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I'm set to graduate in Computer Engineering this year. As part of the requirements to graduate: I have to develop, submit, and present a capstone project to the faculty. I'm allowed to choose whatever project I want as long as the faculty approves it. While I have a year and a half to finish it (and many students do take that long). My goal is to deliver it in time for the next graduation date available.

At the same time, I've been working at a software company that has just closed a deal to develop a system that requires significant research in machine learning. Being aware of the capstone project requirement and that I'm still looking for a project, my boss strongly insisted that I should pick it up. He even offered to personally advise me (I get to name up to 2 advisers) and get me whatever resources I might need. Since I was curious about it, I asked him to send me some material to read and decide.

However, while studying the material, I noticed 2 red flags:

  1. I'll need to spend hundreds of hours studying to learn new skills, on top of building, and then documenting it well enough for the final paper to be understandable and thorough, as it will be required by the faculty. It is nearly impossible for me to finish it within the year.
  2. The architecture points to a system that will require multiple people sharing the research and workload required to build it. When I asked him about it, he told me his plan was to fit my project into a much larger one. In fact, he is already assembling a team across multiple universities to tackle the challenge, including himself, who's joining a grad program next year and planning to work on it for the next 4 years. The issue I have with it is that my project was supposed to be a solo project and evaluated only by the faculty. Instead, the prospect is to have several grad students supervising, criticizing, and determining the overall direction of what I'll be doing.

While I'm happy to put in the hours required to learn, design and build such a system, and also don't mind working on a team to achieve it, I don't want it to be my capstone project. It is far above what's expected from an undergrad student, it would significantly postpone my graduation, and I would have to relinquish control over my project.

So, my questions are:

  1. As an employee, what are the potential consequences if I were to refuse his terms?
  2. How can I communicate that, despite appreciating the offer and willing to accept it as a work project, I want my capstone project to be something more personal and smaller in scope?

Additional information

  • My boss is aware of all capstone requirements since he is just a few years my senior. His proposal, as it currently stands, already fulfills all of them. By claiming it "is far above what's expected from an undergrad student", I meant that significantly smaller projects are consistently approved by the faculty, some of them awarded with the maximum grade.

  • Every capstone project has to be approved by a professor. However, it is extremely unlikely I find a professor that would reject this project unless they hold some personal grudge against him. In any case, he has already contacted a faculty member that approved it. As I mentioned previously, he is going to be a grad student at the same school I'm graduating from, and we would have the same adviser.

  • We have not discussed yet any work schedules. It is not clear to me what his expectations are in terms of weekly hours. That being said, I don't expect to be paid overtime if I choose to accept his suggestion as my capstone since it is not a practice in this culture, even if that time would be spent at the office. In general, students who develop capstone projects within their companies just chalk it up to "study hours".

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    As an employee, am I entitled to refuse his terms? Sure. An employee works for somebody. That doesn't mean your boss has any say in university things. – deviantfan Sep 21 '17 at 5:03
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    Are you allowed to be paid while working on the capstone? Does it open up any intellectual property issues between the company and the university? – mkennedy Sep 21 '17 at 20:37
  • @mkennedy Yes, I'm a part-time employee and there's no rule about capstone projects built within a company. About IP issues, the final paper has to underline architecture, algorithms, implementation, deployment, collaboration tools, but not designs or actual code. The university has no claim on what is not included in the final paper. A live demo might be required at the presentation, but not in the paper. The company will retain full ownership rights, but, since designs and code are regulated by author rights here, I'm entitled to use them for free and as I wish for as long as I live. – Ramon Melo Sep 22 '17 at 14:08
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    One factor to consider for yourself is that what happens to your component of this system if other aspects of the project outside of your control fail. Will this be seen through to the end if the part of the bigger project that your portion interacts with is found to be infeasible. In talking with your boss, I'd bring up the fact that delaying your graduation is not something you are keen on doing and propose an alternative that works towards both of your goals. – Myles Sep 25 '17 at 14:30
  • Do you have to deliver a complete and fully working system? What if showing a significant progress in your research and a conclusion is welcomed too? My advisers never asked for a fully working system, they just wanted "something per year" (they cared to see where and if I tried my best) – Khalil Khalaf Sep 27 '17 at 17:37
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Boiled down to its essence, there is no reason why you can't simply say 'no'. As you mentioned in some of the comments, you think it's a cool project but the scope of even a small part of it is larger than what you're comfortable with and you're anxious to graduate and get out there in the 'real world' as a real engineer rather than your current 'part-timer/intern'. kind of situation. So say so!

Something like:

Hey boss, I wanted to get back to you about the project you proposed. It sounds really cool and I'd love to do something like that in the future, but right now I just want to focus on gratuating sooner rather than later. With all the research and the learning new skills and technologies, there's a good chance my graduation date would get postponed significantly and as much as I want to do the project, that's not currently a sacrifice I'm willing to make.

Shouldn't ruffle any feathers. You want to make it clear that the project sounds interesting and you're not opposed to it in principle, but that it just doesn't match your current priorities. You're refusing it for personal reasons, not because you think it's a bad idea.

It's important to remember that this is your capstone project. Regardless of what other people think of it, firstly you need to think it's a good idea. Finding support from your boss and your professor comes afterwards. If you can't come up with anything, you can always ask them for suggestions but they don't have the power to force you into doing a project you don't want to do.

  • Picking this one since it was the strategy I used. I actually waited for him to bring it up (took 3 months) and told something along these lines. He got noticeably displeased but, due to several new contracts being signed right now, ended up hiring another undergrad student, who has accepted to pick it up as his capstone project. I've been locked out of the project, however. – Ramon Melo Jan 18 '18 at 23:28
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+50

Is this stance ethical? As an employee, am I entitled to refuse his terms?

It is not a matter of ethics. Your boss has a strong opinion about a given subject and is very interested in your participation. Consider yourself lucky. Most care less.

You have every right to say no and move on.

How can I communicate that, despite appreciating the offer and willing to accept it as a work project, I want my capstone project to be something more personal and smaller in scope?

You said it right there: the requirements for the capstone are to be individual projects and smaller in scope. The project is too big.


Now as for finding a common ground, why couldn't the capstone project be a small component for the system? Perhaps a data analysis algorithm, or coding the back-end architecture that will organize data from parallel sources? Big projects have little projects within them that can be valid candidates for your capstone project.

The whole might not be a good fit, but perhaps a piece? Everyone (in theory) should be happy, you, your adviser, and faculty.

I'm happy to put in the hours required to learn, design and build such a system, and also don't mind working on a team to achieve it

my boss strongly insisted that I should pick it up. He even offered to personally advise me (I get to name up to 2 advisers) and get me whatever resources I might need.

If you are seriously turned down by everything associated with it, your words will more than work: it is too large for a capstone project.

  • Thank you for the answer. I feel like I should clarify two things, though: what he suggested me to do is within scope (he graduated from the same school), and the architecture plans the specific component I'd be doing as a single-person job. Working on an individual, smaller project is just something I desire, but many students opt for opposite, especially the ones who seek a career in the academia. – Ramon Melo Sep 21 '17 at 11:00
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    Don't bite off more than you can chew. Thinking what you can != what you will. A smaller but nice, well-wrapped, and polished project > large, unfinished, and buggy. – Frank FYC Sep 21 '17 at 17:28
  • I think I didn't understand, then. The project I have in mind is far smaller and simpler than the one suggested by my boss, but I was under the impression you don't believe I should refuse his offer. Also, what he suggested is already a small component within the whole system. I'd be building only the machine learning algorithm, everything else would be handled by other people. Could you please clarify it for me? – Ramon Melo Sep 22 '17 at 14:24
  • Just to make sure you and I are on the same page, I'm just worried that he and I don't address the "delivery date" issue with the same attitude. He believes postponing graduation to build a better capstone (therefore, a better product) is perfectly acceptable: many students do it, and he did it, too, after all. On the other hand, I believe I've learned enough as a student and I'm ready to start learning as an engineer, a title that would allow me to take on opportunities and responsibilities a student is not legally allowed to. – Ramon Melo Sep 22 '17 at 14:31
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    If you don't convey your desires (on time graduation, earn an engineer title) then no one can guess that. Redefine the your role in the big project to a smaller scope and make sure (through conversation and in print) that is this what you are willing to do. Now if want to continue your work on the project after your graduation, you can let your boss know that as well. – Frank FYC Sep 22 '17 at 16:38
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I suspect the project's limitations are fully in the professor's control.

Take the proposal to your professor and see if he can make special considerations.

The scope of this project and working with graduate colleagues will be a tremendous asset to both your professional and academic career. Don't simply say no, but try to work with both parties.

Even the process of working through the two parties in this scenario will give you many essential skills for the workplace. Not every rule are written in stone, and knowing how to work through them is very useful.

  • Thanks for the answer. I agree with you in terms of usefulness, but, there's a significant drawback: it will postpone my graduation for at least six months. Also, about the professor's control, you are absolutely right, but there's zero chance he'd refuse. The project passes every criteria with flying colors. I actually run the risk of being pressured into accepting just so he can work his own way in. – Ramon Melo Sep 21 '17 at 11:19
  • People usually worry about graduating late because it means they'll be spending more money and working less, but you're already working, so what's the real issue with graduating 6 months later? By itself it's not really an issue. – Nelson Sep 26 '17 at 2:26
  • By graduating, I'm allowed to work as an engineer, which is a strongly rewarding job in high demand at the moment. I will also increase my weekly hours, since engineers cannot be legally hired part-time here. Graduating also opens the possibility of taking offers to work elsewhere, since I wouldn't be tied to the university anymore. But, besides the financial and professional perspectives, the main issue - to me - is that becoming an engineer is my dream since I was a child. Postponing it for six months is signing up for this anxiety for six months longer without an adequate reward. – Ramon Melo Sep 26 '17 at 11:42

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