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Graduate Writing: Understanding Expectations

Understanding Expectations

Students entering graduate school are often a bit nervous about how their writing will be assessed. These feelings are natural and may be amplified if an undergraduate degree did not include many writing-intensive courses or if a previous degree was completed in a different language or culture. Many students (if not all) will be a bit uncertain about how a professor will assess coursework.

Some professors will make assumptions about the level at which a graduate student is expected to write while others recognize that we continue to develop as writers throughout our lives. Such personal philosophies mean that your future professors may foreground writing instruction in their classes or expect you to figure out standards for yourself. Others will refer students to different campus writing services and supports, like the Writing Help Centre. Regardless of how writing is positioned within your program and individual courses, there is a lot that you can do to build your skillset and your confidence.

The first step is to better understand the distinction between undergraduate- and graduate-level writing.

Undergraduate- vs. Graduate-level Writing

Undergraduate- and graduate-level writing primarily differs in terms of the expected originality, complexity, style, and intended audience of the text. For students who undertook significant research in their undergraduate courses and/or completed writing intensive courses, the transition will be less pronounced.

Common expectations of both undergraduate- and graduate-level writing include text that is

  • free of sentence-level concerns (e.g., syntax and grammatical errors),
  • logically structured and organized to reflect genre conventions (e.g., headings),
  • appropriately cited and referenced in accordance with style guides (e.g., APA),
  • built on credible evidence (e.g., primary sources, journal articles).

The major shift reveals the expected development of thinking and communication, reflecting the depth and breadth of graduate topics. In grappling with more complicated themes or problems, graduate students must become much more effective in synthesizing information and situating their own analysis in the larger academic conversation.

Similarly, while both undergraduate and graduate students write texts for their instructors and professors, graduate students are more likely to write for other scholars within their discipline. Such writing usually takes the form of research posters, conference abstracts, journal articles, and monographs.

Graduate students also tend to write more complex scholarship proposals in more competitive landscapes (e.g., Tri-Agency funding). In these situations, the audience is still academic but may be non-specialized.

Alternately, graduate students in professional programs (e.g., Business Administration, Public Policy) may also increasingly write for other professionals with the expectation that, by the end of their degree, they should demonstrate mastery when producing specialized texts (e.g., briefing notes).


Looking for more information on what sets graduate-level writing apart?