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Capstone, Field Project or Thesis?

Similarities between the Field Project, Thesis and Capstone Seminar

  • First, capstone seminar, field project, and thesis are all supposed to test a mastery of the core curriculum that meets the three MPA goals.
  • Second, the capstone seminar and the field project are more "applied knowledge" projects resulting in more "tangible products" (e.g., an evaluation of a specific program/policy, conducting needs assessment or resolving a specific policy/organizational issue/problem.) 
  • Third, both the field project and the thesis offer students with the opportunity to work independently, outside the classroom setting, on a problem or idea of their own, while consulting closely with MPA faculty throughout the semester.
  • Fourth, when applying for a thesis or field project, the student must also submit a preliminary Proposal of their project for faculty approval. 

Differences between the Field Project, Thesis and Capstone Seminar


  • The capstone seminar is a culminating experience where students are expected to conduct a non-thesis, analytical research project designed to demonstrate knowledge and skills gained in the core MPA courses. The project must produce either a solution to a public management question, a policy problem or applied academic research question. Other forms of professional inquiry and analysis may be acceptable if approved by the instructor. Students enrolled in the capstone seminar attend regular classroom sessions.
  • The field project is "applied" knowledge and learning. It may involve developing a new "product" (e.g., evaluation of a specific program/policy, conducting needs assessment) or resolving a specific policy/organizational issue/problem (and providing solutions to your employer). Thus, it may be useful for your professional career and has practical implication to the employer.
  • The goal of a thesis is to become a "mini-expert" in a given field by researching the answer to a question and/or exploring the impact of an assumption (your hypothesis). This exploration then leads to some statement of fact (thesis). You (and your thesis chair) come up with a question/hypothesis that is then tested. You would then develop and conduct research to either prove or disprove the hypothesis or answer your research question. This would then lead to one or more conclusions regarding validity of your hypothesis or research question. In a thesis, you demonstrate your knowledge through a full semester of research.  A thesis "feels" more like the scientific method than a field project.


  • Both the field projects and capstone seminar are used to demonstrate that you can draw together your classroom experiences into an applied project.
  • With a thesis, your work is expected to be original. You are contributing knowledge to the public administration/nonprofit/healthcare fields. As such, your work should be publishable (even though you may not pursue actual publication). That means your work should stand up to review by practicing professionals in the field.


  • Both the capstone seminar and the field projects are "applied knowledge" projects (30-40 page report). Those reports are not nearly as rigorous as the one done for the thesis (50 pages or more), and serve to summarize your project (e.g., describe the problem, present your solution, illustrate its usage). 

Please contact Dr. Michael Ford ( for Capstone Seminar Guidelines.

  • A huge part of your thesis time is spent writing up your thesis document. This describes all the work that you've done from the initial narrowing of the thesis topic through the final analysis of results. It demonstrates all of the knowledge that you gained and your ability to integrate it, analyze it, and draw conclusions from it. Your original research and your thesis document are the goals of the thesis experience. 

 Please contact Dr. Anna Filipova ( for Thesis Guidelines.


  • For the thesis, the student must select and invite a committee, consisting of three faculty. At least two faculty must be from the Public Administration Department.
  • For the field project, the student must select one MPA faculty who has expertise in the subject area.


  • The capstone seminar requires a formal classroom presentation.
  • The field project does not require a formal presentation.
  • The thesis project culminates in a public presentation to the university community. During the defense you present your analysis, describe the methods you used to conduct the study, and defend your conclusions.

Some common misperceptions

  • The capstone is easier.
    The capstone may be easier to complete in one semester, but many students who take the capstone find that it presents challenges of its own—beyond what they expected! The capstone is a synthesis of the theories, concepts, and methodologies that students learn in their core classes. Students who complete the capstone typically offer these words of advice—maintain your notes from your core courses and don’t take another class at the same time.
  • The field/thesis project can be accomplished in a single semester.
    Most unlikely. Students who choose this route should start planning several semesters ahead. Coming up with a suitable proposal and refining it will take time—longer than most students expect. Students also must set aside adequate time to do a literature review, to collect data, and to draft the final product. There are no short cuts—well worth it for the right individual, but, all in all, a good chunk of time, perhaps one year from start to finish. Remember, that you need to write a good proposal to recruit MPA faculty to be your adviser(s) for the field project/thesis  and get their approval to start conducting the study ahead of time.

What should I consider in making my choice?

What kind of person am I?

  • Am I a self-starter? Do I enjoy writing? Working on my own? Designing my own study? Is there something that has been nagging at me that I want to explore in depth? 
  • If you want to solve a specific problem or build a tangible product (policy), then do a field project. If you have an original idea that you want to explore then do a thesis. If you would like an excellent broad-based culminating experience and are concerned about extended time commitments, then perhaps the Capstone Seminar is the appropriate option.

What are my ambitions and career goals?

  • Just as the thesis offers students the opportunity to examine a problem in depth, so the capstone and field project provides synthesis and breadth. Current and future administrators, managers, and leaders will find the capstone or field project to be a good way to hone the knowledge they have acquired throughout the MPA program or produce a tangible product useful to their professional career.
  •  The thesis option is a good preparation for students who would pursue an advanced degree (e.g., a Ph.D. degree or other academic degrees). 

Whatever you decide, it’s primarily your choice. The MPA faculty are here to help. 

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by Filipova, Anna A last modified Sep 20, 2018 07:10 AM