As a student progresses through a master’s degree program in communication, they typically work toward a capstone project. While students may be familiar with capstone projects from their undergraduate studies, graduate programs require projects of greater rigor. The project generally takes one of several forms, with most graduate programs offering some or all of the following options:

  • Thesis
  • Publishable papers
  • Applied project
  • Comprehensive exam

Prospective students should give consideration to the options that potential programs afford them prior to applying and making their selection. Likewise, current students should begin and progress through their plans of study with their capstone project in mind. This can help students make better decisions about the courses they take and the class projects they choose to complete. To learn more about the different capstone options, including what they require and the type of student who might benefit from each, see the sections below.

Common Capstone Options When Earning a Master’s in Communication


A thesis is an extensive research project that spans the second half of a student’s time in graduate school. This differs from a publishable paper, in that it tends to be much longer. Theses often exceed 100 pages, while a typical research paper is 25 to 30 pages in length.

When completing a thesis, students identify a communication phenomenon of interest. They then apply research methods in the field to answer questions or test hypotheses about that phenomenon.

The type of thesis a student completes is based on the methodology they use in the study. As a result, most programs offer a thesis option with the choice to complete a quantitative, qualitative, or rhetorical thesis. A few programs also offer a documentary thesis, an option which allows students to develop a documentary investigating their area of interest while applying communication theory.

As a student develops their thesis, they work with a committee of their choosing. This typically involves three or four members of their department, with one being the chair who leads the committee. In rare cases, a student may have a member outside of their department or even their university join the committee due to specialized knowledge they can offer. Students who wish to use human subjects as part of their research study may have to seek approval from their university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) before starting to collect data.

Theses are a common option for graduate students, but they tend to be a better fit for those considering a PhD program after graduation. This type of long-term research project is an excellent way to prepare for a PhD program and a career in academia.

It is important to note, however, that theses have long been a cornerstone of graduate programs. As a result, the thesis can often become a default option for students who are unsure about which option best suits them — even if a student has no desire to continue in academia.

Publishable Papers

Alongside the thesis option, some programs offer students the opportunity to develop multiple publishable papers. In contrast to the thesis, these papers end up being shorter in length individually, but collectively about equivalent.

Like a thesis, these papers are usually research based. They include an application of theory to a communication phenomenon, use a research method to investigate that phenomenon, and offer an analysis and discussion of the findings with ideas for future research.

This option is another great choice for students interested in earning their PhD. Students choosing between the publishable papers option and a thesis may want to give thought to the papers they have already started or completed during their master’s program.

It is not uncommon for graduate courses to require students to write the first half of a study or execute a full study. If a student feels that they have a good start based on previous coursework, they could choose to perfect earlier papers in preparation for publication. If a student does not have such papers available, the thesis may be a good option.

All of this should be weighed with the student’s interests in mind. If the student has papers they are greatly interested in completing and publishing, then they should forego the thesis. However, if the student dreads the idea of returning to their earlier projects, they should move forward with a thesis, which allows them to select a new and potentially more interesting topic.

Applied Project / Praxis

In some master’s in communication programs, students have the option to complete a praxis portfolio or in-depth project as their capstone requirement. For an applied project, students typically select a communication problem and use theory to provide a solution. The final result is a tangible, detailed document outlining the problem, the theories applied, and the implemented solution with measurement of success. Some examples might include:

  • A fully developed marketing plan
  • A documented consultation with a local organization or agency
  • A website or mobile application
  • Training guides or videos

In completing this option, the student works with a faculty advisor to develop the idea, gaining their approval before beginning the project. This often allows for a good amount of flexibility, allowing the student to explore their interests and execute a project they deem most valuable to their career.

Given the nature of the applied project, this option tends to be best for students seeking careers in industry following graduation, as well as working professionals pursuing a degree for career advancement. Those hiring outside of academia usually find greater value in the skills demonstrated with an applied project, while a thesis or publishable papers tend to display the skills and abilities needed in PhD programs or to work in an institution of higher education.

The applied project tends to take less time and effort than a thesis. Consequently, some programs require students to complete additional coursework in tandem with their project.

Comprehensive Exam

Finally, some programs offer the choice of a comprehensive exam in lieu of a thesis or project. These exams typically test knowledge of core curriculum — communication theory and research methods — followed by questions tailored to the interests of the student.

For example, a student specializing in organizational communication would have a portion of the exam focused on general theory and research methods, while the rest might test their knowledge of leadership, organizational culture, or group communication.

Often the exam is customized for each student by a committee. It is not unusual for there to be a written component and an oral component, during which the committee asks probing questions related to the student’s area of interest. Because this is a comprehensive exam with multiple sections, it usually takes most of a day to complete, or may be offered over the course of several days, depending on the program.

The exam is a good choice for those who might not have the time to complete a different capstone project, such as a student completing a time intensive internship at a local organization, or a part-time student with a full-time job. While either of these students can certainly find the time to complete one of the other options, they may find it beneficial to forego those alternatives in favor of the comprehensive exam.

Students should keep in mind, however, that the previous capstone projects provide graduates with a valuable, tangible product they can show employers or PhD programs after completing their degree. The absence of this useful collateral is a potential downside to choosing the comprehensive exam.

Typical Capstone Options by Program Type

Master’s in communication programs can be broadly sorted into two main categories: communication theory and applied communication. Programs that focus on research and the theoretical study of communication (e.g., interpersonal communication) are more likely to require students to complete a master’s thesis as their capstone, as these programs are designed to prepare students for doctoral programs in the field. Conversely, applied communication programs (e.g., strategic communication, public relations) focus on teaching students skills they can apply directly to careers in industry. As such, these programs typically give students the option to complete an applied project as their capstone. There are also programs that provide both options for students through research and applied tracks, and may offer multiple capstone options for students.

The other factor to consider is whether the program is offered on campus or online. Campus-based programs are more likely to require a master’s thesis or at least give students the option to complete one. The majority of online programs have students complete a project or portfolio as their capstone. There are some that do have a thesis option (or comprehensive exam option), but students interested in pursuing their degree online and also completing a thesis should confirm with their program of interest that a thesis option is available before applying.

Finally, there are programs that do not require a capstone at all in order for students to graduate. In these cases, once students complete the required curriculum, they are typically eligible to earn their degree, assuming they meet any requirements for graduation (e.g., minimum GPA requirements).

About the Author: Caleb Malik is a digital marketing strategist. He earned his Master's in Communication from Illinois State University, where he focused on organizational communication and quantitative research methods.