If you are nearing the end of your graduate degree program, the phrase “capstone project” may be slicing through the deep waters of your coursework like a shark fin. What is the ominous project and why do you have to complete it to graduate? It turns out there are several good reasons for requiring grad students to complete a capstone. To understand why a capstone is required in so many programs, we need to define what it is.

What is a Capstone Project?

Edglossary.org says it is a complex assignment that involves many steps and serves as a “culminating academic and intellectual experience…at the end of an academic program.” The term comes from architecture: A capstone is the final stone, usually flat, that is laid at the top of a wall or building to protect it and to symbolize it is finished. A capstone experience is the final “stone” laid on an education that symbolizes the completion of a program and the peak of accomplishment. In addition, it allows your teachers, peers and future employers to recognize your competency.

Are all Capstones the same?

In the way that architectural capstones are usually flat, capstone experiences are usually experiential. That is, they usually involve doing original research or solving a real-life problem by applying the knowledge and skills you gained through your degree program. Capstones are most notably found at the culmination of liberal arts and humanities programs, but business degrees often require a capstone experience as well. Although some capstones are hands-on projects like digging wells to bring fresh water to rural communities, others involve looking at a real life problem, such as critical path management, and designing a way to handle unanticipated events in business or industry.

How Are they Completed?

Every capstone starts with you, the student, identifying a problem. You think about the issue and isolate what you believe are causative elements. These are presented as theories. Once you develop an approach to overcoming the causes, you show your ideas as hypotheses. The theory and the hypothesis become your capstone proposal. Usually the proposal must be presented to a committee or advisor for approval. Then, you research and plan your solutions and implement them over a time span usually lasting a semester. Finally, you analyze the results and combine all these steps in a paper that you may have to present orally.

Do Online Students Complete Capstones?

If the program requires one, they do. Online degrees usually follow the same curriculum as traditional degrees, but the material is presented differently. That means if capstones are requisites of traditional programs, they will be required in online degree paths as well. They may, however, be completed in a different format.

The culmination of your education usually marks the beginning of your advanced professional experiences. Successfully completing a capstone project demonstrates to teachers and employers your proficiency in and mastery of your field. Completing a capstone project goes beyond that, though, to overcome uncertainties and give you the confidence that you need to excel in your profession.