ask a scatterbrain (paper expecations, grad class)

When teaching a graduate seminar, what are appropriate expectations for a final paper?  I’d be very interested in how other professors explain the seminar paper assignment to their students (on the syllabus and otherwise).  Do you think the seminar paper should be treated as an opportunity for exam (prelim, comps) preparation, a first draft of an original research paper, or both/neither?

12 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain (paper expecations, grad class)”

  1. I think one standard is to ask for an interesting idea, reasonably developed. This may take the form of a proposal, sometimes a grant proposal.

    On the technique side, it can be useful to do this early enough in the term that papers can be circulated among the course members for comment. These circulating drafts can be pretty rough, but the practice gets ideas flowing, on both sides of the table.

    Finally, process takes precedence over product, within the frame-of-reference of a course.


  2. I can answer this from the graduate student side (and from the trenches in the quarter system). I am often not provided with explicit instructions for the seminar paper. Usually, the guidelines are something along the lines of: take your research question and apply the lessons from this seminar to it. Most professors stress that they want the paper to be useful, i.e., not a seminar paper. Accordingly, any welcome first drafts of grant proposals, drafts of thesis proposals, dissertation proposals, etc.

    In reality, it is difficult to do this when you are starting out in a program and you end up writing and researching several different research questions but this is a good exercise for the MA. Most professors of course regale students with the tales of the one or two persons who actually had their paper turn into a published article (usually a stretch — the seminar paper provided the idea, the publication came 3 or 4 years later) to excite everyone and get them cracking early.

    Papers are typically between 15-20 pages (though some are shorter). Rarely are they treated as preparation for exams; emphasis is placed on original research questions.


  3. From senior classes through my graduate classes I’ve asked my students to provide publishable quality papers. In my policy oriented classes, these papers have a defined audience in the policy sector, and the students are required to write a executive summary of the paper for a well defined audience in a different sector.

    General guidelines:
    length 20-25 pages 5000-5500 words.
    No grammar/spelling/logic mistakes
    journal-specific style guide

    My thought is that if computer science graduate students can produce professional quality short publications and turn them in and get published in their first year, then social sciences,humanities, and policy can do the same. I do have to remind students about the problem of wanting to be perfect or to write a great paper, etc. etc. I tend to tell them… all published authors these days have materials they’d call juvenalia, which occur early in their career and have various imperfections.


  4. buridan, what kind of data collection do you expect your students to do? As a grad student, I had the greatest success writing publishable quality seminar papers when I used data I collected for my masters’ thesis. When I didn’t have original data to work with, I found the paper assignment bewildering.


  5. I generally don’t worry about ‘data’ as much as evidence. I find the tendency of graduate students to worry about ‘data’ to be somewhat disturbing actually. I generally am more worried that they understand that whatever data they do have is worrisome and likely meaningless and I’d prefer for them to get the meanings of the data right, if they have data. Most of my look for evidence of their thesis in other sources before using their own data, the last thing that i want published is yet another atheoretical paper that blindly tests hypotheses. I’m not teaching quantitative methods, I teach theory and policy analysis and generally both are from the interpretivist standpoint, where meaning and evidence of meanings are the key and data, its manipulation and representation are things regarded with high skepticism unless the meanings are clear … as i sit here humming the statistician’s blues.


  6. Here’s the text from my graduate Soc of Culture class…terribly vague and perhaps a candidate for mockery.

    You will craft a final project that links the course to your own intellectual/research interests. You have latitude in designing the project, but must submit a 500-word description of your plans at the Februrary 20 class. Examples of acceptable formats for the final project include: research proposals, pilot studies, and critical literature reviews focused on a subfield within the sociology of culture. I prefer that these projects be useful to you beyond the life of the seminar, so you are encouraged to devise projects that will further your own development as scholars and researchers. I invite you to meet with me to brainstorm ideas if you need help choosing a final project. Length will depend on the project, but a rough guide would be 15-20 double-spaced pages. Final projects are due in my mailbox (201 Garland) on May 1, 2007.


  7. As a former grad student on the quarter system I found that most seminar assignments were very flexible, and that the type of paper produced had a lot to do with whether or not the student had a solid research agenda. Faculty talked a lot about “publishable” quality papers, but (at least in my discipline: anthro/soc) no one ever published or even thought of publishing something that came out of a seminar. Mostly the papers were lit reviews focused around a research question; annotated bibliographies or research proposals. If you were lucky, the topic of the class came close enough to the topic of your research that the project was substantively useful. If not, then the project was just practice thinking, reading and writing (still a useful thing for an academic)…


  8. as an older grad student on the job market, I think that it helps graduate students to have opportunities to publish their work. It’s hard to have a chance to polish a paper enough to be publishable during a seminar, so I appreciate it when professors give students the option of taking a paper they have written for another class and revise it into something of publishable quality. The way a professor did it with me was to ask for the old version of the paper in the beginning of the class and then evaluate it based on the improvement between the two versions.


  9. adding to what I just said, I think that in grad school we learn very little about what it actually takes to write a publishable paper, we only know what it’s like to write the first draft the night before the deadline, which is totally different from the way you actually should write a paper as an academic.


  10. (Speaking as a grad student in a soc department on the quarter system…) Most of what people have already said sounds familiar. 12-20 pages, flexibility, emphasis on paper being useful in some way outside the seminar. I good number of mine were geared toward exam preparation in some way. The most useful of these provided a list of past or current exam questions and encouraged students to use these to orient 1-3 essays (depending on exam format and course expectations). Really, this isn’t any different from the “critical literature review answering a question, possibly with some preliminary discussion of empirical cases” model, other than that the motivating question isn’t student generated. Nor is it really any different from preliminary exercises that would be useful for a dissertation proposal or working through a possible article idea.


  11. Again, from a grad student’s point of view…

    I have experience with two types of term papers: 1) a research grant–based on either NSF or NIH guidelines and 2) theoretical papers using independent research and class readings.

    I can say that the first was an excellent exercise, especially having done it in my first year, to see what it is like to work on grant proposals. The lessons I learned were easily adaptable to other types of grants (dissertation, fellowships, etc.) and did a nice job of focusing on both the theoretical contribution and the means for accomplishing the data.

    I have found the second less helpful. Although thinking abstractly has its advantages, it is often difficult to turn theoretical lit reviews into background sections of papers (though it did get me into the readings more).

    Both have been between 15-20 pages. Also, I wonder if the bar of “publishable” is too high for a seminar paper – but maybe having something worthy of submission to a conference seems much more attainable in a semester. Looking back on my early grad career, going to conferences was an excellent exposure to the field and really helped me develop my career.


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