Cornell University

Professional Writing Requirement

By the time you complete your MPA program, you should have acquired and/or polished – and be able to demonstrate – high-level skills for writing and analysis. As a culmination of your study at CIPA, you are asked to demonstrate this ability. You have three options to choose from in completing this requirement:

  1. Capstone Project
  2. Professional Report 
  3. Thesis 

In addition, Fellows are advised to prepare a summary portfolio of professional-quality work that contains a copy of the Capstone project report to which he/she contributed, with the Fellow’s own contribution identified, or an individual professional report or thesis, and other work completed during the MPA program that demonstrates professional qualification.

Capstone Project

The CIPA Capstone is a semester-long course designed for second-year MPA Fellows. It offers an opportunity for Fellows to apply the knowledge and skills that they have acquired through coursework and internship experiences by engaging in rigorous pro bono consulting projects for real-world clients in public agencies and non-profit organizations.

Each semester, two Capstone projects are offered, one addressing a public service initiative or policy issue posed by a domestic client, and in the other, by an international client. For each Capstone project, Fellows will form a number of complementary consulting groups that propose solutions which are relevant and actionable. The Capstone projects are multidisciplinary and experiential in nature, and Fellows have opportunities to learn from each other and from resources across the University, as well as from CIPA’s contacts in the field. Fellows learn about managing programs and undertaking policy analysis within the constraints of different political environments and organizations, as well as gain professional and public-service experience.

The experiential learning and teamwork required in each Capstone project will enhance Fellows’ abilities as public affairs professionals and leaders. Fellows are expected to produce written products and make oral presentations for which they have individual responsibility. Grading will be based on: participation in the course and performance on individual assignments; contributions to the final group report; evaluations by the client; and peer ratings by teammates. For participation in the Capstone project to meet the Professional Writing requirement, Fellows must earn at least a B grade in the course. For grades below B but no lower than C, Fellows may get credit for the course but will not have fulfilled the Capstone project requirement.

Other Cornell courses that provide a substantial consultative engagement may be substituted for the CIPA Capstone requirement by petitioning. For example, some CIPA Fellows have qualified to participate in the Johnson School’s Sustainable Global Enterprise (SGE) Immersion course. Petitions need to be discussed with both the Fellow’s academic advisor and the CIPA Director of Graduate Studies.

Alternatives to the Capstone Project

Some Fellows, based on their professional and career objectives, will prefer to follow up their internship experience by writing a more thorough and authoritative professional report than was possible during their internship period. Alternately, Fellows can write research-based theses similar to typical Master’s-level theses, although with explicit policy relevance and relationship. This option is discussed more below.

These two written products differ more in their intended audiences than in quality or quantity of work. Professional reports are written for a specific audience (client), to assist in decision-making and program management or evaluation, while theses are written for a general audience, for anyone in the world who would be interested in their subjects.

Fellows should make a decision on which route they will take for meeting their Professional Writing requirement by the end of their second semester (end of the spring semester of the first year).

Professional Report

Most Fellows undertake an internship during the summer between their first and second years, and most of these require some written report or output from the work engaged in. Some Fellows, having done this professional work, will want to develop their analysis to a higher level, with more research, more data assembly and analysis, more detailed evaluation and explanation. Fellows choosing this option to demonstrate professional writing and analytical skills may spend a semester enrolled in an independent study or directed reading course with a Public Affairs field faculty member (which will count as one of their specialized courses). This will develop the Fellow’s writing and learning into a more complete and useful document for the client and others. For this to meet the professional writing requirement, the report needs to be approved by both a representative of the client and the faculty member who supervised the directed reading/ independent study.

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For some Fellows, perhaps because they intend to pursue a PhD beyond the MPA degree and have some particular topical concern within the broad domain of public affairs that can be well-served by broad-ranging but focused research, writing a thesis that corresponds to the Graduate School’s MA or MS degree requirements will be another acceptable way to meet the professional writing requirement. Fellows who choose this option will be responsible for finding a faculty member, preferably within the field of Public Affairs, who will serve as a thesis advisor. For writing a thesis, Fellows may enroll for a semester of directed reading or independent study under the supervision of their thesis advisors, with this counted as one of their specialized courses.

Fellows who are planning on writing a thesis should participate in the thesis proseminar that is offered during their third semester. Their Thesis Prospectus Form, along with a copy of the thesis prospectus, must be signed by the thesis advisor and submitted to the CIPA Office by the end of the third semester of study.

Both the professional report and thesis options must meet the format requirements of the Graduate School. For formatting specifications, Fellows should consult the Doctoral Dissertation & Master’s Thesis: Formatting, Production, and Submission Requirements Guide available outside of the Graduate School Registrar’s Office in Caldwell Hall.

Procedures and Timeline

Fellows should discuss these options with their respective academic advisors during the first year and should make tentative decisions among the three options by the end of their first year, incorporating this plan into their respective Plan of Study Worksheets that are prepared by Fellows approved by their advisor, and filed with the CIPA Office by the end of the first semester of the first year. This Plan of Study can be amended at any time by mutual agreement of the Fellow and his/her advisor. It should be reviewed by the Fellow during the third semester, consulting his/her academic advisor if any changes should be made. A final Plan of Study worksheet should be filed in the CIPA office at the end of the third semester, so that Fellows are clear about what remains to be completed in their final semester before graduation. Some Fellows plan to complete the writing of a thesis or professional report during the summer after their fourth semester, receiving their degree in August. This is acceptable to the program, but it should be something planned, not the consequence of missing the deadline for a May graduation.

Regarding the professional writing assignment, if there is any change decided on, based upon the internship experience (positive or otherwise), this should be reflected in a revised Plan of Study filed with the CIPA Office by the start of fall semester in the second year. This will show which semester the Fellow plans to take the Capstone seminar in his/her second year, and whether with a domestic or international focus; or alternatively, it will indicate whether the Fellow is planning to complete a professional report or a thesis, with plans for independent study or directed reading in which semester, and with what faculty supervisor. Fellows who do not make decisions on these questions by the start of the second year cannot expect that they will necessarily graduate in May. This decision, which should be discussed with and concurred in by the Fellow’s academic advisor, will be reviewed by the DGS.

Occasionally, the subject area chosen for a thesis or professional report can best be advised on by a faculty member who is not a member of the field of Public Affairs. In consultation with his/her academic advisor, the Fellow may seek agreement from a faculty member outside the Public Affairs field to serve as his/her thesis/professional report advisor, since subject-matter expertise is valued and something to be developed during a Fellow’s career at Cornell.

Role of the Thesis/Report Advisor

The role of the faculty advisor for the thesis, and the faculty advisor and supervisor from the client organization for the professional report, is to provide periodic advice to the Fellow on issues related to the scope, content and organization of the professional report or thesis, and to ensure the quality of the final project prior to submission. Responsibility for writing an acceptable thesis or professional report remains fully with the Fellow. CIPA does not operate with the same ‘special committee’ system for all Fellows that the Graduate School prescribes for academic Master’s or Ph.D. degrees. For the thesis option, however, Fellows should follow Graduate School norms and procedures for thesis preparation, presentation and defense. (Note: Fellows wanting faculty members outside the field of Public Affairs to serve as thesis advisors on their Special Committee should have approval from their academic advisor; please see Approval section below.)

Approval of the Thesis/Professional Report

Approval of this writing project is conveyed by faculty advisors signing the abstract of the thesis or an executive summary of the project paper as well as by signing the CIPA Thesis/Professional Report Approval Form (see forms online). Where the thesis or professional report advisor is a member of the field of Public Affairs, only his/her signature is needed on the report/thesis to be filed in the CIPA office, to be kept in the permanent archives. Where the thesis advisor is not a field member, both that thesis advisor and the Fellow’s academic advisor will need to sign the abstract of the thesis or project paper and the associated approval forms. This ensures that all CIPA theses/ professional reports are approved by a member of the field of Public Affairs to be considered as completing the degree requirements. Fellows completing a professional report must also obtain the approval of their supervisor at the host (client) organization as noted above.

Fellows who wish to have a thesis advisor who is not a member of the field of Public Affairs can request that this advisor be designated as a special thesis advisor, or possibly the faculty member can be added (elected) to the field of Public Affairs (but this requires some time). As noted above, the Fellow’s academic advisor will also need to approve the thesis or professional report, which will require more time between completion of the thesis draft and final approval (allowing time for any necessary revisions or polishing). While the thesis or professional report advisor has primary responsibility for supervising and approving the thesis or report, Fellows should keep their academic advisor informed on the timeline and substance of the thesis/report.

To get sufficient and timely feedback from faculty supervising a thesis or professional report, drafts need to be submitted to advisors enough in advance for the material to be read and commented upon. Schedules for submission of drafts need to be worked out with advisor in advance. Theses and professional reports that are not of an acceptable quality, in presentation as well as substance, may not be approved in time for degree conferral as anticipated if too little time for feedback is allowed.

Finalization of the Thesis/Professional Report

Upon receiving faculty approval of their thesis or professional report, Fellows should submit this document in final form to the CIPA Office. In order to graduate on schedule at the end of a given academic term, Fellows need to turn in the following documents no later than two weeks before the graduation date so that CIPA can meet Graduate School deadlines:

  • One electronic copy of thesis or professional report
  • A completed CIPA Thesis Approval Form or CIPA Professional Report Approval Form

Fellows are expected to provide their academic advisors and/or their client organization with bound copies of their thesis or report as a professional courtesy.

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Professional Portfolio

CIPA’s Office of Professional Development will work with any Fellows who wish to assemble their own Portfolio of Professional Work, suitable for presentation to potential employers. This will be formally bound and will contain the following:

  • Introductory preface or letter, including a statement of professional interests and career objectives.
  • Resumé, both in a one-page summary format and in a more comprehensive, extended format.
  • Executive memoranda that demonstrate ability to communicate in this condensed format, preparatory to decisions/actions.
  • Substantial policy analysis papers, showing ability to marshal data and evidence, and to analyze these, presenting conclusions based on appropriately acquired and well-selected, sufficient and persuasive empirical foundations.
  • A major analytical project report, such as would be prepared as part of a Capstone report, or a professional report or a thesis.

These materials would be assembled and bound by the end of class meetings in the semester of planned graduation, and submitted for review to the CIPA Career Services Coordinator.

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