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!

Online Teaching Help

Hello Hello!

Working from home since the middle of March has truly destroyed any work-routines that I had developed. It means that I haven’t spent as much time writing as I need to and that my projects feel like they’re piling up, even when I make progress, because I’m not getting any sort of feedback from colleagues and advisors. In my program I’m used to having 2-3 opportunities a semester to present to all of the students in my subfield (Women & Politics). Without those deadlines and interactions my work is starting to feel totally isolated and isolating.

I feel an overwhelming need to start putting more thoughts and research into the world because the horrible state of the job market makes me feel like I won’t ever land that academic job. I don’t want my research or my knowledge to end with my dissertation. Perhaps sharing these tidbits will inspire someone to hire me!

Continue reading “Online Teaching Help”