Capstone or Thesis? Which will you choose?

Written by Lauren Sittler


This year, for the first time, the SCM program added a degree and provided the option to students to pursue one of two degrees: Master of Applied Science (MASc.), or Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) in Supply Chain Management. M.Eng. students write a thesis, while MASc. students complete capstone projects.

This article provides an overview of both options, their pros and cons, and some key decision factors from a student’s perspective that may help you decide!

Completing a Capstone Project

Working on a capstone project allows students to solve a real-world problem and make a tangible difference in a company. Projects are sponsored by a wide-range of companies. Some are large and well-established, looking for ways to transform long-standing systems and workflows. Some are mid-sized companies facing a new challenge. Yet others are startups, looking for students to research new concepts. The topics students are tackling this year include blockchain and 3D printing, and many others.

Students work with company-provided data and apply methods learned in class to develop an optimization model or a new forecasting procedure that addresses a specific problem. Students engage in regular meetings with company contacts and often have the opportunity for site visits to manufacturing plants and / or distribution centers.

Companies and SCM faculty present capstone topics to students during orientation. Then students bid on their favorite projects. Each project is assigned to a pair of students who will work as a team. It is not always guaranteed that students will receive their first choice although most receive one of their top two projects.

The pictures below feature students on company-sponsored site visits. Mary Kate Gorman and Bernadette Orende are working on a project with a Fortune 500 company in the consumer packaged goods industry. Hilary Taylor and Russ Miller are working on a project with a start-up company in lot traceability of food products.

Tony, Mary Kate, and Bernadette visited a manufacturing plant in Ohio

Working on a Thesis Project

Thesis projects are longer, have more extensive academic requirements, and are done individually. It is the responsibility of the student to propose a topic that is relevant and original to the field of supply chain management.

The thesis can involve one sponsoring company like the capstone or address a supply chain challenge common across an entire industry.  In either case, it is entirely up to the student to research the topic independently and to reach out to potential partner companies or industry groups.

The thesis write-up must include a literature review, a component not required for the capstone project. This section, which will appear at the beginning of the thesis, is typically 10 – 30 pages long. It defines the context of the research question, identifies the gap in current knowledge that the thesis will address, and presents the methodologies that will be used to solve the problem.

Hilary and Russ took a trip to the beach after their capstone visit in California

Key Decision Factors in Choosing a Degree

Academic & Career Goals
If you wish to continue in the SCM program beyond the one-year masters, performing research or working towards a PhD, writing a thesis will help you to prepare for that. If you plan to work in industry or consulting after graduation, a capstone project can provide you with a taste of what to expect after joining the workforce. There are certain benefits to both project options.

Personal Interests
Is there a specific problem you want to solve? What better place to research a technical topic than at MIT? While a thesis requires a little extra initiative, it allows a student to be fully creative, drawing upon past education, and work experience to work on the problem that most interests him or her. Writing a thesis is a great way to tailor the SCM program to your individual interests, deepen your knowledge of a particular subject, and learn from experts in other departments across the university. At the same time, you might run into a capstone project that is a great match for you. There are students who got to work on a capstone project that was an interest of their industry and problem.

Competing Time Requirements
Grad school at MIT has so much to offer: clubs, athletics, entrepreneurial events, recruiting sessions, cross-registering for classes at nearby universities, free food hunting, and much more.

The SCM program is only 10-months long so you have to prioritize!

There are also other ways to personalize your degree should you choose to forgo a thesis. Students in the SCM Masters are allowed to pursue certificates through the Sloan School of Management. These certificates, in healthcare and sustainability require extra coursework beyond the SCM classes in a concentrated series of electives. Pursuing a certificate and writing a thesis is definitely an ambitious workload to take on!

If you are wondering what employers might think of the two degrees, don’t worry. So far, degree choices have had no impact on hiring decisions. But, it’s ultimately your choice as to which degree will appear on your resume.

My Choice
I arrived on campus with a very specific background and set of interests. I had spent almost five years working as a chemical engineer, mostly in the natural gas industry. My career interests are very focused in energy and sustainability.

I wanted to hear all of the company presentations before I made my choice, just in case one might be a great fit. There were some exciting projects for sure, and I waivered when Bruce, Executive Director of the Supply Chain Management Program, asked me whether or not I would participate in capstone bidding at the end of August.

In the end I chose to stay true to my long-time passions. I am writing a thesis on natural gas transportation, drawing upon both my first-hand experience in the field as an engineer, and my freshly-learned skills in supply chain management.

My experience does not apply to everyone in the program. Some students were lucky enough to be assigned to projects in their exact area of interest, yet others chose to expand upon a company-sponsored project and turn it into a thesis, gaining the advantages of both degrees.

The choice is yours and the options are endless. Which will you choose?

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