Graduate Student Writing Resources

Writing at the graduate level can involve new challenges. Here are suggestions, exercises, and resources graduate writers have found useful.

Research Writing at the Graduate Level

Resources for Graduate Student Writers

Research Writing Tips for Graduate Students

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  • study of original historical documents, artwork, literary texts, film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.
  2. Academic indexes: e.g. the Anthropological Index, Philosophers Index, Modern Language Association (MLA) Index. These indexes are increasingly found as CD or online databases.
  3. 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.
  4. Specialized scholarly and fact books e.g. Historical Statistics of the United States.
  5. 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.

Resources for Graduate Student Writers

Online Writing Guides: General Resources

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill has resources specifically targeted for ESL students, including writing guides, vocabulary tools, online dictionaries, and more.

Monash University offers a wide range of materials, including a section on literature reviews. Some of it is more general, other parts are subject-specific.

Organizing your Social Science Research Paper is a research guide from the University of Southern California:

Online Writing Guides: Scientific Writing

Here is an article on how to write well for the sciences:

From Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science, advice in all areas of graduate writing, primarily for Computer Science majors.

Penn State has a great collection of guidelines for graduate students in Engineering or Sciences when writing or presenting.

Handbook for writing in Engineering from the University of Toronto

From Virginia Tech, a guide for writing in the medical sciences.

The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) has online modules for writing for the World Health Organization.

Thesis and Dissertation Resources

Here is a list of sample dissertation proposals from a variety of disciplines:

Books: General Academic Writing

Canseco, G. (2010). Inside Academic Writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
A comprehensive textbook on many aspects of graduate writing. Types of writing include a biographical statement, a research interest essay, a summary, a problem-solution text, a comparative structure paper, and a commentary.

Evans, D., Gruba, P., & Zobel, J. (2011). How to write a better thesis. Melbourne Univ. Publishing.
A book that gives step-by-step instructions on how to write a thesis or dissertation.

Swales, J. M. (2000). English in today's research world: A writing guide. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
This textbook looks at a wider range of genres, including research publications and practical texts, such as emails to academic colleagues.

Swales, J. M. & Feak, C. B. (2004). Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills (Vol. 1). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
This book works on typical functions, such as defining or classifying, and text structures, such as literature reviews, in academic writing. Aimed at second language writers it reviews relevant language structures, but can also be a useful tool for native speakers who would like to understand the genres of academic writing better.

To find specific information on writing in different disciplines, try the “Short Guides to Writing in the Disciplines” books from Oxford University Press.

Books: Business Writing

Ellet, W. (2007). The Case Study Handbook: How to Read, Discuss, and Write Persuasively ū컨 Cases. Harvard Business Publishing.

Locker, K. & Kaczmarek, S. (2013). Business communication: Building critical skills (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill

Sardegna, V. G., & Slutsky, J. (2009). The practiced business writer: An ESL/EFL handbook. Richmond, VA: Briefings Media Group, LLC.

Books: Scientific Writing

Glasman-Deal, H. (2009). Science research writing for non-native speakers of English. World Scientific.
A textbook specifically for multilingual writers about how to write up scientific research.

Hofmann, A. H. (2014). Scientific writing and communication: papers, proposals, and presentations. Oxford Univ. Press.
A popular reference guide to scientific writing and oral communication.

Schimel, J. (2012). Writing science: how to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. OUP USA.
A book focusing on writing up research that has many good suggestions for writing, in general.

Weissberg, R., & Buker, S. (1990). Writing up research. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
An excerpt can found here:

Resources On Language:

MICUSP (Michigan Corpus of Upper-level Student Papers) has a database full of example upper-level papers from different disciplines.

The “Academic Phrasebank” from the University of Manchester has a large collection of phrases that can be used in a variety of academic contexts.

"Word and Phrase .Info" from the American Corpus at BYU is a great way to search for chunks of academic language and learn vocabulary in context.

The collocation dictionary at ozdic.com not only teaches you the definition of a word, but also how to use it.

Just the Word is a website where you can see the frequency and common collocations of a number of words.

Phraseum is a database of searchable phrases, categorized according to use. There are some that can be used for writing emails, but these are mostly for spoken English.


The OWL at Purdue website has a wealth of resources about APA, MLA, and Chicago styles of citation, as well as other information about assignment types and writing strategies.

Leeds University Library provides an exhaustive list of sample bibliography entries for different citation systems, including Harvard, APA and numeric.

Citethisforme.com is a free online citation tool and bibliography builder that works with Harvard, APA, and MLA.

Bibme.org is a free online citation tool and bibliography builder that works with APA, MLA, Chicago, and Turabian. Sign-in required.

Zotero is a research tool that allows you to add sources by clicking on them. Downloadable desktop and online tool.