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© Walden University Writing Center 2017
If you're starting or in the early stages of a master's degree program, then this is the episode for you! Beth and Brittany break down differences between undergraduate-level and master's-level writing and share tips on how to transition between them.
BRITTANY: Welcome to WriteCast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers. I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson,
BETH: and I’m Beth Nastachowski.
BRITTANY: In today’s episode, we’re talking about making the transition from undergraduate writing to master’s-level writing.
So, Beth, I heard through the grapevine that you had a question in a course visit that sparked your idea for this episode topic, and I wondered if you could talk a little about that.
BETH: Yeah, I did. So, the other day, I think it was last month, I was doing a course visit for a class and it was a master's class, it was one of the foundation classes, so it was one of these students’ first class, I think their very first class, and so they were focusing on their writing skills all that week, so the instructor asked me to come and talk to them about writing and the Writing Center and it was really interesting, getting these sorts of questions from students in that very first class and a lot of the students were asking questions that took me by surprise a little bit, not because they were bad questions, but just because I think we, at the Writing Center, sometimes can overlook the transition that students have to make between their undergraduate and their master's programs.
BETH: Yeah, and so this particular student was asking a question about format and whether they should use the format that they had in the past for their undergraduate papers or whether they need to do the format that I was talking about now, in my presentation, and really what it just highlighted for me is that I think we often don’t recognize that there’s this transition between writing at the undergraduate level and writing at the master's level and so I was hoping we could talk a little about that today.
BRITTANY: Absolutely. I think that’s such a common confusion for students and, like you said, it’s one that we, on the instruction side, don’t necessarily always observe, and I think it’s really important that we spend more time observing that and noticing that that’s something that students struggle with because it makes sense that it would be confusing since it’s really not laid out explicitly in very many places, either that there is a transition at all, that the expectations are changing, or what those changes look like.
BRITTANY: So, we hope that we can expand on that and highlight that a little bit in today’s episode.
BETH: Yeah, and I think maybe, Brittany, we should just start out by talking about our experiences a little bit because we actually gone through this transition—
BETH: —at one point in our lives.
BETH: Yeah, so for you, Brittany, when you went from your undergraduate program and started your master's program, what was your experience and what surprised you, or what did you have to kind of adjust for?
BRITTANY: Such a great question, and I was spending a little bit of time thinking about this this morning, and thinking back to that transition, and I remember in particular just feeling really kind of out of practice because I took a few years between getting my undergraduate degree and starting my master's program. So part of it was just being bombarded with academia once again and the expectations that went with that and trying to remind myself what it even meant to not only write an academic paper, but do time management around that kind of work, and it’s just such different work than I had been used to in the regular 9-5 jobs I’d been in since I had last been in school so that was a big transition for me. But, in terms of the writing expectations in particular, I remember being surprised by how much analysis I was being asked to do as opposed to some of the papers that I wrote in undergrad that were a lot more about just showing knowledge
BRITTANY: of a topic or exhibiting research on a topic. And, of course, I had been asked to analyze and synthesize in undergrad too, but I think there was less focus on producing original ideas of my own and more focus on building research skills, showing that I could paraphrase outside sources, showing that I could comprehend complex sources, and that sort of thing.
BRITTANY: So, kind of leaning to trust my own voice—how to find it and how to trust it.
BRITTANY: I remember that being a little bit daunting,
BRITTANY: and needing some kind of reassurance from my professors that I was on the right track with that.
BETH: Yeah. Did you feel like there was a big difference in the amount of writing you were asked to do as well?
BRITTANY: Yes, definitely. And partly it was that I went to a small liberal arts school for my undergraduate and so, while I was taking some courses in my degree, which was English, that required a lot of in-depth writing, I also was taking all kinds of other courses that I was required to take that weren’t writing intensive. So, when I delved into a master's program in English literature, I did find the amount of writing I was being expected to do really daunting and intense and part of it too was just trying to figure out how do I find the brain space
BRITTANY: to keep going with this over and over again and kind of shifting gears for the different writing that was required from different classes, so yeah, definitely I found that the writing that was expected of me was more than I was used to
BRITTANY: in undergrad. What about you?
BETH: My switch was a bit more traditional in that I went right from undergrad into my master's program and, what I was thinking about when thinking about that transition, and what you just actually said reminded me of this too, it almost was like in my undergraduate program I had been training and running like a 3K, but then in my master's program, I was all of a sudden asked to run a half marathon.
BRITTANY: I totally agree.
BETH: And so, you know, yeah, and a lot of the skills that I had built in my undergraduate program applied, but I was asked to use them in sort of a different and more in-depth way.
BETH: And so it definitely required more persistence and tenacity on my part and that’s what I was kind of hearing in your response too, Brittany, that there was a bit more asked of me, and I had to kind of keep pushing through that, kind of like, you know, you’re running a half marathon you build up your stamina over time.
BETH: And I remember my first course in my master's program was just tough—there was so much writing and it was every week I had to submit something, and the level I was expected to write at was much higher. The other thing I wanted to mention was that I remember in that first course that I took that the feedback I got from my faculty just took me by surprise.
BETH: It was a lot more feedback, and the feedback wasn’t mean but it certainly was more critical and giving me more feedback than I had ever gotten in my undergraduate program and that was just because there was a higher standard.
BETH: Like my professor knew that this was new for me and that he knew he wanted to help me succeed in my other courses, and so he was tougher than I think I had experienced in the past, and I remember being frustrated by that for sure. I don’t know if you experienced any sort of differences with faculty expectations or the way that faculty interacted with you in your master's program?
BRITTANY: Yeah, I definitely did. I mean, I feel like there was a sense that, you know, I was there on my own volition, and obviously that’s true for undergrad too, but I think there’s a sense on the part of faculty who teach undergraduate students that there’s a bit more mentoring that goes into it, not just academic mentoring, but sort of life mentoring, and that they sort of owe the students more in terms of like helping them understand what it means to be a student in higher education and those kinds of things, and I definitely didn’t get that sense at all from my graduate faculty. And, like you said, that’s not to say that they weren’t nurturing, or kind, or interested in my success or anything like that, but it was much more…I don’t know, it felt more like tough love I guess a little bit, where they were like, you’re doing this program that is setting you up to potentially go into academia, and academia can be a tough road, and we don’t want to paint it more rosily than it really is. Um, and that was a little bit alarming, especially for somebody, I mean, I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but who really—I hadn’t encountered a lot of overly critical feedback, and I don’t know, maybe that meant that my undergraduate course instructors did me a disservice and that I deserved to be pushed more and praised less. But, I definitely was thrown for a loop, and I had a little bit of an identity crisis at first when I did get that critical feedback and then I was like well wait,
BRITTANY: does this mean that I shouldn’t be doing this, or should I be getting just like glowing feedback all the time, or does this just mean that I need to be working harder or I’m going to be pushed harder? And, it turned out, the latter was true, and I’m glad that I stuck with it, but it definitely was a little bit alarming at first to kind of try to work through that.
BETH: Mmm. And I think that’s the other thing—everyone goes through this transition. Students at Walden, if you’re feeling this way, when you’re new to a master's program, something is going to be new for you.
BETH: Something is going to be a challenge. It’s a new, a new endeavor.
BETH: And it’s a new way of sort of doing things and hopefully that transition is made easier by the support services here at Walden and by your faculty and just sort of creating the endurance, I guess,
BETH: to keep going.
BETH: But, there’s no shame in having that, and I think, like you Brittany, I was like, oh gosh, should I be here—did I make a mistake? And, I think it’s encouraging to know that you’re not alone.
BETH: I feel better about that.
BRITTANY: Yeah, agreed.
BETH: I wonder, then, Brittany, so we’ve talked about our own experiences, if we want to move on to talk a little bit more about sort of what the differences are between undergraduate and master's. I think we’ve talked about it a little bit, by maybe we could go through what we see as the differences between the two to help people who are new to their master's program think about that a little more.
BRITTANY: Yeah, I love that idea, and I can jump in with the first one that sticks out to me in terms of writing expectations specifically. We talked a lot about expectations in general and different energies that we dispensed in the different programs, but now we’re kind of diving specifically into how the undergraduate writing expectations are different from writing expectations at the master's level.
BRITTANY: And, really, this kind of goes back to what I was talking about earlier with my own experience transitioning from undergrad to master's-level work which is that, in undergraduate writing, you’re really focusing on learning the material in the discipline, so that means that your papers are often going to be heavier on summary or definition or narrative, and they might not focus as much on you sort of developing new ideas or synthesizing information into your own analysis—your own new thought. And, at the master's level, that synthesis, that analysis, that original thought, is going to be expected a lot more.
BRITTANY: So, that also means that certain things like frequency of citations might look different, or how often you’re paraphrasing versus quoting from source material might look different.
BRITTANY: So, it’s kind of a general shift in terms of learning the material versus analyzing and creating new ideas from the material, but it also has really practical implications in terms of how you apply APA, for instance.
BETH: Mmm, yeah, yeah. Another way that can manifest itself is in the writing process because you’re having to engage with the content of your course more deeply—you’re not just summarizing, but you're analyzing and you're forming an argument, you’re presenting that unique argument,
BETH: that sort of thing—you’re adding new requirements to citations and APA and learning those things—you writing process might look different. I remember in undergrad that I would often, like, write a draft, revise it once, then hand it in. And I tried to do that at the graduate level, but, you know, it didn’t work quite as well, so your writing process might be longer and more involved because there’s more things that you need to incorporate and you’re learning how to incorporate those things and that kind of stuff.
BRITTANY: That’s such as great point, and I think kind of elaborating on that, just reminding students that that also means that you’re time management is going to
BRITTANY: look different and going to change. And, on top of that, obviously this isn’t true for every master's-level student, and people come into these programs at all stages of life, and with all kinds of, you know, outside commitments and things like that but, I think in general, we can assume that, as a student gets older, and often times when we’re in undergrad, um, we might be younger, we might have less other commitments, our bodies are younger…
BETH: We’re carefree.
BRITTANY: Yeah, we’re more, you know, we have more energy.
BRITTANY: So, just keeping in mind, too, that there might be more limitations on time if you own a house, or maybe you have a more, you know, you have a job on top of the degree you’re pursuing, or maybe you have a family, you know, those kinds of things and, as a general trend, that might be true and that might be something to consider too.
BETH: Mmm. Yeah, I think that’s a great point, Brittany. So then the other thing, too, I think that’s important to remember too, and we touched on this talking about our faculty feedback, oftentimes at the master's level, there’s just going to be an expectation that what you’re producing is of a higher quality—you’re going for a higher degree, so thus, the expectations are sort of higher than what they were at the undergraduate level and that doesn’t mean that you didn’t have high expectations in your undergraduate level—you could have had very high expectations—but those expectations just become even higher at the master's level.
BETH: And, so, that just means that, kind of like what we were just talking about with writing process and time, that you may need to spend more time, you might need to put more effort into your writing—and not necessarily that you didn’t put effort before—but that might mean that you need to spend more time reading the research or brainstorming and outlining and doing those sorts of things that help you generate those really in-depth, original ideas cause that’s part of those higher expectations.
BRITTANY: I think a sort of helpful metaphor for it is to think about the transition that you made when you moved from writing at the high school level
BRITTANY: to writing at the undergraduate level. So, that’s another transition that, if you are a student who's at the stage now where you’re transitioning between undergraduate and master's level writing, you would have already made that transition between high school level writing and college level writing.
BRITTANY: And, so, kind of using our past experience as a template for how to navigate this experience can be helpful, I think, because it is similar—it tends to be kind of tiered in terms of levels of expectations and those sorts of things where, in high school, the writing expectations might have been even lower than what you experienced in undergraduate—they likely were.
BRITTANY: Again, not to say that you maybe didn’t have a rigorous high school experience academically, but that what’s expected of high school students is going to be different than what’s expected of college students and, subsequently, what’s expected of master's-level students is going to be different from what’s expected of undergraduate level students. So, if you can harken back to the time when you graduated from high school and moved from that stage into your undergraduate degree –whether that happened seamlessly or you took time off
BRITTANY: in between high school and undergrad—remembering what that was like and kind of trying to remember some of the things that either were difficult for you and how you overcame those difficulties,
BRITTANY: or things that you did that made that process easier, and drawing on those as lessons for how to navigate this transition, I think can be really helpful for students.
BETH: Yeah, and I think that’s a great idea of learning lessons from that transition, and I’d say too, in addition to thinking about your transition from high school to undergrad, also think about other transitions you’ve made. We use the analogy of sort of running a 3K and then moving to running a half marathon, but we make transitions in our lives all the time—you transition to a new job, or you get a promotion,
BETH: or, you move—the expectations just have to change, and it’s a matter of understanding and getting used to that and working within those expectations once you learn them. I also just wanted to add a note that Brittany made me aware of, and that is that a 3K is not a standard length race whatsoever, but I’ll just say that I’m not a runner and I hope you all forgive me and just go with the metaphor in any case.
BRITTANY: So, to close we just want to remind you that we in the Walden Writing Center are here to help you through this transition. So, just listening to this podcast is not the end of our support for you if you are undergoing the transition between undergrad and master's-level writing. We have a lot of resources that are available to you and you can find those by exploring our website. Beth, do you want to talk a little bit about our master's-specific resources that we have available to students?
BETH: Yeah, so we have a page on the Writing Center that is specific just for master's students and kind of overviews those resources and just kind of gives you a bit more direction and, as part of that, we also have a master's capstone toolkit, so it’s meant for you when you’re working on your capstone, but we also have an introduction to academic writing for master's students which actually you, Brittany, presented
BRITTANY: Yes, I did
BETH: and created. So, those are all resources specific for master's students that can help you with this transition, and just know we’re here to help and we look forward to talking with you next month.
BRITTANY: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson; my co-host, Beth Nastachowski; and our colleague, Anne Shiell.
Visit the Writing Center's website to learn more about the WriteCast podcast, including how to subscribe.