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Master of Public Administration

capstone project.

Focus and Benefits of Capstone Project Reports

The capstone project is a tangible demonstration of your competence. To have taken courses on survey methodology, policy analysis or motivation is one thing; a well-written project incorporating field work with a knowledge base is stronger and more convincing evidence—for faculty who are asked to give you references and for prospective employers (e.g., as a part of a professional portfolio).

The capstone project bridges the gap between coursework and professional practice in other ways as well. In particular, you will be far more independent and individually responsible for your work on the project than was the case for much of your MPA program. Your work will still be subject to the standards set by the faculty member supervising your work; nevertheless, you will make key choices of project definition and execution. The capstone project and report is a great opportunity to exercise your judgment and to pursue your interests.

Faculty members of the School of Public Administration view the capstone project as providing several benefits.

Doing the capstone project helps you integrate and apply the management, policy and organizational knowledge and strategies learned in many separate courses. You have studied many topics during your graduate professional education. Active use and integration of the ideas and methods studied brings knowledge closer to the world of professional practice you are working in (or for).

Developing Your Capstone Project Proposal

Prior to enrolling in the capstone project course, students must submit an acceptable capstone proposal. Proposals are submitted in the semester prior to the semester the student desires to work on the project. Thus if a student wants to work on their capstone project during the summer session, the proposal would be submitted during the spring semester.

What’s the Difference Between a Capstone Project Report and a Thesis?

The UNO MPA program does have a thesis option and it is most appropriate for students who want to pursue the PhD in public administration (Note: the thesis option requires 42 hours rather than 39 hours for the MPA with either a capstone project or comprehensive exam). Most students who are in-career or who are looking forward to a career in public service will want to do a capstone project rather than a thesis.

Still, you might be wondering how the capstone project report might be different from a thesis. In reality, your capstone project report will be similar to a thesis in some ways. They are both supervised by faculty members, and they are both substantial written reports involving research and meeting high professional standards for research design, execution, writing and production. In theory at least, research on a topic could be carried out either as a capstone project or as a thesis.

But the intent of the capstone project and a thesis are significantly different. The connotation of a “thesis” is academic, while “project” suggests action as well as study. In simplest terms, a capstone project report represents the application of knowledge as well as the search for it. A thesis might be based entirely on library sources; a capstone project involves both library and field research activity.

What is an Applied Project?

What is meant by ‘applied work?' In the context of the MPA program, the phrase signifies work that can be readily applied to our understanding of public administrative or policy problems and especially to choices among alternative courses of action. Be sure you review the list of past capstone projects. Recent projects have links to the Introduction and Conclusion sections of the reports.

Some examples:

  • An analysis of the adoption of a sales tax by a municipality.
  • A marketing plan for a nonprofit health care agency, with accompanying research on the marketing literature and on the potential market for this agency.
  • A proposed revision of the objectives and performance measures for a city's budget, applying the literature on budgeting to a particular setting.
  • A strategic plan for a nonprofit youth services agency, including a review of the literature on strategic planning approaches and strategies.
  • The identification and examination of various models for providing mental health services in a multicultural environment.
  • Surveys of day care centers (for senior citizens) and experts to identify trends and problems that require attention in the near future.
  • A study of attitudes, relationships, managerial styles and productivity in a public agency, with recommendations for action.
  • A needs assessment for day care for single parents, focusing on different models that could be used to implement a proposed community child care policy.
  • A cost-benefit analysis for the proposed privatization of prison services, including a review of the literature on privatization.
  • An analysis of the policies being developed to deal with hate crimes.
  • A management audit of the overtime policies of a county sheriff's office, with appropriate review of the professional literature and current “best practices.”
  • Forecasting revenues for a nonprofit social services agency considering a shift in its funding mix.
  • Conducting a needs assessment for a new municipal program addressing neighborhood leadership to support inner city revitalization.

Developing Your Capstone Project Proposal

Acceptance is not guaranteed. All proposals are reviewed by the faculty member teaching the capstone course in the semester in which the student desires to enroll. Typically, capstone project proposals are due approximately 4 to 6 weeks in advance of the start of the next semester. For example, if summer session starts on May 16th, capstone proposals would be due around April 1 st .

Many capstone project proposals go through a revision prior to final acceptance. Once accepted, you will be given authorization to enroll for the course and semester you desire. Don't worry—there will be room for you in the capstone course, as well as a faculty mentor to help guide you.

Specific due dates for proposals, specifications for proposals, and contact information for the faculty member teaching the course will be mailed to UNO MPA students each semester. For the current/recent call for capstone proposals and syllabus, click here.

Choosing a Topic

Because everything else depends upon choosing a “doable” topic, you should be thinking about your project topic early in the semester prior to enrolling in the capstone project class (if not earlier). As you encounter questions, problems, proposed solutions and other people's research in your courses, ask yourself—Am I interested in applying and evaluating such a program? Would I like to study that problem? For example, would I like to study productivity problems in an agency and recommend improvements? Would I like to study budgeting in a city and suggest changes in format or strategy? Would I like to assess citizen or clientele attitudes on an issue, or survey organizational practice in an important area? Would I like to assess an emerging problem (or opportunity), or prepare a plan to deal with it?

A capstone project may be either quantitative or qualitative in nature. When properly structured and implemented, projects utilizing either research methodology involve significant rigor and are capable of making contributions to the improvement of management and/or policy in the public and nonprofit sectors. The methodology, however, should be determined by the nature of the research question you are asking—not by your personal preference for one methodology over another.

Take advantage of course assignments (or review past assignments and topics) to explore topics. Ask in your courses whether something the course deals with would be a suitable project topic. Use your preparation of a course presentation as an opportunity to explore a possible project topic. As you settle on a term paper topic and carry it out, think of it as an opportunity to read and think about a possible project.

While you don't want to orient everything you do in the MPA program around the capstone project report, it is possible that a term paper might lend itself as a pilot study for a project. But it is still a good idea to keep the choices of a project in mind as you proceed through the program.

Some additional considerations to think about include:

  • What do you want to accomplish with your project?
  • What are your goals?
  • Do you want to demonstrate your competence in an area?
  • Do you want to strengthen your grasp of a body of knowledge?
  • Do you want to contribute to the work of your own organization?
  • What is the public purpose of your proposed topic?
  • What public goal or value will be served?
  • Who might use the results of your work?

The bottom line is that you should find a topic that is: (1) worthwhile in terms of your goals; (2) that you are interested in carrying out; and (3) that is “doable” within a semester timeframe.

Initial Project Concept Statement

You should start by developing a draft project design. A first step is to put your initial conception of the topic into a working title and a short paragraph that states the problem you want to focus on. Consider exploring this initial effort with fellow students, work colleagues and public administration faculty.

At this stage, you may not know exactly how you are going to carry out your project, but you should be able to identify it clearly enough so that you are ready to talk to other people about your topic (and have them understand what you want to do!).

You should also be prepared to think in much more depth about how to complete the project. For example, you may be uncertain about the particular setting to be studied and how you can carry out the comparisons you have in mind, but you do know you want to sharpen our understanding of competing public housing program designs. To do this you think you'd like to compare the effects of pre-Bush and Bush public housing budgets and policies on such programs in a particular city or county. Or, you have not yet worked out an interview schedule or a sampling design, but you do know you want to assess public attitudes toward comparable worth so that groups that favor comparable worth policies know what they have to contend with and can better design their strategies.

After you have developed an initial working title and problem statement in paragraph form, you will be ready to respond to the other proposal criteria outlined in the call for capstone proposals. Expect to develop multiple drafts. Work hard at using short, pithy sentences containing active writing. Ultimately, you will develop a short statement that is approved and be ready to take the next step in your journey. Good luck!