What Is a Capstone Project in Graduate School?

Many post-baccalaureate degrees will require those seeking them to complete a graduate capstone project. The project represents the culmination of the student’s formal education, marking the shift from guided to self-directed learner and contributor; ideally, students will take all of what they have learned from their classes and develop something new from it. While it may initially appear to be intimidating, looking at a few basic concerns shows that it should not be.

Why Require a Capstone Project?

Graduate programs require capstone projects for several reasons. One of them goes to the core mission of graduate school, which is to train people to develop new knowledge. The capstone project allows graduate students to demonstrate their readiness to go out into the world and increase the scope of human knowledge because it is a guided experience in doing that very thing. Too, working on one improves student learning, as the Chronicle of Higher Education remarks, and all schools should be invested in student learning. Further, a capstone project bridges the traditional divide between town and gown, demonstrating the applicability of the knowledge and skills graduate school develops, as some businesses recognize.

What Kinds of Things Can Be Expected?

Typically, graduate capstone projects fall into two broad categories: the theoretical and the practical. Theoretical projects explore ideas, reaching out from what is known into what can be known next; practical projects apply ideas and report upon them, testing the limits of theories. Each will partake of the other in some measure, as application leads to new theories, while theories demand testing. Each will require some writing, as well; the traditional graduate capstone project is the thesis or dissertation, but even projects such as art displays and engineering designs will ask for written reports and discussions. And for each, the faculty guiding the capstone project will likely offer commentary, not all of which will be favorable; negotiating challenges is part of the process.

What Are the Most Important Things to Remember?

Three things are key to work on a graduate capstone project. One is to be in frequent communication with faculty supervising the project. This indicates to them that the student is working diligently on the project, which induces them to be more helpful. It also reinforces a relationship that offers useful networking opportunities. Second is to realize that the comments faculty offer are meant to be helpful, not harmful. Particularly for applied projects, errors can be destructive, and it is better to eliminate them before they can cause harm. Sharp comments work remarkably well to that end. Third and finally is that the work will be slow and intense, but the result will show the care and attention with which the work is done. It will be worth it in the end.

Far from being an intimidation tactic or yet another hoop through which to make graduate students jump, the graduate capstone project–whatever its form–represents a substantial opportunity to develop and display knowledge. Successful work on it does not only complete a degree; it shows the faculty and the world that the person who does the project can conceive of and successfully execute an involved, long-term project that synthesizes knowledge and ideas from many sources into something new and unforeseen. In addition, it is a useful insertion into a hiring portfolio (as UL recognizes). Thus, a graduate capstone project is well worth doing.

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