The content of the paper is the most important factor in determining if it meets graduate-level requirements. Without good content, the format really does not matter. It would be like me telling my clients that my recommendations are sophomoric but my report looks good.
Rossman (1995) identifies 5 keys or outcomes of a good graduate paper:
- Compare: to determine similarities.
- Contrast: to determine differences.
- Analyze: to determine the relationship of the parts.
- Synthesize: to combine parts to make something new.
- Integrate: to unite the parts forming a new whole (p. 69).
Rossman’s 5 keys are embedded in the four fundamental components of content which are: (a) building on a solid foundation of existing knowledge; (b) critical thinking about that knowledge base and drawing new conclusions and insights; (c) the synthesis and integration of that knowledge with new research, experience, and new conclusions to the larger context; and (d) the application of the new knowledge to real-world situations.
Building on Existing Knowledge
A scholar seldom starts a totally new conversation or dialogue that does not have some foundation on previous work. This is known in the Academy as standing on the shoulders of giants the origin of which is explored by Merton (1993). What is already known about this subject or issue? What are the common themes in the existing literature? How do the various contributions to the dialogue compare? When there is little exploration of the existing knowledge base the paper, at best, comes across as a statement of fact as opposed to a discussion of the various ways to look at the issues and, at worst, as simply another opinion.
The critical thinking and analysis of the existing knowledge base is key to building on that base and standing on the shoulders of those that preceded you. Brookfield (1987) offers four components of critical thinking focused on challenging assumptions, the importance of context, imagination, and skepticism. First, he proposes that “identifying and challenging assumptions is central to critical thinking” (p. 7). This, of course, is easier said than done sometimes especially for social scientists who are often steeped in their own paradigms. Second, he points out that “challenging the importance of context is crucial to critical thinking” (p. 8). An understanding of the specific context is critical to identifying what is relevant and important. There are many factors that contribute to the success of a specific management technique. What works in one context might not work at all in another context. He also proposes that “critical thinkers try to imagine and explore alternatives” (p. 8). Scholars don’t always have the answers but often have really great questions. I think Albert Einstein summed it up when he said: “if we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be called research” (Source: a poster on the wall of the National Institute of Standards and Technology). Finally, Brookfield proposes that “imagining and exploring alternatives leads to reflective skepticism. (p. 9). The scholar tries to reduce bias and increase the validity of their work. One technique identified by Huck and Sandler (1979) to help examine the strength of a hypothesis is to identify alternative hypotheses or what they call rival hypotheses.
Synthesis and Integration
What does it mean in relation to other disciplines and the larger context? The synthesis and integration of isolated facts and putting them in perspective is what Boyer (1990) referred to as the “scholarship of integration” (p. 18). “By integration, we mean making connections across the disciplines, placing the specialties in the larger context, illuminating data in a revealing way, often educating non-specialists, too” (p. 18). This is particularly important for organization and management issues which are by their very nature cross-discipline issues. A common mistake many learners make is to include in the text numerous lengthy direct quotes. Sometimes the direct quotes are longer than the learner’s contribution to the discussion. The key to limiting the number and length of quoted material is to synthesize and summarize the material and concepts from the sources. Very often we find ourselves trying to piece together numerous individual pieces of data and observations. Feynman (1999) described the process of inductive analysis and research using the game of chess. One way, that’s kind of a fun analogy in trying to get some idea of what we’re doing in trying to understand nature, is to imagine that the gods are playing some great game like chess, let’s say, and you don’t know the rules of the game, but you’re allowed to look at the board, at least from time to time, in a little corner, perhaps, and from these observations you try to figure out what the rules of the game are, what the rules of the pieces moving are (pp. 13 & 14). Again, the scholar does not need to have the answers when they start out but rather they need some really good questions. Through a balanced and critical review of the issues, the scholar eventually comes to some conclusions that are beneficial in solving some problem or improving some situation.
How can we use this new knowledge? The scholar-practitioner builds bridges between theory and application. This is particularly important in the field of management which only exists in the actual setting of organizations. Unless the conclusions can be translated into practical information that can be implemented to help a situation in the real world they are of little value. In order to build a solid bridge that others can walk across you will need to start with a solid foundation of scholarly references. Ralph Waldo Emerson in his famous 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard titled The American Scholar proposed that “the office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing then facts amidst appearance” (Atkinson, 1992, p. 52). Ignoring the dated reference to gender, he does present an important difference between practitioner writing and scholarly writing, that is, the nature of the underlying knowledge that is being built upon – “facts amidst appearance.” Although practitioner writing is often based on facts, it is also often full of appearances and anecdotal evidence.
What Qualifies as a Scholarly Reference?
Many adult learners ask, “What qualifies as a scholarly reference?” There are many answers to this question but one of the most commonly accepted definitions is scholarly references are articles from refereed journals and research studies including dissertations. For example, Business Week is not generally considered a scholarly reference but the Academy of Management Journal is. I am not against using practitioner references, however, they typically should not be the foundation of the paper but instead help supplement and complete the bridge from theory to application.
How Many are Needed?
Many faculty members say that they are looking for 15 to 25 such references for online course papers and 25 to 35 such references for directed study papers. Although the number varies among faculty members the bottom line is to have enough to provide an adequate foundation for your paper and make it a rich exploration of a variety of contributors.
In a scholarly paper, the reference list is not a bibliography. Only the references actually used to construct the paper should be included in the reference list. In addition, all sources included in the reference list need to be referenced in the text (APA 4.01 p. 215). Although secondary to content and solid references, format, and style are critical characteristics of the scholarly paper. Standard formatting makes it easier for your colleagues to follow and understand your thoughts and the basis for them. Style also helps the paper communicate more effectively to more people.
The paper must conform to the formatting standards found in the 4th or 5th edition of the APA Manual. Although learning this style manual requires an investment of your time, it pays big dividends later in the graduate journey. The last thing that a learner needs is to be working through format and style issues during their comprehensive exams or dissertation. So, the more that you learn about the APA style now, the better graduate life will be later on. For more information on format and style visit the online writing labs and APA web sites. A few of my favorites include:
- Purdue University Writing Lab http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/research/r_apa.html
- APA Crib Sheet http://www.unn.ac.uk/academic/ss/psychology/resource/apa/apacrib.html
- Compare/Contrast Harvard http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~wricntr/comparis.html
Common APA Formatting Errors
Note – needs to be updated for APA 6th edition. Although there are numerous lists of the top areas that learners seem to have trouble with when it comes to APA format, I have compiled the following list from the papers that I have seen.
- Direct quotes and paraphrased material must be accompanied by the author’s last name, year, and page number from the reference (APA 3.34 p. 117 and 3.07 p. 85). In the case of sources that do not have page numbers such as some electronic formats, you can use the paragraph number in place of a page number (APA 3.39 p. 120).
- Latin abbreviations (e.g., i.e., etc.) are used only inside parentheses. When outside of parentheses use the English translation (APA 3.24 p. 106).
- Direct quotes of 40 words or more should be indented in a freestanding block. When indented quotation marks are not used. If there are internal quotations the quotation marks should be double “ as opposed to single ‘ (APA 3.36 p. 119).
- Most papers I review would benefit from additional headings and sub-headings to help the reader follow the flow and direction of the paper. Headings should come easily from the outline and should conform to the requirements specified in APA 3.31 and 3.32 pp. 113 – 115.
- Figures generally enhance a paper by displaying difficult and complex concepts in a relatively small space. APA has some specific guidelines on how to construct the figures and how to label them when they are inserted in the text (APA 3.75 to 3.86 pp. 176 to 201).
- Tables are another useful addition to a paper. Like figures, tables allow for the display of a large amount of information in a small space. Tables can also help clarify the comparison and contrast of various concepts and theories. APA also has specific guidelines on tables and their labeling (APA 3.62 to 3.74 pp. 147 to 175).
- When quotation marks are used inside of other quotation marks, the quotation marks on the ends of the quoted material are double “ quotation marks and those found around the internal quotes are single ’ quotation marks. The exception is when the quoted material is 40 words or more the indented block does not have quotation marks, the indented block serves as the indicator of a quote (refer to #3 above). Consequently, quotation marks inside an indented blockquote are double “ marks instead of single ‘ marks (APA 3.36 pp.119).
- Location of punctuation, references, and quotation marks. The sequence and location of punctuation marks, references, and quotation marks is a continuing problem with many papers that I review. APA has several rules on these items that suggest that you review APA 3.36 pp. 119 and the other parts that cover punctuation.
The table of contents is not required by APA but can be a valuable addition to a paper. It helps give the reader a preview of the paper structure and content. When you use a table of contents it should directly reflect the headings found in the paper.
Contrary to popular belief among many adult learners a scholarly paper does not have to be boring. Granted it is not the same as a novel or short story but it can be captivating to the audience that is interested in the topic. Although a scholarly paper does have a distinctive style, you will want to develop your own voice as you progress along the path to your degree. One way to get a good feel for what scholarly writing looks and feels like is to read the journals in your field. Some have proposed that scientists, even social scientists, are so analytical that they do not see the beauty in the world. Feynman (1999) did not buy this view. His story of an artist friend illustrates his disagreement. I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree, I think. And he says – “you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think he is kind of nutty…. All kinds of interesting questions which shows that science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds; I don’t understand how it subtracts” (p. 2). So, we see that the examination of detailed issues can be fascinating reading and even be beautiful. The two primary tools that the scholarly has to create their style are words and pictures.
Making Your Points with Text
The most common vehicle that scholars use to communicate their points is through the use of words. Another misconception is that scholarly writing is verbose. Actually, good scholarly writing is very tight and to the point. One reason for the misconception might be that scholarly writing does often address many detailed issues and data. The key to tight writing, of course, is lots of elbow grease and multiple rewrites. Some have said that Hemingway’s writing was so powerful because he rewrote passages over 30 times. Consequently, he didn’t produce many novels in his life but the ones that he did were powerful. The self-assessment checklist in the appendix (3.2 a through j) provides several specific characteristics of text format and style.
Visual Techniques that Enhance Communication
Have you ever heard the old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words?” Feynman (1988) relates a story where he proposed that “thinking is nothing but talking to yourself inside” to which his friend Bernie asked him to tell how he described the “crazy shape of a crankshaft when you were talking to yourself” (p. 54). Miles and Huberman (1994) propose that there are two major families of qualitative data displays “matrices with defined rows and columns” and “networks with a series of ‘nodes’ with links between them” (p. 93). Matrices are best known as tables. Networks are typically used to show relationships. Tufte (1983) identifies five characteristics of what he calls graphical excellence.
- Is the well-designed presentation of interesting data – a matter of substance, of statistics, and of design.
- Consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision, and efficiency.
- Is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.
- Is nearly always multivariate.
- It requires telling the truth about the data (p. 51).
Many contemporary adult learning institutions use an iterative process to write, evaluate, feedback, and improve papers until they meet standards for content, references, and format. This is a great learning process but is often less than fun for the learner. Feedback that is less than a glowing validation of our brilliance is not fun to receive. I don’t like it and most people I know don’t either. When you receive feedback you can expect to experience a grieving cycle similar to the one proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1969) on death and dying. In her popular book, Kubler-Ross proposes five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Feedback – A Predictable Cycle
The first reaction is often shock and surprise (e.g., my other instructors thought this type of work was OK). After the initial surprise there is usually some denial (e.g., the instructor must not understand me, my paper, or quite possibly isn’t qualified to teach I better contact him or her and explain my side of the story). When the instructor is firm about the feedback then anger is the most common reaction (usually directed at me since I am the one giving the feedback). After anger and sometimes while still angry the learner will try to bargain. After bargaining, there is often a bit of depression or a feeling of sadness and sorrow as the learner realizes that there is more work to be done before they can call this course complete. Finally, if the learner gets around to acceptance then they work through the feedback and make the changes and their gray matter gets grayer and the grooves in the brain get deeper and they have learned. So, prepare yourself for at least one iteration of feedback and refinement and possibly 2 or more iterations. Track your reactions and see if they don’t follow this pattern. Although we are all unique and some have observed that this cycle manifests itself differently in each of us, the basic format I find in myself, my significant other, my children, my clients and so forth.
Why do I bring this up? First, the more you know about yourself the better prepared you will be to recognize and act deliberately as opposed to reacting based on emotions that you don’t fully understand. Second, it might help you to count to 10 before you react and respond to me or anyone else – I have found this is always a good practice. Third, if you adjust your attitude in advance to view feedback (from me, significant other, boss, customers) as gifts to be used for your own future success then you can work through these emotions quickly and get on with learning. Learning can be fun, it all depends on your attitude and expectations. Without application this discussion is academic. There are three keys to successfully applying the concepts presented in this paper. The first is to follow an iterative process yourself in developing your paper. Second, conduct a self-assessment of your paper and refine it before sending it to the faculty member. Finally, writing a paper is a project and as a project, it can be managed in a way that will provide time for faculty feedback and revisions prior to the deadline.
Developing the Paper
A proven approach is to follow the process of: outline, references, content (all four components), and finally format. The first step is to start developing an outline. I find that mind maps as presented by Buzan and Buzan (1996) to be extremely helpful in developing and connecting my thoughts around a subject. The next step after the mind map is to research the mind map branches and develop a solid foundation of notes on the various subjects. The research often will influence the mind map and so several iterations are normal during the process. The next step is to compare and contrast, think critically, synthesize and integrate, and eventually apply the new insights and conclusions to real situations. After the content is near the desired quality, you can start working on getting the format and style right. Of course, preventing formatting problems by being familiar with APA and using it as you write will save time and effort later. All this usually takes several iterations.
Before you send the manuscript to a faculty member you should first conduct a self-assessment. Using the checklist found in the appendix of this paper evaluate your paper and write yourself feedback. When you are done revise the paper based on the feedback to yourself and then conduct another evaluation and record your feedback. Send the paper to me via email. I will use the same checklist when I provide you feedback so you will be able to compare it with your self-assessment and learn how to improve your own assessment process.
Researching and writing a paper is a project with definable deliverables. The first step is to create a vision of the end product. Next identify the tangible deliverables including research notes, a reference list with solid scholarly references, the body of the paper, and so forth. Next, identify the activities to accomplish each of these deliverables and don’t forget to build in time for your own self-assessment and refinement cycle and an iteration or two with the faculty. After you have the activities identified then estimate the time it will take to accomplish the individual activities. Finally, starting from the desired end date, work backward to schedule the activities. With this timeline now constructed you can track your progress. I recommend scheduling your time to be completed with your paper prior to the end of the online units so we will have a few weeks for refinements.
While this may seem like a lot of things to remember, there is always the self-assessment checklist to help you evaluate your product. To many, the scholarly paper seems like a daunting task that is difficult to define and even more difficult to accomplish. I hope the guidance presented here will help you cut through some of the challenges. The key is to chunk it down into doable parts and then add lots of elbow grease.
1.1 Builds on Existing Knowledge. Reviews major contributions to the discussion and does not overly rely on one or two contributors.
1.2 Demonstrates Critical Thinking. Challenges assumptions, recognizes the importance of context, imagines and explores alternatives and rival hypotheses.
1.3 Synthesizes and Integrates Concepts. Avoids numerous lengthy direct quotes.
1.4 Applies Concepts to the Real World. Paper translates the insights, findings, and conclusions to practical solutions for real-world situations.
2. Scholarly References
2.1 Sources are credible and verifiable – They meet the definition of scholarly.
2.2 The number of references is 15 to 25 for online course papers and 25 to 35 for directed study papers.
2.3 References list directly correlates to references in text and conforms to APA formatting standards.
3. Format and Style
3.1 Paper conforms to APA format requirements. Paper avoids the common APA formatting errors.
3.2 Style is that of a scholarly paper. Writing is tight.
a) Introduction previews major points.
b) Purpose and objectives clearly defined.
c) Major points are supported and are organized in a logical fashion.
d) Each paragraph is clear and contains one major idea.
e) Paragraph transitions are present and maintain the flow of thought.
f) Sentences are complete, clear, and concise.
g) Ideas are stated clearly and concisely.
h) Conclusion reviews major points.
i) The conclusion is logical and flows from the body of the paper.
j) Conclusions are supported by data
3.3 Effectively and appropriately uses visual techniques including tables and figures to enhance key points and analysis and understanding of key concepts and relationships.
- American Psychological Association (APA) (2001). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association. (5th ed.). Washington D. C.: APA.
- Atkinson, B. (Ed.) (1992). The selected writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: The Modern Library.
- Boyer, E. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, New Jersey: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
- Brookfield, S. (1987). Developing critical thinkers: Challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Buzan, T. & Buzan, B. (1996). The mind map book: How to use radiant thinking to maximize your brain’s untapped potential. New York: Plume.
- Feynman, R. (1988). What do you care what other people think?: Further adventures of a curious character. New York: Bantam Books.
- Feynman, R. (1999). The pleasure of finding things out: The best short works of Richard P. Feynman. Cambridge Massachusetts: Perseus Books.
- Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Collier Books/Macmillan Publishing Company.
- Huck, S. & Sandler, H. (1979). Rival hypotheses: Alternative interpretations of data based conclusions. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
- Merton, R. (1993). On the shoulders of giants. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Miles, M. & Huberman, A. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.
- Rossman, M. H. (1995). Negotiating graduate school: A guide for graduate students. Thousand Oaks: Sage?
- Tufte, E. (1983). The visual display of quantitative information. Cheshire Connecticut: Graphics Press.