Graduate-level writing

When you're an undergraduate, writing at the graduate level may seem intimidating. Maybe your upper-level course professors say they expect graduate-level writing, or maybe you're planning to go to grad school, and you want to know what to expect. Ultimately, however, learning to write at the graduate level, no matter where you are in your academic career, will help you improve your writing skills.

Undergraduate vs graduate expectations

Undergraduate and graduate level writing have a number of differences, but your undergraduate writing experience serves as a foundation for moving on to the graduate level.


  • Writing to prompts
  • Presents what others have said
  • Some exploratory research
  • Some synthesis of sources
  • General academic audience/professor
  • Basic academic essay structure
  • Some revision expected
  • Writing done as an assessment


  • Coming up with your own research question
  • Enters the conversation with your own contribution
  • Extensive and comprehensive research
  • Extensive synthesis of many sources
  • Audience of other scholars and professionals in the field
  • Formatting specific to research papers or the field
  • Multiple extensive revisions expected
  • Writing done to contribute to the field

Overall purpose

There are two main paths for a graduate degree: professional and research. Professional graduate degrees (like a law degree, master's in social work or master's in business administration) prepare you for what is expected in a workplace in your field. Research graduate degrees (especially Ph.D.s) are generally meant for academia and participating in scholarly conversation.


  • Case studies, memos, etc.
  • Your specific field will determine the kind of writing you'll be expected to produce.
    • For example, a social work or psychology professional degree will likely involve a lot of case studies. A law degree will involve legal memos and briefs.
    • Each kind of writing will have its own specific requirements that you will need to understand.
    • You will be able to find examples from your field to use as models for your own writing.
  • Even professional degrees will still expect you to do some research.


  • Research papers, proposals, conference papers, etc.
  • The main point of a research degree is participating in your field as an academic rather than a practitioner (though you may do both).
  • You will usually need to conduct and report your original research.
    • This will usually involve some sort of research paper, which may be more involved and in-depth than any you wrote as an undergrad.
    • You may write research papers specifically to get them published in academic journals.
    • You may write research proposals to ask to get your research funded.
    • You may write conference papers to present at academic conferences.

Elements of graduate-level writing

At the graduate level your professors will generally expect you to demonstrate expertise, competence, and professionalism.


This will vary at least somewhat between programs, but most of the time, you can expect to write longer papers in grad school. Many master's degree course papers are supposed to be between 15 and 20 pages. Many graduate programs will ask you to write a thesis or capstone paper, which are going to be even longer.


The reason graduate papers tend to be longer is that they are expected to have greater depth. This will require a lot more knowledge and use of background material.

  • For instance, you may remember a Core Humanities class where you wrote a paper about the Epic of Gilgamesh. If you go on to a history or literature graduate degree and write another paper about Gilgamesh, you won't just be expected to draw from the Epic of Gilgamesh. You'll need to know about ancient Mesopotamia and how the epic fits into the society, and you'll need to know about other similar poems or literature to engage in academic writing.

Basically, you will need to be able to draw a lot of knowledge and detail from many more sources.

Synthesizing outside sources

A lot of the depth required for research papers comes from synthesizing information from a lot of different sources. In graduate writing using 10 sources is considered a minimum, but you may find that the research you're doing requires more.

Synthesis asks how your sources work together. How are they in conversation with each other? What information can you draw out from multiple sources to draw a conclusion of your own?

  • Returning to the Epic of Gilgamesh example—maybe you want to write about how well the roles of women in the Epic of Gilgamesh reflected societal expectations. Maybe you've found books and articles describing women's roles in ancient Mesopotamia. If one source talks about how the religion treats women and another talks about the household roles, you might discuss those together in terms of how the religion reflects household roles.

Reading and evaluating scholarly articles

Like synthesis, you may have some experience reading and evaluating scholarly articles, but graduate school will require even more. Specifically, you will need to develop a better understanding of how to evaluate and critique scholarly articles. It's important to be able to critique articles for multiple reasons:

  • If you can identify gaps in the author's research, that might be an opportunity for you to fill that gap yourself with your own research.
  • If the article has something that makes it less credible (for instance, less reliable or generalizable), then you want to know that, so you can use and contextualize the article properly in your own discussion.

Critical thinking

This was probably implied by all the previous elements, but graduate writing will stretch and develop your critical thinking skills. Critically thinking about your topic will allow you to write about your topic with length and depth, while synthesizing and critiquing your sources.

Logic and organization

Your paper as a whole will need to be logically organized. Because graduate papers tend to be long, they are often broken up into sections. These sections should connect logically and build on each other.

  • For instance, a research paper often has the following sections in this order: introduction, literature review, methods, results, discussion and conclusion.

They go in that order because each of the previous sections provides context and information for the next.

  • Not every paper will need those exact sections, so don't feel tied to that format.
    • Develop an order that makes logical sense to you based on your goals. As long as each section builds on the previous, your readers will likely still be able to follow it.

Your arguments will also need to be logically organized. This means that each step of the logic chain is explained and also builds on each other.

  • You need to be able to explain the logic forwards and backwards—this leads to this, which leads to this, that is because of that, which is because of that.

Try not to skip steps in the logic chain because that creates weak points in your argument.

Use of language

Your diction (word choice) should be professional, rather than casual or overdone. This usually requires an extensive vocabulary because part of being professional means choosing the right word to explain your concept. Do not just go to a thesaurus to find a fancy-sounding synonym. Words have nuance, and often the synonyms listed in a thesaurus have meanings that are just slightly different.

  • Learn and use terminology from your field.
    • Some fields have specific guidelines for usage, such as person-first language (e.g. “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person”).
  • Understand usage in your field in order to appropriately discuss your topic.
  • There are a number of conventions that depend on the field.
    • Sciences often expect the use of passive voice, while the humanities prefer active.
  • Use statements rather than rhetorical questions—instead of asking, using statements rather than questions is more authoritative and better positions you as an authority on the subject.
    • Instead of  "What did ancient Mesopotamia believe about the roles of women?" state "Ancient Mesopotamia believed the roles of women were…".
  • Avoid qualifiers like "I think" and "I believe," which soften your statement by introducing the idea that you might be wrong.
  • You are making an argument and trying to present yourself as an authority, you want to show why your argument is credible.
  • Avoid figurative language (similes and metaphors), which tends to be more casual than professional.
    • Figurative language can soften your authority by compromising your professionalism (even slightly).

Spelling, grammar and punctuation

Your undergraduate professors will likely have also expected excellent spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but those expectations will be heightened in graduate school. There are two major reasons for this.

  • The first is professionalism because correct spelling, grammar and punctuation show that you took care with your writing.
  • The second is that spelling, grammar and punctuation are all meant to facilitate clear communication, so incorrect use can muddle your meaning.

Sentence variety

Higher levels of writing require variation in sentence structure. This means understanding when to use shorter sentences, when to use longer sentences, and how to use longer sentences. Sentence variety helps keep readers engaged by avoiding the potential monotony of one kind of sentence; it also helps you decide how to communicate your point.

  • Short sentences are punchy. They make your point quickly. They emphasize the point by letting it stand on its own.
  • Long sentences connect multiple thoughts together, and they should therefore be used when you need to connect thoughts and ideas. Not all thoughts need to be connected, which is when short sentences are appropriate; however, when you want to demonstrate that your ideas should be connected closely, making them part of the same sentence shows that.


Concision is using only the words necessary to convey your idea, eliminating redundancy and removes extra words that might muddle your idea. Writing concisely will improve the clarity of your writing and allow you to communicate your thoughts more understandably.

If you have a graduate professor with a page or word count requirement, and you're not sure you'll be able to meet it, add more depth rather than more words. This can be done by doing more research or expanding your research question.

  • You may be used to "padding" undergraduate papers. Maybe sometimes your professor gave you a page or word count requirement and you were concerned about being able to meet it, so perhaps you tried to explain things in multiple ways or tried to find other, not necessarily relevant, things to add. This is discouraged in graduate-level writing.

Correct and thorough citation

Academics really care about correct attribution. They care that authors are given credit where credit is due. This is why plagiarism is taken so seriously in academia, and why anyone who wants to contribute to scholarly conversations must ensure they are providing that credit.

You should cite any time an idea does not come purely from you.

  • If you have an idea, but it was derived from an article you read, cite the article. If you are bringing up a concept you learned from an article, cite the article. Definitely, if you are discussing or quoting an outside source, cite the source. It is better to over-cite than under-cite.

Whatever citation style is used most commonly in your field, you will come to know very well. It may even be helpful to get your own copy of the citation manual. Graduate research will often require the study of some uncommon sources that have their own particular citation requirements.

Time management

Do not expect to write papers a day or two before.

  • You will need time to do extensive research, write and revise.
  • Depending on the assignment, and given the expectations for length and depth, you will likely want at least a couple weeks to write, after spending a few days to a few weeks doing research.
    • For a regular class assignment, you might want anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to revise
    • For bigger projects like a thesis, a dissertation or a paper you're submitting to an academic journal, you will likely need months to revise.
  • Make sure to plan that kind of time.


Davenport, D. (n.d.) Graduate Level Writing Tips: Definitions, Do's, and Don'ts. Purdue Online.

Graduate Level Writing. (n.d.) University of Maryland.

Heady, E. (2007). Introduction to Graduate Writing. Liberty University Graduate Writing Center.

 Undergraduate vs. Graduate Writing. (n.d.) Bridgepoint Education.