How to Survive Your Capstone in 10 Easy (HA!) Steps

Here’s a quick thesis/capstone survival guide I put together for a talk at Penn last fall. It’s close to graduation time so hopefully it will come in handy to someone!


1. Capstones scare everybody.  Face it together.

You might think you are the worst procrastinator in the world, that no one has ever been as scared of a stupid paper, and that everybody else is doing way better.


Everybody suffers when they’re working on the magnum opus of their education thus far, the document that could propel them to greatness or banish them to mediocrity FOREVER.  It helps to have a cadre of friends or colleagues for venting, study dates, and plain old empathy.  You often get tips and insights when you talk through whatever you’re stuck on, that you wouldn’t get plugging away on your own.  So even if it seems like some of your classmates have hit their stride before you, don’t be shy about working together.

2. Heed your inner procrastinator.

You know that moment when you’re staring at a blinking cursor, trying to attack a concept or a chapter and all you can think about is how much you want to clean the toilet?  Maybe there’s a reason you’re stuck.  It could be that while you beat yourself up for not buckling down and writing the thing, that what’s really going on is that your intuition says something isn’t quite right.  Maybe you don’t feel like you have a convincing argument, or one of your sources doesn’t feel authoritative, or you’re not sure you’re asking the right question.  When you find yourself procrastinating, take some time to peel back the layers of why you’re stuck.  There might be a breakthrough at the center.

3. Work on what you want; the flow will come.  Or, don’t fall down the rabbit hole.

You just want to get through this one idea, then you can work on the fun stuff.  But every time you start the sentence, you feel like you need a better statistic.  Then you find another fact that leads you down another path.  Next thing you know, you’ve spent 6 hours chasing shadows and your sentence still isn’t working.

Forget it.  Work on what’s on your mind.  You do better work when an idea is fresh.  If you wait a day or a week or a month, you might lose that momentum.  Research writing is an iterative process and skipping around to topics you enjoy could give you better perspective on the less fun parts.  You might find that they are less relevant than you originally thought, or maybe when you go back you’ll find it more interesting.  Either way, it will be easier to tackle in the context of your other work.

4. Can you cut your concept in half?

This is super helpful for maximalists like me.  It’s tempting to expand your project to make it really relevant or erudite, but the key to finishing is setting attainable goals.  You might get two-thirds through your project and realize that you just won’t be able to do an entire component.

That’s when it’s helpful to have thought about your project in sections.  Take your concepts and chop them in half until you’re down to atomic chunks which lose their meaning if chopped again.  Those are your building blocks.  If you think of them as modular pieces, you have the option of dropping one or more without maiming your project if you can’t realistically finish them all.

5. Pick readers you trust, then trust them.

 Since I wrote my capstone I’ve referred to it several times to compose a talk, to check a fact, or just to marvel at having finished the damn thing.  Often, I run across a sentence that makes me hyperventilate.  That argument isn’t convincing!  That statement is controversial!  That fact is insufficiently cited!  And I panic and think that anyone who reads my paper will know I’m a fraud. 

Then I remember who I chose to read my capstone.  Both my formal and informal readers are people I trust and respect.  They come from diverse professional, personal, and even political backgrounds.  They all had insightful comments that I incorporated, and they liked my paper.  This has talked me down from several ledges.  If my work was respected by people I respect, I must have done something right.


6. Be kind to your audience.

This is a lesson I learned from my readers and from the absolutely wonderful book The Craft of Research.  It’s a classic for scholars of many levels and fields, and what I love about it is that it breaks down the mystical process of making a convincing argument and feeling sure that it’s convincing.  If you don’t have it, get it.

But it also discusses how to be in dialogue with your readers, how to anticipate their questions, how to neither assume they know everything you do nor that they are ignorant, and how to introduce them to your point of view.  Even if your audience are experts in your field, they aren’t experts in your perspective.  I wrote a section that I feared was simplistic and pandering, but my readers liked it because it introduced them to the totality of my topic in the form of a readable narrative.  After that, the audience felt prepared for the heady statistics and policy arguments that followed.  It’s safe to assume that your readers are people like you, and that they will appreciate rigorous arguments in readable language over spurious scholarship that assumes your readers already know everything you’re talking about.  They don’t.  It’s your job to engage them and convince them.


7. Let the robots manage your references.

If you’re not already using a citation manager like Refworks, EndNote or Zotero, run don’t walk and get signed up!  I used Refworks which was fine for my needs, and I wish I had used it for all my courses.  Sometimes I found that a reference I’d used for one paper would come in handy for another and it would have been easier to search for it in a citation tool than to look it up in the paper itself.  And there are few joys more palpable than switching from tweaking your commas and semi-colons by hand, to clicking a checkbox and having your references output in any citation style you like!  This is nerd paradise! 

Every tool has its pros and cons, (here are some comparisons from Penn, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, and a very rich one from Wikipedia) but it’s better to start using something than to fret over which one to choose.  Your best bet for getting help picking one is to talk to a reference librarian.

8. For the poster, bribe a designer friend with cookies.

Everyone, including me, treats the poster as an afterthought.  When I started mine I suddenly realized, crap, I don’t know anything about data visualization, color theory, layout, even font size for large format printing!  The poster help in the MES program’s Capstone guide (available on Blackboard, talk to the department if you can’t find it) is a good start, but there are some baaaaad posters out there.  If you can get some face time with a designer, you’ll come out with inspiration for organizing and illustrating your biggest ideas.  I’m ok with how mine came out (even if it’s pretty text-heavy) but I wish I’d thought about it sooner and gotten help.  I do feel strongly about 2 things, though:  70%-80% gray is almost always better than black for large format stuff unless you’re only using a very few, very bold colors, and serif fonts are ugly.  Yeah, I said it.

9. Consider your licensing options.

At Penn, the default publishing option is to have your paper entered into Scholarly Commons.  There’s a lot to be said for automatically being published in at least one place, especially if that place is the library of a major research institution.  The author agreement isn’t at all onerous.  It gives Penn the right to copy your paper to keep it available online, and publish parts of it in its own publications, giving you attribution.  In fact, the works are published with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license, which means anyone who wants to use it can do so if they give you credit, don’t make money, and don’t remix it.  You retain the right to re-publish or do whatever you want with your work.  That’s actually pretty good.  I did not submit to Scholarly Commons and slapped a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Sharealike license on the copy that I keep on my website.  But I may actually go back and submit to Scholarly Commons.  I’ve read horror stories of academic authors trying to publish their dissertations using a Creative Commons license and getting crazy pushback from their departments, and it’s nice that Penn is ahead of the curve on that. 

But it’s worth noting that if you  are sure you want to publish elsewhere, many publications frown upon being second to the party.  The dilemma is weighing a guaranteed publication versus possibly harming your chances of publishing in a journal or elsewhere.

10. Pace yourself.  It works!

I’m the kind of person who sees a big project as a monolith.  I have a hard time believing that working on a bit at a time will get the job done.  But I’ll repeat that this kind of project is iterative.  Working on a section at a time or a set number of hours at a time really will get the job done.  You might still have to cram at the end, but any work you do, even if it doesn’t feel finished, gets you closer to the goal.  Making mistakes and doing very rough writing is part of the process.  Putting your head down and doing nothing but work in every free hour for a semester may not result in more or better work than committing to a certain number of hours or pages per week.  And if you pace yourself you can give yourself permission to get a beer, go for a bike ride, celebrate your friend’s birthday, and still know that you’re making progress. 


Listen, I’m not going to pretend that writing a capstone is easy.  But it’s a dragon you can slay if you can keep it from overwhelming you.  Remember that it’s a finite amount of work and it will get done.  If you need help defining the scope, you can get feedback from your advisor, classmates, and alums.  And the sooner you finish, the sooner you can experience the sublime freedom of having it off your mind.  (Of course, I took fooooreeeeeverrrr to finish mine, so do as I say, not as I do.)  Good luck!


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