Saturday, December 14, 2013

Which Master Would You Like to Become?

I recently accepted the graduate program director position. Part of my job is to advise the students in our Master of Science in Engineering Management (MSEM) program to develop and refine their plan of study. This blog post is to answer a basic question from many MS students at the beginning of the program:
Shall I get a Master's degree with course-only, a capstone project, or a thesis?
First of all, I'd like to elaborate these three options from the following three aspects that are most concerned by the students: how much the work load is, how likely it is to get the financial support, and what the opportunities look like after graduation.

1. Work load per credit: course only < capstone project < thesis.

An MSEM degree requires 30 credits. Each regular course offers 3 credits. The students are required to take 3 seminar courses, 1 credit each. Therefore, a student can take away a Master's degree by completing 9 regular courses and 3 semesters of seminars. The expected work load of a regular course is between 3 and 10 hours per week, depending upon how demanding the instructor is. The course-only option usually requires the least amount of work load among the three.

A 3-credit capstone project requires industry sponsorship. The student needs to work with a industry partner to apply the lessons learned from the regular courses to a real world industry/business problem. Unlike the regular courses, there is not an instructor offering lectures in a capstone project. The student has to work with the industry partner and the faculty advisor to define the project scope, execute each task and complete the project with an oral presentation and a written report. Although a capstone project offers the same number of credits as a regular course, the effort involved in a capstone project is usually more than what's required for a regular course.

The two-semester (or 6-credit) MS thesis research requires the student to conduct a research project under the supervision of one or two faculty members. The project can be either theoretical or practical. The completion of the research project requires a rigorous MS thesis and a final oral defense in front of the MS thesis committee. While the capstone project does not require the student to have any contribution to the human knowledge base, the MS thesis research requires the student to do something novel. A typical outcome of a MS thesis research project can be a conference paper. Due to the nature of research, the effort required to complete MS thesis research is usually more than double of a capstone project's.

2. Likelihood of financial support: course only < capstone project < thesis.

Most financial support includes teaching assistantships from the department, research assistantships from the faculty, and stipends from external industry sponsors. Other than very rare cases, the course-only MS students are expected to be self-funded. When an industry partner is willing to sponsor a capstone project for a student, they may also put some incentive on the table in some form of stipend. If a faculty member is willing to take a student on a funded research project, the student may get a research assistantship. Usually it is more likely for a faculty to get a funded project than for a student to get an industry sponsored project with stipend.

3. Future opportunities: breadth vs. depth.

If the student is taking the course-only option, his or her plan of study will include 3 seminar courses and 9 regular courses. There will be 8 regular courses for the capstone project option, and 7 regular courses for the thesis option. The more regular courses a student takes, usually the more breadth the plan of study can cover. On the other hand, the options of capstone project and thesis offer the student more depth through individual study experience than the course-only option. In addition, a student can get the opportunities of leveraging the network of the industry sponsor and/or faculty advisor through the capstone project or MS thesis research project.

Overlaps and exceptions

In addition to the differentiators mentioned above, there are overlaps among the three options. For instance, a student can take an individual study course with a faculty member to gain some research experience. If the project in the individual study course is sponsored by an industry partner, then the student may eventually get the experience like a capstone project less some formal requirements such as the project committee. The course-only students can also seek internship opportunities to gain industry experience. There are also exceptions from what I described above. For instance, a student under the thesis option may be slack. If the advisor is easy-going, then such a student may still get away with the MS degree and a weak thesis.

Having said all the above, how to make a decision?

It depends upon the purpose of getting the MS degree, which is ultimately driven by where the student is and where s/he wants to be. It is not an easy decision. Below are some clear cases that I can make recommendations:
  • A full-time MS student trying to get into a PhD program or to figure out whether to apply for a PhD program after the Master's degree: thesis.
  • A full-time MS student with no industry experience hoping to land an industry job after graduation: capstone project or thesis with a practical topic.
  • A full-time PhD student in other programs interested in having an MSEM degree while pursuing the PhD: course-only.
  • A working professional seeking career advancement to the management level, pursuing the MSEM degree part-time: capstone project if the company is willing to sponsor the project; course-only otherwise.

One thing to always keep in mind

Regardless which option a student chooses, I hope every student understand "no pain, no gain". The ones who get big offers at the end of the program are usually the ones who have studied hard and got the most out of the program. The ones trying to take the easiest courses will take away a piece of paper, but not the skill sets required for the dream jobs.


  1. Great post Tao! I wish you were my advisor when I was in school, you've got a great sense for differing needs

  2. Thank you for this informative post. Regarding the capstone path, I have no field experience and would benefit greatly from this route so I would like to find a company to work with. Having zero connections and little familiarity in Charlotte where do I begin?


  3. You probably fall in the second category I mentioned above. It's probably easier for you to find a professor to work with than a company sponsor.


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