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Graduate School-Specific Genres

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Graduate School-Specific Genres

This resource provides on overview of several genres that are common in graduate school settings along with guiding questions and suggestions for writing them.

Literature Reviews

The literature review, whether embedded in an introduction or standing as an independent section, is often one of the most difficult sections to compose in academic writing. A literature review requires the writer to perform extensive research on published work in one’s field in order to explain how one’s own work fits into the larger conversation regarding a particular topic. This task requires the writer to spend time reading, managing, and conveying information; the complexity of literature reviews can make this section one of the most challenging parts of writing about one’s research. This handout will provide some strategies for revising literature reviews.

Organizing Literature Reviews

Because literature reviews convey so much information in a condensed space, it is crucial to organize your review in a way that helps readers make sense of the studies you are reporting on. Two common approaches to literature reviews are chronological—ordering studies from oldest to most recent—and topical—grouping studies by subject or theme. Along with deliberately choosing an overarching structure that fits the writer’s topic, the writer should assist readers by using headings, incorporating brief summaries throughout the review, and using language that explicitly names the scope of particular studies within the field of inquiry, the studies under review, and the domain of the writer’s own research. When revising your own literature review, or a peer’s, it may be helpful to ask yourself some of the following questions:

Questions for Revision

  1. Is the literature review organized chronologically or by topic? Is the writer clear about which approach is being used in the review?

  2. Does the writer use headings or paragraph breaks to show distinctions in the groups of studies under consideration?

  3. Does the writer explain why certain groups of studies (or individual studies) are being reviewed by drawing a clear connection to his or her topic?

  4. Does the writer make clear which of the studies described are most important?

  5. Does the writer cover all important areas of research related to his or her topic?

  6. Does the writer use transitions and summaries to move from one study or set of studies to the next?

  7. By the end of the literature review, is it clear why the current research is necessary?

Showing the gaps

The primary purpose of the literature review is to demonstrate why the author’s study is necessary. Depending on the writer’s field, it may or may not be clear that research on a particular topic is necessary for advancing knowledge. As the writer composes the literature review, he or she must construct an argument of sorts to establish the necessity of his or her research. Therefore, one of the key tasks for writers is to establish where gaps in current research lie. The writer must show what has been overlooked, understudied, or misjudged by previous studies in order to create space for the new research within an area of academic or scientific inquiry.

Questions for Revision

  1. Does the review mention flaws, gaps, or shortcomings of specific studies or groups of studies?

  2. Does the author point out areas that have not yet been researched or have not yet been researched sufficiently?

  3. Does the review demonstrate a change over time or recent developments that make the author’s research relevant now?

  4. Does the author discuss research methods used to study this topic and/or related topics?

  5. Does the author clearly state why his or her research is necessary?


Galvan, Jose L. Writing Literature Reviews: A Guide for Students of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Los Angeles: Pyrczak Publishing, 1999. Print.


Seminar Papers

Common in the humanities and social sciences, graduate students are often asked to write seminar papers at the end of the semester as a final project for their courses. They often strike a balance between displaying mastery of the course material and exploring some topic within the scope of the course in more depth. Some professors will provide specific requirements about length, topics, components, audience, and purpose; others may give students almost total freedom. As with any other assignment, check with your professor to make sure you understand their expectations.

If you have some freedom to determine for yourself what your seminar paper will be, you may want to consider ways to use the paper as an opportunity for developing your own work. Here are some questions to help you think through your seminar paper; which ones work for you may vary depending on your professor's expectations.

  • Seminar papers are often an appropriate length for conference presentations. Are there conferences coming up that you could apply to with a topic you could cover in this seminar paper, so that you could get feedback on a draft of your conference presentation from your professor? Have you already been accepted to a conference with a proposal that falls into the scope of this course?
  • You might be thinking about publications, depending on where you are in your grad school career. Seminar papers can often serve as useful seeds for publications; would your professor be amenable to working with you over a longer term to help expand your seminar paper into an eventual publication?
  • If you are working toward a thesis or dissertation whose topic you already know or have an idea of, a seminar paper could be an opportunity to explore that topic further or begin working on the larger research project. Would your professor be open to offering you feedback with that in mind?
  • Would your professor be willing to bend the requirements of the assignment slightly to help you make the paper useful to you in one of the above ways? For instance, you might ask your professor if you could write to a different audience (like conference attendees for a specific organization).

Prospectus (Dissertation Proposal)

Some graduate students will need to write and defend a proposal for their dissertation topic before they pursue the full project. This proposal is sometimes (but not always) called a prospectus. In some fields or at some universities, it is this dissertation proposal defense that marks the graduate student's transition from doctoral student to doctoral candidate. 

Alternatively, some fields and universities use the comprehensive exams (also called comps, quals or qualifying exams, general exams or generals, prelims or preliminary exams) as the transition from student to candidate. Often in these cases the dissertation committee will be the same as or similar to the examination committee.

Expectations for proposing a dissertation topic and getting that proposal approved by your committee will vary across fields and even across particular universities; individual dissertation chairs may, too, have their own particular expectations. As with any major writing task, you should discuss these expectations with your advisor before you start and as you write.

Most dissertation proposals will need to answer similar questions, however, so there are some commonalities among prospectuses that might be helpful to you as you write.

  • Introduction. Your committee will need some context and background for the topic you are working on, particularly if you are dealing with a particular case, example, or topic that is not your committee members' main research area. This section should also summarize your project, its relevance, and its anticipated contributions in a paragraph or two.
  • Literature Review. Your committee will not need a literature review of the size and depth you would include in your dissertation, but you should situate your project among the key scholars you base your work on, and you should demonstrate that you have read enough to understand the existing conversations on your topic. One of the main goals of a dissertation proposal is often to show that your topic has not yet been adequately studied, and your lit review may be one place where you show that.
  • Proposed Methodology. Your committee will want to know how you propose to study your topic, and what those specific methods will help you learn that others won't (i.e., is your methodology appropriate for the questions you are asking). In some fields this may be more contested than others, where standard methods are more established or concrete.
  • Anticipated Contributions. Given that a prospectus is a proposal, rather than a conclusion, most prospectuses end with anticipated contributions. This section often echoes the argument for relevance and value from the introduction, and goes into more detail about why the project is worth pursuing.
  • Anticipated Constraints. You may need to include a section describing potential obstacles or constraints for your research. All research has constraints, and this section is usually more about giving your committee a way to help you address potential problems and set you up for success than it is about discouraging you from pursuing a particular topic or method.