Many master’s in communication programs that focus on building students’ practical skills and leadership capabilities within communication sectors such as public relations, advertising and marketing, corporate and organizational communication, and even political communication and campaigning require a capstone project as students’ culminating experience. Unlike traditional theses, which are common for academic and research-oriented master’s in communication programs and have a formal, multi-chapter structure, capstone projects vary widely across programs and often afford students a great deal of flexibility to be creative in their research and final deliverable.
There is substantial variance between how master’s in communication programs design their applied capstone project option. For some programs, the capstone is an independent research-based or industry-centric endeavor that students complete individually while under the guidance of a committee (similar to how students complete a traditional thesis). Other programs, in contrast, may have a dedicated capstone project course wherein students meet project benchmarks that they discuss in class, and also benefit from their instructor’s guidance and peer feedback. Additionally, there are group project capstone experiences where students are divided into teams and tackle one or a variety of projects that aim to integrate all the concepts and skills that they have learned during their enrollment in the program.
Added to this diversity amongst program capstone experiences is the diversity of students’ interests, their professional and academic backgrounds, and whether they are working full-time or part-time while pursuing their graduate degree. Students who are working and want to integrate what they have learned in their program directly into their workplace might complete their capstone project with their current employer. On the other hand, students who have minimal professional experience or who wish to change industries might find an organization or complete a project based off of their own interests, with the intention of featuring their capstone project as a centerpiece of their portfolio when applying for jobs.
This Guide to the Capstone Project is designed to help current and prospective students of master’s in communication programs understand the depth and breadth of possibilities for their capstone project. It features detailed descriptions of common types of capstone project options, as well as insights from faculty members and directors of master’s in communication programs nationwide who were interviewed as part of our Faculty Interview Series.
Types of Capstone Projects
Despite the variance in capstone project options described above, there are several major categories in terms of general types of projects that students can undertake. From independent projects to professional portfolios and client-centric group projects, there are choices that suit every student’s interests and goals.
Independent Capstone Projects
The independent project, one of the most common capstone experience options, grants students significant autonomy in crafting their final deliverable. The student works with his or her advisor and committee to determine a project topic that is tailored to the student’s academic interests and career goals. These independent projects can be created specifically for a real industry client, or can be designed around a hypothetical client in some cases. Examples of independent projects include an advertising campaign for an agency, an organizational communication plan for a corporation, or a comprehensive fundraising awareness strategy for a non-profit organization. Students may also have the option to complete an artistic or creative final project, such as writing a play, filming a documentary, or choreographing a dance.
The process to successfully completing the independent capstone project is quite similar to that of the traditional thesis, in that students select a committee of faculty whose research expertise aligns with the topic of their project. Students then conduct their research and complete their final deliverable with close guidance and feedback from their faculty advisor and committee.
Hye-ryeon Lee, Ph.D. the Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Communicology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, explained her program’s applied capstone project experience in an interview. “The applied project is very flexible in terms of what [students] can do. […] For example, a student is currently in the process of writing a book as her applied project. Another student developed a volunteer training program for the Make a Wish Foundation. This student talked to the administrators, staff and volunteers of the Foundation to develop a thorough understanding about their operation. She then designed and delivered a training program for new volunteers for the Foundation.”
While independent projects are more flexible in terms of their structure and topic, relative to the master’s thesis, they still require a substantial amount of research and are just as rigorous as theses. Students completing a capstone project use the same research methodologies as those who complete a thesis, but instead of applying their findings to conclusions that contribute to the scholarly literature, they use their insights to directly impact an organization or to design a final product that that is more applied or creative in nature.
Michael B. Goodman, Ph.D., Director the Master of Arts in Corporate Communication at The City University of New York’s Baruch College, explained how this program’s applied project uses academically rigorous communication theories and research methodologies. “Similar to the thesis, students are expected to employ and integrate the theories, communication management practices, and methods that they learn in the program to their research and final product. Students who choose this option are also required to present their results at a professional colloquium,” he noted.
The flexibility of the capstone project allows students to bring in topics from their professional or personal lives. Porter Shreve, Director of Administration for the University of San Francisco’s Master of Arts in Professional Communication, explained how many students in the program use the capstone as a way to examine and address sociocultural issues. “Since we are located in San Francisco near the heart of Silicon Valley, tech development and its reshaping of human communication are very much on our students’ minds,” he said, “I had one student who completed a video-based capstone about women muralists in San Francisco’s Mission District and their struggles with gender discrimination. […] We had [another] student who worked at a successful artificial intelligence startup, and he decided to tie his capstone to projects he had undertaken in the AI field.”
Porter Shreve also emphasized the important role that communication theory and research methodologies play in the capstone project, regardless of selected topic or deliverable. “While students can bring the applied into their capstone projects, their work typically utilizes academic research methodologies such as quantitative and qualitative data gathering and analysis,” he said.
Oftentimes, students use the independent project as an opportunity to create a product that will feature prominently in their portfolio once they graduate. Coy Callison, Ph.D., Associate Dean of Graduate Studies for the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University (TTU), explained how one of the students of TTU’s Master of Arts in Mass Communication created a project that directly contributed to her securing a public relations management position. “[Our student] developed a crisis communication campaign for one of the local hospitals here in Lubbock, and she dealt directly with how well people at the hospital understood emergency planning,” he recalled, “[S]he put together an extensive campaign that involved all of the constituents from the staff to the nurses, doctors, and vendors. She surveyed all of these teams to learn how they would prefer to receive this information […and] subsequently put together a comprehensive plan that catered to each team, and the hospital was very happy with it.”
After graduating, this student approached a major hospital in Honolulu with her crisis communication plan, which impressed them so much that they created a position for her, and she became the Crisis Preparedness Director. As this example illustrates, the independent project can be a very helpful stepping stone into a new career or promotion at one’s current job.
While some programs have a capstone project option that involves students working largely independently under the guidance of one or more faculty advisors, other programs have students complete their capstone project while enrolled in a capstone course that provides structure, guidance, and feedback. This is relatively common among online master’s in communication programs, and can be particularly advantageous for students who benefit from weekly meetings that hold them accountable for meeting incremental project deadlines. Capstone courses also provide the benefit of peer discussions and feedback in a forum-like setting. Unlike the independent capstone project, which is highly individualized and can be creative or artistic, projects that are completed as part of a capstone course are often more practical and client-focused in nature.
Richard Holberg, Adjunct Instructor and Team Lead for Southern New Hampshire University’s Online Master of Arts in Communication Program, explained how the capstone course that is part of this program provides students with helpful structure and deadlines. “The first week of the course is when students identify what they want that client and campaign to be. As facilitator of the course, it is my job to make sure that their campaign meets the parameters for the program and has a scope that is manageable within the span of the capstone course,” he said, “We also structure in three milestones that students must meet during their time in the course. First students must identify the client and the type of campaign they want to do, and I review all of their proposals. The second milestone requires them to identify what the focus of their campaign is. What’s the communication need or problem that they are trying to solve?”
Capstone courses vary in how they manage the client-student relationship. Some programs require all the students in a capstone course to work on a single project for one client that agrees to partner with the program. Other programs connect students with multiple clients for individualized or small group capstone projects. Still other programs ask students to find their own client but provide guidance and support during the client search process during class sessions and individual mentoring.
Dionne C. Clemons, Ph.D., former Director of the Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Public Relations at Trinity Washington University, explained how the capstone course for this program connects students with a wealth of regional clients and partners. “We develop relationships with clients and assign students a client that has strategic communication/PR needs that match what we expect students to demonstrate in their final project,” she explained. Dr. Clemons also noted that one of the advantages of Trinity University’s capstone course is that students connect with a wide variety of clients who can serve as useful professional contacts for students. “Most clients that we align with are partners with Trinity, and they often represent the economy here in DC, meaning that they are management consulting, nonprofit, or government entities,” she added.
Group Capstone Projects
Group projects have the advantage of enabling students to take on a project of larger scope than would be possible if they were working individually. Whether completed under the guidance of a faculty advisor or as part of a larger capstone course, group projects also give students the opportunity to demonstrate and hone their teamwork skills while working on an intensive project that mimics the work they will complete in their future jobs. Unlike individual capstone projects which can be industry-focused or creative, and may or may not be client-centric, group capstone projects tend to revolve around an existing client need, such as a marketing campaign for an apparel company, an advocacy initiative for a non-profit organization, or an organizational communication revamp for a corporation.
Janet Steele, Ph.D., who is the Director of George Washington University’s Master of Arts in Global Communication program, explained how this program’s capstone experience is designed to be a team effort. “The capstone is a four-credit group project that students complete over the course of a year. The capstone is handled through the Elliott School of International Affairs,” she said, “At the end of their first year, students meet with a capstone advisor, and decide on their work group. The groups usually consist of three to four students, and together they work with real-world clients on an agreed-upon project. At the end of the program, the group is required to present their project to faculty, and to show us the work they did for their client.”
For some programs, the capstone group project is an opportunity for students to flex their leadership and project management abilities. Arabella Pollack, MBA, who is the Deputy Academic Director of the Master’s in Strategic Communication Programs at Columbia University, explained how Columbia University’s program emphasizes team projects from the beginning in order to prepare students for collaborative work on their capstone.
“Throughout all our other courses there is a lot of project work, lots of teamwork focusing on real-life scenarios, whether it is case studies or hypothetical situations from their current place of employment or other organizations. Students are constantly thinking about how they put the concepts they learn into practice,” she said, “When it comes to the Capstone we take it to another level. We work with real organizations that have a communication challenge they’re tackling. And students work in small teams to address this problem through guided independent study over the course of a semester. This includes conducting their own primary and secondary research. They conduct focus groups, quantitative and fully representative surveys, and other assessments and deep dives into data. They’re constantly working with the sponsor in an almost consulting relationship (though sponsors do not pay for students’ work). At the end of the semester, students present their findings and recommendations to the sponsor.”
Just as some master’s in communication programs require students to take a capstone course for their individual capstone project, some programs that have a group capstone project requirement also incorporate the capstone as part of a larger guided capstone course. As noted above, this is quite common for online master’s in communication programs.
Michael Weigold, Ph.D., who is the Director of Distance Education at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, explained how the University’s Online Master of Arts in Mass Communication culminates in a capstone class where students are assigned groups and tackle a team project in largely the same way they would do so in an industry setting. “All of the Capstone projects are completed through group work, and this is by design, because all the members of our advisory council have reiterated the importance of people who know how to work optimally in teams,” he said, “During their work on their project, students have the mentorship of the Capstone course instructor.”
Portfolio and Reflection Projects
Some industry-focused master’s in communication programs require students to complete a portfolio that represents the depth and breadth of their professional skills, experience, and interests. This capstone requirement typically involves students reviewing their work over the course of their enrollment in the program, and selecting assignments from past classes that are representative of the strengths they would like to showcase to potential employers. As a highly industry-focused and functional capstone project, portfolios are typically required to be in online or e-portfolio form (such as a website) for maximum visibility. In addition, most programs with a portfolio capstone also require students to write a reflective essay that synthesizes the concepts, skills, and issues explored during their classes.
Programs tend to vary in terms of their precise parameters for the portfolio. While some programs may be flexible as to what students decide to include, others may have more established requirements to ensure adequate diversity within each student’s portfolio. Sunny Stalter-Pace, Ph.D., the Director of Graduate Studies for Auburn University’s English Department, explained the capstone portfolio requirement for Auburn University’s Master of Technical and Professional Communication. “The portfolio requirements are as follows: a portfolio website of the student’s own design, and which follows best practices for coding, writing, editing, and professional communication ethics; a 2000-word memo that elaborates on the major technical and professional communication issues that the student has discerned based off of his or her coursework, and which makes suggestions as to how to address these issues; five exemplary pieces of print or online content that the student has completed during his or her tenure in the program, accompanied by a 500-word analysis for each of these pieces of content; and an edited resume or curriculum vitae,” she said.
Texas Tech University’s Master of Arts in Technical Communication, on the other hand, has slightly different portfolio requirements. Craig Baehr, Ph.D., Director of this graduate program, outlined the portfolio’s parameters. “The Master of Arts in Technical Communication portfolio is comprised of two key components: learning artifacts and a reflective essay,” he explained, “Students must include three to six artifacts in their portfolio, one of which must be an academic or research paper, while another must be a practical project in technical communication. […] Examples of artifacts students might include in their portfolio include an analytical report or a feasibility study they wrote for a technical reports class, a web-based training module that they developed for the instructional design course, or a visual infographic they developed for the document design or information visualization course.”
The portfolio is an opportunity for students to not only showcase their skills, but to also benefit from mentorship and feedback from their instructors. Frederica Fornaciari, Ph.D., who is the Academic Program Director for the Master of Arts in Strategic Communications at National University, explained how this program’s capstone option is, in many ways, a career workshop course. “During the Capstone Project students reflect upon their chosen career path, analyze the market in their field of choice, and draw the connections between their own learning experience at National University and the skills necessary to successfully enter their career of choice,” she said, “[Students] develop a market analysis for their field of choice, looking at possible job openings, exploring job descriptions, and collecting valuable information about their desired job’s outlook from sources such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then, students complete a reflective journal to reflect upon their learning experience at National University, and start drawing connections between their acquired toolkits and current market needs.”
Internship capstone options are somewhat less common than other types of capstone experiences, due to the fact that many industry-oriented master’s in communication programs have students who are already working either full-time or part-time while completing their degree. However, for students who have the weekly availability to complete an internship, this capstone experience option can be very helpful by immersing students in the work settings that interest them and connecting them with potential employers well before they graduate. Examples of graduate internships in communication include working for a local newspaper outlet, interning in the public relations department of a corporation, or working at a marketing agency.
Nadia Kaneva, Ph.D., who is the Director of the Master of Arts in Media and Public Communication Program at the University of Denver, described this program’s internship option as particularly advantageous for students interested in entering industry. “We believe that research and practice must go hand in hand as they work to address real-world problems,” she said, “[Based] on their own goals and interests, students can choose between completing a professional internship, a master’s thesis, or a substantial research paper as a capstone experience. […] Typically, students who wish to pursue a professional career opt for an internship. Our internship program is highly regarded by employers and we have seen many cases where an internship turns into a job offer upon graduation.”
Master’s in communication programs that offer an internship option for the culminating experience may connect students with potential internship sites and supervisors, or require students to identify an internship site on their own. The internship capstone option is often accompanied by an additional requirement that prompts students to reflect on the relevance of their internship work to their master’s program and future career. “At the end of their internships, students submit a paper or a professional portfolio, and complete an exit interview with the department’s Internship Director,” noted Dr. Kaneva.
Due to the intensive work it requires and its inherent depth and breadth, the master’s in communication capstone project may seem intimidating to many students. However, it is in fact a unique opportunity for students to build a robust bridge between where they are and where they want to be professionally, all within a safe and mentorship-centric environment. The capstone project is designed to give students the resources to build a professional-quality product that is tailored to their interests and goals.
For advice on successfully completing the capstone project, please refer to our Advice for Completing a Master’s in Communication Applied Capstone Project, which features key insights from alumni of master’s in communication programs.