The master’s in communication capstone project is designed to propel you into higher levels of professional expertise in your field of choice, while also giving you concrete evidence of your qualifications to showcase to current and potential employers upon graduating. While the capstone project is both a challenging and formative endeavor, with the support of faculty and program staff, and the help of solid time management and clearly set goals, you can leverage your capstone project as an empowering, career-enhancing, and even enjoyable experience.
Despite the great diversity in capstone project options across different programs (learn more about common types of capstone projects by reading our Guide to the Master’s in Communication Capstone Project), there are several key steps to success that are common across all types of capstone projects:
- Use Your Classes to Explore Potential Capstone Topics: From the beginning of your enrollment in a master’s in communication program, every course you complete is an opportunity to identify topics, questions, and challenges that could serve as the foundation of your future capstone project. Proactively making connections between concepts introduced in class and your own professional interests and potential capstone project can also help to enhance and reinforce your learning outcomes.
- Align Your Project with Your Passions and Goals: Due to the intensive nature of the capstone project, it is imperative that you select a project topic and medium that can sustain your interest so that you do not experience burnout. In addition, the capstone project is meant to be a bridge to the next step in your career, whether that is a promotion or a new job. As such, thinking strategically about the topic and form of your final project is important in maximizing the benefit of your hard work.
- Connect with Faculty Mentors Early and Often: Master’s in communication programs provide students with dedicated support and mentorship while they work on their capstone project. This mentorship can be in the form of an individual faculty advisor, a faculty committee, or a capstone course instructor. Faculty mentors are extremely important throughout every stage of your capstone project, and meeting with them frequently to discuss project scope, research inquiries, and progress can ensure your project meets all the requirements for graduation.
- Prioritize Research to Inform Strategy: Particularly for capstone projects that are client-focused, wherein students create a strategy for a real industry client, research is the foundation of strategy and is therefore central to the design of effective communication plans and materials. Whether you are creating marketing materials for a corporation or designing a fundraising campaign for a non-profit organization, strategy should always begin with research.
- Manage Your Time Wisely and Focus on Incremental Goals: Throughout your work on your capstone project, you should be vigilant about time management and setting incremental, manageable goals. Due to the depth and breadth of the research and work required to successfully complete the capstone project, procrastinating at any stage of the project completion process can significantly hinder your success, while being proactive from the beginning will ensure that you have the time and bandwidth to optimize your final product.
Below we describe in more detail each of the steps to success listed above, and include candid advice from alumni of master’s in communication programs who successfully navigated the capstone project (to read interviews with these alumni, please refer to our flagship Alumni Interview Series).
Use Your Classes to Explore Potential Capstone Topics
The capstone project is typically the culmination of the master’s in communication program. As such, the program coursework you complete is crucial preparation in terms of the skills and knowledge you must acquire to be successful in your project. In addition, these classes are important for exploring topics that could serve as rich material for your final project. From the first class in your program, being cognizant of what topics strike your interest and curiosity can help you lay the groundwork of your capstone project earlier, while also enabling you to get the most value out of your graduate school experience.
Ashley Granby, a graduate of South Dakota State University’s (SDSU) Master’s of Mass Communication program, explained the importance of being intentional with every class and course assignment, and how doing so translates into a stronger final capstone project and stronger learning outcomes overall. “Don’t just take a class or complete a project for the sake of doing it. Find purpose in everything you do. Find a topic or area that you are passionate about and focus on that for your project,” she advised, “In fact, I would even suggest doing what I did and focus all of your coursework – writing assignments, projects, campaigns, etc. – on topics and areas that [pique] your interest.” Throughout her courses, Ms. Granby focused on mental health awareness and preventative care, which then translated organically into writing numerous articles for an online mental health publication for her capstone project.
Jessica McLain, also an alumnus of SDSU’s Online Master of Mass Communication program, described how one of her earliest classes served as the foundation of her capstone project. “In one of the earlier courses I took called Cross-Platform Storytelling, I was tasked with creating a project that utilized at least three media types,” she recalled, “I chose to use text, graphics, and photography […and] my project evolved into a local magazine that I called State Parks, which I intended to be a theoretical business that would print short magazines regularly featuring different state parks.” Ms. McLain enjoyed this project so much that she decided to create a formal magazine that narrated the history of the Sioux Falls area.
Additionally, as she progressed in her other courses while working on her project, Ms. McClain found opportunities to integrate other class projects into her capstone in a way that enhanced both her experience of these classes and her final capstone product. “While I was finishing the final stages of my magazine, I was also taking a course called Media Administration and Management, which required a project of a business plan,” she said, “I decided to focus my business plan on my magazine, treating it as a real local startup company. In the end, I included this business plan as part of my final project, although I did not intend to implement the magazine business into a real business.” Ms. McLain’s experience illustrates the power of integrating, rather than accumulating. In other words, seek ways to incorporate your class assignments into your capstone project whenever possible, as it can increase your efficiency while also helping to reinforce the knowledge and skills you gain from your classes.
Align Your Project with Your Passions and Professional Goals
As the capstone project is a sustained work that you must complete over the course of many months, it is crucial that you select a project topic that sustains your interest and is relevant to your desired career trajectory. Ideally, you should choose a project that combines professional development with your personal interests, so that your final project enhances your career while also being enjoyable and rewarding in its own right.
Jeremiah Gloria, an Assistant Video Editor for National Geographic and alumnus of Northern Arizona University’s Master of Arts in Communication program, decided to produce a documentary film focused on his childhood and family. “At the beginning of the program, we were faced with investigating our passions,” he explained, “I found that my childhood was important to me and served as a muse for my final project. A lot of my life was centered around nostalgia and attempting to reclaim my past. […] I flew back home to my parent’s place, where they had stored hours of archival footage. Additionally, I took my parents to our first home; I filmed the places, my parents, and my siblings with my narration in order to guide the structure of my film.”
Sree Pattabiraman, who is a Senior Technical Writer in the Information Development Department at Extreme Networks and a graduate of North Carolina State University’s Master of Science in Technical Communication (MSTC) program, completed a professionally focused project that emphasized technical communication tools and user education. “When I started putting together ideas for my capstone, I realized that a lot of students in the MSTC program were starting to look for full-time positions and we constantly kept discussing about the emphasis given for tools in job listings. While some of our courses taught some of these tools, there was no way for us to know about them all,” she explained, “This led me to create a proposal on creating a unified resource for information on these tools and how to learn them. I put this across to my capstone committee and addressed the need for this. After constructive suggestions from my faculty advisors, I used qualitative research methods such as ethnography and phenomenological study to warrant my claims.” In both of these examples, the student chose a topic of genuine and deep interest to them, and which was directly relevant to their desired future job.
When designing your capstone project, it is also important to take stock of your current skills and experiences relative to your desired career so that you can use your capstone project to bridge those gaps in knowledge. Annie Lorenzana, a graduate of Georgetown University’s Master of Professional Studies (MPS) in Public Relations and Corporate Communications, explained how identifying her capstone project client and the scope of her project was challenging and time consuming, but that finding an organization that matched her desired future work setting was worth it. “ I really struggled to find the right Capstone client. My professional experience to that point had been primarily in non-profit, so I wanted a client that offered experience working for B2B or B2C. But those companies aren’t always looking for pro-bono, grad school work,” she said.
Ms. Lorenzana ultimately found a food truck company that wanted to establish a brick-and-mortar presence. “From the start, I could see there were a ton of communication opportunities and needs, and that really excited me,” she said, “My advice for capstone students would be to know what you want out of your experience. Do you want to work for a certain industry? Do you want a communication plan that focuses on certain channels or has a specific audience? Know what you want to get out of this from the start, and then pursue a client that offers that experience.”
Connect with Faculty (and Professional) Mentors Early and Often
Faculty mentorship is a cornerstone of the capstone project process. Students of master’s in communication programs benefit from faculty guidance and support when working on their culminating experience. Whether through a three-person faculty committee or instructor mentorship from a capstone course, students have faculty expertise that they can leverage at all points during their work on their capstone.
Meeting with your faculty mentor is one of the first and most important steps that you can take. During these meetings, you discuss project ideas with your advisors and receive feedback on what elements must be present in your project in order to be successful. Your faculty advisors can help you clarify your project’s purpose, scope, and ultimate form, as well as hone the design and implementation of your research.
Nikita D’Souza, an alumnus of Georgetown University’s MPS in Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC), explained how invaluable her faculty advisor was during her work on her capstone project. “Each student is assigned a faculty advisor with whom they had weekly consultations, and students meet as a class a couple of times to discuss the challenges and issues they faced. At the end of the semester, students present their IMC plans to both the faculty and their clients,” she said, “My client was a fitness studio called Pure Barre in Arlington, VA, and their challenge was to increase the number of memberships to their studio. So, I had to create a marketing communications strategy that would attract new members to the studio. […] My faculty advisor helped me hone my insights, and was very supportive throughout the semester. She gave me constructive criticism and made me think about my project through a new perspective.”
In situations where your capstone project centers upon a deliverable for a client, your working relationship with the client can also serve as an invaluable source of mentorship and professional development. For her capstone project, Kate Kundrat, who received her MPS in Public Relations and Corporate Communications from Georgetown University, built a comprehensive integrated marketing communications plan for the Nature Conservancy. “Their communication challenge was how to increase brand relevancy with a younger demographic, since the average age of their membership at the time was 62. I worked with the Director of Cause Marketing to expand upon their upcoming campaign, ‘All Hands On Earth’ in order to reach the millennial audience.” Guided by the parameters set forth by leadership at the Nature Conservancy, and with the support of her faculty advisors, Ms. Kundrat designed a comprehensive and viable IMC strategy that integrated situation analyses, brand positioning, messaging strategies, budgeting, and a schedule for implementation and evaluation.
Prioritize Research to Inform Strategy
Research is key to your capstone project’s success. In fact, even for the most creative of capstone projects, academic research is the foundation. Start by asking questions that focus on the objective you established in your project proposal. For example, if your capstone project involves streamlining the communication flows within a large corporation, you might ask yourself, “What are the barriers to clarity of communication between and within departments? What is the corporation’s mission statement and is it reflected in the workplace values? If I interview employees and leadership about the corporation’s goals and work culture, will I see consistency?” Such questions are useful starting points to gather the information you need to address the challenges your client is encountering. For client-focused capstone projects, the emphasis on up-front research is necessary to produce a high quality product and mimics the way effective strategies are developed in real industry settings.
Vanessa Matthew, alumnus of West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications, explained the importance of conducting research early on in one’s project process, and how academic theory and research methodologies are highly relevant to industry work. “The capstone sets the stage for about every marketing client project I have taken on as a consultant. You end the class with a thorough marketing communications plan/proposal for a brand,” she said, “My capstone project advice would be to start the market research component early. Research informs all parts of marketing. Reach out to the organization that will be the focus of your capstone for the contacts you need to speak to as soon as you start the [Capstone] class.”
By emphasizing research early on, Ms. Matthew was able to create a marketing plan that was so effective that her capstone project client hired her as a consultant when she graduated. “For my capstone, I created a marketing proposal for the lending institution, the Harlem Entrepreneurial Fund (HEF). HEF wants to brand itself separate from its parent company. Now, HEF is my consulting client, and I am using the plan created during the program to help them with branding,” she said.
Diana Delgado, a graduate of Georgetown University’s MPS in IMC, also described how research is the foundation of communication strategy building in industry. “For my Capstone project, I worked with a client on building awareness and engagement among a new target audience they were trying to reach. The primary deliverable was a communications plan, including a situational analysis, competitive landscape, goals, objectives, strategy and tactics,” she said, “My advice to other students is to focus on the research and insight the most! If you have robust research and data, you are much more likely to reach a meaningful insight about your client or target audience. The strategy and tactics will come easily after that.”
On the other hand, if you elect to pursue a more creative project that centers on personal interests, such as a choreographed dance, your research might start with investigating past art works that relate to your desired project. You might ask questions such as, “What dance forms have historically been used to represent the issue or challenge I wish to represent? What are some of the latest theories around dance as a form of communication, and how can I represent them in my final production? What are the politics of dance, both on the interpersonal scale and the broader societal scale?” Such questions can help you to create a final artistic product that has depth of meaning and which draws from a history of dance to convey your central argument. As the above examples demonstrate, regardless of the topic you choose, research is essential to creating an effective final product.
Kate Silina, alumnus of Georgetown University’s MPS in Public Relations and Corporate Communications, explained how she combined her love of the opera with a project that maximized her professional credentials. “ Working on my capstone was a wonderfully rewarding experience!” she said, “My mother sang at the Washington National Opera (WNO) for years and I was thrilled to have the opportunity help them develop a millennial-engagement strategy. My final deliverable to the WNO was a comprehensive communications plan – complete with budget, messaging, event and activation ideas, etc. and, to develop it, I conducted a fair amount of quantitative and qualitative research. […] I think the energy I put into really understanding the classical music business and communications landscape and the needs of my target audience was what made it possible for me to identify creative and effective solutions for the challenges facing the WNO.”
Manage Your Time Wisely and Focus on Incremental Goals
From the capstone project proposal to the final project presentation, most master’s in communication programs integrate incremental deadlines for students to meet throughout their work on their capstone project. Focusing on one deadline at a time and refraining from procrastination can help you to create a higher quality final product while also reducing potential stress. Alumni whom we interviewed strongly advised practicing effective time management during every stage of the capstone project process. Due to the intensive research requirement “If I could provide advice to a future capstone student I would tell them first and foremost, don’t procrastinate! It’s much less stressful when you keep a good cadence throughout the semester instead of trying to cram it all in at the end,” noted Karalee Harhaji, who graduated from Georgetown University’s MPS in IMC.
Ms. Kundrat similarly advised students to map out their project timeline and to adhere to deadlines at each phase of the process. “Also, I’d recommend outlining your own project timeline carefully, since the project is so complex it would be impossible to procrastinate,” she said. Ms. Kundrat also recommended that students devote significant time and effort to the capstone project, as it is truly an opportunity to push your professional boundaries while receiving multifaceted support from faculty, client partners, and peers. “This is more than a course assignment,” she said, “It’s an opportunity to build your portfolio, so it’s worth the extra time and attention to detail.”
For some students, regular meetings with their faculty mentors can provide additional structure and time management benefits, as checking in with their advisors held them accountable for weekly deadlines. Emma Crnkovich, graduate of Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Communication Custom Leadership program, emphasized how important her faculty’s guidance was in not only clarifying the scope and vision of her project, but also helping her complete her project in a timely manner for her then-employer, Freeosk. “My faculty advisor was hugely helpful in helping me bring the project over the finish line. He helped me articulate the problem I was trying to solve, empowered me to constructively challenge our leadership team, and finally present a compelling case that sought to set Freeosk up with a successful recruiting strategy,” she said.
Final Thoughts on Your Capstone Project Journey
Your capstone project is designed to support and advance your career post-graduation. As such, it is not an experience to rush through, but rather one to immerse yourself in to receive the full benefits of your newfound knowledge and skills, as well as your academic support system of program faculty, staff, and peers. In some cases, students can receive job offers directly from their capstone client, make a strong case for a promotion at their current employer, or cultivate connections that serve them professionally down the road. For example, Ms. Pattabiraman’s online technical communication guide that she created for her capstone experience led directly to a job, and is also still used by faculty and students in the MSTC program. “[My website] is now a crowdsourced internal resource within the MSTC program maintained and updated by the students in the Online Information Design and Evaluation course,” she said, “I presented my capstone project to my faculty members, MSTC students, and a potential employer. When I defended my capstone, not only did I successfully complete it, but I also landed the job with the potential employer.”
Ms. Crnkovich, who balanced a full-time job with graduate school, also described the positive impact her capstone project and the support she received from expert faculty had on her professional trajectory. “Most notably, I learned about Sales Enablement as an industry and how it perfectly summarizes the role I’ve long wanted to play at an organization,” she said, “Do your research, network, and lean into the hard work in front of you. There may be days that are daunting, as working while going to school always is, but the more you put into the program, most assuredly, the more you will get out of it.”