Thesis vs Capstone

By: Maggie Pustinger

Disclaimer: Each department has slightly different requirements as far as a thesis or capstone. I am in the BSHES department, therefore, some of the information I share may vary depending on the department you are in.


A thesis is an individually designed, conceptualized, and implemented project that incorporates skills learned throughout the coursework. Students are responsible for finding the data they will work with, assembling a thesis committee, and defending their thesis. Many students use existing data sets (ex. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), and Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBS)) seeing as the data collection process is often too long to complete within the thesis timeline. The exception being students who choose to do a qualitative or mixed-methods thesis may conduct interviews. Departments such as global health, an MSPH in HPM, and BIOS only offer a thesis option.


A capstone is a semester-long course that allows students to utilize the skills and knowledge obtained during their program that culminates in a paper that is presented to one’s peers. Students in the BSHES department can choose between grant writing or a health equity capstone. Students in the HPM department have to take health policy analysis (fall) and advanced health policy analysis (spring) or strategic management (fall) and operations management (spring), depending on their track. EH students have skills for environmental health professionals as their capstone option.  Departments such as an MPH in HPM only offer a capstone option. 

Key differences:

When I was deciding between a thesis or a capstone one piece of advice that helped me choose was to look at the gaps in my resume/CV and select whichever one filled those gaps. For me, the possibility of publishing my thesis and having a strong writing sample was important as I plan on pursuing more schooling. For people who already have a strong writing sample or prior publications, a capstone might fill the gap for what they wish to do next. 

It is also important to know yourself, a thesis is self-paced and requires a bit of a go-getter attitude. You dictate the timeline in which work is done and often huge chunks of the paper must be submitted at once. A thesis requires a lot of discipline to meet deadlines set by yourself, that no one else is holding you accountable to. A capstone, however, meets on a weekly basis, and sections of the project are due during regular intervals. Additionally, for a thesis students are required to find their own thesis advisor(s) and data set. As opposed to with a capstone where the only pre-work needed is registering for the course.

Both projects are impressive undertakings and hold the same rigor. It is important to take time to assess what skills you are trying to obtain, what type of student you are, and what your strengths are when deciding which project to pursue. 

Timeline1 year 1 semester
StructureSelf-paced (unstructured)Course lead (structured)
ProductUnique research projectProject or paper
IRB Approval NeededMaybe (for primary data)No 

*Select programs (ex. MPH in HPM) have a year-long capstone requirement made up of two courses

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