What is the difference between a dissertation, a thesis and a capstone project?

February 6, 2018

A former student and I were talking recently, and she mentioned the thesis she completed as part of her Master of Education degree at our university.

“I’m going to stop you right there,” I said. “You didn’t do a thesis. You did a capstone project.”

“What’s the difference?” she asked.

It is a common question among students. Students also ask what the difference is between a dissertation and a thesis. Three things they all have in common are:

  • Completed in partial fulfillment of an academic degree.
  • Intended to showcase the student’s knowledge on a particular topic.
  • Approved in some way by the institution that grants the degree.

But that’s about where the commonalities end. Here are some of the differences:

Dissertation

This is usually completed as part of a doctoral degree. The work is overseen by a professor, who is often call the advisor or the supervisor. Often, there is a committee that also supports the work. Students are often required to pass a rigorous exam upon completion of their dissertation. Then, the examiners can make suggestions for further revisions based on their review of the work and the outcome of the exam. A doctoral dissertation is often a few hundred pages long. When it is completed and approved in its final version by all the examiners, it may become publicly available through the university library digital repository or another public database. Sometimes people use the term “thesis” when they really mean “dissertation”. The reason for this may be that the word “thesis” is shorter to say.

Thesis

This is usually completed as part of a research-based master’s degree or an undergraduate honours degree. The length may vary, depending on whether it is completed for the undergraduate or master’s level, but often they are about a hundred pages. The work is overseen by a professor, who is often called the advisor or the supervisor. Upon completion of their thesis, students must often pass a rigorous exam. The examiners can make suggestions for further revisions based on their review of the work and the outcome of the exam. When it is completed and approved in its final version by all the examiners, it may become publicly available through the university library or another public database.

Dissertations and theses often have many elements in common such as being supervised by a professor and requiring an exam to pass. Capstone projects, on the other hand, are a bit different.

Capstone Project

This is a project completed as part of a course-based master’s degree. It is often overseen or guided by a course instructor. Sometimes students present their work in some way, but the capstone does not usually require an examination to pass. The length and format of a capstone project can vary and some are presented as multimedia projects instead of a written report. These kinds of projects can go by different names. At our university we call them a “Collaboratory of Practice” project, but the general idea is the same.

Here’s a handy infographic to highlight some of the key ideas.

Difference between dissertation, thesis & capstone project.

It is important to remember that these are simplified definitions to help you understand the basic differences only. When you talk about your own academic work, it is important to represent yourself accurately. You want to learn the correct term to talk about the work you have completed as part of your degree.

These explanations may not apply to every institution. If you are not sure, talk to a faculty member from your own university to get more details about how things work at your institution.

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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the Werklund School of Education or the University of Calgary.

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How many sources do you need in a literature review?

February 19, 2014

Students often ask me how many sources they need in their literature review. The short answer is, “It depends.” It depends on your topic, the nature of your research project, your level of scholarship, and a number of other factors.

An article from Canberra University (http://www.canberra.edu.au/studyskills/writing/literature) suggests:

  • Undergraduate review: 5-20 titles depending on level
  • Honours dissertation: 20+ titles
  • Master’s thesis: 40+ titles
  • Doctoral thesis: 50+ titles

Another strategy I learned somewhere along the way that I now share with my students is this:

If your literature review is one section of a larger research paper, thesis or dissertation

 Minimum number of sources = number of pages in the body of your entire paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)

Example: A paper that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) needs at least 10 sources in its literature review. 

A thesis of 100 pages (in the body) includes at least 100 sources.

If your literature review is a stand-alone document

Minimum number of sources =  3 times the number of pages in the body of your paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)

Example: A stand-alone literature review that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) should examine at least 30 sources.

These are not hard and fast rules by any means. Also, it is worth mentioning that as students and scholars who care about the quality of our work, we want to aim to raise the bar, not simply meet a minimum suggested standard. What these guidelines are suggesting is that you don’t aim for any less. If you do, your search for relevant literature in your field may be incomplete and you need to keep digging. Of course, your sources have to be relevant to your topic, too.

Not every scholar or academic supervisor would agree with the guidelines I offer here, criticizing them as being too reductionist or simplistic. My point isn’t to offer a black and white rule or open theoretical debate for which there can be no clear solution, but rather to offer a straight forward and practical answer to a question that academics often respond to in an ambiguous way, leaving students frustrated, exasperated and anxious about how to go conduct their literature review. 

When in doubt, talk with your own instructor or supervisor, asking them what their expectations are. (Don’t be surprised though, if you get an answer that is vague, like, “It depends…”)

Remember: Aim for quality over quality… and to do a quality literature review, you need to have a substantive quantity of sources.

Here are some of my favourite resources to help you write your literature review:

University of Toronto – http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review

U Conn – http://classguides.lib.uconn.edu/content.php?pid=239974&sid=1980274

University of Leicester –  http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/writing-resources/literature-review

Queensland Univeristy of Technology – http://www.citewrite.qut.edu.au/write/litreview.jsp

Birmingham City University – http://library.bcu.ac.uk/learner/writingguides/1.04.htm

Related posts: Why APA formatting matters http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hc

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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