Capstone Guidelines

Capstone Options, Process and Deadlines

Students select one of three options for fulfilling their capstone requirement: a strategic communication plan, a media project, or a research thesis. Each option entails a two-course sequence, which should be completed during the last two semesters of a student’s time in the program. (These two courses must be taken consecutively over two semesters and cannot be taken concurrently during the same semester.)


Strategic Political Communication Project

Students interested in developing a strategic communication plan for their capstone project enroll in SMPA 6220, Strategic Practicum, during their penultimate semester in the program, as the first 3 credits of the capstone experience. This course does not count as an elective for students opting to complete a strategic communication plan for their capstone project. Students in SMPA 6220 work with a group to complete a strategic communication project.

Students then enroll in SMPA 6298 for the following semester, during which the students develop their own individual strategic communication plan on a topic of their choosing. Students will apply their knowledge of the theory and techniques of strategic political communication, as well as related subject area knowledge, to design a strategic communication campaign grounded in real- world, real-time issues and data. The student will be required to research the issues and actors associated with a specific campaign and context to identify the critical points in the decision-making process and the key constituencies with interests in each issue, and then develop theory-based communication strategies which s/he regards as most likely to achieve the stated objective. Electoral campaigns for political office are not suitable for this project, though electoral strategies may be included as one component of a broader effort where appropriate. 

In a bit more detail, the student will identify a cause or issue objective and design a strategic communication plan to achieve it. This plan should include, at a minimum, a contextual analysis of the issue and a statement of the objective; an identification of the key constituencies and decision-makers who might come into play as a strategic plan is implemented and of the interests, significance and points of access for each; a critical review of the available techniques that might be applied to the problem at hand; and, most importantly, a clearly delineated strategy and implementation program that combines all of these elements. Components of that plan should include schedules, budgets (revenues as well as expenditures), sources of revenue, research, media and/or lobbying plans, examples of communication materials, and such other items as the reader and/or the adviser may regard as essential to success. 


Research Thesis

Students who opt to complete a research thesis for their capstone register in two consecutive semesters of SMPA 6999 (3 credits each semester, for a total of 6 credits) during their final two semesters in the program.

The thesis is expected to be an original contribution to scholarly knowledge. It should show the student’s ability to identify key questions and debates in the literature, formulate research questions, think conceptually, critically, and rigorously, and conduct research using quantitative or qualitative methodologies. The final thesis should be between 50-80 pages in length (double-spaced).

Before the end of the second semester and a student is enrolled in SMPA 6999, their thesis must be defended orally before the student’s capstone committee. The thesis defense should be scheduled with enough time to allow for the completion of any necessary revisions that are identified during the defense. Master’s theses are required to be registered electronically with the GW library; please refer to the details and deadlines for electronic submission. We recommend that defenses be held at least two weeks before the deadline for electronic submission to provide ample time for students to complete any necessary revisions.

Once the committee has determined that the student has satisfactorily completed their thesis, the student needs to prepare the final approved thesis for electronic submission and complete the ETD Approval Form, which must be signed by the thesis director and submitted to CCAS.

Prior to the end of the student’s second-semester, thesis candidates should find an SMPA faculty member willing to be their adviser and have them approve a brief one page proposal outlining the Research Question, proposed methodology, and tentative timeline for the project. After the advisor has approved the proposal, it should then be submitted to the Director of Graduate Studies.

The student then needs to find a second reader for their thesis in consultation with their adviser. This should be done no later than the first two weeks of the student’s third semester, and ideally much earlier. 

The student should work closely with the adviser during their second year while completing the thesis, but in general the third semester (typically the fall of the second year) should be spent putting together the literature review and research design and collecting sample data if that is relevant to the project. The final semester typically entails the main data collection and analysis, write-up of the full thesis, and defense. 


Media Project

Students who opt to complete a media project register in two consecutive semesters of SMPA 6297 (3 credits each semester, for a total of 6 credits) during their final two semesters in the program.

The media capstone project may be a short documentary, investigative media project, or any other media project agreed upon with the capstone committee. The final project must be research-based and adhere to professional norms specific to the project as determined by the adviser and reader(s). The format may be written, web-based, audio, or video. For example, a student may choose to produce a short documentary for which they will do all the research, writing, filming, and editing. Another example would be writing and producing a podcast written about a topic on which the student has conducted an original, in-depth investigation.

Before the start of the first semester of SMPA 6297, students should identify an SMPA faculty member who agrees to serve as their capstone adviser. In consultation with their adviser, students develop a short proposal (suggested length 2-3 pages) describing the topic, production plan, final product, and estimated timeline for completion. This proposal should be completed by the second week of the first semester in which the student is enrolled in SMPA 6297. During the first four weeks a student is enrolled in the first semester of SMPA 6297, students should also identify an additional faculty member who agrees serve as a “reader” on their capstone committee. Both subject area and technical expertise should be considered when identifying faculty members to serve on a project’s committee. Students are expected to consult regularly with the capstone adviser and reader during the two semesters they are enrolled in SMPA 6297 and working on their media project.

The final media project must be presented in a public session to a faculty committee consisting of the adviser and the reader(s). The project will be judged on both its substantive content and the style and quality of the presentation of the media project.

The presentation of the media project must occur at least two weeks prior to the last day of the semester to provide adequate time for the student to incorporate any necessary revisions identified during the oral defense.


Selecting an Advisor and Committee

Students should consult with the SMPA Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) during their first year in the program to discuss capstone options. Once a student has determined the capstone option they will complete and the topic their capstone will likely focus on, students should identify SMPA faculty members with relevant subject area and technical/methodological expertise. Once a student has identified a faculty member who would be a good fit as an adviser for their capstone project, the student should reach out to that faculty member to schedule a time to discuss their idea for the capstone and inquire about their availability to serve on the committee. 

In consultation with their adviser, students next identify and reach out to additional faculty members to inquire about serving as the other members of the capstone committee (i.e., “readers”). Students pursuing a research thesis select two additional committee members, one of which should also be an SMPA faculty member. The second reader can be a faculty member from any department at GW. Students pursuing a strategic communication plan or media project need only select one additional committee member to serve as a reader; however, they have the option of including a second reader. 

At least two members of all capstone committees must be SMPA faculty (full-time or part-time), whereas the third member can be selected from other departments at GW. Ideally, students’ capstone committees will be comprised of faculty whose subject area and technical expertise complement one another and are relevant to the focus of the capstone.


Capstone Proposal Form

Students must submit the Capstone Proposal form including a brief description of the proposed project topic and timeline, with the name of the adviser and, if already determined, the name(s) of the reader(s). For students pursuing theses or media projects, this form should be submitted by the end of the second week of the first semester that they are enrolled in the capstone sequence. For students opting to complete a strategic communication plan, the proposal should be submitted before the end of the semester they are enrolled in SMPA 6220 (preferably by mid-semester).


Submit the Capstone Proposal Form


Graduation Clearance

Once the committee has determined that a student has satisfied the capstone requirement, the adviser should email the Director of Graduate Studies who will enter the final grade into the system.

For students to qualify to graduate, all degree requirements must be reported completed in the system no later than:

  • May 15, for Spring Graduation
  • January 15, for Fall Graduation
  • August 15, for Summer Graduation