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Integrative Learning Experience: Master's Thesis and Capstone

The integrative learning experience focuses on theoretical and practical application of public health foundational and concentration competencies in a project-based format (thesis or capstone) or a comprehensive exam. Emphasis is placed on targeting a specific audience or stakeholder, e.g. non-profit or government organization, and to demonstrate critical thinking skills meeting students’ educational and professional objectives. Considerable emphasis is placed on the integrative learning experience including faculty mentoring, assessments, and student presentations.

There are three options for the Integrative Learning Experience, thesis, capstone, or comprehensive exam:

  1. Thesis papers should follow MPH Program and Graduate Studies Students must work with a faculty mentor for approval of topic/project and committee development. Each student must complete a presentation (thesis defense) of their work to a committee of faculty members that is also open to the school, stakeholders (where applicable), and the public.
  2. Students may complete a capstone project, inclusive of, but not limited to, options such as a grant proposal, community risk assessment, curriculum development, policy analysis, or an agency-based project. Capstone projects can be complete in a group format, of no more than 5 students. Students who complete a project must also be supervised by a project advisor, and successfully complete an oral defense of their project. If a student has a modified plan that does not follow their cohort’s course schedule, they may not complete a group capstone project.
  3. Students may complete an essay-based comprehensive exam focusing on the application of public health foundational and concentration competencies. 

During the PH 507 Course (Research Methods and Proposal Writing), students prepare their thesis or capstone proposal, which is included in a Proposal Portfolio. The entire Proposal Portfolio also includes a 1-2 page narrative reflection on the student’s MPH experience, example artifacts from core courses (e.g., paper, group project, final products), and the MPH Thesis/Capstone Competency Form. The MPH Program Portfolio is intended to be reflective in nature and should articulate the student’s professional and intellectual growth. It should also demonstrate how MPH core courses have prepared the student to undertake the culminating activity (thesis or capstone). The Portfolio also enables students to meet CEPH-specific requirements of having self-identified MPH foundational and concentration-specific competencies that are connected to, and inform, the culminating activity.

Once students have completed their thesis or capstone and are prepared to give the final defense, students work with their primary faculty member (committee chair) to schedule an appropriate time and date for the defense presentation. The defense consists of three parts: (1) student(s) presentation of thesis or capstone project, (2) committee questions to the student(s), primarily to assess knowledge, understanding, and interpretation of the results as it aligns with foundational and concentration-specific competencies (using the MPH Thesis/Capstone Competency Form; ERF reference below), and (3) committee members have a closed-door discussion to assess the student’s ability to appropriately integrate and synthesize public health competencies/knowledge in their thesis or capstone project defense. After discussion and based on an assessment using the MPH Thesis/Capstone Competency Form, a decision is reached as to whether the student(s) pass with minor/no revisions, major revisions (conditional), or do not pass.

Thesis or capstone projects may require University Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval : Determine if your project requires IRB approval

Thesis versus Capstone Comparison


Thesis Capstone

Committee Structure

2-3 Members Total

  • Committee Chair: TT Public Health Faculty
  • 2nd and 3rd Committee Member: CSUSM faculty or other outside (approved) member

2-3 Members Total

  • Committee Chair: TT Public Health Faculty
  • 2nd and 3rd Committee Member (Reader): CSUSM faculty or other outside (approved) member


Presentation Type


Group Presentation

Committee Form/ Advancement to Candidacy

Thesis Committee Form/Advancement: Must be completed and signed by all committee members once you have successfully completed your thesis presentation and before enrollment of PH 698.

University Forms: See ETD Submission Guide

Capstone Committee Form/Advancement: Must be completed and signed by all committee members once you have successfully completed your capstone presentation and before enrollment of PH 695.

University Forms: See ETD Submission Guide

Course for Credit

PH 698*

PH 695*

Final Submission to Committee

Two weeks before defense or as arranged between you and your committee.

University Deadline

Final submission deadlines to the library for publication/graduation are always at 12:00pm on the last Thursday that classes are scheduled.

* Completion of Thesis or Capstone must be conducted during the final semester of the program.

In the event a student would like to change their committee chair, it is the responsibility of the student to discuss the request with their current committee chair and procure a new TT Public Health Faculty member. All parties must agree and then notify the MPH Director and CEHHS Student Services before the change can take effect. This should be done no later than 5 weeks after taking PH 507.

The Kellogg Library has created a Master’s Thesis, Project or Dissertation Submission Guide, which can be found on their website. This document provides step-by-step guidance on how to submit a thesis or project. Additional information about capstone projects/theses may be found at University’s Graduate Student Handbook.  For more specific guidelines, examples, and templates, please visit MPH Central and the ETD Submission Guide Link


A thesis or capstone proposal portfolio will be completed as part of the requirement for the graduate level research course PH 507. The students will form a thesis or capstone project committee during the course. Committee members will review and approve thesis or capstone proposals. Students will advance to candidacy once they have successfully passed an oral presentation of their thesis or capstone proposal. The thesis or capstone committee will assist with refinement of the proposal and will serve as the committee for the final oral defense, once the thesis or capstone is completed.

The Petition for Advancement to Candidacy may be found in MPH Central. Once completed, forms must be submitted to CEHHS-Student Services found at UH 221 or emailed to Nam Nguyen at

To advance to candidacy, a student must:

  • Be in good standing with an overall GPA of at least 3.0
  • Have completed 15 units of the core courses toward the graduate degree
  • Successfully completed the GWAR
  • Have successfully proposed thesis or capstone to the faculty

Students cannot enroll in the thesis or capstone course (PH 698 or PH 695) until they have successfully advanced to candidacy. Enrollment in PH 698 or PH 695 must occur in the final semester of the program.   

MPH Alumni Examples

Below are a few examples of Theses and Capstone Projects submitted by students in the Master of Public Health Program:

Need Data for your Thesis/Project?

The National Institutes of Health created All of Us, a research program across the United States aimed at building one of the largest databases to accelerate research to improve health. The program will be a catalyst for positive change by working together as researchers, partners, and participants to build a better future for health research and care.

CSUSM was just granted institutional access to the All of Us Research Workbench. The data base allows for researchers to access information for usage towards their own research through the All of Us Hub. Please reach out to your chair when determining whether the program's resources can be of use towards your work.

Cougars can sign in to get access to the database by:

  • Apply to be an All of Us Research
    • Create and complete account
    • Agree to Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
    • Select your institution
    • Enter your role
    • Active CSUSM Students, please use email domain of
    • Create username and answer questions
  • Check your CSUSM email and follow instructions
    • Turn on Google 2-Step Verification
  • Verify your identity
  • Complete The All of Us responsible conduct of research training
    • 40-60 minutes
  • Sign the Data User Code of Conduct
  • Gain access to your data passport