M.S. in Data Science students are required to complete a capstone project. Capstone projects challenge students to acquire and analyze data to solve real-world problems. Project teams consist of two to four students and a faculty advisor. Teams select their capstone project at the beginning of the year and work on the project over the course of two semesters. 

Most projects are sponsored by an organization—academic, commercial, non-profit, and government—seeking valuable recommendations to address strategic and operational issues. Depending on the needs of the sponsor, teams may develop web-based applications that can support ongoing decision-making. The capstone project concludes with a paper and presentation.

Key takeaways:

  • Synthesizing the concepts you have learned throughout the program in various courses (this requires that the question posed by the project be complex enough to require the application of appropriate analytical approaches learned in the program and that the available data be of sufficient size to qualify as ‘big’)
  • Experience working with ‘raw’ data exposing you to the data pipeline process you are likely to encounter in the ‘real world’  
  • Demonstrating oral and written communication skills through a formal paper and presentation of project outcomes  
  • Acquisition of team building skills on a long-term, complex, data science project 

Capstone projects have been sponsors by a variety of organizations and industries, including: Capital One, City of Charlottesville, Deloitte Consulting LLP, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MITRE Corporation, a multinational banking firm, The Public Library of Science, S&P Global Market Intelligence, UVA Brain Institute, UVA Center for Diabetes Technology, UVA Health System, U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Virginia Department of Health, Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, Virginia Office of the Governor, Wikipedia, and more. 

Sponsor a Capstone Project 

View previous examples of capstone projects and check out answers to frequently asked questions. 

What does the process look like?

  1. The School of Data Science periodically puts out a Call for Proposals. Prospective project sponsors submit official proposals, vetted by  the SDS Associate Director for Research Development .  
  2. Sponsors present their projects to students at “Pitch Day” near the start of the Fall term, where students have the opportunity to ask questions.
  3. Students individually rank their top project choices. An algorithm sorts students into capstone groups of approximately 3 to 4 students per group.
  4. Each group is assigned a faculty mentor, who will meet groups each week in a seminar-style format.

What is the seminar approach to mentoring capstones?

We utilize a seminar approach to managing capstones to provide faculty mentorship and streamlined logistics. This approach involves one mentor supervising three to four loosely related projects and meeting with these groups on a regular basis. Project teams often encounter similar roadblocks and issues so meeting together to share information and report on progress toward key milestones is highly beneficial.

Do all capstone projects have sponsors?

Not necessarily. Generally, each group works with a sponsor from outside the School of Data Science. Some sponsors are corporations, some are from nonprofit and governmental organizations, and some are from in other departments at UVA.

Why do we have to work in groups?

Because data science is a team sport!

All capstone projects are completed by group work. While this requires additional coordination , this collaborative component of the program reflects the way companies expect their employees to work. Building this skill is one of our core learning objectives for the program. 

I didn’t get my first choice of capstone project from the algorithm matching. What can I do?

Remember that the point of the capstone projects isn’t the subject matter; it’s the data science. Professional data scientists may find themselves in positions in which they work on topics assigned to them, but they use methods they enjoy and still learn much through the process. That said, there are many ways to tackle a subject, and we are more than happy to work with you to find an approach to the work that most aligns with your interests.

Can I work on a project for my current employer?

Each spring, we put forward a public call for capstone projects. You are encouraged to share this call widely with your community, including your employer, non-profit organizations, or any entity that might have a big data problem that we can help solve. As a reminder, capstone projects are group projects so the project would require sufficient student interest after ‘pitch day’. In addition, you (the student) cannot serve as the project sponsor (someone else within your employer organization must serve in that capacity).

If my project doesn’t have a corporate sponsor, am I losing out on a career opportunity?

The capstone project will provide you with the opportunity to do relevant, high-quality work which can be included on a resume and discussed during job interviews. The project paper and your code on Github will provide more career opportunities than the sponsor of the project. Although it does happen from time to time, it is rare that capstones lead to a direct job offer with the capstone sponsor's company. Capstone projects are just one networking opportunity available to you in the program.

Capstone Project Reflections From Alumni

Gabriel Rushin, MSDS 2017
Gabriel Rushin, MSDS 2017

“Capstone projects are opportunities for you to deliver valuable, quantifiable results that you can use as a testimony of your long-term project success to the company you work for and other companies in future interviews.” — Gabriel Rushin, MSDS 2017, Procter & Gamble, Senior Machine Learning Engineer Manager

Colleen Callahan
Colleen Callahan, Online MSDS 2021

“For my capstone project, I worked to develop a clustering model to assess biogeographic ancestry, using DNA profiles. I felt like I was finally doing real-world data science and loved working with such an important organization as the Department of Defense.” — Colleen Callahan, Online MSDS 2021, Associate Research Analyst, CNA (Arlington, Virginia)

Capstone Project Reflections From Sponsors

“For us, the level of expertise, and special expertise, of the capstone students gives us ‘extra legs’ and an extra push to move a project forward. The team was asked to provide a replicable prototype air quality sensor that connected to the Cville Things Network, a free and community supported IoT network in Charlottesville. Their final product was a fantastic example that included clear circuit diagrams for replication by citizen scientists.” — Lucas Ames, Founder, Smart Cville

“Working with students on an exploratory project allowed us to focus on the data part of the problem rather than the business part, while testing with little risk. If our hypothesis falls flat, we gain valuable information; if it is validated or exceeded, we gain valuable information and are a few steps closer to a new product offering than when we started.” — Ellen Loeshelle, Senior Director of Product Management, Clarabridge