When you compare graduate programs, you’ll probably notice that many of them include a capstone, or final project, element. These projects, which tie together everything you have learned, often count as a standalone course taken for credit and require a great deal of time, effort and outside research.
Depending on your program, your capstone might involve an original research project, an in-depth thesis paper or a portfolio, a creative project or a published book. Such projects are designed to allow you to apply the knowledge you have gained through your courses, co-curricular activities and work experience to a question or problem as well as to showcase your knowledge in a comprehensive manner.
For example, those seeking healthcare administration degrees might work with a hospital or health care system to analyze a particular process and offer suggestions for improvement. As the name implies, the capstone project “caps off” your graduate experience.
Preparing for Your Capstone
In most cases, you’ll start working on your capstone about a year before you graduate. Because the projects have such a large scope, and require extensive research, analysis and writing, capstones can’t be completed in a few weeks.
The first step is to find a capstone advisor, someone who will help guide you through the process and provide feedback throughout. In some cases, you’re assigned an advisor, while other programs might require that you secure your own mentor. Together with your advisor you’ll work through the topic selection process, gain approval if necessary and develop a plan. As you work through the project, you’ll meet with your advisors regularly to assess your progress, work through problems and receive feedback.
For many students, the most difficult aspect of the capstone is determining the research question. The best method is to choose a topic that interests you, and you can immerse yourself for several months without getting bored. Unless you are one of the lucky few who know exactly what they want to study, the topic selection process will likely include a significant amount of preliminary reading and research to determine where the gaps in the knowledge are and what you need to do to fill those gaps.
The good news is that in most projects, when you are working on your capstone, it is the only course you are taking at that time. Most students wait until they have completed all of their required courses before enrolling in the capstone course. Depending on the complexity of the research project, some students also opt to take off from work or rearrange their schedules for a few weeks or months. Those who work in demanding healthcare administration jobs or other fast-paced fields may find that managing work responsibilities and a large-scale research project is difficult.
Managing the Process
If you can’t take time off to devote yourself to your capstone full time, don’t despair. With planning, you can break the project into manageable stages. The key is to devote the same amount of time to your project each week that you normally would to your schoolwork. In other words, just because you don’t have weekly assignments or reading to complete doesn’t mean that you don’t have tasks to complete. Discipline and attention to detail are important in the capstone process, since not only is a successful project a degree requirement, your project will likely be kept on file in your school’s archives for reference by other students in the future.
The Capstone Course
Some programs give students the opportunity to forgo the traditional in-depth research project in favor of a capstone course. Courses vary but generally either condense the research project into a short timeframe or build the course around an intensive study of a relevant issue.
Whether you take a single course or develop an original project over several months, the capstone experience is a valuable and important part of your graduate school experience. You’ll not only have the chance to display what you’ve learned but also have the opportunity to develop your research, writing and critical thinking skills, which are all useful in your career.
About the Author: Suzanne Olsen is a recent graduate of an online master’s degree program in health care administration.
Image from Flickr’s Creative Commons