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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.

Become familiar with the information landscape

Information comes in a variety of packages, including:

  • books
  • journal articles
  • conference proceedings
  • government documents
  • policy briefs
  • reports
  • white papers
  • laws and legislation
  • statistics and data
  • newspapers
  • blogs
  • video sharing sites (e.g. YouTube)

Scholarly books, journal articles, and conference proceedings are typically the most valued types of academic publishing. Academics and students alike are usually required to cite these kinds of sources when writing academic papers. Depending on your topic, other document types can be useful as well. Grey literature, for example, written by subject expects and published by governments or research groups, can be very relevant and reliable. Trade journals, written for practitioners rather than scholars, offer a perspective not included in scholarly literature.

Primary, secondary, tertiary sources

Documents can be categorized as either primary, secondary, or tertiary sources.

  • A primary source is an original work that presents the author's own unfiltered perspective. Examples of primary documents are original research (journal articles, books), legal documents, government documents, interviews, diary entries or letters.
  • A secondary source builds upon primary sources by analyzing, interpreting, synthesizing or discussing them. Examples can be journal articles or books that do not include original research. A good way to determine whether or not a source you are evaluating is a primary or a secondary source is to ask yourself "is this new research? Or was this information initially published by someone else and is further discussed in this work?" If it's new research, then the source is likely a primary source.  If you answered that the information was initially published by someone else and is being further discussed in the work, the source is likely a secondary source.
  • A tertiary source provides a topic overview that uses primary and secondary sources to create summaries of information. Examples of tertiary sources are encyclopedias, textbooks, and almanacs.

You will likely have to look in a variety of places to find what you need. It is unrealistic to expect to find everything using simple Google searches.  While Google can be a good place to get grounded in your topic, it does not do a good job of providing what you need to support your academic papers.