Spotlight on Graduate Writing

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Spotlight on Graduate Writing

When it comes to writing, it sometimes seems that most graduate students are already experts. After years of practice in high school and college, what else could there possibly be to learn?

The University of Texas (UT) is full of extraordinarily talented communicators who are researching and writing about a myriad of subjects, and writing often seems to just come naturally to them.

Yet many graduate students say that writing well is a constantly evolving process that takes time and energy to perfect.

""Brian Gatten, a PhD candidate in the Department of English Literature, has been working on his master’s thesis-turned-dissertation for several years and knows firsthand that creating excellent writing takes work, but is certainly worth the effort.

“Fundamentally, [writing] is important because if we can't communicate what we are studying, then it doesn’t really matter that we are studying it,” says Gatten, who also works at the Undergraduate Writing Center.

“[It is] one of the few skills that carry over into … professional life. That’s doubly true for those of us who are going into academia.”

No matter if graduate students are working on a term paper, sitting for a qualifying exam or crafting an in-depth thesis or dissertation, writing is a fundamental aspect of graduate education. Regardless of the discipline, being able to clearly communicate their knowledge, ideas and research findings with others is truly what makes University of Texas at Austin graduate students second to none.

Dr. Leslie Jarmon, Faculty Development Specialist with the Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment, taught Graduate Writing at UT for 11 years and knows firsthand the importance of being able to share one’s research with the world through the written word.

“Graduate students are the ones who are asking the questions and finding different kinds of answers to the problems facing all of us on the planet,” says Jarmon. “So it’s critical that [they] can communicate.”

Often, graduate students find that embarking on the journey of researching and writing a thesis or dissertation is unlike anything they have ever done before.

Sheldon Ekland-OlsonDr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Graduate Adviser in the Department of Sociology, says that theses and dissertations are essentially the culmination of everything graduate students have learned; almost a “written exam” on how well students know their field, are able to apply their ideas and findings and reveal new truths.

While a thesis is less demanding than a dissertation—which is much more extensive and detailed—students working toward a PhD must often complete both.

“[A dissertation is] trying to see whether or not a person has developed the skills to be an independent scholar,” says Ekland-Olson. “It is your first statement on how you see the field…it’s you.”

To make the process of getting all of their work on paper for a thesis or dissertation more manageable, many graduate students bond together to create writing groups, utilize online resources such as the Dissertation Listserv or The Graduate School Web site and attend comprehensive writing workshops.

Additionally, The University of Texas at Austin has a number of resources to aid graduate students in their quest to improve their writing, including Graduate Student Writing Services, a free peer-tutoring program for UT graduate students located on campus in Jester Hall.

""Tommy Darwin, Director of Community Partnerships in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at UT, echoes the importance of turning to peers when it comes to seeking writing assistance.

“One of the most valuable things I ever did in any class was to have peer to peer evaluation,” says Darwin, who has taught rhetoric and written a lengthy dissertation himself.

"If you are going to be a professional writer, you have got to share your writing with others while it is in progress.”

For many students, graduate school at UT has not only been a venue in which to further hone their overall writing skills, but also a place to learn how to communicate with the specific audience of their field.

Julie Beicken, a second-year graduate student studying Political Sociology, says that her professors have helped her become a more focused, deliberate writer.

“The graduate enterprise causes you to see the ways in which the things you read are modeled,” says Beicken, who is currently writing a thesis proposal. “My writing has become more formulaic…I use the things that I read to understand how to write as a sociologist.”

Ekland-Olson, who has been in academia for years, says he firmly believes that UT’s graduate students are extremely talented writers.

“I’m of the firm opinion that students now are much better writers now than they were 15 years ago,” says Ekland-Olson. “The quality of the papers is so much better."

Feature story by Lauren Edwards and Kathleen Mabley, November 2008
Top feature photo by Christina Murrey, Office of Public Affairs

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