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Intro: Here is some text where the speaker is explaining their plans for their future education:

Диссертации только после магистратуры и на соискание (получение) степени. Если всё пойдёт по плану, то диссертация будет года этак через два.

To the best of my understanding, this should mean something like:

The dissertation occurs only after a master's degree and is for the purpose of receiving the (PhD) degree. If everything goes according to plan, I will start my dissertation something like two years from now.

In terms of the word order, most of this seems standard to me.

Question: However, the part

...то диссертация будет года этак через два.

seems exceedingly strange to me. First, shouldn't it be та диссертация, or is то here being used to replace a noun rather than an adjective? (I.e. not being used as a modifier pronoun?)

Second, why are года and два separated from each other here? Does this separation indicate anything important missing in my above translation attempt?

In short, I would have expected something more like:

...та диссертация будет этак через два года.

Is there any difference in meaning between that and what was originally written?

Background: It is well known that since Russian is a highly-inflected language, the number of possible word orders which are grammatically correct are higher than in other languages.

However, I have also been told at least one Russian-speaking friend that sometimes different word orders imply different nuances, so that even if they are both grammatically correct they don't necessarily mean "the same thing". Not having been able to find any formal resources explaining these changes in meaning due to word order, it is difficult for me to identify situations where this is relevant when I see them in practice/"in the wild".

Aside: The speaker just graduated university (undergraduate/bachelor's), which explains some of my translation attempt. However, in American English, the "dissertation" for a doctoral degree is sometimes also called a "thesis", and while not all Master's programs require a thesis in order to graduate, it is also not unheard of for Master's students to complete a thesis.

Does диссертация here translate as (doctoral) dissertation, (doctoral) thesis, or (Master's) thesis?

Is the person saying that they are going to get their doctorate two years after graduating college? That is what it sounded like to me originally.

Maybe they meant a Master's thesis, because maybe one can think of completing the thesis after the Master's program, and the thesis is done for the purpose of getting the Master's degree. On the other hand, one might also typically get a PhD after completing their Master's, and the word dissertation is typically used only to refer to a document written for a doctoral degree. Yet the original text sounds like the speaker intends to complete their "dissertation" two years after completing undergrad which doesn't make much sense.

  • "Магистратура" is for Master's degree and comleted Master's dissertation/thesis ("магистерская диссертация") is the expected outcome when graduating from the course. Person's admittable for the "магистратура" after the successful university graduation (with the Bachelor degree). "Аспирантура" is for (the yet next level) Ph.D. ("кандидат наук"), with the Ph.D. dissertation/thesis as the expected outcome. – yury10578 Jul 13 '18 at 5:25
  • "Диссертация" here can mean both master's and doctoral thesis. Two-year timeframe supports the case of master's thesis, but a reference to "соискание степени" makes me think that it's a doctoral thesis he/she is talking about. "Соискание степени" is normally used in connection with degrees "кандидат наук" и "доктор наук". – Alexander Jul 13 '18 at 17:46
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The то isn't a demonstrative neuter gender pronoun "that", it's a conjunction, and it's paired with если: если ..., то ... – "if ..., then ...".

Если расскажешь всё, то я тебя отпущу. – "If you tell me everything, then I'll let you go".

The position of года really matters:

два года – "two years"

but

года два – "about / approximately / some two years"

Actually этак also means "about / approximately / some", so the idea of approximation is expressed redundantly, but it's very usual to say it like that in Russian. The whole idea of "in about two years" can be expressed in at least tree different ways:

  1. года через два
  2. этак через два года
  3. года этак через два

In general, this works not only with the number of years, putting the name of any unit of measurement before the number adds the idea of approximation:

метра три - about three meters
килограммов пять - about 5 kilograms
минуты две тому назад - about two minutes ago

Этак has several synonyms: примерно, приблизительно, где-то.

года через два = примерно через два года = приблизительно через два года = где-то через два года

All the ways of expressing approximation described above are colloquial, only примерно and приблизительно are literary and are apt for scholarly publications.

I won't comment on kinds of theses since it's beyond the scope of this SE.

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Диссертации только после магистратуры и на соискание (получение) степени. Если всё пойдёт по плану, то диссертация будет года этак через два.

The dissertation occurs only after a master's degree and is for the purpose of receiving the (PhD) degree. If everything goes according to plan, I will start my dissertation something like two years from now.

Unfortunately, your translation has two critical flaws. It should rather be something like the following:

Dissertations happen only after completing your master's course (N.B. not necessarily receiving a master's degree!) and in order to get a/the degree (N.B. unclear which degree - the master's or the further one). If everything goes as planned, the dissertation will be ready (N.B. not started! finished!) in about two years.

Which makes the situation somehow ambiguous: maybe the speaker is talking about the master's thesis (магистерская диссертация) he or she is going to write during the master's course and complete in two years (which is the typical length of a master's course). Maybe about their future doctoral dissertation (кандидатская диссертация) they hope to complete two years after their master's course is over. (In Russian there's also "докторская диссертация", which is one level higher than Ph.D., but we can safely rule that out - you don't complete that in two years before even your master's course, unless you're some kind of an enormous genius.)

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