Skip to Main Content

How to write a graduate-level essay

Step-by-step guidance and resources for planning, researching, and writing essays as a graduate student.

Develop effective searches

To determine what terms to use when searching your topic, it can be useful to write out your question and identify the words or phrases that express the central concepts.  For example, if you were interested in researching:

How does an employer create or sustain a strong workplace culture in times of organizational change?

You would focus in on the underlined words:

  •  How does an employer create or sustain a strong workplace culture in times of organizational change?

You could construct your first search as follows:

  • “workplace culture” AND “organizational change”

Using AND

In most search tools - Google, Google Scholar, Discovery, Proquest - the software looks for your search terms in the same document. In a few search tools, though – the EBSCO-branded databases being the best examples - the software assumes you are looking for your search terms close to or next to each other. EBSCO assumes you are looking for your terms either as a phrase or within a few words of one another. Because this is not often helpful, it can be a good idea to insert ANDs between your different words and phrases. The AND - which must be capitalised to work - ensures that the search algorithm looks for your search terms in the same document rather than very close to one another.

Because the AND is sometimes very helpful, and because it never hurts your search, it is worth always inserting ANDs so you can re-use searches in more than one search tool.

For this sample topic, the search - “workplace culture” AND “organizational change” - is an O.K. start. Read or skim some of your results, get a sense of the literature, see what other words and phrases you might use, and consider how you can improve your approach.

The first step to refining your searches is identifying other useful keywords and phrases. You could list these under the research question you wrote out as you were getting started. Beyond the words you can think of on your own, pay attention to the words and phrases in the documents you find and consider adding them to your next search. For example:

  • instead of ‘workplace culture’ you could experiment with ‘work environment’ or ‘organizational culture’
  • instead of ‘organizational change’ you could experiment with, ‘layoff’, turnover’, ‘restructuring’ or ‘merger and acquisition’ depending on what more specific aspect of change you want to research.

Searching for phrases

  • If you want to search for two or more words as a phrase, enclose those two or more word in quotation marks. For example, a search "organizational culture" will bring back results with those words side by side.

Using OR

If you want to search more than one similar term/phrase at a time, insert a capitalised OR between the words/phrases. The OR must be capitalised for it to work properly. For example, a search for - “workplace culture” OR “organizational culture“ - will bring results with one or both of those phrases.

Putting all this together:

You can combine all of these tips at once to make your searches more efficient. For example, a search for

(“workplace culture” OR “organizational culture“) AND (cultivate OR sustain OR nurture OR create) AND (turnover OR layoff OR restructuring OR “merger and acquisition”)

will look for literature that has one or more of the words/phrases within each set of brackets. Your results could have more than one word or phrase from a set of brackets, but it must have at least one.

Being able to search for different combinations of useful words and phrases helps you save time.

Want more information? Check out the DEMN Linking Research With Practice Research Question to see an example of how a real research question was broken down into searchable keywords.

If you're still unclear about choosing keywords or setting up your search structure, please speak with a librarian.