What’s the Difference Between a Capstone vs. Dissertation?

By Kama Offenberger
Edited by Briana Sukert
Updated on April 13, 2024
Edited by Briana Sukert
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If you’re researching doctoral programs, you may be wondering about capstone vs. dissertation projects.

What's the Difference Between a Capstone vs. Dissertation

Some schools require students to write a dissertation, an extended paper based on original research. Others ask students to complete a capstone project that involves developing a solution to an existing issue. As a graduate student, you will most likely be asked to complete one or the other of these projects to earn your degree.

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Before enrolling in a doctorate or PhD program, it’s helpful to understand what a dissertation and a capstone require and how they’re completed.

What’s the Difference Between a Capstone vs. Dissertation?

Man taking PhD degree, working on his Capstone

Capstone projects and dissertations offer graduate students the opportunity to demonstrate what they’ve learned over the course of their studies, prepare for their professional futures, and establish themselves as scholars in their fields.

Despite their similar goals, these projects involve different processes and structures.

What Is a Capstone?

doctoral student working on her Capstone

A capstone is a final project that a doctoral student completes at the end of their academic program. It typically involves between 6 months and 1 year of research, planning, writing, and analysis.

During a capstone project, you might complete an action research study, in which you identify a process that is inefficient or ineffective and design a process to improve it. You might also work directly with an external business, nonprofit, or government agency.

A number of universities now offer doctorate programs without dissertation. Just like online doctoral programs in education with no dissertation, they include capstone projects or research papers instead. Students usually deliver a doctoral capstone in the form of a paper or portfolio alongside the product or program that they have designed.

What Is a Dissertation?

PhD student reviewing his dissertation

A dissertation is a major research project that is a requirement for most PhD programs. The timeframe for a dissertation often ranges between 1 and 3 years.

To complete a dissertation, students develop a research question and seek answers that will fill a current gap in the field. They review existing literature, conduct original research, and write a paper that may span several hundred pages.

Many doctoral programs also require students to participate in a dissertation defense. During this process, the student presents their findings to a faculty committee and answers any questions that the committee might have.

Key Differences Between a Dissertation vs. Capstone

doctoral student checking printouts of her capstone

Although capstone projects and dissertations can both be graduation requirements for doctoral students, they have several defining features that set them apart, including:

  • Focus. A dissertation project generally focuses on filling a gap in current research or enhancing knowledge within a field through new research and analysis. A capstone project uses or extends existing research to address a problem by developing a product, program, or process.
  • Completion time. Students may need several years after they complete their primary coursework to finish and defend their dissertations. Capstone projects are usually completed in 1 year or less.
  • Sources of support. While working on their dissertations, students generally have the support of one or more faculty advisors and present their final work to a committee. Students completing a capstone often work with an outside organization, such as a private business, as well as a group of faculty members.
  • Length. The average dissertation length is typically 100 pages or more, and students sometimes publish their finished projects as books after graduating. The final paper for a capstone project is often significantly shorter than a dissertation, but it may be accompanied by a portfolio, product, or program.

Capstones and dissertations aren’t always mutually exclusive. In some cases, doctoral programs require students to complete dissertations as part of or in addition to their capstone projects.

Capstone vs. Dissertation – Which Is Right for You?

student taking PhD researching for his dissertation

Finding the right PhD or doctorate program can be challenging. Knowing what is a doctoral dissertation in comparison to a capstone project may help you determine which school and degree path aligns with your career goals and academic interests.

For example, if you would prefer to work directly with a business in your future industry, a capstone may be a more suitable option. A dissertation is likely more fitting if your primary goal is to contribute to the existing literature and research within your field.

No matter which type of project you prefer, you can take the next step toward your online doctoral degree by researching accredited colleges and universities.

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