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How to write a graduate-level essay

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

Evaluate the resources you find

Finding resources for your papers will take time.  While it’s tempting to use the first few resources you find, it's important to evaluate them to determine their value and whether or not you need to either find more material or move on to the next stage of the writing process.

Some assignments will require that you focus on finding academic sources while others may not. If you are unsure about the difference between these two types of material, there is a table at the bottom of this page that outlines the differences.

Skimming an article and/or reading an abstract is a quick way to get the sense of the quality or usefulness of a resource. Most academic articles will include abstracts along with the title of the work, the authors' names, and the publisher.

Here are some central points to consider when evaluating a document:

1.    Authority of the author – Who wrote the document and what credentials – educational or professional - make them an authority?  Have they written other material on the topic? Have other authors have cited their work? (A quick way to figure this out is to search one of the article or book titles in Google Scholar and checking the ‘cited by’ link.)

2.    Authority of the publisher – Where was the document published? Was it in an academic journal, a mass-market magazine, an open website? Professional associations, public and private organizations, the government and post-secondary institutions are often publishers of research. Each organization may produce useful material, depending on your information need, but some may have a particular bias. Look for ‘About’ to find the publisher’s mission statement.

3.    Purpose – Why was the document written and who is the intended audience? Is the intended purpose of the document to persuade you in one way or another, to report out on a study they did?  Is the item geared towards the general public or academics/researchers? How well does the purpose of the document suit your research?

4.    Content – How well does the resource address your topic? Are all sides of the issue represented? If it only addresses part of your topic, what additional material do you need?

5.    Currency – When was the document published and is it still relevant? The type of assignment or the topic you are working on will dictate how current your resources need to be.  If you want to find recent literature, look for a date limiter option on the search results page of the database you are searching.  This is a common feature of most databases to help you refine your search results.

For more information on the difference between academic and popular publications, see How do academic (peer reviewed) and popular publications differ?