Do Online Master’s Degrees Require a Thesis?

As more and more students consider enrolling in online master’s degrees instead of their on-campus counterparts, many question whether these programs are structured like more traditional programs in the classroom. A big concern of many students is whether or not these programs require a thesis in order to be moved from degree candidacy to conferral. The answer is not consistent across programs. For this reason, the answer to any question about a thesis requirement is typically “maybe” or “sometimes.” Before enrolling in an online degree program at the graduate level, there are several considerations to be made about the likelihood of a thesis requirement and its numerous alternatives.

Liberal Arts Degrees: Get Ready to Write That Thesis

Whether online or offline, liberal arts degrees at the graduate level will almost always require a thesis prior to graduation. The reason for this is clear: Most liberal arts master’s degrees center on a combination of advanced learning and research. Students need to be able to turn that combination of skills into a finished product that demonstrates their competence, and the thesis is simply the best and most likely way to get the job done. So, students considering degrees in literature, language, the sciences or social sciences, and the humanities, will need to keep themselves focused on conducting research, systematically writing and assembling a thesis, and preparing for any type of online presentation of that thesis that may be required as part of the program.

Resource: What Does it Mean to Defend a Thesis?

What Programs Don’t Require a Thesis?

Generally, a program that is not research-based in nature will not require a thesis. This means that the Master of Business Administration typically does not require a thesis in order for students to graduate, nor do most accounting or finance degrees. Specialized master’s programs in marketing or management may require a thesis, however. Likewise, Master of Healthcare Administration and Master of Public Administration degree programs typically do not require a thesis. These degrees have one key thing in common: They teach broad, practical, actionable skills, instead of focusing on research and advanced study of highly specialized issues.

The Alternative: Capstone Projects, Presentations, and Practicums

Students should pause for a moment before they get excited at the prospect of a non-thesis graduate program. The absence of a thesis does not mean there is no high-stakes final project to complete. Most non-thesis degrees do ask for some type of final project that draws together the skills and concepts taught throughout each course. Many graduate math programs require a comprehensive exam, for instance. Many MBA, MHA, and MPA programs require a comprehensive project that involves making simulated business, healthcare, or policy decisions in a virtual group setting.

Required capstone projects still assess what, and whether, students have learned while enrolled in the program. A sufficient grade on these capstone efforts is often the last hurdle cleared by graduate students as they move from degree candidacy to conferral of the master’s in their chosen field. They should not be taken any more lightly than a thesis would be taken in more traditional graduate degree programs. Practicums, especially for counselors, social work students, and psychology students, can determine when a student graduates and what honors they will receive during the ceremony.

Online Degrees Feature the Same Programs and Requirements

Though their delivery format is radically different, students enrolled in online graduate programs will find that their graduation requirements are nearly identical to those faced by students who attend in the classroom. For this reason, online master’s degrees do occasionally require a thesis; others require a final project, simulation, or period of employment, in an effort to accomplish the same goal of final assessment.