Just about every class that you take in grad school will require you to write a paper, and often, multiple. New graduate students often approach writing grad school papers as they did undergraduate papers, by choosing topics that easily fulfill the course requirements. This approach will get you through your coursework, but your job as a grad student isn’t just to complete a marathon of coursework – it’s to become a professional. Take advantage of class papers as they are an opportunity to advance your own scholarly work.
How do you use class papers to your advantage?
It’s a little more difficult than choosing the topic that most easily fulfills the course assignment. Instead, think about your own academic interests. You may not have chosen a dissertation topic yet, but class papers are an opportunity to explore topics that can inform your own research. Carefully choose topics for your class assignments. Each paper you write should complete a course requirement, further your scholarly development, and help you figure out your own interests.
Make your papers serve dual purposes.
Choose a paper topic that will permit you to review an area of literature related to your interests. Use paper assignments to test your ideas. For example, not sure if a topic is complex, broad, or interesting enough to study for your dissertation? Integrate it into a term paper assignment and you’ll be able to do some research and thinking while completing a class assignment. The feedback that you get from your instructor can help guide your thinking. In this way, each assignment you write should do double duty: help you advance your own scholarly agenda (test ideas and get instructor feedback) and get course credit.
This approach may not work for every class, but most students can find ways to integrate their interests with course goals and assignments. For example, consider a student in developmental psychology who is interested in adolescents who engage in risky behaviors such as drinking and drug use. While enrolled in a course in neuroscience, the student might examine how brain development influences risky behavior. A class in cognitive development might yield a paper examining the role of cognition in risky behavior. A personality course might push the student to look at personality characteristics that influence risk behavior. In this way the student examines multiple dimensions of his or her research topic while completing course requirements. Will this work for you? At least some of the time. It may be easier in some courses than others, but, regardless, it is worth a try.
Don’t submit the same paper twice.
That said, take care in how you plan and construct your papers and be sure to write different papers covering different angles of our topic for each class. In other words, attend to ethical guidelines of writing. Submitting the same, slightly revised, paper for more than one assignment is unethical and will get you into a great deal of trouble.
Class papers are opportunities to test ideas and get feedback about your ideas and writing style. Approach each paper assignment as an opportunity to fill in a clearly articulated gap in your knowledge. It takes a little more work, but there are big rewards.