As you begin your doctoral program search or even as you are well into your program, you may be confronted with the option to do a capstone track rather than a traditional dissertation track. Both offer you the opportunity to put “Dr.” before your name, and both require course work and a report – dissertation or capstone – at the end. However, that is often where the similarities end. Before you jump into doing a capstone or before you flatly rule it out, take some time to really understand the two tracks that your university offers.
1. Understand what a capstone is
A capstone is a report or a research study that a doctoral student produces at the end of their program. Typically, it is done in conjunction with a local research site in which the student has some involvement, such as a local school or business. The purpose of the capstone is to allow the student the opportunity to conduct an action research study where they will identify a process that needs to be changed, design the program or process to initiate the change, and then evaluate the results.
2. Learn how a capstone is different from a dissertation
In a capstone, the writer is working within an organization to bring about some kind of change – to a process or a program. For example, the writer may work at a university where the financial aid office is taking too long to get information to prospective students and as a consequence, many potential students give up in frustration.
The writer might do some background research by interviewing financial aid officers to understand where the bottlenecks are and what policies govern their processes. At that point the writer then would design, using theory of change and evidenced-based research, a capstone project that addresses the need for change. This could be done through a training that teaches a new process or a new policy, and then the writer would evaluate the results.
In a dissertation, the writer is examining a broader topic, and collecting data that addresses a societal problem and helps to fill a research gap. Using a quantitative or qualitative approach, the writer would identify who they wanted to use as participants to further explore the problem and identify key themes and concepts that could be used to collect data from participants. The writer then analyzes that data, determines what the key findings of the data reveal, and forms recommendations for policy, practice, and future research.
3. Review what the benefits are to each
The capstone may be a good option for you if you are already working within an organization that is going through some kind of change and is open to having one of its employees or someone affiliated with it engage in a study of a process that is not working well.
The capstone option can also be a good choice if you are working on a team already conducting research for which you can use the existing data to create your study. Some universities allow this option. Finally, the capstone may be a good choice for you if you are interested in change theory and find process issues fascinating. Remember, the capstone is not about addressing large societal problems, but rather, zooming in and creating a program to train people on a new process in their workplace or within an organization.
The dissertation may be a good option for you if you are not affiliated with a particular organization in which you can get into the weeds of specific processes or organizational policies. This kind of access is essential for the capstone process, so without it, you would need to do the dissertation. But let’s talk about why the dissertation is the best choice for you, otherwise.
If you like to explore broader issues, societal problems, and want to write about those while collecting data from participants who help you form recommendations then the dissertation is for you. Furthermore, if you are anticipating that you want to be a faculty member in higher education, or if you want to continue to conduct research, a PhD program with a dissertation is likely the better path. Finally, the dissertation is widely accepted as it has a much more standardized process than a capstone which can vary by university and by department.
4. Recognize what the downsides are to each
First, explore your motivations. If you are choosing the capstone because you’ve heard it’s easier or it’s shorter or it doesn’t involve research, please know that none of this is true. Ironically, a capstone is often longer than a dissertation because it typically includes two parts: the program you’ve designed and implemented to address the needed change (this might be a 4-week professional development program for faculty, for example) and the final report, which includes an overview of your project, the literature review, the data collection and data analysis, the results, and recommendations.
My capstone students were always shocked to discover what went into the capstone project. It is not shorter and it is not easier than a dissertation. Thus, choose the capstone option based on its better choice for your situation, not because you’ve heard it is easier. It is not. The dissertation, while more straightforward than the capstone, can be the wrong choice for students who want to do more applied work in their field. If a company’s IT Director is interested in examining how staff members at her organization need to be trained to prevent email fraud, doing a dissertation on broader societal issues around email fraud is going to be misaligned to her motivations.
A dissertation also needs to address a unique problem. A dissertation on spam in email is either not unique enough because it is a subject explored widely or it’s going to be out of date as soon as it is published. In a capstone, the writer only has to be as unique as the situation requires in their organization.
Finally, a dissertation often requires more emphasis on the data collection and data analysis, as the results and discussion in chapters 4 and 5 help to justify the rationale for the study and importantly lay out the findings that should in some way address a gap in the literature.
Whereas a capstone writer might conduct brief interviews with staff or administer surveys to 25 people in an organization to gain further insight into a problem, a dissertation writer will either have to use a large sample size for a quantitative study in order to have statistical significance or they will have hundreds of pages of qualitative data to code from the 10 people they interviewed. Without a separate program report to include as in the capstone, the dissertation relies heavily on what the data says and how the writer interprets it.
5. Determine what your long-term goals are
Think about this decision first through the lens of what you want to do with your doctorate. If your goal is to continue in higher education as a faculty member or if you want to continue conducting and publishing research, then the dissertation is likely to be a better option. If you prefer hands-on research and designing processes and the organization you are affiliated with is open to your involvement in it, then the capstone is possibly the better option.
One is not necessarily better than the other. One is not easier than the other. Determine what your goals are, what the programs available offer, and what you have access to in the way of a research site. Then make your decision!