What Is A Capstone Project in Grad School?

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After pursuing a bachelor’s degree, some students may need to make another big decision in their academic life. Students may start pursuing their careers by seeking employment or further developing their expertise in a field by pursuing graduate studies. Pursuing graduate programs is not a decision many students consider since it may be expensive and takes time and effort to finish. It’s also best to note that students may only pursue a graduate degree after successfully getting a bachelor’s degree.

In a statistic released by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), there has been an increase in post-grad enrollment, from 2.8 million to 3.1 million from 2009 to 2019. These figures include students pursuing professional doctoral degrees like medicine and law and master’s degrees. The statistic shows an 8% increase in enrollment, demonstrating students’ growing interest in graduate studies. 

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Graduate students are given different lectures throughout the graduate program leading to the capstone project, which is designed to let the grad school students think critically and apply what they have learned. It is termed a “capstone” since it signifies the completion of the entire Master’s Degree. In most cases, the capstone project is the final assignment given to students pursuing graduate studies. It might help the instructors gauge if the student could absorb all the learning throughout the graduate program.

The Capstone Project

The Capstone project gives students a unique opportunity to conduct in-depth research and propose innovative solutions to different problems from various fields. This project can be challenging and rewarding since it may require extensive knowledge of the specific field of study. Moreover, it’s a key component in preparing students by helping students learn professional skills and gain hands-on experience. On top of the usual final exam, a capstone project allows the students to apply their learning practically.

Usually, it takes one semester to finish a capstone project. However, students may be given as long as two semesters to conduct the thesis, depending on the university’s requirements. Students are required to cover the final project under their field of study. For example, Master of Public Administration students may use topics related to city management improvement or propose projects towards sustainability. 

An Attempt at Solving Real Problems

A notable benefit of a capstone project is that it attempts to solve real-world problems. It also provides students more insight into actual work situations before starting their careers. A capstone project may produce more critical and innovative thinkers that may be more likely to land a job after graduation. These individuals are also believed to get higher salaries.

The solutions include managing crises in small businesses, employing a new strategy to decrease greenhouse emissions, and developing software for the deaf community.  However, while capstones help solve problems, they may need special agreements to push through, especially when dealing with big businesses and brands. Conducting the research may involve sensitive data from the company. Usually, students must sign Non-disclosure Agreements (NDAs) to protect both parties from any legal problems. 

Different Types of Capstone Projects 

Students work individually or as a group when making a capstone project. Students under individual capstones may have more freedom in terms of choosing their topic and overall project approach. On the other hand, group capstones may be carried out by three to five students and usually involves a lot of collaboration. With this, the students may be tested in terms of sharing ideas and working as a team. 

Additionally, capstone projects may come in different forms, including surveys, program evaluations, and case studies. Each graduate school program may require a different type of capstone project. The most common ones are program evaluations and case studies. Capstones may also be categorized according to the field of study. Projects may be in the form of concepts, experiments, or expositions, depending on their course requirement. Some degree programs may require an assessment together with the project to test your skills.

Getting Started With Your Capstone Project

  • Choose a topic – Start your project by deciding on a topic related to your field that you’re interested in. It’s best to consider how you can apply the knowledge you gained throughout your graduate studies to the topic. After choosing a topic, you may formulate a concise project title. Then, you may come up with your research questions, which you will be attempting to answer towards the end of the study.
  • Conduct your research – You may cite different sources related to your project’s subject. This may include past thesis by students, experiments conducted by professionals, and different theories presented by experts. It’s best to obtain information from credible sources such as libraries and published online journals. It’s recommended to use literature that’s backed by scientific data and avoid personal opinions.
  • Write your capstone paper – When writing your report, it’s important to follow an outline or structure to keep you aligned. This may help you convey a more cohesive idea and have more consistency. You may start with an introduction, followed by the literature review and methodology. Then, you may discuss your results and draw your conclusion. The final part of the paper usually features your recommendations and the list of your references.
  • Defend your project – When presenting your work, you may use simple slides to avoid any distractions. It’s best to explain each section briefly and highlight the important details. After the presentation, the committee will be asking you several questions and clarifications regarding the project.  

Remember: It Starts With Choosing A Topic Wisely

Choosing the right capstone topic may help you work on your project with more passion and enthusiasm. Since you’ll be working on the project for a while, it’s vital to pick a topic that matches your interests. Aside from satisfying your interests, be sure to choose a topic that’s relevant to your field of study. It should also be focused on solving real problems that may be applied to society. 

Before deciding on a topic, it may be best to brainstorm and create a broad list of all your options. Find a topic that’s manageable and is suitable to your timetable. Some research may take longer to do, so it’s important to consider this while choosing. Then, you may shorten the list from broad subjects to more specific ones to make choosing easier for you. Once you have a shortlist of topics, you may briefly research each one to know more about them and assess which ones you would like to work on. 

After successfully choosing your topic, you may begin with your paper and experiments. You may go over previous projects that may recommend further studies on a certain subject or use a different approach. Remember to use topics that target a more specific problem since a broad subject may pose more questions and may take longer to finish. After further narrowing down your list, you may consult with your advisor for recommendations and insight on the topics. 

Writing a Proposal

Before proceeding with the entire capstone project, grad school students must submit a proposal to their advisors first. This is to see if the project is viable and relevant to your field of study. Aside from stating your topic, it’s best to include the reason behind choosing the particular subject. You may also add your experience in handling the subject to give your advisor some confidence.

A proposal doesn’t have to be very long, but it should include important aspects of the project, such as an overview of the methodology and the research goals. You may do a little research beforehand and scout for sources that may be used in the project’s literature review. Lastly, you may include the resources that you will be needing and the schedule for consultations. 

Parts of a Capstone Paper 

  • Introduction – You may start your introduction with a problem statement encompassing your research topic and variables. Then, you may include the background of the study and how it came about. It’s important to include why you’re trying to solve the specific set of research questions. 
  • Literature Review – In the literature review section, you may cite different sources that are relevant to the field of study. It’s recommended that you provide an overview of the subject through different research studies and previous capstone projects. 
  • Methodology – Like an undergraduate thesis, you may also need to gather certain data to create a conclusion. This section will help your readers understand how you obtained your data and why you used that process. It’s best to include a detailed process to avoid raising any questions, which may affect your results in the long run. 
  • Discussion – This section will show your interpretation and evaluation of the data collected. Aside from tabulating your data, it’s important to show how the results may be related to one another through illustrations and graphs. You may also discuss the problems you have encountered while gathering the data and its potential effects on the results. 
  • Conclusion – Your conclusion aims to connect your analysis of your gathered data to the research problem. This section aims to answer your questions at the start of the project. Here, you may include your proposed solutions and their implications. 
  • Recommendations – In this section, you may share your ideas on what could have been done differently. You may suggest a different approach or methodology alterations for future researchers. It’s also important to include the limitations of your work. This may help readers understand the different factors to consider in future projects similar to the one you’ve conducted.

If you’re pursuing a Master’s in Visual or Performing Arts, your capstone usually involves two parts: research on relevant artworks or designs and an original piece of artwork. Gathering information is essential to your capstone project. It allows you to have a firmer grasp of the concept and discover new techniques. However, the output may be different from the usual academic capstone. You use that output to showcase your ideas.

Your Title Matters!

Since it’s the first thing people read, a good capstone title may not only make your readers interested but may also fuel their curiosity. The title usually encapsulates the idea of the project using a simple phrase. It’s also best to use an optimistic impression while integrating important keywords into the title. 

The recommended title is shorter compared to the first one and maybe more appealing to more readers. For example, if you’re tackling social media advertising, instead of using “The Impacts of Advertisements in Helping Businesses Grow Online”, you may use the title: “The Edge of Online Advertisements.” This may also promote curiosity since the word edge may present comparisons between online advertisements and other marketing means.  

Best Tips for Capstone Project Success

  • Create an outline. – Following a good structure may help you stay aligned and avoid jumping into different sections. Creating an outline is similar to following a roadmap with the project completion as your destination. Having an outline may help you write with the goal in mind and produce a more cohesive report.
  • Follow a template. – It’s best to decide on a template early on since changing the format may be time-consuming towards the end of the project. When writing, keep in mind the prescribed formatting style provided by your school. You may use subheadings and smaller sections to come up with a more structured report. 
  • Go over your work more than once. – Writing a capstone project in grad school may take time, and some students may forget to review their work. Failing to check your work may lead you to overlook grammatical mistakes and displaced numerical data. It’s recommended to go over your work several times and proofread every section. Moreover, you may use online tools to check for plagiarism to confirm your work’s originality.
  • Edit to your heart’s content. – Revisions are part of any academic paper or study. Nobody has done one without making mistakes or corrections, so it’s normal to make changes to improve your work further. Towards the end of your report, it’s important to polish your report and ensure that all the data are presented clearly. This will show your mentors that you’re mindful of your work and detail-oriented.
  • Back up your work. – It’s important to keep copies of your work in different sources such as external hard drives or through online cloud storage. If ever one file is lost or corrupted, you may recover it through your backup storage. It saves you time and effort. 
  • Send a clear message. – Often, students use complex words to convey their expertise or to sound smart. This may not be beneficial when you want your readers to understand your paper fully. That’s why it’s important to communicate clearly and avoid using words that may be interpreted differently.  
  • Manage your time wisely. – Some grad school students may be given a shorter time to finish a capstone. If you’re given ten weeks to finish, it’s best to make the best use of your time. You may plan your project ahead of time and follow a specific schedule. You may set personal deadlines to submit your report on time. Best to use mobile apps in setting different reminders and to-do lists.
  • Don’t be afraid of changes. – There are instances wherein, after your research, you may find out that your research problem may not be suitable to the topic, or you may realize that it won’t produce any significant results. When you encounter this, it’s best to have a flexible mindset and be open to changes. You may shift the tone of your problem and focus on one that you find suitable. 

If at First Draft You Don’t Succeed, Try and Try Again

After creating your outline, it’s time to start writing your work. Some students may have to come up with several drafts before finishing their report, and that’s normal. Drafting may help you filter out ideas that may not be necessary to your report or may not support the subject. Aside from following your outline, going through several edits may help you produce a more cohesive paper. It’s important to allot some time in drafting and to edit your paper to avoid any problems after submission. 

You may start by creating an introduction that is both informative and appealing to the readers. Be sure to convey clear ideas within every section and avoid using ideas not backed by scientific data. Generally, it’s recommended to arrange the sections according to the flow of the report. This is done to avoid jumping from one idea to another, which may confuse the readers. At the end of your report, be sure to close by bringing together the whole discussion, relating your findings to the initial research problem, and proposing solutions to the problem. 

Get the Mentorship that You Need 

Having a mentor will provide you with the guidance and support that you need to finish a capstone project. When finding an advisor, it’s best to look for one with enough knowledge or expertise in the subject you will be handling. It may be useful to think of professors whose courses you have taken before or are taking, so you’re familiar with them. You may also find an advisor from faculty members or a list of qualified individuals your department provides. 

Before approaching your advisor, it’s best to be prepared and have a list of potential subjects ready. This may give your prospect mentor a chance to assess if they will be able to help you and your range of topics. It’s best to set up a meeting in advance since some faculty members may have a busy schedule. Once they have agreed to mentor you, It’s important to consider their schedule and integrate it into your project timetable. Schedule mentoring sessions often and constantly ask for feedback on your work to ensure that you’re heading in the right direction. 

Defending Your Capstone Project

Presenting and defending your work before a committee is vital in completing your capstone project. This is the last step of the project that took a semester or two of research and hard work. It’s important to prepare for this culminating activity to take you one step closer to getting a master’s degree. Depending on the committee, the process may differ in terms of requirements and length. 

Usually, you will be asked to discuss your topic and present your findings in a span of ten to twenty minutes. You may prepare a PowerPoint presentation or Keynote slides to show your study. It’s best to use simple slides to create a clean look and avoid any unnecessary designs. Input the necessary information you need to share and trim them down to fit the given time limit. 

The committee, comprising of different faculty and industry experts, will be handling the evaluation of both your written project and presentation. After discussing your research, you will then be asked several questions by the project. The defense may occur more conversationally to clarify certain areas of the project and issues involving your capstone.

Tips for A Successful Presentation 

Capstone presentations are a big day for grad school students. This is one way for them to show their competencies and be ready to take in big roles in the professional world. If you’re struggling with your preparations, you may consider these tips: 

  • Calm your nerves – Standing in front of a crowd is already nerve-wracking as it is. So presenting a capstone can be twice as stressful. Despite this, it’s important to present your findings calmly and clearly. You may do breathing exercises to calm your nerves before starting. To prevent stuttering, practice what you’re going to say and internalize the flow of your discussion.
  • Consider the possible questions – It’s best to prepare a list of questions while going over your thesis. That way, you will be able to prepare for the possible points to be considered by the committee. You may try to answer for each and do as much research on the subtopics. If you ever get hold of the names of the committee members in advance, it’s also important to consider their expertise as they may relate the questions from their background.
  • Prepare a Plan B – No matter how much you are prepared, there’s one thing you may not be entirely in control of. Technical problems are common on laptops, especially after a day of finishing a presentation. That’s why it’s essential to prepare a backup laptop and hard drive to safeguard your files. You may prepare handouts too in case of projector or screen glitches.
  • Be familiar with your work – During the conversation after the presentation, committee members expect you to be familiar with your capstone topic. They may throw in clarifications just to make sure that you fully understand your concept. Because of this, it’s best to read through your work several times and be familiar with your research and data. However, if you’re asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, you may be honest about it and add that it can be part of the project’s recommendations.
  • Look and sound smart – The committee handling your capstone evaluation often includes faculty members and school administrators. It’s important to sound and look presentable and respectable. Aside from your appearance, it’s also best to speak clearly and at a good pace, adding pauses in between highlights. Dress as if you’re going in for a job interview and nail your presentation.

Answering Common Capstone Defense Questions 

It’s important to prepare for the questions to be asked during the discussion. Committee members may ask you to summarize the entire project In one sentence or briefly discuss the entire point of the thesis. Craft the right words to convey your idea clearly in the shortest time. Explain why you chose the topic or the methodology used to gather data and complete the project.

Aside from taking note of your conclusion, be familiar with your recommendations as well. You are likely to be asked how you formulated your suggestions. Ethical issues may also be raised, especially when dealing with sensitive subjects such as labor or testing. The key to answering these questions right is to formulate those answers ahead of time. 

With a capstone, you may express yourself creatively while showing the skills that you’ve learned throughout the program. For example, you may be required to develop an extensive print campaign for a certain product or organize a gallery show. You may explore different genres and techniques that fit your interests. In most cases, you may also be asked to defend your work by presenting to a panel, explaining your artistic approach and design process. 

Key Takeaways

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, students may pursue academic advancement by attending graduate school. Getting a master’s degree may help you get the needed exposure and skills while meeting other professionals. Grad school involves several course hours to finish and different requirements such as finishing a capstone project. 

A capstone project serves as a chance for grad school students to apply their learnings and showcase their ability to think critically. Capstones generally involve submitting a proposal, writing the research paper, and defense. Choosing the right topic is integral to your paper’s success, so choose the one you’re interested in. While writing your research, it’s best to create an outline that will serve as your guide to create good transitions and deliver more cohesive thoughts.  

You’re one step away from getting that master’s degree! Take time to create your report and be open to changes, especially when the need arises to change different project areas. Additionally, it’s important to seek guidance from an advisor that’s knowledgeable about the subject you’re tackling. When defending your project, it’s important to prepare in advance and maintain your composure while presenting your ideas. Always have a backup and dress your way to success.

Dr. Jared Goff
Chief Editor