The capstone project is the culminating experience for most MPH degree programs, allowing students to demonstrate their mastery of public health knowledge, theory and skills. It is typically completed in the final year of a program. The goal of the capstone is to integrate public health curriculum with real-world public health practice.
For many MPH programs, the capstone is a course that centers on a major public health research paper. The research paper covers a significant issue or topic in a student’s area of interest and takes the place of a master’s thesis. It represents several months of planning, fieldwork and research and is usually 10 to 20 pages in length. The capstone paper is expected to be publishable and to advance the knowledge base of the student’s area of specialization. In most cases, the student is required to choose a suitable faculty advisor and submit a written proposal for the paper prior to enrolling in the capstone course. Sources of research data are identified in the proposal. Upon course completion, evaluation includes an oral presentation with an accompanying poster or PowerPoint slides.
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Some MPH programs combine the practicum and capstone as a single requirement. The practicum consists of a field-based public health project or service that places the student in the professional public health environment. The project should relate to a student’s professional interests and academic goals. The practicum allows students to integrate public health theory with real-world experience under the guidance of faculty and public health organization mentors. Upon completion of a designated number of hours, the student summarizes the practicum with a written paper and a presentation.
Public health programs that define the capstone requirement in terms of a research paper usually have a separate practicum requirement. Some public health schools, such as Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, allow students to choose between a capstone research thesis and practicum project. Students who are interested in developing research skills might opt for the thesis, while those who want to further their practical skills will select the practicum.
In some cases, the capstone requirement has two components: the capstone field experience, which is essentially the same as a practicum, and the capstone research project. The research topic is usually related to some aspect of the field experience. Successful completion of the capstone field experience and paper demonstrates that a student is prepared to serve as a public health practitioner or researcher and makes a professional contribution to his or her area of interest.
Public health schools that emphasize practice-based degree requirements require both a practicum and field-based capstone in addition to completion of a public health internship during the summer between the first and second years of the MPH program. Students who earn degrees in these programs enter the workforce with a firm grounding in the practice of public health and experience in applying abstract theories and concepts in real-life settings.