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Transitioning from undergraduate to graduate writing: what’s different?

Francesca, MA Classics, Class of 2020

When I started my MA degree in Classics in September 2018 I fancied myself a decent academic writer. Not an outstanding one sure, but hey, I had gotten in to grad school and received research funding so surely I couldn’t be that bad. I assumed that I could continue on writing the same way I had during my undergrad with little issue.  I was incredibly, immensely wrong. But don’t worry: I got a lot better, so you can too!

When I started grad school I was unaware of how insufficient my poor habits from undergrad would be. I had largely done well on my undergraduate papers, but I often wrote them last minute –  a week at most before the deadline, more often the day before – with very little pre-planning and even less (read: zero) editing. My first draft was almost always my only draft. Worse, most of my essays were a bunch of facts and theories loosely connected by my own analysis. I might have made a vague sort of argument, but I wasn’t saying anything substantial in any of my essays.

Still, I thought I was doing swell in the early months of my MA. It wasn’t until I started having to write longer papers for some of my graduate seminars that I began to struggle. As you might guess, time management was a big issue for me – it still is – but my biggest issue in graduate writing was trying to find my own voice among thousands of others in academia. My papers were still relying far too heavily on the theories and opinions of other academics strung together by my own paltry attempts at a new argument. I even had a professor comment that, despite how well-researched it was, he’d “have liked to have heard more of my voice” in my paper.

This issue of a “lack of voice” began to worsen as I moved on from my coursework into researching and writing my MA thesis. I had to “re-learn” how to write for academia, which involved shifting my foundations. Ultimately this meant acknowledging that graduate writing – whether for coursework, a major research project, or a thesis – requires creating your own content. This in turn involved changing my approach toward several aspects of my writing process:

  1. Why am I writing? 

Before we even address what changes about your writing at a graduate level, we must consider the goals of academic writing at this level.  Look at the critical thinking pyramid below, which is drawn from Harold Bloom’s research on learning, and consider how you engaged with your sources during undergrad. It’s likely that the majority of your undergraduate papers hovered around the analyze, apply, or evaluate levels. However, for graduate writing, especially in research-focused programs, the majority of your writing is expected to be at the “create” level. In graduate school you’re not simply reading a lot of theorists and re-hashing old arguments. You’re (somehow) generating new ideas and creating new content.

You’re not simply putting a “new spin” on old arguments, but, depending on your discipline, you’ll be collecting and analyzing brand new data, or creating new arguments and theories based on pre-existing information.  Regardless, the emphasis at the graduate level is original creation.

If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome – you’re not sure you’ll be able to “create” at all, or where to start doing it – check out these tips from the University of Melbourne. They include a great checklist for evaluating the originality of your work.

  1. Who am I writing for?

At the undergraduate level we mainly write our papers for our profs and TAs. We’re explicitly writing for a grade – generally you know what the prof wants, and you try to do that to get an A. The intended audience for your grad work is different.  At this level your main focus should be writing to contribute to the wider academic discussion in your field. While your profs – your supervisor, your committee – will still be the primary readers of your work, you’re not writing for them as a budding academic. In some cases, particularly for the Master’s thesis or PhD dissertation, your writing may even be published with the explicit intent of reaching a much wider audience in your field. That means we need to take time to explore an analytical, creative process before we can write, and we need to consider the needs of different audiences.

Writing for a wider audience goes hand in hand with my next piece of advice:

  1. What’s expected in my discipline?

Discipline specific expectations become more important at the graduate level. This impacts your writing style.  Each field has specific conventions surrounding issues like methodology, defining terms, citation methods, and specific structures, linguistic features, and so on.

For example, in my own research I am broadly discussing Augustine’s criticisms of the theater and the role of art in his own philosophy – but how am I defining ‘art’? What works of his am I including? What works am I excluding? We must be aware of these considerations in graduate writing because answering these questions will help ‘justify’ the decisions you make in your own research and argumentation process. If you don’t show you’re considering these evaluative and guiding questions, you’ll be short changing your reader!  Graduate writing, regardless of discipline, is subject to more scrutiny than undergraduate and it is important to be able to defend your ideas and the methods by which you reached those ideas to your supervisor (and your future academic audience).

If you’re unsure, discussing it with your supervisor or graduate coordinator is the best way to learn about discipline specific requirements, but meeting with the Student Academic Success Services Writing Consultants is another great option! You can start on your own by looking at current articles in your field and using this worksheet to analyse the expectations of your discipline and find forms, phrases and structures that will impress your reader.

  1. How will I change my process?

By now I hope it’s clear that graduate level writing involves many more complexities than undergraduate writing. That will have a practical effect on your writing process.  For me this meant developing better time management skills; the graduate writing process involves a lot more planning and editing than I was used to. I couldn’t write my papers in a week, let alone the night before.  To tackle a project as large as my MA thesis I needed months, not days, to research, draft, edit, research some more, all before even submitting the initial draft to my supervisor.

There are several useful tips for improving your writing process as a graduate student:

  • Use a thesis manager to plan and organize your time before you start writing. It helps to break down an intimidating project like a thesis into manageable sections and also provides guidelines about how much time should be spent on each step.
  • Develop and implement a writing habit takes a few weeks but is a realistic way to manage your time when working on a large-scale writing project. Incorporating time to think and sleep into your daily writing goal is crucial.
  • Set realistic short and long term goals – it’ll give you a sense of achievement when finished and provide motivation to continue on!
  • Regardless of discipline, you’ll be dealing with large amounts of information at the graduate level so finding a data management tool that works for you is a must (my preferred organizational tool is Evernote!)
  • Make use of books like Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day or The Craft of Research (both available via the Queen’s Library). These resources were written by people who have been through graduate school with the explicit intent of providing practical advice to those currently in grad school.
  • General resources like the SASS website and the Thesis Whisperer are great for when you know you need help but aren’t necessarily sure with what.

No matter where you are in your graduate career, writing can be an intimidating process, but it doesn’t have to be. Keeping in mind your audience and reason for writing and making use of the resources provided can turn it into a manageable, if not enjoyable, process. See you in the library!