Project-Thesis Comparison Guide for Applied Computer Science, M.S.

What is the difference between a thesis (CIS 690, CIS 695) and a project (CIS 693)? Use this guide, in consultation with your academic advisor, to help choose which option is best for you.


The thesis and project are similar in a few ways. First, they are both suppose to demonstrate that you've learned something, and that you have the ability to learn new things.

Second, both the thesis and project are "capstone" experiences. That means they should draw on and integrate the knowledge that you gained in the tracks that you took for your degree.

Third, both the thesis and project culminate in a public presentation.

Getting Started

Know which one is right for you? Learn how to get started, and general expectations for your project or thesis.


If you have want to build a (perhaps better) mousetrap, then do a project. If you have an original idea that you want to explore, then do a thesis.

Explore more ways that a project and thesis differ in the following table.





The primary way that a project is different than a thesis is in how you demonstrate your knowledge. With a project you demonstrate this by building something. It may involve something new (new technology, new methodology, etc.). Basically, a project is "applied" knowledge and learning with the product being the goal.

In contrast, the goal of a thesis is to become a "mini-expert" in a given field by researching the answer to a question and/or exploring the impact of an assumption (your hypothesis). This exploration then leads to some statement of fact (thesis). You (and your thesis advisor) come up with a question/assumption that is then tested. You would then develop and conduct experiments to either prove or disprove the hypothesis. This would then lead to one or more conclusions regarding validity of your hypothesis.

In a thesis, you demonstrate your knowledge through a full semester of research, investigation, deduction, reason, and experimentation. Note that the "experimentation" part (which in CS/IS means building a software system) is not the goal. It is just a tool to investigate your thesis. A thesis "feels" more like the scientific method than a project.


Projects are not expected to be earth shattering, or potentially even original. They are used to demonstrate that you can draw together your classroom experiences into an applied project.

With a thesis, your work is expected to be original. You are contributing knowledge to the CIS field. As such, your work should be publishable (even though you may not pursue actual publication). That means your work should stand up to review by practicing professionals in the field.

Final Write-Up

Since you demonstrate your knowledge in a project by building a product, only a brief report is required. This report is not nearly as rigorous as the one done for the thesis, and serves to summarize your project (describe the problem, present your solution, illustrate its usage).

In a thesis, however, most of the work you do doesn't necessarily produce anything (e.g, reading research papers). Therefore, a huge chunk of your thesis time is spent writing up your thesis document (typically the entire semester in which CIS 695 is taken). This describes all the work that you've done from the initial narrowing of the thesis topic through the final analysis of results. It demonstrates all of the knowledge that you gained and your ability to integrate it, analyze it, and draw conclusions from it. In essence, the thesis demonstrates that you have become a "mini-guru" in your subject area. Your original research and your thesis document are the goals of the thesis experience.

Final Presentation

With a project, the focus is on "look what I built". You explain the design and implementation of your project, and perhaps demo the project. Questions are often of the form "How did you do that?"

A thesis is presented in two parts. The first is a presentation of the idea, a thesis proposal. The thesis proposal is given at the end of CIS 690, where you present your original hypothesis, demonstrate that you have sufficient background preparation to address the topic (typically through literature review), and solicit feedback from faculty.

The second thesis presentation is the defense, which is done at the end of CIS 695. The defense shows that you have mastered your subject area. You are also defending your work and your results. During the defense you present your analysis, describe the experiments that you conducted, and defend your conclusions. Questions are more of the form "Why did you do that?" and "Did you think about this...". You are expected to be able to answer the questions, even if you don't know the answer(!).