Capstone and Thesis Overview

Capstone and thesis are similar in that they both represent a culminating, scholarly effort of high quality. Both should clearly state a problem or issue to be addressed. Both will allow students to complete a larger project and produce a product or publication that can be highlighted on their resumes. Students should consider the factors below when deciding whether a capstone or thesis may be more appropriate to pursue.


A capstone is a practical or real-world project that can emphasize preparation for professional practice. A capstone is more appropriate if:

A student can enroll in MSDS 498 Capstone in any term. However, capstone specialization courses can provide a unique student experience and may be offered only twice a year. 


A thesis is an academic-focused research project with broader applicability. A thesis is more appropriate if:

Students can enroll in MSDS 590 Thesis as long as there is an approved thesis project proposal, identified thesis adviser, and all other required documentation at least two weeks before the start of any term.


From Faculty Director, Thomas W. Miller, PhD

Tom Miller

Capstone projects and thesis research give students a chance to study topics of special interest to them. Students can highlight analytical skills developed in the program. Work on capstone and thesis research projects often leads to publications that students can highlight on their resumes.”

A thesis is an individual research project that usually takes two to four terms to complete. Capstone course sections, on the other hand, represent a one-term commitment.

Students need to evaluate their options prior to choosing a capstone course section because capstones vary widely from one instructor to the next. There are both general and specialization-focused capstone sections. Some capstone sections offer in individual research projects, others offer team research projects, and a few give students a choice of individual or team projects.

Students should refer to the SPS Graduate Student Handbook for more information regarding registration for either MSDS 590 Thesis or MSDS 498 Capstone.


Capstone Experience

Ali Gowani (MSDS '20) and his capstone team conducted a case with an AI start-up, AmplifAI. The capstone case involved predicting the performance of frontline customer service agents. In this video,  Ali shares best practices he has learned for securing a capstone project with a company.

If students wish to engage with an outside organization to work on a project for capstone, they can refer to this checklist and lessons learned for some helpful tips.


Capstone Checklist

  • Start early — set aside a minimum of one to two months prior to the capstone quarter to determine the industry and modeling interests.
  • Networking — pitch your idea to potential organizations for projects and focus on the business benefits you can provide.
  • Permission request — make sure your final project can be shared with others in the course and the information can be made public.
  • Engagement — engage with the capstone professor prior to and immediately after getting the dataset to ensure appropriate scope for the 10 weeks.
  • Teambuilding — recruit team members who have similar interests for the type of project during the first week of the course.

Capstone Lesson Learned

  • Access to company data can take longer than expected; not having this access before or at the start of the term can severely delay the progress
  • Project timeline should align with coursework timeline as closely as possible
  • One point of contact (POC) for business facing to ensure streamlined messages and more effective time management with the organization
  • Expectation management on both sides: (business) this is pro-bono (students) this does not guarantee internship or job opportunities
  • Data security/masking not executed in time can risk the opportunity completely

Publication of Work

Northwestern University Libraries offers an option for students to publish their master’s thesis or capstone in Arch, Northwestern’s open access research and data repository.

Benefits for publishing your thesis:
  • Your work will be indexed by search engines and discoverable by researchers around the world, extending your work’s impact beyond Northwestern
  • Your work will be assigned a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) to ensure perpetual online access and to facilitate scholarly citation
  • Your work will help accelerate discovery and increase knowledge in your subject domain by adding to the global corpus of public scholarly information
Get started:
  • Visit Arch online
  • Log in with your NetID
  • Describe your thesis: title, author, date, keywords, rights, license, subject, etc.
  • Upload your thesis or capstone PDF and any related supplemental files (data, code, images, presentations, documentation, etc.)
  • Select a visibility: Public, Northwestern-only, Embargo (i.e. delayed release)
  • Save your work to the repository

Your thesis manuscript or capstone report will then be published on the MSDS page. You can view other published work here.

For questions or support in publishing your thesis or capstone, please contact

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