’s degree programs. Unlike dissertation, theses are usually not published in academic journals, though they may form the foundation of other graduate-level work that will eventually be published. You cite a thesis the same way as you cite a dissertation.

Can You Cite an Unpublished Dissertation?

Many dissertations are eventually published in academic journals and other mainstream publications. However, other dissertations may be published and made available only at the school where the writer studied. When dissertations are not widely published, many students have questions about how to properly cite them.

Fortunately, the citation format for dissertation is actually pretty easy. Whether you choose APA or MLA format, you may need the author’s name, the date it was published, the title of the dissertation or thesis, whether it was a dissertation or thesis, where it was located, and when it was accessed.

Basic APA Citation Format for a Dissertation

Last Name, Initials. (Date published). Title (Doctoral dissertation or master’s thesis). Retrieved

from database name. (Accession or Order number).

Basic MLA Citation Format for a Dissertation

Last Name, First Name. Title. Diss. or MA or MS Thesis. Name of University, Year Published.

Web. Date accessed.

One of the interesting things about citing dissertations and theses in MLA format is that the URL is not part of the citation. This stands in contrast to some of the other changes made in MLA 8, which favor inclusion of the URL or other web-identifier in bibliographic resources.

Is this a big deal? Not really. However, it is something that you will want to clarify with your academic advisors before turning in your completed dissertation or thesis. There is no doubt that it is easier for your committee members to find your sources when you have included an electronic identifier, such as a URL. Therefore, they may want you to include them, when they exist, in every entry in your bibliography. Our examples will explore some of the ways you could include that information, but, because they are not officially part of the MLA format, you will want to check with your committee for their preferences before adopting any of our suggested potential changes.


For this example, we are going to look at a few screenshots from a dissertation that we found using EBSCO’s American Doctoral Dissertation Database

Looking at the screenshots, you can see the following information

Database: American Doctoral Dissertations

Author: Leah M. Durbak

Title: Estimating the Cost of Raccoon Rabies Variant in Ohio

University: The University of Ohio

Year of Publication: 2014

Accession Number: 97E99B28CF76549E


APA Citation:

Durbak, L.M. (2014). Estimating the cost of raccoon rabies variant in Ohio (Doctoral

dissertation). Retrieved from American Doctoral Dissertations. (Accession Number


MLA Citation:

Durbak, Leah. Estimating the Cost of Raccoon Rabies Variant in Ohio. Diss. The University of

Ohio, 2014. Web. September 3, 2017.

Example 2

In this example, we are looking at a dissertation found at the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Scholar Works website. The name of the database is UT Electronic Theses and Dissertations. It is a university-specific dissertation database, but is one of many university-specific databases that provides open-access, even to non-students.

Looking at the screenshots, you can see the following information

Database: UT Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Author: Greg Hurd

Title: Revised Stratigraphic Framework for the Cutoff Formation and Implications for Deepwater Systems Modified by Large-Scale Inflections in Slope Angle Below the Shelf Break

University: The University of Texas at Austin

Year of Publication: 2016

Accession Number: doi:10.15781/T2KK94T8W


It is worth noting that this database, which is maintained by a university and contains theses and dissertations completed by students at that university, did not provide accession or order numbers to access its database. Instead, it provided two different ways to identify the access page. One is the URL to the informational page about the thesis or the dissertation. The other, which we labeled accession number on the example page, to make it easier to follow the outlined APA format is actually the DOI number.

The DOI, or digital object identifier, is an alphanumeric string that the registration agency assigns to identify content and provide a link to its location on the Internet. Most academic journals identify their content with DOI links, and some universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin, will provide DOI links to content in its databases.

Generally, when a DOI is available, you want to include the DOI in your citation because the DOI is a permanent link, whereas accession numbers or order numbers can change, as can URLs. Knowing that information, let us look at how you might incorporate the DOI into both APA and MLA citation formats for the above source.

APA Citation:

Hurd, G. (2016). Revised stratigraphic framework for the cutoff formation and implications

for deepwater systems modified by large-scale inflections in slope angle below the

shelf break (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from UT Electronic Theses and

Dissertations. (doi:10.15781/T2KK94T8W).

MLA Citation:

Hurd, Greg. Revised Stratigraphic Framework for the Cutoff Formation and Implications for

Deepwater Systems Modified by Large-Scale Inflections in Slope Angle Below the Shelf

Break. Diss. The University of Texas at Austin, 2016. Web. September 3, 2017.

Suggested modification to include DOI:

Hurd, Greg. Revised Stratigraphic Framework for the Cutoff Formation and Implications for

Deepwater Systems Modified by Large-Scale Inflections in Slope Angle Below the Shelf

Break. Diss. The University of Texas at Austin, 2016. Web.

doi:10.15781/T2KK94T8W. September 3, 2017.

Suggested modification to include URL:

Hurd, Greg. Revised Stratigraphic Framework for the Cutoff Formation and Implications for

Deepwater Systems Modified by Large-Scale Inflections in Slope Angle Below the Shelf

Break. Diss. The University of Texas at Austin, 2016. Web. September 3, 2017.

Where to Find Dissertations Online

Now that you know how to cite dissertations in your own work, you may be wondering where you can find dissertations online to use in your research. There are two main ways to search for them: using large databases and using university-based databases.

Large databases often contain dissertations and/or theses from a number of different universities and in number of different disciplines. These searchable databases allow you to access a wide variety of dissertations, which you can use for your research. However, these are collections, not peer-reviewed publications. That means that, while the documents you find within them, may have met the standards of the author’s own university, they may not meet general academic standards. You want to read each of them carefully before choosing to include them in your research.

University-based databases have some pros and cons for the student-researcher. If you are attending that university, looking for dissertations in your field can be helpful in a number of ways. First, it can help you ensure that your research is not duplicating research already done at your university. Second, it can help you familiarize yourself with the stylistic guidelines and standards that your academic committee is expecting in your writing. Third, you can be assured that dissertations or theses approved by academic committees at your university are up to your school’s particular academic standards.

However, some students wonder about whether they can or should use dissertations from another school’s university-based database. We believe those are perfectly valid resources, as long as you do your homework about the source. Is the university where the dissertation or thesis was completed considered a leader in that field? Does the research follow the scientific method? Does anything about the research cause you to question is validity or reliability? Like any other source you would use in your own research, you need to carefully look at the sources. Generally, you should feel free to rely on research from larger public universities and from well-known, academically-respected private universities. The smaller or less-well-known the school, the more caution you may want to exercise in including those resources.

Our Favorite Dissertation Databases

American Doctoral Dissertations is one of the most comprehensive dissertation databases available. Part of EBSCO Information Services, American Doctoral Dissertation is a free research database that indexes thousands of theses and dissertations accepted by American Universities from 1902 to the present. In addition, this database links to the full text of the dissertation, when available.

Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations reflects a comprehensive effort to standardize theses and dissertations for digitization and make them available to users. It is a database that offers full-text access to theses and dissertations written at schools who are members of its network. Therefore, it has some international universities, but may not include all American universities.

Open Access Theses and Dissertations provides links to open access graduate theses and dissertations from universities around the world. They are connected to over 1100 colleges, universities, and research institutions, and offer access to almost 4 million documents.

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses A&I

ProQuest Dissertations provides citations to over a million dissertations and theses, but may not provide access to all of them. Generally, you need your university login information to use any ProQuest service, including the Dissertation and Theses A&I. In addition, depending on your school’s subscription information, you may or may not have access to the full text of the sources you find.

Your University Dissertation Database

If you are at a university, it almost certainly has a database of theses and dissertations. That database is an invaluable resource for you, as a researcher. There are a number of reasons that it is a great resource, but one of the big ones is that the people who wrote those papers may be members of your dissertation committee! Even if they are not, it is always a good idea to see what your school’s individual standards are and what type of research has been done in the past at your academic institution.

What if you cannot find your school’s dissertation database? Let’s face it; some school libraries are much better organized than others. If you happen to be at a school with a large or disorganized online research library, you may have a difficult time finding the dissertation database. Do not hesitate to ask your school’s librarian for help. You may also be able to find assistance with your graduate advisors or your research committee.

What if the Dissertation or Thesis is Published Somewhere Else?

Many dissertations or theses are eventually published in academic journals. When they are, then you want to cite to the academic journal instead of just to the dissertation, as long as the two documents are identical.

However, there is often significant revision between completion of a dissertation or thesis and publication in an academic journal. The two articles may not be identical at all. In those cases, you may find yourself needing to cite to the dissertation or thesis instead of the academic article. However, you want to be very careful. If material has changed before being published in an academic article, then it is usually changing after peer review. Is the information that you are seeking to cite in your own research still considered valid? If not, what changes are made.

You might even find yourself in the position of highlighting the differences between a dissertation and an eventual published article containing the same information. In those cases, you will want to cite to the dissertation and to the finished article.


Dissertations and theses can be great resources for your own academic writing. In fact, they often contain information about cutting-edge research in a particular field. In addition, they are considered academically acceptable sources for almost all levels of academic writing.

However, you want to make sure and follow some basic guidelines when including a thesis or dissertation in your references. First, you want to examine the source to ensure that it is indeed, academically reliable. If you are choosing a dissertation or thesis that was not approved by a well-known research institution or well-recognized academic school, then you want to examine the document itself for reliability and validity.

Next, you want to make sure that you are citing to a document that was accepted by the academic committee. Some schools have databases with links to documents prior to their approval by the appropriate committee. You should be hesitant about citing to those sources.

Finally, you should check and make sure that the document was not later published in an academic journal. If it was, the preference is to cite to the journal, not to the individual document, in your reference page. However, there are often differences between a dissertation as it was submitted and how it is published in an academic journal. You want to be aware of those differences and note them, when applicable, in your own academic writing.

Taking these tips together, you should feel confident locating, evaluating, and citing theses and dissertations in your own academic writing projects.

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