How’s that for an attention grabbing title? But, it’s true. I know it was for me, and I’ve seen it happen many other times. Let’s face it, the average grad student was always top of his or her class, heads and shoulders academically above anyone one else in the course. You may have had to actually work for maybe two or three grades your entire educational career. Now, you’re faced with the smallest course load, and yet the most work you’ve ever seen. How does one deal with this sudden onslaught of responsibilities? It’s easy. You go back and learn all the stuff you skipped over in undergrad.
When I was writing a paper as an undergrad, I sat down and started typing. Ten to fifteen pages later, I looked up, realized I had met the requirement, and started putting in the citations. Then, like Mr. Hotshot I thought I was would go back to Facebook or whatever other non-academic activity was on deck for that evening. I never outlined, did a formal lit review, or thought about it overnight. As I said, I was a bit dumb.
Enter my major paper. Well, to start with, we had to turn in an outline. Er, okay. I’d never done one of those before, but I guess I can write the paper, and go back and write the outline afterwards, right? Nope, tired that. My outline wasn’t approved; I’d wasted that time. Honestly, looking back my paper was probably bouncing around enough that the professor could tell what I had done. Now, on the other side of the desk, it’s amazing how obvious stuff like that is most of the time.
Anyway, I had to re-learn how to write. There are plenty of resources out there for this, but for now, I’m just going to hit some of the highlights. First, why are you writing this paper? If your answer is, “Because Prof said we had to” start over. You cannot write a clear, coherent, and graduate quality paper without a defined purpose. Why is what you are writing important? What information are you trying to convey?
Once you have a clear target, you have to decide how you’re going to get there. This step is more commonly known as an outline. List each of the major points you are going to need to address. Put them in some semblance of an order. This was part that I HATED. It is okay to change it as you go, but write it down anyway. It gives you a basic framework to get started. The more you write, you may need to add or rearrange points, or even combine or eliminate something. That’s okay. It’s a process.
This is grad school. Part of the assignment is to look at things from different perspectives and expand your mind. To do that, you are going to have to read. You cannot get by writing something down and finding a few citations that agree with your points and just throw them into the final paper right before you turn it in. Literature reviews are never easy, and are always time consuming. For this reason, I’m going to do a separate post on them in the near future.
NOW, you are ready to write. But don’t make the mistake of just writing. Write it, print it, and take your own red pen (everyone should own one, the power that flows through it is amazing) to it and tear it apart. Finish it the night before it’s due, and then revisit it in the morning. Get someone in your peer group to read over it. The point is not for them to rewrite it for you, but circling where you used “wear” instead of “where” is another thing completely.
Your goal is no longer to get by. If you are in a thesis-track, everything you do is building up to that grand achievement. Even non-thesis tracks have some sort of internship paper or capstone project. Make sure every paper you turn in is something of which you can be proud. It’s not easy, but it’s not supposed to be. You are building a body of work that you will eventually use to present yourself to potential employees and in some cases, the judge of history. Dumb or not when you start grad school, make sure by the time you graduate, you leave a proud legacy that can be displayed through the years.