Individual Professional Paper Options

Career and Student Success
Humphrey School of Public Affairs

280 Humphrey School
301 19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States

MHR, MPP, and MS–STEP students may write an individual professional paper under the direction of a faculty paper supervisor, working within the structure of either:

  1. PA 8082 Professional Paper-Writing Seminar (Spring Semester)

  2. PA 8921 Master's: Professional Paper (Summer and Fall only)

  3. A course that requires a paper appropriate for a professional paper (Spring, Summer, and Fall). Approval required by DGS of program.

Students involved in a Professional Paper can view the timeline below.

View and download the paper topic approval form

Master's: Professional Paper

Most students doing professional papers should complete them in the context of the PA 8082 seminar in the Spring semester of their second year. Students doing professional papers in Spring semester who do not take PA 8082 must submit a waiver request to their DGS in Fall semester before October 7; after approval they may enroll in PA 8921. This page lists all current program DGSs.

Students not enrolling in PA 8082, usually because they are completing the professional paper in summer or fall, may instead request a faculty member (typically the paper supervisor) to work with them through an independent study class, PA 8921 (Master's: Professional Paper). The waiver request must be submitted to their DGS by March 1 for summer and by April 1 for fall. Completing the professional paper through this option will require self-direction and time management on the part of the student. It is not the responsibility of the paper supervisor to set or enforce deadlines for the student.

Based upon topic of interest, a student will consult faculty with similar research and/or professional backgrounds to request permission to complete their professional paper under their guidance. This faculty member will typically be the paper supervisor and provide feedback and guidance during the writing and revision process. The student should work with the particular faculty member to determine the appropriate number of credits to register for (1–3 credits).

For students completing a professional paper in summer or fall, the supervisor would typically be the person to add an independent study section for that student. This works best if the supervisor is a member of the Humphrey faculty. Once the student and the Humphrey supervisor have reached an agreement, the faculty member should contact the registrar to request that a section of PA 8921 be added for the particular faculty member; the number of credits (1-3) should also be indicated. 

Definition of the Professional Paper

Professional papers take many forms. Students may work within any established tradition of social science (e.g., positivist, interpretivist, critical); they may focus on questions of interest to scholars or practitioners; and their analyses may be descriptive, explanatory, or normative in nature. To qualify for credit, a paper must meet the following six criteria to the satisfaction of supervisory committee members:  

  1. It must pursue an empirical and/or theoretical analysis of some phenomenon relevant to the world of public affairs (broadly conceived) or human rights. 
  2. It must articulate why this phenomenon should be seen as significant.
  3. It must draw on relevant sources to explain any methodology used in the analysis. 
  4. It must demonstrate that the student has developed a Masters-level understanding of a relevant theoretical and/or empirical literature.
  5. Its analysis must meet methodological standards relevant for the student’s chosen approach. 
  6. It must clearly state what implications or lessons, if any, can be drawn from the analysis and acknowledge significant limitations of the research. 

Students should use and properly cite relevant literature, apply skills acquired through their coursework, and strive to write a paper that (with additional work) could potentially be publishable. Professional papers may or may not be based on an original collection of evidence but, in all cases, should reflect substantial research of some kind (e.g., based on a deep investigation of secondary sources). Professional papers should be planned in consultation with the supervisor; they should be developed and revised through an iterative process of writing drafts, reading drafts, and discussing revisions. Although the target length of a professional paper is generally about 30 pages of text, appropriate lengths and formats vary across Humphrey School concentrations and should be worked out with the supervisor. 

Here are some examples of prize-winning professional papers. Professional papers from past years are viewable on UMN’s Digital Conservancy. 

For a small number of students, a Professional Project alternative to the professional paper will be considered.  Examples of such projects that have been approved include a photojournalism documentary and the use of theater in post-conflict reconciliation.  Students may petition their program’s DGS to do a professional project by completing a Professional Project approval form.

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Deciding on Professional Paper and Completing the Registration

  • Professional paper or capstone? Think about whether, in the context of your busy life, you can undertake an independent research project requiring substantial effort, discipline, and perseverance. For many students, a capstone project is a more reliable path to degree completion.
  • When would you undertake a professional paper? Spring semester completion enables you to participate in PA 8082, essentially a writing support group. That support does not exist in Fall or Summer.
  • Does writing a professional paper align with your career objectives?
  • What question are you trying to answer? Start figuring out your topic 4-8 months before you intend to start working on the paper. A substantial exploration period may be needed to figure out a research question, find data or get approval to collect data, find sources, and find faculty and other experts who are willing to advise on your topic.
  • Do you have appropriate skills to undertake the proposed topic? For example, you should not plan a research project that requires doing interviews without already having studied qualitative methods.
  • Who could supervise and advise on your topic? It is helpful to consult with multiple faculty/experts before confirming a two-person committee. Your committee must include one faculty member from an appropriate list (Humphrey Graduate Faculty for MPPs and MS-STEP students; Human Rights Graduate Faculty for MHRs); the second committee member may be UMN faculty or a community expert. The person who acts as supervisor is typically the person who can be the most helpful to the student during the paper-writing process. You may invite more than one additional committee member if appropriate.
  • Have you explained their responsibilities to your supervisor and committee member(s)? (Send information for professional paper supervisors to them!) Students meet occasionally with their supervisors and less frequently with their other committee member(s). They show their recent work and get feedback and direction. Supervisors review several drafts of the paper; typically, committee members read only the complete draft just before the oral.
  • Have you completed the Paper Topic Approval form? (Or the Professional Project Approval form?)
    • For Spring 2022 semester, due by October 7, 2022
    • For Summer 2023 semester, due by March 1, 2023
    • For Fall 2023 semester, due by April 1, 2023
  • Have you registered for PA 8082 (Spring only)?
  • If you do not plan to register for PA 8082, did you submit the waiver form to your Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) for your degree to request permission to register for PA 8921? Once approved, send the waiver to [email protected].

During the Professional Paper Semester

  • Have you checked in with your committee? It is your responsibility to set up regular meeting times with your paper supervisor.
  • Did you share your proposed timeline with committee members?
  • About a month before the end of the semester: Did you schedule a tentative oral date?
  • Is the paper ready? The supervisor gives the “okay” (or not) to proceed with the oral on the date scheduled.
  • Is your cover page in the appropriate format? Use the Professional Paper Title Page Guidelines template (copy before making changes).
  • Did you leave your committee members two weeks to read your paper before the oral?

Completing the Professional Paper Requirements

  • Are you expected to give a presentation in your oral? The supervisor determines what will happen in the oral. It could be entirely discussion (questions posed to the student, and discussion around the answers) or it could begin with a 10-15 minute formal presentation before the discussion.
  • Did you schedule a conference room for your oral? (The HHH Front Desk can help with this.) Professional paper orals are typically one hour, but students should schedule 1.5 hours to allow time for debriefing with the supervisor after the oral.
  • After the oral: Do you understand what, if any, revisions are needed? Typically, the supervisor reviews final revisions. In that case, committee members sign the cover page at the end of the oral.
  • Does your supervisor understand your timeline for approving final revisions? For May graduation, the deadline for turning in everything is about May 20th. (The deadline is about August 20th for summer or about December 20th for fall.) The supervisor approves revisions made after the oral, then signs the cover page.
  • Did you turn in the final three documents? Email [email protected] (1) the final paper, including an unsigned cover page; (2) a cover page signed by committee members to indicate completion; and (3) a Digital Conservancy Agreement Form.

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April 8, 2022 from 2:00-3:00 CDT: Capstone and Professional Paper Information Session #1

Join us via Zoom for a Q&A session on spring 2023 capstones and professional papers. This will be an opportunity to have your questions answered about the process for either option.
In advance, review the professional paper website to learn about selecting a topic and advisor, paper format, registration requirements, examples of previous papers and informational timeline.

April–September 2022: Consider paper vs. capstone options

Use this time to consider your choice of professional paper versus capstone. If you plan to complete a professional paper, start to form your research question and find your paper supervisor and committee.

September 26, 2022: Professional Paper Information Session #2

October 7, 2022: Paper topic approval form due

October 7 is the deadline to submit the paper topic approval form.

November 8, 2022: Spring 2023 registration begins

Register for the PA 8082 Professional Paper Writing Seminar.

January 17, 2023: Spring semester begins

Spring semester 2023 officially ends on Wednesday, May 10. You'll need to submit a digital copy of your final paper to the Humphrey Office of Career and Student Success by May 20.

May 1, 2023: Deadline for faculty to nominate professional papers for End of Year awards

Before May 1, faculty must nominate professional papers for End of Year awards

May 20, 2023: Deadline to submit a digital copy of the final paper for housing in the UMN’s Digital Conservancy

The professional paper must be submitted to Humphrey Graduate Student Services ([email protected]) and your degree program coordinator to be permanently housed in the University of Minnesota Libraries Digital Conservancy.

There are three required components for submitting the professional paper:

1) Digital Conservancy Agreement form

  • Download the Digital Conservancy Agreement Form.
  • The Digital Conservancy Agreement Form must be signed by the paper author.
  • Attach the signed form to the beginning of the final paper. This form will be removed before the paper is uploaded into the Digital Conservancy.
  • Note: On rare occasions, clients prefer not to have their information posted in a public database. If this occurs, paper authors should still complete, sign, and attach this form with a clearly visible note that approval is not given to submit the paper to the Digital Conservancy.

2) Digital copy of final paper

  • Title page of the paper must include: a) name of paper; b) paper author; c) name of instructor(s) and client(s)— This copy does not include signatures.
  • When the final version is approved by instructor(s), create a pdf.
  • Attach the signed scanned Digital Conservancy Agreement form (step 1) to the beginning of the paper.
  • Email PDF to [email protected] and your degree program coordinator by the deadline listed above.

3) Signed copy of the title page to indicate committee approval of the final paper

  • A copy of the title page of the paper (only that one page) must be signed by the paper supervisor and other committee member(s). 
  • Either a paper copy or a digitally signed copy is acceptable.
  • Submit the signed cover page to [email protected]