Graduate study is all about writing, as the thesis or dissertation is the ticket to graduation. However, lots of writing occurs well before the thesis and dissertation are begun. Most graduate courses require students to write term papers. Many beginning graduate students are accustomed to writing papers and approach them in ways similar to undergraduate papers. As students advance and near the end of their coursework, they often look ahead towards the next task (such as preparing for comprehensive exams) and may begin to resent writing papers, feeling that they have already proven themselves as competent students. Both of these approaches are misguided. Papers are your opportunity to advance your own scholarly work and receive guidance to enhance your competence.
Take Advantage of Term Papers
How do you take advantage of papers? Be thoughtful. Choose your topic carefully. Each paper you write should do double duty — complete a course requirement and further your own development. Your paper topic should meet the course requirements, but it should also relate to your own scholarly interests. Review an area of literature related to your interests. Or you might examine a topic that you are interested in but unsure whether it is complex enough to study for your dissertation. Writing a term paper about the topic will help you determine if the topic is broad and deep enough to fulfill a large project and will also help you determine if it will sustain your interest. Term papers offer a place for you to test ideas but also to make progress on your current research interests.
Each assignment you write should do double duty: help you advance your own scholarly agenda and get feedback from a faculty member. Papers are opportunities to get feedback about your ideas and writing style. Faculty can help you improve your writing and help you learn how to think like a scholar. Take advantage of this opportunity and don’t simply seek to finish.
That said, take care in how you plan and construct your papers. Attend to ethical guidelines of writing. Writing the same paper over and over or submitting the same paper for more than one assignment is unethical and will get you into a great deal of trouble. Instead, the ethical approach is to use each paper as an opportunity to fill in a gap in your knowledge.
Consider a student in developmental psychology who is interested in adolescents who engage in risky behaviors such as drinking and drug use. While enrolled in a course in neuroscience, the student might examine how brain development influences risky behavior. In a course on cognitive development, the student might examine the role of cognition in risky behavior. A personality course might push the student to look at personality characteristics that influence risk behavior. In this way, the student advances his or her scholarly knowledge while completing course requirements. The student, therefore, should be examining multiple aspects of his or her general research topic. Will this work for you? At least some of the time. It will be better in some courses than others, but, regardless, it is worth a try.