Read a lot. And learn to read in a different way than you’re used to.
Early in your program, whether masters or doctorate, most of your time should be consumed by reading. This helps you get a lay of the land (what are scholars in the field of higher ed talking about? What is the latest evidence on topics that are of interest to you?), but it also teaches you what research look like, particularly research in peer-reviewed journals. Become familiar with the top journals in our field. The top generalist higher ed journals are: Journal of Higher Education, Review of Higher Education, Research in Higher Education, and Journal of College Student Development. You should also look for higher ed studies in generalist education journals like American Educational Research Journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis and Sociology of Education, then look at readings in more specialized journals of interest to you).
Reading research effectively requires a different skill set than regular reading. Students often struggle with how to summarize a study, so practice boiling it down to a few short bullet points (even better: can you tell me the elevator version—something that summarizes it in about 1-2 minutes—of what the study contributed to the field?). If you can develop a bunch of “elevator pitches” of studies on a given topic, you should start to see how they talk to one another. You’re on your way to developing an effective literature review!
Learn to write again. After reading a lot, you will become more familiar with the organization and language of peer-reviewed research. The goal is not to use a lot of jargon (though some scholars do), but to become the rare writer who produces clear and coherent literature reviews and—if you are producing your own research—succinct and transparent methods sections and cutting and appropriate discussions of your results. Becoming that writer does not happen in a day. It will not happen in a semester or two (it may not happen in two or four years, depending on your program length). This is a never-ending goal.
Hone your craft. Obsess over your sentences and paragraphs. Ask if you’ve told a story. Assess your narrative as you would the research you’ve read: is it persuasive and compelling? What was your contribution to the literature? Revisions to move toward these goals take time and effort. Initially, it should take you a long time to revise your papers, but gradually, you will be more efficient and effective writer/editor.
Listen to feedback and use it to make your work better.
It is really hard to get critical feedback, but you should relish the opportunity to have someone dedicate time to assessing your work. It is for your benefit. This isn’t to say it’s wrong to feel worn down by feedback (it happens, and it takes practice to bounce back from it). I recommend taking a day or two to absorb the feedback, brush off the part that feels crappy (s/he thinks I’m a bad writer?! How could they say my methods aren’t clear—they’re so clear!, etc.), then look at your product with a critical eye. If someone thinks it’s confusing or unclear, then it could be better.
Take initiative to build your skills, but be sure to pursue the supports available for you in this program/college/university.
There’s room for a lot of skill development as a grad student. Whether your goal is to be a scholar or a practitioner, or a hybrid of the two, all of the skills noted above will improve your value as an employee, colleague, and thinker (writing better ends up helping you think better!). There are resources to help you hone your craft, whether it be improving your written English, learning new methodological approaches, or finding peers to share your work with. We have a writing center that can review your work and offer writing coaching, a statistical consultant who can help you strategize and interpret methods, and a cohort of classmates who could become your new writing group or shoulder to lean on. Are you taking advantage?
About the Author
Lauren Schudde is an assistant professor in the Program in Higher Education Leadership. Prior to her role at UT, she earned her PhD in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin and held a postdoctoral fellowship with the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research focuses on inequality in postsecondary educational outcomes and returns, particularly across socioeconomic status. For the most part, this means studying the mechanics of higher education—what interventions and policies can improve student success. In her spare time, she enjoys swimming and chasing after her two daughters.