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Navigating the Intricacies of Graduate-Level Writing

Published on 1/14/2021 8:28:29 AM
By Rachel Sumang, Texas A&M University Office of Undergraduate Studies
 
Texas A&M is home to many competitive graduate programs, including 24 graduate programs ranked in the top 50 in the nation, according to the current U.S. News & World Report statistics.
 
Graduate students are expected to contribute original ideas to their fields, and to claim a place among the more-experienced experts. In addition to mentally strenuous coursework and time-consuming research, the most daunting task before Masters candidates who choose a thesis option is writing a document of at least 20,000 words. PhD candidates will write approximately 100,000 words that accurately conveys their research and ideas in depth.

 
A graduate student scrolls through his latest draft at a UWC writing retreat in 2019.
 
To earn their degree, graduate students typically work with a faculty committee. The committee reads and approves the thesis or dissertation. Then, the graduate student must orally defend their work to the committee. The pressure is immense.
 
“Graduate students at A&M by definition are good students. They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t—they are incredibly bright and motivated…But even with that scenario, they sometimes are writing in new ways,” explains Nancy Vazquez, Director of the University Writing Center.
 
Vazquez explains that “words are the currency of academia,” so the ability to write well at a graduate-level is essential.
 
While graduate students have experience writing, very few have had to write a one-hundred to two-hundred-page document with such high-stakes.
 
The University Writing Center (UWC) has developed programs and services dedicated to helping graduate students navigate the challenges of writing at the graduate-level.
 
One challenge is finding educated readers who can provide good feedback. Students can work with a UWC consultant one-to-one to get feedback on any writing assignment. Consultants are trained to give feedback on all styles of writing, including graduate-level assignments, despite not being a subject-matter expert.

In fact, a thesis or dissertation must be clearly written and must clearly present previous research and the methods, results, and significance of the students’ own research. UWC consultants can be of assistance in reading for clarity.

 
A graduate student examines data and composes more of his dissertation during a UWC writing retreat in 2019.

“We can fill that role of the outside reader. Good academic writing should be accessible to an educated reader outside of the main area of your field of study,” Vazquez states.
 
Another challenge for some students is writing graduate-level papers when English isn’t their native language. At Texas A&M, over 30% of the graduate student population are international students.
 
UWC staff member Alexis Smith, who advises the center on meeting the needs of English Learners (ELs), says the conventions of academic English can be especially confusing for these students.
 
“Things can get tricky when helping EL clients navigate using what's commonly called ‘academic English.’ This task is complicated because the definition of academic English is quite slippery and its conventions/uses differ from discipline to discipline. We also don't want to force writers to deny their own individuality/linguistic identities in the pursuit of mastering academic writing. Instead, we try to help writers make informed choices about their language use based on the writing conventions of their fields,” said Smith.
 
In addition to working on the mechanics of writing, UWC staff find that it is important to address the mental and emotional hurdles of graduate-level writing assignments.
 
“From my perspective, isolation is a big problem with grad students. It can be a problem with all students, but frankly with grad students—once you’re out of coursework, you’re not going to class all the time, you’re not seeing your friends—it can get really lonely,” said UWC staff member, Julia Medhurst.
 
Medhurst attributes students’ isolation as being a deterrent for productivity and a mental hurdle for students. Programs like The Dissertation, Article, and Thesis Assistance (DATA) and writing retreats such as Write Line offer respite from working alone by offering isolation-breaking activities like individualized attention or a sense of community.
 
“Just having a few minutes to decompress and talk before you sit down and work can be affirming. To know that the struggles you are having are real and you are not alone,” Medhurst states.
 
Medhurst’s attitude and remarks reflect the genuine and comprehensive care that the UWC provides for graduate students, whether the difficulties students face are abstract or academic.
 
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Media Contact: Anna Transue, transuea@tamu.edu