Typically serving as the culminating experience in an MBA program, a capstone or thesis project bridges academic study and professional practice, applying the skills gained from an MBA to real-world business management and research. Thesis projects commonly take a more academic, research-based approach, while capstones focus on the practical side of business, often requiring students to identify and solve problems at real companies.
Capstones require students to synthesize everything they’ve learned from their MBA programs, serving as their best opportunity to demonstrate understanding of business principles and practices. Andrew Gold, an associate professor of management at Saint Leo University in Florida, puts it plainly: “The capstone is probably the single most important class in the entire program.”
This page offers a general guide to MBA capstone and thesis projects. Below, find an overview of the key differences between the two types of projects, typical steps to research and writing, capstone project examples, and answers to common questions — all accompanied by expert advice from an MBA faculty member.
What’s the Difference Between a Capstone and a Thesis?
While a capstone and thesis serve similar functions, most MBA programs distinguish between the two projects. MBAs typically include practicum/internship components, enabling students to gain hands-on experience in professional business environments. Capstones build on this experience, requiring students to develop practical solutions to real-world business problems.
As Gold explains, “The [capstone] is intended to demonstrate that you understand and can apply what you have learned about the various disciplines in the business school and use some creativity to put together comprehensive analyses of complicated, real-life problems.”
A thesis generally takes a more academic approach, requiring students to answer a question to contribute new knowledge to the field through a comprehensive research paper. Programs with an academic focus, preparing graduates for research and academic positions, might opt for a thesis over a capstone.
The MBA Capstone
The MBA Thesis
When does it happen?
During the final year of the program
Typically during the final year of the program, though students may begin work earlier
How long does it take?
One semester to a full academic year
Often a full academic year
How much time per week does it require?
How many pages is it?
Variable; often 15-20 pages
Variable; often 40-80+ pages
What’s its purpose?
To solve a practical business problem
To contribute new knowledge to the field of business through research
What’s the format?
A hands-on project or a research paper
An extensive research paper
How important is it to your MBA?
What are its research requirements?
Variable — students typically conduct research in relation to their business problem
More extensive — students are expected to produce a literature review and their own research
How do you present it?
Typically a public seminar
Typically a public or private seminar, often with a formal oral defense
What type of collaboration is necessary?
Students often work as part of a team
Students often work individually with supervision from a faculty advisor
What type of student does it serve?
Students with professional aspirations
Students with academic aspirations
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The MBA Capstone
Broadly, MBA capstones require students to synthesize major program principles to address contemporary business issues, serving to assess overall knowledge and individual skill. As Gold explains, “In addition to demonstrating students’ abilities to analyze complex problems, the [capstone] typically shows evidence of creative thinking, critical thinking, and the ability to examine a problem from a variety of functional perspectives.” The following sections detail typical capstone components and processes.
The MBA Capstone Process
A capstone occurs during the program’s final year, and often during its final semester. While some programs may use an extended format spanning multiple semesters (often with one semester dedicated to project preparation), many opt for concentrated capstones, which last just one semester.
A capstone usually serves as the most intensive collaborative project of an MBA curriculum. Many capstones require students to work in teams, delegating tasks to address problems just as real companies would. Many projects see students work alongside local organizations to develop solutions to actual business issues.
As with a thesis, students typically complete their capstone under the supervision of a faculty advisor, who guides all aspects of the project. Capstones completed at local businesses often see students reporting directly to real supervisors, but faculty advisors are always available to offer additional support. “If students are working on real-life projects for a company, the advisor can be a great source of information,” says Gold.
Advisors guide students through the stages of their capstone projects. These stages may include topic selection, research, project execution, a written paper, and a final presentation.
The MBA Capstone Format
A capstone may take the form of either an extensive project or research paper, and many schools offer students a choice between the two. While neither format is “better,” the hands-on nature of a project can provide valuable professional training for those looking to move directly into the workforce after graduation.
As Gold notes, “The purpose of most capstone classes is to give the students the chance to apply what they have learned in their MBA program. The best way to do that is with a real-life problem, being experienced by a real company, that will give the students the opportunity to apply what they have learned to a real-life situation.”
Regardless of capstone format, students typically present their projects to faculty and peers at their courses’ conclusion.
Choosing Your Capstone Topic
Given the importance of a capstone project, choosing the right topic is crucial. Before selecting a topic, Gold recommends that students identify a company to work with. “If possible, it is best to choose a company that you can reach out to or have some sort of contact with, as opposed to just selecting a random company.”
The role of effective networking can’t be underestimated for a capstone project, as Gold explains. “Company contacts can be an invaluable source of information for the projects,” he says. “Ask around, check with your network on LinkedIn, etc. to see if anyone has some ideas or can provide you an introduction to a company you can use as the focal point for your project.”
While it’s wise to choose a topic based on professional interests and aspirations, Gold notes that topic selection may largely depend on the organizations students work with: “Try to find out if there are any current projects that the company is getting ready to launch that you can start with. Chances are that you won’t need to start from scratch, but the company will be able to provide you with some guidance.”
Example Topics for Capstone Projects
MBA capstone project ideas vary as much as businesses themselves. The five examples summarized below represent a variety of potential MBA capstone ideas for students to explore.
Business Plan for a Startup Venture
As a common capstone project, a student might assist a small startup operation in devising and implementing a business plan for a new service or product. The capstone might address general challenges faced by new business ventures, along with the unique issues faced by an individual startup.
Analysis of Emerging Technology Threats
Technology helps certain industries and hinders others, and this capstone examines the issues facing businesses as a result of changing technologies. Students might help retail businesses develop strategies to better compete with online businesses.
Reorganization After Corporate Downsizing
Students explore the logistical, management, and personnel challenges presented by downsizing companies. An effective capstone project might focus on addressing one or several issues related to downsizing, such as fostering employee morale, restructuring human resources, or dealing with changes in budgeting.
Gamification of Sustainability Behaviors
This project explores gamification strategies, such as competitions and interactive games, for increasing green and sustainability practices within organizations. Students might research, devise, and implement gamification measures and develop systems for measuring their effectiveness.
Feasibility and Market Analysis for a New App
Capstone projects often focus on very specific issues facing businesses. In this case, students might focus entirely on the viability of a new mobile app that has yet to go to market, researching consumer demand and business projections.
Completing Your MBA Capstone
Along with the actual work of assisting a company, capstones typically involve significant research and writing, requiring students to identify the problem at the heart of the capstone and detail their strategies for addressing it. A successful capstone report comprises several steps, including research, outlining, writing, and presentation.
How to Research for Your Capstone
Capstone research often involves a literature review of existing information on a topic, along with original research into the company itself. To address a business problem, students must understand both the general nature of the problem and its specific impact on an organization.
Gold recommends students familiarize themselves with their capstone topics before contacting their organizations with questions: “Get as much information as possible from publicly available sources. Prepare questions in advance.”
When conducting interviews, strive for courtesy and professionalism. “Understand that the people you speak with in the company are doing this outside their normal job routine, so make it as easy as possible for them to help you with the least amount of effort on their part,” Gold adds. “Be specific with your requests and be very professional.”
How to Outline Your Capstone
After conducting initial research, students should create an outline to organize their ideas and prepare to write their capstone papers. Exact organizational strategies vary depending on capstone subject, but most papers begin with an introduction to the company and/or business issue before moving into a more in-depth problem statement. The paper then states capstone goals and objectives, and it describes methods and strategies, a management plan, and a strategy for evaluating the effectiveness of the project.
Gold offers some practical advice for students: “Start with a high-level list of bullet points that will carve out each of the different sections of the project. Then start to narrow down each of the sections. Much of the outline will develop as you start to proceed with the project and there are a variety of templates online that you can also use as a guide.”
How to Write Your Capstone
Gold recommends students begin their writing with high-level questions: “What is it that you are trying to answer? Avoid very simple yes/no-type questions, and instead ask questions like, ‘How might we’ or ‘How can we,’ that imply more complicated answers. As you hone in your question/topic for your project, then start to think about how you would go about answering the question.”
Given that most capstone projects aim to propose solutions to business problems, students should ensure they clearly define the business problem, their strategies for addressing it, and their methods for evaluating strategy effectiveness. Capstone writing should always adopt a professional tone, suitable for academic or business communications, and students can work with faculty to ensure their work meets professional standards.
Capstone Project Workflow Tips
Make Realistic Goals: As Gold suggests, “Don’t be overly zealous — make sure that the project is scoped properly so it can be completed within the time constraints of the class.”
Divide Work Into Stages: Map out the majors stages of the capstone and set weekly or even daily goals to meet.
Delegate Tasks Efficiently: A capstone typically involves significant collaboration with other students and company members. Maintain frequent contact to ensure that each team member understands their designated responsibilities.
Use Past Work as a Guide: As Gold notes, old assignments can serve as a model for aspects of your capstone: “Go over your past classes and think of what it might look like to do a marketing analysis/marketing plan, financial analysis, operational analysis, etc. as part of your overall project.”
Seek Assistance When Necessary: Faculty can assist at every stage of the capstone process, so don’t be afraid to ask for help when problems come up. “Better to ask and get a clear direction instead of wasting time and struggling to figure it out on [your] own,” says Gold.
Presenting Your MBA Capstone
In most programs, the capstone concludes with either a presentation to a group of faculty and peers. The presentation serves two major purposes: Students can showcase their work, while faculty and peers can present questions, suggestions, and critique. A panel comprising faculty members and/or business leaders typically evaluates the capstone presentation.
Capstone presentations are often open to the public, and if students perform their work with a specific company, organization members may attend, as well. In some instances, students may complete two presentations: one to the company and one to their MBA program.
Students typically use PowerPoint to supplement their written capstone report. Gold recommends students go beyond merely summarizing their findings, noting that “the best [capstones] get beyond simply restating the facts and have well-supported explanations for how/why the company should be following the recommendations. The truly best ones [present] a full evaluation of the options…noting both pros and cons associated with the recommendations.”
How Is an MBA Capstone Graded?
While evaluation methods vary among MBAs, most programs grade students on their capstones and accompanying presentations. Students may also receive a rubric beforehand, so they know the evaluation criteria. A strong capstone can yield both academic and professional benefits, as students may include successful work on their resumes.
Gold offers an overview of his general capstone rubric: “The basic contents include covering the different functional aspects (e.g. marketing, management, operations) as well as including specific concepts that come from the strategic management literature/books. I also include grammar/formatting as a part of the grade and encourage the students who have issues with their writing to get help on it.”
While not common, it is possible for students to receive a failing grade on a master’s capstone. In many instances, programs allow students to repeat their capstone projects, though this will depend on individual circumstances and may require an appeals process.
The MBA Thesis
An MBA thesis functions similarly to a capstone in some regards, but the two projects maintain notable differences. While capstones address practical business problems, thesis projects draw on original research to contribute new knowledge to the field of business. This section outlines major components of an MBA thesis.
The MBA Thesis Format
Unlike capstone courses, MBA thesis projects require months or years of rigorous research. A thesis is a multipage paper that students write individually as a prerequisite for graduating. Degree candidates often begin working on their theses when they start their programs. Some universities require students to enroll in special thesis seminars or courses. Oftentimes, thesis seminars introduce students to faculty members who guide them through the process.
Advisors help degree candidates structure their MBA theses. Some universities provide thesis templates highlighting the key sections students must include, such as an abstract and appendix.
Choosing Your Thesis Topic
MBAs prepare students to work in upper management, in which they determine policy and create practices to help their companies grow financially. Students should network with other degree candidates, entrepreneurs, and business professionals to learn more about business pitfalls and issues in their prospective career fields. These connections give students quality insight into the business community and help them select comprehensive thesis topics.
Degree candidates should also network with faculty members, who act as prospective thesis advisors. Advisors consult students’ course instructors and approve thesis topics. Thesis topics explore traditional industry problems and the current issues business owners face.
Completing Your MBA Thesis
An MBA thesis must be a work of original research. Therefore, students must take the time to thoroughly plan their thesis statements and gather research materials. Designing a thesis requires a clear understanding of the industry and its issues. Students should select familiar, relevant topics with information readily available for research. Thesis committees review selected topics and give students final clearance to proceed with their research.
While investigating thesis sources, learners must keep a journal to record notes and bibliographical information. Journals prove useful when advisors or instructors ask for documentation of students’ progress. Students should dedicate time each week to writing their theses. Their advisors create deadlines for drafts and revisions.
Presenting Your MBA Thesis
Master’s degree candidates showcase their hard work at the thesis presentation. The thesis committee typically consists of multiple faculty members, including a course instructor, an advisor, and an external reviewer. Some universities give students presentation outlines to follow. First, students present their research objective. Next, they talk about the literature and framework used during their study. Then, students delve into the thesis methodology.
This portion of the presentation demonstrates to the panel that students fully understand the scope of their projects and properly implement the appropriate theories. After discussing methodology, students present their findings. They may use graphs, polls, PowerPoints, or other devices.
How is an MBA Thesis Graded?
Instructors grade thesis projects according to university grading guidelines. If a university gives letter grades for written assignments, students receive letter grades for their MBA theses. Depending on the program, students may receive grading rubrics. Advisors and course instructors work closely with students to communicate thesis requirements. Students’ thesis grades significantly impact their overall GPA and determine whether or not they can graduate.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an MBA capstone project?
A capstone typically serves as the culminating requirement for an MBA program, requiring students to synthesize what they have learned to research and address a contemporary business problem.
What are different types of MBA capstones?
Capstones typically take the form of either a research project, in which students research topics independently, or hands-on projects, in which students work directly with businesses to solve problems.
Is a capstone course hard?
As the culminating experience for most programs, a capstone requires students to demonstrate wide-ranging business skills and mastery of overall program principles, both of which faculty evaluate rigorously.
How long does an MBA capstone project take?
Specific length requirements vary between programs, but most capstones require 1-2 semesters to complete. Some may last the duration of the program’s final year, while others take place over one semester.
What is a great company for an MBA capstone analysis project?
Students typically have the most success completing their capstones at companies with which they hold existing connections or relationships. Students may struggle cold-calling companies to request access for capstone research.
What happens if you fail your capstone?
Exact procedures vary among schools and programs. However, students who fail their capstones may repeat the course with program director approval.
Is a capstone the same as a thesis?
While a capstone and thesis both serve as culminating MBA requirements, they differ slightly in overall goals and methods. Capstones take a more professional approach, while thesis projects are more academic.
What is the difference between a dissertation and a capstone?
Most commonly, capstones require students to use their knowledge to solve practical business problems, while thesis projects require learners to perform research contributing new knowledge to the field.
Is a thesis required for an MBA?
Not all programs require an MBA thesis. Thesis projects often fulfill requirements for more academically focused MBAs, which prepare graduates for positions in research and education.
How long is an MBA thesis?
Length and time requirements vary between programs, but a thesis often takes two semesters to complete, resulting in a document of 40-80+ pages.
Meet the Expert
Associate Professor, Saint Leo University
Andrew Gold, Ph.D., is an associate professor of management at Saint Leo University in Florida and an adjunct associate professor at the University of North Carolina, teaching managing innovation processes and performance in the online MBA program. He received his bachelor’s degree in finance in 1992 from Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, with a focus on international finance and investments. He received his doctorate in 2002 from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, with a focus on strategy and innovation management.