Advising Senior Capstones (Part 1)

If you’re like me and fresh out of graduate school, don’t let the idea of advising intimidate you. Your recent experiences as a graduate student are the perfect resource for you to become a good advisor. Many undergraduates don’t understand the capstone/thesis project and as someone who just spent years working on a bigger version of a capstone you can provide guidance, insight, and relatable experiences. You’re also likely to be more ‘up to date’ in terms of technology, apps, etc that your students might benefit from! Here are some questions and resources for your first meetings.

Remember that this process is really hard!

Research and writing are tough and take a lot of time. Be sure to set reasonable expectations for the quality of work and your availability as an advisor. Don’t over-promise yourself and be sure to model healthy work expectations for your advisees. Here are some questions that you should answer together in your first meeting. This information will help you figure out what type of advisor you want/need to be.

  1. How much time do they actually have each week for this project? How often do you and the student need to meet?
  2. What coursework and assignments have they completed already that can serve as a foundation for the project?
  3. Do they have multiple advisors or mentors? Clarify the difference between a formal advisor (the one grading) and a mentor (the fun one with wild ideas).
  4. Related to question 3, what role do you play in this project? Are other faculty involved who will provide additional or different support?
  5. What do they want to get out of the capstone/thesis? Is it just a requirement? Is this a test-run for graduate school? Can it be adjusted to be more relevant for job opportunities post-grad?
  6. What expectations does the student have for their performance? Is a “pass” the goal, or do they want the best grade? This will shape how you advise them.
  7. What anxieties or stressors do they have about this project? Related, what type of feedback or support does the student want from you?
  8. Go over an example of a previous capstone project from your department to show them what the final product should look like.

Interests, Questions, Research…How to start?!

I was introduced to Paradigms and Sandcastles by Barbara Geddes in graduate school during a dissertation design course. I love it as a way to introduce students to research and research design because she starts by saying that research projects should be motivated by a strong feeling: anger, frustration, passion, interest. You need to make sure the student can handle working on this topic for 6-9 months!

  1. What interests you about this topic? (note: if you get a “shrug” or a superficial answer, try to figure out a topic that they actually like by asking more questions)
  2. What questions do you have about the topic, existing research, etc? What is the puzzle from their perspective that needs to be answered?
  3. What type of answers are most interesting to you (used to determine methods/epistemologies)?
  4. Have you identified potential data sources for this project? What type of methodological skills, training, and programs does the student have or know about already? Will this project require training them in a new method of analysis?
  5. Try to determine if there are other possible topics of interest that the student might “switch” to after they get through a few weeks of reading.

Organization and Project Management

The number one thing I want to stress here is that writing a thesis or dissertation is an exercise in organization and project management. These are really important skills that students can list on resumes, talk about in interviews, or extend further if they go to graduate school.

Research is a long-term activity. There are a lot of tools, guides, and strategies that can help make this more manageable for you and your students. The way that you use these will depend on how involved you (the advisor) want to be in the minutiae of their process. Do you want a bi-weekly highlight reel? Do you just want to see a piece of writing once a month? Do you need weekly check-ins and reading summaries? You need to answer these questions for yourself before you meet with students.

First thing, students these days don’t really know or care to organize their computer systems the way other generations do; Verge has a great article on this called “File Not Found”. You need to be aware of this and perhaps provide some gentle pressure to get them to set up folders and consistent naming practices for their readings. The other priority for organization is to teach them about citation managers. Your library probably already has tutorials and info-sessions that you can direct the student to. If you don’t use a citation manager, I’m begging you to lie to the student and tell them you do so that they feel encouraged to start using one. Maybe ya’ll can learn together. The combination of the “file not found” problem, plus bad file naming practices, plus no citation manager is a recipe for disaster.

Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega has created so many helpful posts about organizing research, reading and writing memos, and teaching students these skills. Check out his blog! I personally love to teach the excel synthesis dump and the everything notebook.

You, as the advisor, also need to practice organization. Each student that you advise should have a distinct folder or running file on your computer for you to keep track of conversations, deadlines, drafts, and texts that you’ve recommended. The student should not be the only one taking notes during a meeting. If they are, you need to ask for them to send you a copy of those notes. You’ll be working with multiple students and it is crucial that you can keep all the details straight!

You can also rely on some of the digital tools that I link to below to track this stuff in a shared place with the student. The easiest way to do this is probably a shared google spreadsheet with different pages for the different types of information (meeting dates and notes, deadlines and instructions, lists of sources, lists of writing or research strategies and tools).

Now moving onto Project Management. The first step is to clearly establish the project timeline: start date to due date. This seems very simple but have them write it down in front of you, give it to them on a sheet of paper, print out a whole calendar. Do whatever you need to do to really drive home the timeline. Clearly explain which deadlines are flexible and which are not so there are no surprises in your futures. Make sure you’re using “SMART” goal framework so the tasks are actually do-able and related to the final product!

This is a great time to share stories about your own process and research experience. Try to relate to the student by sharing what has worked or not worked for you to give them guidance on which tools to use. Don’t only recommend things you like because it is possible that your students will have different needs!

Step 1: Backwards Planning
It can be easy to lose sight of the many tasks they need to do to complete the capstone. This problem leads to weeks of “not knowing what to do”. That’s why you start with a backwards calendar.
What to tell students: You work from the due-date to list the ‘big’ deadlines. Then, you break those deadlines into task-lists and assign each task to a week/day depending on your schedule. Backwards planning is only STEP ONE in project management. You have to then organize and prioritize your tasks using other strategies.

It’s a good idea to make sure that you and the student have constant access to this plan. You can use shared files via Google Drive, Drop Box, Microsoft Sharepoint or One Drive, etc.

Side bar: the idea of “backwards design” in pedagogy might help you figure out what you want out of your thesis project.

Option 1: The Classic To-Do List

Sometimes, simple is best. Some of these tools can also be used to make Gantt charts.

I personally use to-do lists to manage my revisions and edits that way I can put them all in one place and cross them off as a I go.

Digital To-Do Lists

Google Tasks




Option 2: Gantt Charts

I think these are the best option. Students who are going into full-time work after graduation will likely encounter these and it could be helpful to show employers that they know how to use one! Gantt charts are fancy-looking project timelines. There are so many free programs and websites that you can use. I highly recommend giving it a try!
What to say to students: Use this as a tool to map individual tasks and timelines within bigger headings like “research”, “writing”, “data analysis”. This is great if you prefer to see visual indicators of how much work is left or where you need to redirect your energy!

My Favorite Gantt Templates or Makers

Google Drive Template


Project Manager


I would encourage students to use digital systems to organize and track their research process because they are easily shared. This can make your advising meetings run a lot more smoothly since you’ll both have access to the same information. I’ll post a run-down of these options in another blog, along with links to templates that I’ve already made.

This should enough to get you through your first advising meeting. I’ll write up Part 2 to discuss research strategies, literature reviews, and data soon!

Oops, I’ve changed my mind!

I defended my dissertation proposal in the fall of 2019 and was certain that it would provide me with a nice and tidy road-map of the next 1-2 years. I planned to frame my dissertation using Michael Saward’s “representative claim-making” approach and felt (overly) confident that I could translate this theory into a process for empirical analysis. There were other scholars in Europe working to develop a clear method for claims-making and I felt good knowing I’d be contributing to this discussion.

In the spring of 2021, however, I signed up to take a graduate seminar course with a new professor on Feminist Theory. As a fifth year graduate student, I had previously read many of the texts on the syllabus. I approached the class as a fun time to chat about some of my favorite topics, rather than a space where I had to memorize everything each author said. This was my first time taking a course with a trained political theorist and I was excited for the challenge. At the start of the semester I only saw myself as a comparativist who liked to dabble in feminist theory.

By the end of the course I considered myself a budding theorist and had found a new direction for my dissertation. It became apparent that the questions I had and the research I planned to conduct needed firmer theoretical foundations, and that my research would speak to both theorists and empiricists.

I first read portions of Sarah Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology in the spring of 2019 while I was teaching my first class. Her arguments about queerness being relational, and about our orientations towards objects and experience, immediately hit home. Over the next two years I would reference the book in conversation and return to its ideas on my own, but I didn’t feel confident or capable enough to apply the theory to my work. This book helped me to understand my own non-binary identity but I struggled to articulate its use as a research framework. This changed after the graduate theory seminar.

Advisors and professors will tell you that your proposal will change as you work on the dissertation but they don’t always provide guidance or support when it happens. For me, research is an extremely personal and emotional process. If I am drawn to a concept or have an affective response to an argument, it is usually going to show up in my own work at some point. I often begin my discussion of an article or book by describing how it made me feel. After spending two years developing a slow-burn love for Queer Phenomenology, I decided to take a dive into the deep end and re-write my theoretical framework using Ahmed’s argument.

The joy and inspiration came instantly. I re-wrote the chapter for my seminar final paper and presented it at a paper workshop where I received excellent feedback and support. I am now working on an article version of that paper, as well as writing my dissertation, and I find myself struggling to hold onto all of the ideas I have about my project. Changing your mind, or going in a different direction (even if it is just changing data sets) can feel daunting. As graduate students we are made to feel like our expertise is conditional and that we don’t have the skill-set to push our own intellectual boundaries and grow.

This is part of the myth of exceptionalism that permeates academic programs. The reality is, most of us hold enough knowledge after our comprehensive exams to be able to say a lot about our research interests, current events, and political science pedagogy. If I hadn’t been invited to submit this revised framework to a journal then I would probably have given up on it and returned to what I perceived as the ‘easier’ path. To my knowledge, there aren’t any others working on political representation using phenomenology and despite being published in 2006, Ahmed’s book has not been picked up by the feminist political science community.

These so-called ‘gaps’ are the motivation for finishing my work because they show that the discipline needs to experience an entirely new conversation about political representation. In a time when there are few academic jobs for qualitative scholars, I’ve gone as qualitative as can be; using discourse analysis and insisting that politics is shaped by things like the heterosexual matrix (Butler) and chromonormativity (Freeman). I was trained in a somewhat interdisciplinary program where we were required to take classes in the Women’s and Gender Studies department. I have participated in a year-long interdisciplinary research seminar with historians, sociologists, literary scholars, legal scholars, and even museum curators. These experiences have certainly made me into a different kind of political scientist, even if I don’t have a specific name for it yet.

Changing my mind, and pursuing a different theory from the one I originally started with, is a reflection of my own queer academic desires to remain fluid, open, and spread across a range of disciplines. As an LGBTQ politics scholar I encounter legal analyses, international relations, social movements, American political development, quantitative and survey work, etc. all within the discipline of political science. My subject area requires that I be well-versed and literate in a range of ways to conduct research and my own epistemological and ontological commitments push me beyond political science’s borders.

I share all of this in the hopes that another graduate student or junior scholar out there decides to take the leap with me. Changing your mind or going in a more creative direction can be extremely fulfilling and in a time when our academic futures remain so uncertain it seems pointless to waste these years on projects we aren’t excited and passionate about.

Lou Sullivan

I did not know who Lou Sullivan was two days ago. A friend recommended the recently published volume of his diaries, We Both Laughed In Pleasure, and it has been sitting patiently on my windowsill for about a month. It was meant to be personal reading but as a trans person who studies trans and queer politics, it has become increasingly “work-related”.

I also did not know that the anniversary of Lou’s death was this week. Just as I’m learning of his life, I am confronted with his death. The collection has caused so much introspection and to see other people sharing their thoughts publicly has been jarring. I’m still not used to people seeing me or knowing me this deeply! Now we’re all reading the same thing! And, to know that Lou himself started collecting his diaries for publication towards the end of his life is hard for me to grapple with; Why would someone share their internal self so brazenly with the world? There are several answer that I’ve come up with…he had nothing to ‘hide’, he wanted to remain an elder after his death, he had worked hard on building his life and living fully which deserves to be shared. I’m sure there is an explicit answer somewhere, from him, perhaps an interview or a diary entry. When I find it, I’ll let ya’ll know. For now, those three reasons are floating front-and-center in my mind all day. I am thinking about how they relate to myself but also my research: the idea that trans people have nothing to hide, that we don’t want to be ignored or erased, that our lives are worth knowing deeply.

I’ve only read about 100 pages of the collection, roughly his first 23 years of life, and I am too fascinated with these early memories to move on into the later years when he begins to transition, when he moves to San Francisco, when he “becomes” a gay trans activist, when he dies after contracting HIV/AIDS.

I see many people sharing his quote, from an early teenage entry, about wanting to be seen by people as someone who “interprets their own happiness”. In the introduction to the collection, Susan Stryker says that this phrase has stuck with her as the definition of trans experiences. I have to say that I agree. I nearly cried when I read those words. They are powerful and earnest and so honest. But, I also found tears welling when Lou complains about people “up the mountain” digging in to build a new house. There are two entries, back to back in the collection about the house. He’s disgusted by it! Annoyed! A child recording the things around him, the changes in his home. I could not help but wonder what my childhood self would have written. I was annoyed by the bus being late for school, by the new neighbors and their kid who used to peek in our front door…

I think we call this type of introspection “reflexivity” in research methodologies. We must be in tune with ourselves and our research subjects and must remember to treat them as complex people, not objects we can classify and extract from to move on to the next ‘big thing’. Even as a trans queer lesbian…I have slipped into a non-reflexive mode of research. My discipline almost demands it–the emphasis is on analytical clarity and causal stories. Reading Lou’s diaries reminded me that as a trans person I am complex and hold many stories, histories, versions of self. I remembered that my transness is about seeking joy and presenting my interpretation of happiness. The people that I’m writing and thinking about are doing the same thing.

We cannot give our research subjects the space to be full, complex, contradictory, and important if we do not give that space to ourselves as well. I want to thank Lou for reminding me of this and for sharing his life so that I can remember my own.