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A major outcome of graduate education is the ability to write well in a variety of genres and to different audiences. However, this ability can take time to develop, and can require devoting time to developing writing strategies, learning new writing tools, and reviewing foundational skills in writing mechanics. Although making these efforts will benefit you at any stage in your graduate program, it is recommended that you begin these efforts in your first year of graduate school, building an important foundation for your later academic and professional success.
Many people experience resistance to writing, which can result in procrastinating or completing writing projects at the last minute. While you may feel that you can only get written work done under a tight deadline, or even that your best work is done under this type of pressure, there is now evidence that creating a regular writing schedule is key to producing high quality and quantities of written work. Yet, the most effective writing habits and strategies vary from person to person, and it will likely require trial and error to find out what works best for you.
Effective writing habits typically incorporate aspects of both time management and project management. The National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity has developed a Core Curriculum (sign in to access) set of webinars, many of which focus explicitly on writing, to help graduate students and faculty develop these skills. You can access this webinar series by creating an account through Berkeley’s institutional membership. This section elaborates on some of the most widely successful strategies and skills specific to developing effective writing habits that will be of use to you now and in future careers:
Create and follow a schedule or calendar. Setting and following a schedule or calendar is an essential skill for success in most careers and projects. Keeping a regular schedule can help you ensure that you have made time for all of your professional commitments, as well as your personal goals and writing goals. Consider which scheduling format and timescale works best for you. Some prefer to do everything digitally using Google calendar or other scheduling programs, others like to keep everything in a physical calendar or planner. Try choosing one approach and sticking with it; if you opt to use multiple calendaring tools, be sure to have one master schedule or calendar. Many people also find it effective to schedule themselves a regular time to review and update their calendar. Consider putting some time aside at the end of each week to ensure that your calendar for the upcoming week is finalized. If you don’t find that schedules or calendars work for you, consider which other planning tools might, such as to-do lists or phone reminders.
It is often effective to have both a near-term calendar and long-term plan or calendar. To plan out long-term goals, some students opt to map out the major milestones they plan to complete over their entire graduate education, while others prefer to set a plan every year or semester. Watch the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity’s webinar “Every Semester Needs a Plan,” which graduate students can access by creating an account through Berkeley’s institutional membership.
Take stock of all of your deadlines and writing goals. Set aside time to make sure that you have all of your deadlines and goals for the upcoming year or semester written down in one place. Make sure that each of these deadlines is also added to your schedule or calendar.
Set writing goals. Some of the key considerations for creating effective writing goals are setting priorities, breaking goals down into specific subgoals, making sure goals are realistic given your other responsibilities and constraints, and specifying a timeline or deadline. For setting priorities, consider adopting the quadrant system, which is summarized in the article “Time Management Strategies for Graduate Students” (Quinnipiac University). Also consider watching the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity’s webinar “Align Your Time with Your Priorities,” which graduate students can access by creating an account through Berkeley’s institutional membership.
Write every day. A key challenge to writing is overcoming the resistance to sitting down and getting work done. When you have a writing project that you are working towards completing, consider starting each work day with a short writing goal. Choose a goal of writing for a period of time that does not feel too intimidating, whether this is 15 minutes or an hour. The writing process can be uncomfortable for some, and it is a normal reaction to continue putting off this discomfort. By building a habit of writing a little bit each day, you can begin to build the skill of overcoming resistance to writing. You may also find that once you get the document open and start writing, you are able to continue writing beyond the goal you originally set. For more on the importance of daily writing and on how to tackle barriers to writing, read “How to Finish Your Dissertation,” Inside Higher Ed (2016).
Write in timed increments and take breaks. Working for fixed periods of time, and then taking a break, is often an effective way to manage your time. This is the basis of the Pomodoro Technique, where you work in 25-minute increments, followed by 5-minute breaks. You may find that other timed increments work better for your working style or schedule, such as 45-minute writing sessions, followed by 15-minute breaks. Many apps and websites offer timers designed for working in timed increments, including the Tomato Timer website and the Forest app.
Set up an accountability structure. It can be valuable to have external sources of accountability for your writing goals. See the section below on writing workshops, writing groups, and classes for more details on how groups and workshops can provide accountability. Also consider using other accountability tools, such as Focusmate, a website where you can schedule virtual work sessions with others so that you are both accountable for showing up and working for the intended amount of time.
For more on time management in general, the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity (for which graduate students have access to Berkeley’s institutional membership) offers a variety of resources, such as the “Every Semester Needs a Plan,” “Mastering Academic Time Management,” and “Align Your Time with Your Priorities” webinars.
Another key part of building successful writing habits is adopting important writing tools early on, giving yourself time to get familiar with current options and figure out what works best for you. Typically, graduate students will choose tools or software for reference management, word processing or writing, and notetaking. Commonly used reference and citation management tools include Zotero, Mendeley, RefWorks, and Endnote. The University Library offers a comparison of these options here. For completing small writing projects, many graduates will stick with Microsoft Word, which students have free access to through Berkeley’s subscription to Microsoft 365. For larger writing projects, consider other writing software options such as LaTex (or a LaTeX interface such as TeXworks or Overleaf) or Scrivener. LaTeX is particularly good for formatting large writing projects and Scrivener has many useful features to simplify working on large writing projects.
Start early. From the outset of your graduate program, think strategically about the resources that can help you develop your writing skills. Some departments offer writing courses or workshops, but there are also valuable courses on writing open to graduate students from all departments. For example, the Graduate Writing Center (GWC) offers offers a 2-unit seminar course (GSPDP 320) on Academic Writing for Graduate Students every spring. This course is particularly useful for beginning graduate students.
Knowing how to connect with communities that can support you in the writing process is a skill that will serve you well as a new faculty member, or in a variety of careers that involve long-term independent projects. There is evidence that writing groups can help graduate students to stay motivated and meet deadlines (see, for example, the 2012 article “Write On! Through to the Ph.D.: Using Writing Groups to Facilitate Doctoral Degree Progress”).
The Graduate Writing Center (GWC) is a key resource on campus for graduate students at all stages of their graduate career. The GWC offers regular workshops such as “How to Write an Academic Grant Proposal” and “Writing the Dissertation: Strategies and Pitfalls.” The Center features workshops on writing proposals for specific grants such as “Applying for a Fulbright-IIE Grant” and prepares students to conduct responsible research by hosting a workshop on “Human Subjects Research: What is it? How Do You Navigate through the IRB Process?” The Center also offers writing groups, writing boot camps, and individual writing consultations that are free to all graduate students. The Graduate Writing Center’s Quick Guides provide helpful resources on various aspects of academic and professional writing.
Consider joining the Graduate Writing Center’s Graduate Writing Community, where graduate students come together to make progress on their writing. As part of the Writing Community, students receive writing prompts, check in with a small group of colleagues, and participate in weekly writing sessions. Having a supportive community to discuss the challenges and accomplishments of writing can be vital to your success as a writer, whether you find that community in these groups or elsewhere.
There are other writing group and community options as well. Graduate students in the humanities and social sciences can hone their writing skills and receive peer feedback through a weekly writing group hosted by Berkeley’s Humanities and Social Sciences Association geared to early career researchers (including graduate students, postdocs, and visiting scholars) affiliated with the University.
The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD) sponsors writing boot-camps as well as the 14-Day Writing Challenge, both recurring seasonally in the fall, spring, and summer. The NCFDD programs offer structure, accountability, and community support to help you set and accomplish your writing goals, and all Berkeley grad students can activate their free membership here.
For advice on how to start a writing group, see “Starting an Effective Dissertation Writing Group,” Stanford University Hume Writing Center, “Making a Writing Group that Works,” Inside Higher Ed (2016), or “The Writers’ Workshop at Work,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2011). For tips on establishing and maintaining a regular “writing date,” see “The Writing Date,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2008).
Both seeking and giving feedback can be harder than we might think. However, receiving and responding to feedback is crucial to developing your skills as a writer in graduate school and beyond. Getting helpful feedback may sometimes require being proactive. Be explicit on the type of feedback that would benefit you most. If you are taking a course with written assignments, go to office hours or schedule a time to meet with the instructor or professor and discuss your written assignment submissions in person. Proactively ask your advisors and peers to review written materials for you, and where appropriate, offer to reciprocate the favor. It is also important to be intentional about how you react to and respond to feedback. Many people experience strong emotional reactions when they receive feedback on their work, which can make it difficult to request feedback in the first place. For more on the art of giving and receiving feedback, see the article “Your Writing Needs Feedback. This is How to Give and Get it” by Leigh Shulman (2019).
From seminar papers and grant proposals, to dissertations and research publications, graduate education equips you with one of the most highly sought after skills in all careers: excellent writing skills. Master’s and professional students also develop these skills writing papers, reports, and theses. Take time during your degree to write in a variety of genres to prepare for the writing you will do in a future career.
Graduate students at Berkeley often write proposals for University or external funding to support their research. Skills in grant writing are vital to success in a variety of academic and professional careers. The act of writing this type of proposal further develops widely valued skills in communicating projects or knowledge for different audiences and purposes.
A good first step is finding out what types of grants students in your department typically apply for. External sponsors of research include organizations such as the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the Fulbright program, National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Social Science Research Council (SSRC), and many more. For a list of major University and extramural funding sources, see “Graduate Fellowships and Awards,” Berkeley Graduate Division.
Grant writing is its own genre, with successful grant applications often following writing conventions that are unlikely to be specifically required or clearly outlined by the granting body or agency. The UC Berkeley Research Development Office provides a general list of proposal-writing resources and specific information about preparing proposals for major grants from institutions like the NIH and NSF. You can ask your department if they have examples of successful grant applications that you can review, or ask your peers if they are willing to share their successful grant application materials. Also be sure to consult with trusted advisors in your department or field and ask them what you should be sure to include or exclude in your written grant or fellowship application. Field-specific grant-writing resources are often provided by professional associations. Once you have drafted an application according to these conventions, ask your advisors to provide feedback on your proposals before you submit them; asking for feedback from advisors is expected. Even if an advisor does not have time, the request will likely be well received.
To learn about general grant and fellowship writing conventions, also see these resources:
Develop Skills through Writing Your Master’s Thesis or Doctoral Dissertation
Writing a Master’s thesis or dissertation has payoffs far beyond writing up the findings of your research; it develops transferable skills such as your ability to analyze ideas, synthesize concepts, and communicate knowledge to technical and professional readers. It also helps you develop skills in project management, something needed in most professions. Much advice about how to embark on a large writing project reiterates the writing strategies and effective habits discussed above. This includes, for example, writing for a short stretch every day rather than in periodic marathons, thinking in discrete chapters, sections, or even paragraphs, and leaving your writing at a point that’s easy to pick back up again the next day. Practice these skills from the earliest point of your postgraduate career by treating seminar papers as practice for thesis and dissertation writing.
To gain a sense of what dissertations look like in your field (or, even more specifically, what dissertations your dissertation chair has approved look like), visit the Campus Library’s website on locating Berkeley dissertations written by previous Ph.D. students.
Dissertation and thesis writing can be the cause of anxiety and self-doubt, as they are long-term projects that can often feel overwhelming, especially when done in isolation. Joining a writing or accountability group can help create structure and a community of support (see above for more on writing groups). Consider other resources for your mental well-being offered by the Graduate Wellness Center and by Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). All registered students can access CAPS services, regardless of insurance plan. For more on self-care, see the Self-Care Links page from the GradPro Toolkit website.
Write Abstracts for the Dissertation or Shorter Pieces of Writing
When you submit your dissertation, you will also be required to submit a dissertation abstract. In many fields, dissertation abstracts are also required as part of fellowship and academic job applications. Writing an abstract for personal use provides a chance to synthesize the major claims, methods, and stakes of your project in a holistic way—a useful exercise to undertake and reevaluate at various stages before the entire work is completed.
It may also be useful to maintain provisional abstracts for shorter works—such as dissertation chapters or articles—to help remind yourself of the broad questions and overarching contributions as ideas develop. For more on writing abstracts, see “Abstracts,” (The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill).
Publications are increasingly necessary on the academic job market, and publishing is also a strong indicator that your professional writing skills are ready for multiple career paths. Opportunities to publish occur throughout graduate school, not just after the dissertation or thesis is complete. Assess your course-related writing at regular intervals and identify contributions that might be ready for submission to journals in your field or related interdisciplinary journals.
An important step in writing journal articles is reading widely in your field and getting familiar with the way arguments or research findings are structured in published articles, as well as the scope of argument that is appropriate to the article format. Reading widely will also help you identify what journals might be interested in your work, and what conventions that journal follows (focus, style, length, organization). You can see more on the paper publishing process in the Career Preparation and Exploration competency of this guide.
For more on scholarly publishing, see Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks (By Wendy Belcher) “A Quick Guide to Scholarly Publishing,” (Graduate Writing Center, 2017), “Demystifying the Journal Article” (Inside Higher Ed, 2017), and “Adapting a Dissertation or Thesis Into a Journal Article” (APA Style, 2020).
A key skill to develop for many career paths is synthesizing complicated or technical information into clear and accessible language for a general audience. To develop and practice this skill set, consider proposing or submitting an article, blog post, or opinion piece for a campus newspaper, departmental publication, or even a national newspaper. Many graduate programs have a student blog, so this can be a good place to start.
For more on publishing for a general audience, read “How to Cope with a Fear of Public Writing” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2021). For a more detailed guide to this genre of writing, see the guide “How to Write for a General Audience,” from the University of British Columbia.
Oral communication skills are vital for your success in a wide variety of academic and professional careers. Whether through research presentations in seminars, lab group meetings, or professional conferences, or through explaining concepts while teaching, graduate school provides many opportunities for you to develop your oral communication skills.
Public speaking is a significant part of most careers, whether this is speaking up while working in a team, giving presentations, or teaching. Like all skills, public speaking does not come naturally for many, and will take time to develop. Berkeley offers diverse resources for helping students cultivate self-confidence, clarity, and efficacy in public speaking. CAL Toastmasters meets weekly to help students, educators, and professionals develop confident and effective public speaking techniques. Toast of Berkeley is part of Toastmasters International, a world leader in communication and leadership development.
Many people experience some anxiety with public speaking. To learn more about managing anxiety related to speaking in a group or in class, see “Learning to Live With Public-Speaking Anxiety,”Chronicle of Higher Education (2001), or to learn more about anxiety with giving presentations, see “Public speaking and graduate school: How to cope with and master your anxiety,” American Psychological Association (2014).
Develop Your Research “Elevator Pitch” and Participate in Grad Slam
In academia, the elevator pitch is a succinct summary of your dissertation or thesis research for academics or professionals in other fields. The ability to clearly explain complicated concepts in a short time period, and to people previously unfamiliar with the material, translates well to any number of professional careers. In fact, you may wish to develop multiple versions of your elevator pitch; depending on the type of question asked (What is your topic? How did you develop your topic? Why does your topic matter?), you may need a range of “elevator” explanations. See “Mastering the Elevator Speech,” University of California, Santa Barbara Career Services.
Consider participating in Grad Slam, a UC systemwide competition in which graduate students present their research in a three-minute presentation for a general audience. Competing gives you an opportunity to get feedback on your public presentation skills, and also a chance to win cash prizes. Information sessions held in conjunction with the Grad Slam competition provide resources on effective public speaking and designing slides to communicate your message.
Give a Guest Lecture or Teach as a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) and Receive Feedback
Teaching as a GSI is a required component of many graduate programs at Berkeley, but it also provides an excellent opportunity to cultivate the widely utilized academic and professional skills of oral presentation and communication. You may find it valuable to work with a consultant from the GSI Teaching & Resource Center to be recorded in the classroom and receive feedback on your oral communication skills. Learn more about opportunities to work as a GSI in the Teaching and Mentoring Competency of this guide.
Many opportunities exist at Berkeley to give guest lectures—you just have to find the right situation and make your interest and expertise known. Consult course catalogs in your department or related fields to find lecture courses being offered in your area of specialization. Contact the professor to ask if they would be willing to let you offer a guest lecture in one of their course sessions that semester—many are happy to let graduate students gain lecturing experience and will offer subsequent feedback. You can also record your lecture and get feedback on your oral communication skills from the GSI Teaching & Resource Center.
For tips on improving your presentation and communication skills in the classroom, see these two articles on “Public Speaking for Teachers” from the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning at Yale: “Lecturing Without Fear” and “The Mechanics of Speaking.”
Conference experience can be important not only in academic employment, but in other careers where the ability to analyze information, synthesize concepts, convey and exchange ideas, and receive and respond to feedback is valued. Annual campus, state, national, and international conferences provide regular opportunities to practice these skills. You can learn more about the importance of getting involved with conferences in the Career Preparation and Exploration Competency of this guide.
For advice on presenting at conferences, see “Conference Rules: How to Present a Scholarly Paper,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2008) and “A TED Speaker Coach Shares 11 Tips For Right Before You Go On Stage,” TED Blog (2016).
Fostering interest in your research both within and beyond academia can generate career possibilities. Identify groups for whom your research is relevant and seek out opportunities to speak about your research in public venues such as local libraries, schools, museums, and relevant professional or community institutions. You may find that stepping outside the academic setting affords a fresh perspective on your research and provides invaluable practice in speaking to a wide variety of audiences. As one example, the Office of Resources for International and Area Studies (ORIAS) provides opportunities for graduate students in area studies to present their research in local schools.
A key opportunity to demonstrate your verbal communication skills is the job interview. For detailed guidance on job interview preparation see “Prepare for Interviews” in the Career Preparation and Exploration Competency of this guide.
Before presenting your research to potential employers (academic or professional), you should practice in front of multiple audiences, in a timed setting, to understand the mechanics of a good presentation. Learning to tailor your talk to different audiences is an invaluable communication skill in any employment setting. Invite friends—whether academically trained or not—to observe your presentation and ask questions. You may wish to provide them with sample questions, or suggestions on types of questions to ask. Afterward, ask for feedback on various aspects of the talk: how clear it was, whether you spoke quickly or slowly, if you engaged the audience, etc.
For advice on how to prepare an academic job talk, attend the Berkeley Career Center’s workshop “Nailing the Job Talk.” This recurring workshop usually takes place in the fall, so check the Handshake for scheduled workshops. For additional resources, see “The Job Market: The Campus Interview,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2017); “Talking the Good Talk,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2012); “Giving a Job Talk in the Sciences,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2001).
Whether you are pursuing a career in academia, government, industry, or the nonprofit sector, knowing how to use digital media is increasingly important. Digital media can help you to widely disseminate and publicize your research. Additionally, creating an online professional presence is beneficial for building your professional identity, networking with others in careers that are of interest to you, and creating visibility of your work that can support you in finding jobs within and beyond the academy.
Building new technical skills and proficiency in digital tools can help you effectively communicate across different types of media. Search the UC Berkeley Class Schedule for courses on digital video production, digital photography, and more. Berkeley students can freely download Adobe Creative Cloud, which includes desktop and mobile applications like Photoshop and Illustrator, used for designing and editing media including photography, video, and graphics.
To communicate with broad audiences, it can also be useful to use digital tools to present your research and ideas in a visually compelling form. You can post videos on YouTube and publicize them through Twitter or on blogs. To learn more about visual communication, see “Scholarship Beyond the Word,” (Educause Review 2015).
Don’t wait for others to discover your research and understand its potential applications. Consider contributing to group blogs or using Twitter to share your expert opinions on current issues and start your own web presence. At the same time, remember that material published online is hard to erase—so think carefully about what and how much to share. See the webinar “Twitter: How to Win Followers and Influence People” from the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity (2019) for more on using Twitter as an academic.
As you explore different career options, be sure to refine your online presence. This can help ensure that you are recognized as a subject-matter expert by potential employers, colleagues looking for participants in projects and conferences, people conducting research across disciplines, or members of the media.
You can participate in events hosted by the Career Center and Beyond Academia to help you develop your professional profiles on websites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, ResearchGate, and Academia.edu. Beyond Academia often holds a professional profile clinic in the Fall semester, where you can receive feedback on your LinkedIn profile and get professional photos taken. Also see “How to Curate Your Digital Identity as an Academic,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2015) and “How to Overcome What Scares Us About Our Online Identities,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2014).
LinkedIn is a powerful tool not only for the job-search, but also for networking and effectively communicating your skills. For example, by posting examples of computer code you have written, a video of you teaching, or a short article, you are demonstrating your skills to your LinkedIn networks. Consider following this comprehensive guide to LinkedIn for PhD grads as you develop your profile and see the Berkeley Career Center site on “Using LinkedIn.”
You may also wish to consider establishing a personal website, an arena in which your sphere of control over content is greatest. For a primer for graduate students on creating your own professional website, see “Where to Begin With Building a Website,”Inside Higher Ed (2018). For advice on how to use search engine optimization (SEO) to improve the ability of digital audiences to locate your work, see “Intentional Web Presence: 10 SEO Strategies Every Academic Needs to Know,” Educause Review (2012).
* Some skills serve in the development of more than one competency. Some skills may apply more to one discipline than to another. Keep in mind that the list of skills and steps you can take to develop these competencies is not exhaustive.
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