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The Difference Between Writing Graduate Level Papers and Undergraduate Level Papers
It is very important to understand the differences between writing graduate level papers and writing undergraduate papers. The key difference between graduate level and undergraduate level work is the need for graduate students to add new work to the already existing body of research. It is not enough to research a topic and regurgitate what has already been written on it. Instead, you need to be sure that what you are writing is adding something new to the literature. While this is especially important for your dissertation, it is equally important for your seminar papers. You must pose an original argument about the topic at hand.
Another key difference between writing graduate level papers and writing undergraduate papers is that graduate level papers are publishable works. At the very least, you should be able to submit your graduate paper to conferences in your field of study. "Publishable" means that your work contains no grammatical errors, no typos, no spelling errors, and that your research has been properly documented. While as an undergraduate student you could get by with some errors, as a graduate student, it is expected that your work is pristine.
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Coming up with a Graduate Level Paper Topic
There are a few strategies for choosing the topic for your graduate level paper. It is so important that you learn what makes a good graduate school paper. It will depend upon your discipline, but as already noted, your paper cannot be a regurgitation of facts if you hope to get a good grade. One way to choose paper topics, and this is a great strategy for those wishing to finish graduate school on time and who would like to start presenting at conferences in their chosen areas of specialization, is to choose topics that relate the current seminar topic to your dissertation field. For example, if you are a graduate student in philosophy, and your dissertation field will be political philosophy, you'll want to find ways to incorporate that interest area into the current class, even if that course seems relatively unrelated.
Another practice for coming up with your graduate paper topics is to keep a log of paper ideas. By logging ideas as you read, or as topics come up in your seminars, you will always have something to write about when it comes down to it. When selecting the topic from your list, ask yourself whether you believe there will be enough information and interest to sustain a discussion on such a topic. I still have files, and book margins, filled with paper ideas I came up with while in graduate school.
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Performing Research for Seminar Papers
Researching a graduate paper is not the same as researching an undergraduate paper. First of all, even if you somehow got away with it in undergrad, learn it now: Wikipedia and other such online information sources are not valid sources for real research in your discipline. One thing that helps when you are performing your research is to think about what you will talk about in your paper ahead of time and write a preliminary outline and from that outline make a preliminary bibliography.
While you should never use pop Internet resources for your research, you can use Internet databases including Google Scholar, JSTOR, and the bibliographic database for your discipline to come up with the references you should use for your paper. Remember those languages you needed to take to get into graduate school, or that you need to take to get your graduate degree? Now is the time to use them. Don't shy away from research performed in a language you speak--it will give you an edge on your classmates and other researchers in the field.
When performing research, be sure you start early enough ahead to have time to request any resources your university library does not have among its stacks from interlibrary loan. Your professors will wonder why a key piece that you should have been familiar with does not appear in your research body.
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Preparing for and Writing Your First Draft
Once you've compiled your research, and you've practiced proper note-taking techniques (cite your resources properly on your notecards and take good research notes to make your life easier later), then you're ready to write the first draft of your graduate level paper. Make any necessary adjustments to your preliminary outline to reflect anything you may have found while compiling your research. Open up a new document (or take out a clean sheet of paper) and get started. Here are some tips that will help you while you write:
- Do not write your introduction first! You cannot possibly know everything you will say in your paper until you have written it. The introduction, and abstract, will be the last parts of your research paper.
- Just get it down on paper. Writer Anne Lamott touts the benefits of writing a horrible first draft. Give yourself permission to write the worst drivel anyone's heard. You can always fix it later (you did start writing before it was due, right?)
- Cite properly as you go along. You'll thank me for this later. If you leave citations for later, it will be more of a headache for you.
- Follow your outline, but if you find something doesn't work, don't be afraid to change it.
- Work on the paper section by section rather than in one chunk. Go back and add transitions between paragraphs and sections to make it flow.
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Getting Feedback from a Trusted Colleague
Once you've written your first draft and finessed it, it may be beneficial to you to team up with a trusted colleague who has familiarity with the field you are working in for your research paper and swap papers for comment. Your partner can help you to find typos, holes in your research, and places where you missed a citation or a quotation mark. Additionally, it is good to start practicing being a good colleague to others, as many graduate students hope to live the academic life; many academics swap papers with one another for feedback before submitting their work to professional journals.
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Revising Your Draft and Handing It In
Once you've received feedback, let your graduate level paper "cool down." Set it aside for a few days, and don't look at it! By doing this, you'll be able to return to the paper fresh and you will catch a lot of mistakes, holes, and problems you wouldn't otherwise have caught. Plus, by setting the paper aside before you revise it, you avoid burn out and that feeling that says you want to just get the paper done and you don't care what it looks like.
When you go to revise your paper, you'll want to read it aloud--you'll catch far more typos, grammatical errors, and spelling problems this way. If you use a laptop, watch out for places where your cursor jumped into another sentence (it happens more often than you would think). Make sure that you've cited your paper properly and that you have formatted the paper according to your professor's preferences. Make any necessary changes to the paper, make sure your footnotes or endnotes have been proofread. Print it out. Go through the paper one more time and make any corrections that are necessary. Now, you are ready to hand it in.
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Once You Get It Back, Your Work Isn't Done
Finally, once you've handed in your paper and received it back with a grade, even if you received an "A" (especially if you've received an "A"), your work is not done. As a graduate student, you should be submitting your best graduate level papers to conferences and journals. Speak to the professor that teaches your course about your interest in professional activities and ask if he or she would be willing to point you to groups that publish calls for papers (CFPs) in your discipline. By publishing and presenting in graduate school, not only do you boost your curriculum vitae (and thus increase your likelihood of post-graduate school employment), but you also gain the opportunity to participate in your discipline's professional networking venue.
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Belcher, W. L. (2009) Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Peters, R. (1997) Getting What You Came For. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Silva, P. J. (2007) How to Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. American Psychological Association