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Building Graduate-Level Writing Skills

Students enter graduate school with a range of different experiences and skills as writers. It’s normal to encounter assignments that are new to you, and you’re not alone—even if it seems like everyone knows what they’re doing, your peers are also figuring out how graduate-level writing works! This guide summarizes how graduate-level writing builds on the writing you may have done as an undergraduate, reviews strategies you can use in your writing, and provides a glossary of frequently used terms.  

This guide offers general strategies, but part of being a graduate student also includes building discipline-specific expertise. You can build from the information found in this guide by talking to peers and advisors in your specific discipline and by reading scholarship on topics in your discipline that interest you.  

What Makes Graduate-Level Writing Unique? 

As an undergraduate, you may have practiced creating your own arguments (for instance, perhaps you developed an interpretation of a literary work) or conducting research. You may have applied your research (or outside sources provided by your instructor) to another text, study, or event you were analyzing. Graduate-level writing is an opportunity for students to synthesize these skills by joining scholarly conversations.  

In this case, a conversation isn’t a verbal discussion (though scholars in your field certainly talk about their research and ideas in presentations, panels, and more). Rather, this kind of conversation refers to a body of writing on a particular topic or question. Scholars don’t work in isolation: their ideas are informed by and build on previous research. In a face-to-face conversation with a friend, you wouldn’t simply repeat what they said. In addition, you’d likely reference past conversations and shared experiences. Scholarly conversations work in the same way. If you’re a sociologist interested in studying how social media use influences teenagers’ friendship dynamics, for instance, you need to become an expert on what others have learned about this topic before contributing your own ideas. In other words, you’re putting your work in conversation with others’ work by responding to what they’ve already found, and often by expanding, complicating, or providing new ways of engaging with previous work/scholarship.  

In this page you will find the following topics: 

Joining a Scholarly Conversation

Keeping the Conversation Going

Glossary of Common Terms for Graduate Writers

Joining a Scholarly Conversation

The idea of contributing to a scholarly conversation can feel overwhelming at first. You may wonder, “How can I possibly come up with something new that hasn’t been said before?” A helpful strategy is the CaRS Model developed by scholar John Swales, which many scholars use when crafting introductions to their work (but you can also use it as a thought exercise when seeking a direction for your own projects). CaRS, which stands for “Create a Research Space,” has three “moves” (or steps): 

  • Move 1 – Establish a Research Territory: Your research territory is the topic you will investigate. Although the word “topic” sounds quite general, be specific when defining your area of focus. For instance, a topic like “Spanish film over the last 50 years” is too wide; you might narrow down that topic to “Pedro Almodóvar’s films with female protagonists.” Establishing your research territory in writing means providing an overview of what’s already known about your topic (in other words, summarizing accepted facts and relevant/recent research). Describing what has already been proven or discussed by other scholars indicates why your topic matters and is worth exploring.  

  • Move 2 – Establish a Niche: What makes your research different from what others have studied before? Establishing a niche means identifying a “gap” in what’s known or understood about your topic that you will address. You can think about a “gap” in several different ways: 

    • The gap you identify could be an aspect of your topic that scholars haven’t investigated before (“While previous studies have explored X, little is known about Y”).  

    • Another kind of gap could be a counterargument (“Although previous studies have found X, that perspective is limited because Y”). Identifying why gaps exist can also be an interesting way of finding a niche.  

    • Yet another kind of gap could be an area in someone else’s work that you plan to clarify or build on (“Smith’s exploration of X established Y, but further research is necessary in order to fully understand Z,” “Smith’s theory regarding X can be applied to Y in order to Z”). 

  • Move 3 – Occupy the Niche: Once you’ve defined the gap that your work will fill, you need to explain how you will fill it. Occupying your niche means describing your particular project and approach. What is your research question/goal? How will you address it? Will your work result in a new theory or methodology, or perhaps a solution to a troubling issue or debate? In STEM fields, occupying your niche may also necessitate describing your methods, timeline, and hypothesis. In Humanities fields, part of occupying your niche is stating your thesis.  

To learn more, check out this resource about the CaRS Model (which includes a sample introduction using all three moves).  

One final note: The University of Vermont’s Graduate Writing Center provides this important reminder: “In occupying a gap, avoid wherever possible words like ‘neglected,’ ‘failed,’ or ‘ignored’ to critique other researchers in your field. (Those researchers may well be among your readers and, in the case of proposals, your referees!) Try framing your contribution in positive terms: ‘While X pioneered research in..., my work contributes to/supplements/responds/resolves...’” This framing can help you build on previous conversations and can be an additional way to show your familiarity with prior work. 

Keeping the Conversation Going

Following the three moves of the CaRS Model will allow you to position your work in relationship to previous scholarship—but the conversation doesn’t end there. Think of your writing as an ongoing conversation about your topic, and actively participate in that conversation by responding to others’ work/research throughout the body of your text, not just in the introduction. Here are “moves” you can use in your writing to keep the conversation going: 

  • Identify where you’re coming from: The projects graduate students undertake are often rooted in their personal identities, stemming from a core experience, belief, or goal. If you think your background may influence the perspective you bring to your work, say so! The University of Vermont’s Graduate Writing Center encourages students to “Reflect on your method, on your socio-cultural standpoint, on the values/assumptions you might be bringing to the table, and on your language choices.” Explaining the specific choices you make (e.g., using one term instead of another), acknowledging the unconscious biases that may impact your thinking, and describing how the work of key sources may have influenced your approach helps your readers trust and contextualize your point of view. These kinds of moves are more accepted in some disciplines than others, so if you’re unsure, check with a trusted mentor. 

  • Forward: Forwarding the work of others means agreeing with them as a way of connecting to or emphasizing your own idea(s). For instance, you might describe a key principle from another scholar’s research that underlies your work as a way of establishing the basis for your argument. Using their research as a starting point, you can show how your findings rely on previously established facts. According to the University of Vermont’s Graduate Writing Center, this move is effective because “you are pulling your audience along with you towards your idea because you’re all on the same side: ‘Yes, X, ... and XY too!’” 

  • Borrow: One way of forwarding another scholar’s work is to borrow a specific term or theoretical framework that you can apply to your work (presumably a context to which the term or framework hasn’t previously been applied). After reviewing that scholar’s definition, you can explain how their ideas correspond to your particular area of focus (e.g., “Smith coined the term X to mean...In this study, we apply X to Y in order to...”)

  • Extend: Extending takes borrowing one step further: rather than applying another scholar’s term or theoretical framework as they defined it, redefine it and apply your version. In other words, you might develop, build on, or add to the term or framework; update it to be more current; change, adjust, or cut parts of it; etc. (e.g., “While Smith coined the term X to mean...I propose amending X to Y in this particular context because...”). 

  • Illustrate: As an undergraduate writer, you likely had lots of practice using evidence to support your claims. “Illustrating” is another way of saying “give examples!” More specifically, you might illustrate ideas that are foundational to your work by tracing trends. If you notice that several scholars make the same point or have proven the same idea, you can provide multiple examples from different scholars’ work to illustrate that experts in your field agree on those issues. You might also include evidence from your own research to show how your work aligns with a particular trend or finding.  

  • Counter: Countering another scholar’s work means politely disagreeing. You might disagree with someone’s entire argument, part(s) of their argument, or the ideas underlying their argument. Likewise, you might believe that their work is incomplete or only applies to certain situations or contexts. You might even agree with their overall conclusions but have an alternative (better) way of arriving at the same idea. As when identifying gaps in someone else’s research, it’s important to counter kindly—disagree, but don’t disregard! If you harshly reject another scholar’s work, you risk seeming less thoughtful (and credible).  

Glossary of Common Terms for Graduate Writers

This glossary provides brief descriptions of concepts, opportunities, and different types of writing you may encounter during your graduate study. If you’re having difficulty figuring out what an assignment is asking, you can consult our guide to Understanding an Assignment. Additionally, remember that you can bring writing related to any of the following terms (at any stage of the writing process) to the Writing Center to get feedback from a consultant.  

  • Abstract: An abstract is a brief summary of a longer piece of writing (such as a research paper, article, thesis, or dissertation). The purpose of an abstract is to give potential readers a clear overview of what the piece of writing is about so they can determine whether it’s relevant to their needs. As a result, it’s essential that abstracts contain key terms that will allow readers to understand the scope of the writing and locate the writing using search engines (which use those key terms to sort results). Abstracts should state the author’s main argument or objective, as well as make clear why the work being described is important. Abstracts often include details about research methods and the author’s conclusions/findings as well.  

  • Dissertation vs. Thesis: You may hear the terms “dissertation” and “thesis” used in similar ways, as both refer to substantial pieces of writing completed over a sustained period that typically mark the culmination of one’s graduate study. However, there are also key differences. (Keep in mind that “dissertation” and “thesis” can also have different meanings in different countries; the information below focuses on the definitions used in the United States. Different disciplines may also understand these genres differently, so remember to be in conversation with trusted mentors or peers in your field.)

    • A dissertation grows out of original research conducted by a graduate student (typically a doctoral candidate) intended to fill a gap in their field or build on prior research in a way that hasn’t been done before.  

    • A thesis (typically the capstone project within a master’s degree program) develops an argument based on previous research conducted by other scholars rather than contributing new research, though this can vary depending on the discipline and specific program requirements. 

    • Whereas dissertation writers typically defend their research methodology and findings before a committee of evaluators (meaning they give an extensive presentation/discussion), a defense is less common for theses.  

  • Fellowship: Fellowships are financial awards that help students cover the cost of travel and/or living expenses while completing research, teaching, or other service. Fellowships are typically awarded based on academic promise to support students in meeting their goals and making contributions to their fields. There are a wide variety of fellowships available; some are discipline-specific, while others are open to students working in any discipline. Additionally, some fellowships are based on identity markers (for instance, Episcopal Church Foundation fellowships or the Flagship Scholarship for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students). Since fellowship applications typically require letters of recommendation, personal statements, and transcripts, it’s helpful to begin the application process several months in advance of the deadline.  

    • Check out UMB’s Fellowships page to learn more about the types of fellowships available and the services UMB provides to applicants (which include helping compile your application, facilitating practice interviews, and more).  

  • Grant: A grant is funding based on demonstrated financial need (this is a key difference between grants and scholarships, which are usually based on a student’s past academic record or other accomplishments). There are state and federal grants, and some nonprofit organizations also offer them. If you’re applying for grants, you should fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), as organizations that award grants use it to identify your financial need. Additionally, because you can receive multiple scholarships and grants at the same time, it’s helpful to apply for several. Research grants are a specific kind of grant awarded to graduate students to cover the costs of research projects they’re undertaking. The University of Arizona’s Graduate Center Office of Fellowships provides a handy way of distinguishing between fellowships and research grants: “fellowships go to people and grants go to projects.” In other words, when applying for a research grant, students need to demonstrate why their research is important and what impact it will have on their field.

  • Literature review: A literature review is a summary of published sources relating to a particular topic or subject area. In this case, “literature” refers to a group of sources about a topic or within a discipline (for instance, “literature” can be a group of research studies about traumatic head injuries or a selection of scholarly publications about best practices in child psychology). Rather than simply listing different sources and summarizing them, a literature review should be organized in a way that helps readers see connections and patterns (for instance, a literature review may compare research from many years ago to current research or discuss several different perspectives on the same question or issue). The purpose behind literature reviews is to help readers understand the most important accepted beliefs or background information about a topic (rather than passing judgment or analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the sources being reviewed). While literature reviews can be stand-alone assignments, they can also appear within longer pieces of writing before writers discuss what makes their own work distinct.  

    • UMB’s Healey Library has created this resource on literature reviews that includes instructions on how to find published examples of literature reviews that you can use as models for your own work. 

  • Prospectus: A prospectus is a detailed dissertation plan. Typically, before a graduate student commits to a specific focus, project, or research question that they will investigate for their dissertation, they submit a prospectus to a committee that approves their plan and/or provides feedback. If you’re writing a prospectus, it’s important to make sure you understand the requirements specific to your discipline, department, program, and even your committee. In general, though, most prospectuses include the following elements: an abstract, an explanation of why the proposed project matters and how it addresses a gap in previous scholarship, a literature review, an overview of any work you’ve already completed that will contribute to the project, an overview of your methodology, a discussion of possible challenges you might encounter, a schedule describing when you’ll complete each step of the project, and a list of references. 

  • Rhetorical situation: According to Purdue’s Online Writing Lab, the rhetorical situation “refers to any set of circumstances that involves at least one person using some sort of communication to modify the perspective of at least one other person.” In other words, the rhetorical situation is the particular set of conditions surrounding a piece of writing. Rhetorical situations have five elements: 1) The text (genre), 2) the author (person doing the communicating), 3) the audience (those receiving the communication), 4) the purpose of the communication (why it’s being written), and 5) the setting (the context: time and place). As you read different types of writing, try to define the specific rhetorical situation of each piece. Developing your understanding of rhetorical situations will help you learn how to shape your own writing in a way that “meets your audience’s needs.” 

    • As an example of a rhetorical situation, consider this guide to common terms you might encounter as a graduate writer. 

      • The text is a glossary providing definitions and links to additional resources.  

      • The author is a member of the Writing Center’s administrative team with a background in teaching and writing. 

      • The audience is graduate students seeking writing support or getting oriented to graduate-level writing.  

      • The purpose is to challenge the assumption that students begin graduate school with prior understanding of frequently referenced vocabulary and writing assignments. This guide aims to help students make sense of this “hidden curriculum” and therefore increase equity and inclusion.  

      • Finally, the setting is 2023 in Boston, MA in the United States.  

    • Taking note of these circumstances allows readers to distinguish this piece of writing from, for instance, an article in The Guardian (a British newspaper), which would have different “answers” to each of the five elements, as well as understand the reasoning behind the writer’s choices. 

    • Check out this resource for more information on rhetorical situations.


Works Cited

“An Introduction’s Three Signal Moves.” Graduate Writing Center, The University of Vermont, Accessed 9 January 2023. 

“CaRS Model: Create a Research Space.” Writing and Communication Centre, University of Waterloo, Accessed 9 January 2023. 

“Forwarding, Illustrating, Countering, & Taking an Approach.” Graduate Writing Center, The University of Vermont, Accessed 9 January 2023. 

“Writing Resource: Strong Thesis Statements.” John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, Cornell University, Accessed 9 January 2023.  

“Abstracts.” The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Accessed 6 January 2023.  

“Elements of Rhetorical Situations.” Purdue Online Writing Lab, Purdue University, Accessed 6 January 2023.  

“Fellowship or Grant? Does it Matter?” Graduate Center Office of Fellowships, The University of Arizona, Accessed 18 January 2023. 

“Literature Reviews.” The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Accessed 6 January 2023. 

“Prospectus Writing.” Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, Yale University, Accessed 6 January 2023.  

“Rhetorical Situations.” Purdue Online Writing Lab, Purdue University, Accessed 6 January 2023. 

Tretina, Kat and Alicia Hahn. “How to Pay For Graduate School With Scholarships, Grants And Fellowships.” Forbes Advisor, Forbes, 29 Oct. 2021, Accessed 6 January 2023. 

“What is the Difference Between a Dissertation and a Thesis?”, Postgrad Solutions Ltd., Accessed 6 January 2023. 

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