After several years of attending classes, writing papers, and taking tests, you might think that your work is done and you can waltz out of college with a degree. That may be true in some cases, but many programs have one more requirement for students who want to earn their degrees: A final project.
Every program and school has their own specific parameters, but the final project usually falls into one of three categories: A thesis, a capstone, or a dissertation. Which type of project you’ll be required to complete varies depending on your college program and what type of degree you’re seeking. However, understanding the difference between them will help you to plan ahead to ensure that your final project is the best it can possibly be.
In the past, the thesis paper was the most common type of project completed by both undergraduate and graduate students as a final requirement for graduation. At the undergraduate level, these intensive research papers were often offered as either an option for students who wanted to get a head start on graduate-level research or a requirement for graduating with honors in their major.
In the simplest terms, a thesis paper is an academic research paper built around a strong thesis statement. Depending on the subject, the thesis either is a new interpretation of existing research on the subject, or based on original research conducted by the student combined with existing knowledge in the field. For example, an undergraduate media studies student may choose to research the portrayal of a certain demographic on television, and conduct a content analysis of several programs to compare the current state of television to existing conclusions.
The purpose of a thesis paper is to provide an opportunity for students to apply the knowledge they have gained in their college coursework while simultaneously expanding their knowledge via research. It’s not a “typical” research paper; it’s much longer, for starters, with specific formatting requirements. In addition, students are generally required to present and defend their research to a thesis committee, who may ask for revisions before accepting and grading the project.
A capstone project shares many characteristics with thesis papers, in that it’s a large-scale project in which a student can demonstrate his or her knowledge and apply what’s been learned in class. However, capstone projects are more than just a paper, although they usually include a written component.
In most programs, the capstone project requires students, working either individually or in a group, to complete a “real-world” project involving an actual product, service, or client. For example, a capstone project may involve developing new software or communication tools to improve client processes. In addition to developing and implementing a solution, capstone projects usually involve developing a thesis statement, conducting research, and reporting on the results of the project in a written form as well as a presentation.
While thesis and capstone projects are usually reserved for undergraduate and graduate levels, doctoral candidates often must complete a dissertation in order to earn their degrees. A dissertation is the most rigorous type of academic research. While a thesis or capstone relies on the application of existing research, a dissertation requires highly focused and original research and application. For example, a student seeking a doctoral degree in educational leadership might conduct an action-based study, examining an existing practice to identify potential areas for change, and then testing a proposed solution to those issues. However, the most important point is that rather than reinterpreting or applying existing research and theories, a dissertation is a new addition to the canon of research on the topic.
Because dissertations are expected to represent the pinnacle of academic excellence, they generally take several years to complete (as opposed to the one to three semesters needed for a capstone or thesis) and there is a high level of guidance at every step. In most cases, dissertations are reviewed and approved by committees, who are involved with the projects at every point. However, in addition to earning a doctoral degree because of the project, most students are able to publish their research, adding an additional credential to their CV.
Completing a final project is an important part of concluding any type of academic program. Look into your program’s requirements well in advance, so you’re prepared with a proposed topic and plan when it comes time to complete your research project. You might even find that your final project to be among the highlights of your academic career.