SIPA’s Inflexible Capstone Requirement

Students would benefit from having more options


capstoneBy Tara Badri

SIPA’s capstone requirement, intended to prep students for the “real world,” has received mixed reviews since its inception more than ten years ago. While the capstone provides a fulfilling practical experience for many students, SIPA should consider providing a different option to those with strong individual project proposals.

Currently, the capstone is required for all MIA and MPA candidates. Designed as a bridge between the classroom and the professional world, the capstone brings together teams of four to seven students to act as consultants to an array of private and public sector clients. In the past, clients have included international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank; government agencies including the U.S. Department of State and Central Intelligence Agency; as well as private industries such as Moody’s Investor Service, Crédit Suisse and Booz Allen Hamilton.

Second-year MIA candidate Liwen Pang thinks that the capstone perfectly fits into her studies. The capstone “incorporates all that I learned at SIPA,” she said. “My team is awesome and we all work well together.”

But not all students share Liwen’s enthusiasm. “So much time is devoted to the dynamics of teamwork like conflicting personalities, workload distribution and free riders as opposed to actual deliverables and output,” says a student who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal in peer evaluation.

The program assigns a faculty advisor to each group to avoid conflicts in group dynamics and administer subject matter expertise. Capstone Program Director Suzanne Hollman emphasized the positive lessons from the oversight provided in student-faculty engagements.

Students have found this policy advantageous, especially Bob Fitchette (MPA ’13). “Our faculty advisor, Professor Janow, has been enormously helpful,” says Fitchette. Thanks to his group’s interaction with faculty, Fitchette is “more confident that [hisgroup’s] final recommendations will be actionable, relevant, and useful for [its] client.”

Furthermore, the capstone is a selling point for the school as it highlights students’ abilities to potential employers. Shannon Malone (MIA ’13), “chose SIPA specifically for the capstone.” For Malone, a practical professional experience was more attractive than penning a long theoretical paper. The capstone has been “incredibly frustrating at times but it has… helped me realize how much I’ve actually learned.”

85% of students surveyed share Shannon’s feeling that the capstone has enriched their learning experience. Yet more than half of the class state that they would have selected another option if it had been available to them.

“We’ve been overwhelmed with group work over the course of our SIPA tenure,” said Andrew Ceber (MPA ’13). For Ceber, the time he devotes to the capstone could be better spent on an individual project, especially since he has significant previous professional experience.

As it stands, SIPA does not offer the ability to substitute the capstone for an individual project, but other policy schools are more flexible. Cornell’s Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA) has a writing requirement that can be fulfilled through a capstone, thesis or public service exchange. John Hopkins’ School of International and Advanced Studies (SAIS) requires that students complete an oral exam composed of questions from professors in courses that they have taken. Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service (SFS) encompasses a similar mandate, affirming degree candidates’ ability to assess lessons learned in front of an oral examinations board.

Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Dan McIntyre accounts for these varying requirements by contrasting the specialized missions of each school. “Our capstones are designed to fit student needs,” ays McIntyre. The thesis may become an option in the future but will “set a high bar” for students, requiring them to identify a specialized topic early on in their studies.

While the capstone affords enormous resume bragging rights, it does not provide tangible benefits to every student’s career. Individual projects may force students to focus on the concentration earlier in their studies but they would spare the capstone cynics. “I would much rather do an individual paper than waste my time on this stupid project,” said Ceber.


This article appeared in the Mar. 12, 2013 print edition of The Morningside Post.


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Tara Badri is a second-year Master of International Affairs candidate

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