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Graduate Writing Resources

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Research Writing at the Graduate Level

Research Writing at the Graduate Level

Graduate research writing differs from undergraduate writing in that it requires:

  1. an increased depth and breadth of research/evidence;
  2. a comprehensive understanding of your subject, its history, and the questions it raises for your field;
  3. presentation of your work in a professional, scholarly writing style, using the citation format required for publishing.

In sum, research writing at the graduate level is an apprenticeship for developing and demonstrating expertise, with the aim of furthering the field’s understanding of your subject.  Whereas undergraduate papers are often written for specific course requirements, graduate papers can be viewed as your participation in the wider dialog between professional peers about the important questions of your field. 

To engage in this discussion, you’re expected to use research as a tool for analyzing current debates and develop original ideas or conclusions, and then prepare your ideas for publication. It’s therefore crucial to contextualize your work by considering texts by key scholars who have shaped and/or continue to influence the field’s thinking on your specific topic. While research approaches, writing and citation styles differ between academic disciplines, some common expectations are shared by most scholarly fields.

Appropriate Sources for Graduate-Level Research

Research is a crucial tool for developing your claim or conclusion. You are expected to create your own opinions, ideas, and questions about your sources and explain how they lead to or support your claim. The specific research approach(es) you use should be recognized by your field and appropriate to the question you are trying to answer.
Research approaches fall into two categories—primary and secondary—with graduate-level writing often requiring the combining of both types.

Primary research is information you gather from original sources. Primary research includes:

  • first-hand observation & investigation, such as field work
  • laboratory experiments
  • study of original historical documents, artwork, literary texts, film
  • interviews
  • statistics

Secondary research is an examination of studies completed by other researchers. Because you already have a basic foundation of field knowledge, your secondary research should begins with more specialized sources than undergraduate research. Some examples of specialized secondary research starting points are:

  1. Specialized encyclopedias/dictionaries: e.g. Dictionary of Literary Biography, or Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics.
  1. Academic indexes: e.g. the Anthropological Index, Philosophers Index, Modern Language Association (MLA) Index. These indexes are increasingly found as CD or online databases.
  1. Bibliographic indexes on a single subject. E.g. the Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database is an online bibliographic database, while the Bibliography of Modern Arthuriana (1500-2000) is a hardcopy volume.
  1. Specialized scholarly and fact books e.g. Historical Statistics of the United States.
  1. Dissertation abstracts: usually located using academic indexes or Dissertations Abstracts International.

Specialized research resources are typically found at university libraries (as opposed to general public libraries). The indexes are often accessed online through a university library’s website.

The Importance of Using Academic Style

As with all kinds of writing—from business to scholarship—the professionalism of a document is important to the acceptance of your research and conclusions. Because research writing at the graduate level is training for publishing in your field, you need to pay attention to issues of academic style, which includes language usage, document format, and attributing (citing) sources.

Language Usage and Document Style

Language usage—from vocabulary to appropriate tone and voice—is often learned informally by reading the publications in key journals or books in your field, or through feedback by your professors.

Explanations for document format, including citing formats, can be found in the standardized style manual used in your field.  You’ll need to determine which style guide is used by your academic discipline.  For example, MLA (Modern Language Association) style is used in English, and sometimes linguistics and history. History usually uses Chicago style or one of its variations, such as Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses and Dissertations. APA (American Psychological Association) style is used by most social sciences and psychology. 

The writing conventions within styles can vary greatly. For example, psychology journals use APA style, which requires a thesis statement, but some fields don’t require a thesis. It’s important to check with your instructors on which style they prefer; when submitting a paper to a journal, ask the publisher to confirm which style they prefer if it’s not clear from reading.

Citation Style

Every quote, paraphrase, and summary of sources informing your writing must be given attribution. You’ll need to refer to the appropriate style manual for your field to know when you must cite sources, how to cite them in your paper (for example, using footnotes or parenthetical format), and how to format your bibliography or works cited page (for example, APA requires a bibliography page, while MLA requires a works cited page). While citing every source can seem like a tedious detail, it’s a crucial part of proving your claim to your peers. Thorough citations establish your credibility by

  • demonstrating your expertise via the breadth and depth of your research,
  • presenting accepted scholarship to support your ideas, and
  • providing the means for others to verify your research.

Also, by including the different voices in your field’s discussion of your subject, your research can help your peers continue to build upon your research and ideas.

Common Myths about Citation

One myth about citing sources is that it’s always best to quote—and the more quotes the better. Because the goal of graduate-level work is to bring your idea(s) to the forefront of your paper—with the research acting to inform and support your ideas—most fields discourage excessive direct source quotations. Most prefer that information be paraphrased (that is, the source material should be restated using your own words). When paraphrasing, aim to represent the basic gist of your sources, using direct quotations briefly and infrequently.

Another common myth is that paraphrasing and summarized materials need not be cited. You must always attribute your source materials, even if it’s not a direct quote, unless the information is considered common knowledge to your field. What constitutes common knowledge varies by field, however, so refer to the appropriate style manual to learn when to cite, as well as how.

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