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What is a Capstone Project in College?

A capstone project in college is a culmination of knowledge and experience that occurs at the end of a student's an academic program.
A woman in a yellow shirt working on her college capstone project

The capstone project in college is the apogee, or completion marker, of a student's coursework leading to the culmination of their program with a degree in their chosen field of study. The original definition of a capstone focuses on the actual stone placed at the top of a wall or building, marking the successful completion of the structure. It's a significant and celebrated piece of architecture, considered to be the most important of an entire construction project.

"(Capstone projects are) the apex of all a student's work done throughout their college career," said Dr. Jeff Czarnec, a social sciences adjunct online and on-campus at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). Retired after 23 years in law enforcement, Czarnec served as an associate dean of criminal justice and social sciences at SNHU for nearly a decade. He now leverages his extensive background to teach social sciences, enriching the academic experience with his practical insights. 

When entering a capstone course, there's an expectation that you have all the necessary skills and knowledge to be successful. 

Dr. Thomas MaCarty, associate dean of social sciences programs at SNHU"At this point, students have managed to pass all their course work leading up to the capstone," said Dr. Thomas MacCarty, associate dean of social sciences programs at SNHU. "It is the culmination of everything that has happened to them as students," he said. MacCarty has a PhD in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and more than a dozen years of professional experience in higher education.

You have the opportunity to pick a research topic that is of interest to you and run with it. "After having to write research papers in all of their courses prior to (the capstone), the task is not one to dread, but to enjoy. It is their time to shine as students and to enjoy the journey," MacCarty said.

A capstone course is more than a potential degree requirement. It can serve as an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge mastery and creative thinking, which may help you stand out to potential employers.

What is Involved in a Capstone Project?

Dr. Jeff Czarnec, a social sciences adjunct at SNHU

Each university, program and instructor may have different requirements — or models — for a capstone project. According to Czarnec, a general design might first include selecting a topic of interest that the instructor will approve. 

Czarnec said that, depending on the program, a capstone may include anything from a video presentation or an architectural model to an art exhibit or short film; however, it almost always includes a paper demonstrating an introduction, theory, evaluation, research and individual issues relevant to the proposal.

"Students are expected to be ready to enter the world as professionals in their field upon completion of the capstone course," said MacCarty.

The time it takes to complete a capstone project usually depends on the course's length. If you're in an undergraduate online program at SNHU, for instance, your capstone course would take eight weeks to complete, Czarnec said. 

Capstone courses are research-based, and you can choose your topic early on, allowing you more freedom to conduct research independently. Capstone topics usually align with a program's specific disciplines, too.

For example, in the social sciences realm, "our focus is on human behavior and cognition, which may be different from a capstone course in business or STEM," MacCarty said.

Find Your Program

Types of Capstones

There are many types of capstone projects that you could consider, and they vary from learner to learner, Czarnec said. "Some will investigate issues or phenomenon that they are familiar with either professionally, personally or courtesy of a discipline-related source, such (as) a police or human services agency," he said. 

In a nutshell, a rough outline of a capstone, according to Czarnec, may look something like this:

  • Select a topic and have it approved by the instructor
  • Evaluate relevance to the proposal
  • Perform necessary research
  • Present results in the agreed-upon fashion

Czarnec said that if you're looking for a capstone topic, you may consider focusing on an area you're passionate about or you could also try to ask you instructor for some assistance. For example, Czarnec said that he can act as a guide, mentor, editor and research resource for his students to help them focus and narrow their search for a capstone topic.

Are Capstone Projects Difficult?

"Not necessarily," said Czarnec. "It does force you to be efficient and very specific to topic. No fluff. Straight forward. Razor sharp." 

The capstone is more of an opportunity to catch your breath, he said, and to retrace and pull up what you have learned in a more stress-free environment.

"It helps validate students as learners," Czarnec said.

Depending on the major and course requirements, there may be opportunities to connect with outside contacts, not only to assist with the capstone project research and problem statement but also to provide a networking community.

"Not every research project is, nor should they be, the same," Czarnec said. "Everyone has a different approach."

What is the Difference Between a Thesis and a Capstone Project?

A blue and white icon of a pencil writing on lines

A capstone is similar to a thesis in that the starting point involves the strengths needed for a thesis or dissertation work. For example, you may need to consider the skeletal structure of research and form your theory, hypothesis and problem statement.

"While a capstone is certainly a scholarly piece of work and does share some aspects of a thesis, the time and detail that is required of a master's thesis is greater," MacCarty said. 

A capstone paper may be 25 pages, whereas a thesis could be 100 or more. If you choose to further your education beyond a bachelor's degree, the capstone project could be an invaluable tool in preparing for a graduate thesis.

Capstone Projects are About Your Success

Capstones of all programs are leading you to the end game, Czarnec said. The goal is to develop you into a well-rounded thinker who can pull their work together in a coherent, articulate, well-organized fashion while considering the demands of the profession or vocation you're interested in.

The focus and intent of a capstone should be to create an effective device to assess and measure all that you've learned throughout your program in an aggregate fashion so you can demonstrate your life-long vocational skills in a nice, neat package. 

"My goal is for students to leave the program confident about their skills and abilities," said Czarnec.

MacCarty said that capstone courses should be structured to support your success in fulfilling program requirements and allow you the opportunity to showcase your academic abilities and skills gained throughout your degree program.

A degree can change your life. Choose your program from 200+ SNHU degrees that can take you where you want to go.

Laurie Smith '14 is a writer, editor and communications specialist. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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