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Graduate-level Writing Advice: Expectations and Tips

Christina Crampe

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So, you've finally made it through those grueling years of undergrad. After countless hours of studying and writing, you're wondering if you're cut out for grad school. Undergrad is one thing, but grad school is a whole other ballpark. What if you can't keep up? What if the work you did throughout undergrad wasn't enough, and it doesn't live up to your expectations? How will you adjust?

If you're asking yourself these questions, it's time to take a breather. Odds are, if you're considering grad school, you're a very intellectual person with the drive and determination to face any academic challenge, including grad school. If you're worried about taking that next big leap, let us assuage some of your fears by offering advice on how to take your writing from undergrad student to graduate academic. But first, let's distinguish between what is expected of you in undergraduate learning versus graduate learning.

Undergrad vs. graduate writing

female student looking at a microscope in a lab
Graduate writing may require students to conduct their own research to include in the papers. Photo by Vladimir Borovic.

Undergraduate and graduate writing naturally have different requirements. Where you might have been able to bang out an undergraduate essay the night before it was due (even though your professor warned you time and time again not to do this!), it is extremely unlikely you'll be able to do this in graduate school. Sorry, procrastinators, but it's time to learn some time management!

Defining features of undergrad-level writing

  • Responding to prompts: While undergraduate writing does require critical thinking skills, students are often prompted by their professors. What we mean by this is professors will typically give their students a particular topic or question to respond to, such as a particular ethical issue, or a theme in a book the class has read.
  • Limited audience: Odds are, you're writing a paper because it's an assignment or requirement for your class. Therefore, your audience is most likely just your professor and perhaps a few teaching assistants. The paper is given to you by your professor and assessed by your professor or teaching assistant, so there is a distinct limit to who is reading your work.
  • Research: Although some papers in undergrad require external research, such as independent research papers, many papers can be completed solely from the material read in class. This means that you don't have to do much external research searching for primary or secondary sources to include in your own writing. Instead, your word is the only available source. When you do have to include research in your undergrad writing, you usually only have to pick a couple of scholarly articles to include and find a place for them in your paper. You might not even do much thinking about the intention of including those sources (trust us, we are guilty of this, too).

Defining features of graduate-level writing

  • Creating a research question: This is one of the features that really separates graduate-level writing from undergraduate-level writing. As we mentioned above, undergrad students are usually given topics by their professors. In graduate school, you're expected to create your own research question. Don't expect your professor to hand out slips of paper with prompts on them. Instead, you should expect to choose a topic of interest, develop a question, create your own argument, and then provide evidence to support your argument.
  • Wider scholarly audience: Since you're writing to contribute to research within your field of study, your audience is not limited to just one professor and his or her team of assistants. Your intentions for doing research are to enter the pre-existing conversation around a particular academic topic, so you want academics within your field to read and respond to your work. You want to become a source that other academics cite in their own research. Being exposed to a wider audience also implies larger critiques, so you'll need to prove yourself in your writing.
  • Extensive research: Speaking of proving yourself, it's time to get into the research. As we mentioned, undergraduate writing sometimes (but not always) requires external research. Graduate writing always requires external research, and lots of it. It is not enough to toss in two or three secondary sources into your paper. Everything you do in writing your graduate research papers must be intentional, especially the inclusion of research. You'll have to synthesize a lot of research, but we will discuss that in more detail later.

If you're finding yourself a little concerned about transitioning from undergraduate-level writing to graduate-level writing, don't worry. We know it can be a bit of a daunting transition, and we don't want to scare you by pointing out the differences between the two levels of writing. Let us reassure you that you're cut out for the task by breaking down the best tips to improve your writing, so you are up to par with graduate-level writing.

Graduate-level writing tips

stack of books leaning against a laptop
There is a lot of research involved in writing graduate-level papers, and resources can range from books and articles to lab research. Photo by

If you're at a loss for how to improve your academic writing so you can go from bystander to a participating academic in your field, we recommend following these guidelines when writing.

  • Provide structure: Since graduate-level research papers are longer than undergraduate papers, you might find it difficult to keep your thoughts organized. It is a good rule of thumb to break down your writing into different sections. Although you may be worried this will make things choppy, it can actually help bring clarity to your writing. So long as you connect your sections in a cohesive manner, so your audience understands your logic, then this is a great way to organize your writing. Each section should build upon the last one, showing a logical progression of your thoughts.
  • Research, research, research: We know we've already discussed how research is an absolute must for good graduate-level writing, but we simply cannot stress it enough. One thing to keep in mind is that the research you're going to do will differ depending upon what field of study you're in. If you're in a STEM field, you might have to conduct your own research to gather your own quantitative data in addition to incorporating external research into your writing. If you're in the field of sociology or psychology, you might find yourself incorporating lots of case studies into your writing, and you may even conduct your own case study for research purposes. If you're specializing in, say, 19th-century British novels, you will want to find research specific to your discipline and specialty.
    • Read with intention: Reading a scholarly article or source is one thing, but it's an entirely different thing to understand them in the context of your own research. How can you actively read and understand your research materials to best use them for your own benefit? You should look for gaps in preexisting research that you can fill with your own. Do certain sources leave you with unanswered questions? Set out to answer those questions in your own research. What can you do to improve upon the existing research?
    • Synthesize: Remember how we said undergraduate writing typically requires only two or three external research sources? Be prepared to conduct a lot more research than that in grad school. It is typical for graduate-level research papers to include upwards of 10 or more sources. Odds are, not all those sources are going to be the same type or format. For instance, once source may be a case study, while another may be a series of graphs and charts from a research study. The trickiest part of writing your research will be synthesizing everything. To do this successfully, you must carefully read and understand all of your sources and then draw conclusions between them. What do we mean by this? Figure out what the sources have in common, how they piggyback off each other, how they advance certain research, how they put other research into question, and even more. Never stop asking yourself questions. After you synthesize your research, ask yourself what conclusions you can draw and incorporate into your own research.
    • Cite: No matter how much research you incorporate into your writing, you must always remember to give credit where it is due. If the ideas are not your own, then give credit to whoever came up with those ideas. Citations also prove to academics in your field that you conducted extensive research, and you're actually helping to advice further research by providing sources for other academics to check out.
  • Use proper voice and tone: This is one aspect of writing you most likely have experience from undergrad, but you'll want to be especially careful, and intentional, in the tone and voice you use in your graduate writing. Most fields expect you to be objective and not put your opinion into the piece. You should avoid phrases like "I think" and "I believe" because they take away from your credibility as an academic in your field. You want your voice to be confident and professional. You also want to focus on providing evidence, so avoiding "think" and "believe" phrases are important for keeping your readers focused on research, not your opinion. Certain academic fields may require different points of view and different voices. It may be conventional in one field to be use the passive voice, while all the writing in another is structured in the active voice. Make sure you are aware of what voice is most used in your field. Using the third person is typically a good default because it allows you to separate yourself from your writing and reflect your academic professionalism.
  • Proper diction: You also want to be very intentional with your use of language. If you want to be taken seriously as an academic, it's necessary to adopt the academic language and terminology commonly used in your field. Synonyms aren't enough to carry you through a graduate research program, so set the thesaurus aside and do some reading on your topic. It's also not enough to just throw in academic-appropriate words. You have to know what those words mean and how to use them correctly. After all, tossing the word "anabolism" into your biology research paper isn't going to be very impressive if you use it incorrectly or are unable to elaborate on its meaning.
  • Be clear and concise: This is another one that may seem obvious, but it really is important to be clear and concise in your writing. Do not use big words for the sake of including impressive vocabulary. Do not ramble or go off on a tangent about a particular point. Be purposeful in your writing.
  • Proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation: You might be thinking, okay, we get it. Although proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation is taught to you throughout your entire academic career, we cannot stress the importance of this in graduate-level writing enough. Proper use of commas, colons, and semicolons can make or break a statement, altering the way a reader reads or views your words. This can seriously affect your career, so take the proofreading very seriously . You are meant to be an academic contributing to your field as an expert, so you want your writing to reflect that professionalism in every period, question mark, and comma.
  • Practice grad-level writing in undergrad: This might be one of the most helpful tips on the list because it can also apply to undergraduate writer. If you're still in undergrad trying to decide if you should take that leap to grad school, try practicing graduate-level writing where you are right now. We can guarantee that any professor of yours would be more than willing (and delighted!) to help you hone your research skills to prepare you for graduate school and what it entails. After all, they were once in your shoes, too, so don't be afraid to ask for help.

Start writing

Now that you have a comprehensive list of guidelines to follow as you embark on your graduate-level writing journey, we hope you feel inspired to begin researching that topic you've always been interested in. We hope we've taken some of the pressure off making that transition from student to true academic. Most of all, we hope to see your writing out there someday!

Header photo by Kasto.

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