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You've enrolled in a postgraduate degree by coursework. But what lies ahead of you as a postgraduate student? What are the skills, knowledge and attitudes that you are expected to demonstrate in your studies? And how do you go about developing those skills? Here are some tips to demystify the system.
In a postgraduate degree by coursework you are given a wide range of resources and offered ongoing guidance. But understanding the information is not enough. You are also expected to demonstrate a high level of academic skill, both in exams and in the assignments you produce for assessment.
It is the assessment tasks that will help you to develop the qualities required. Examine them carefully and you will see that they give you an opportunity to both develop and demonstrate the knowledge and skills outlined in the unit guide. You will notice, for example, that there is often an emphasis on assignments rather than exams because they are often a better gauge of the quality of your understanding, and also of the higher level thinking skills expected of someone with postgraduate qualifications. And even in exams the focus is often less on testing your memory than on assessing your ability to use and apply what you have learned.
A postgraduate degree by research is significantly different, in that you define your own area of investigation and produce a written thesis - often after years of research - which can eventually be made available to other scholars in your field.
Note: If you are doing a minor thesis or research essay as part of a coursework degree, you might be able to apply some of the advice for research students to your research project.
A postgraduate qualification prepares you for an expert role. So you need to learn how to present your own well-informed and expert opinion on defined issues. Don't just reproduce facts. You should use information to support your arguments, rather than putting together a lot of information and expecting your reader to make sense of it. Your essays, reports and presentations need to be well structured and written well, so as to persuade an academic audience. What you need to demonstrate is your own scholarly way of seeing and presenting that information, while showing appropriate respect for other researchers in your field.
When you tackle an assessment task in a coursework degree, remember that your lecturers are experts in the content you are asked to present in your assignments. So they don't want you to simply inform them about what you've discovered through your research. They might be assessing you on your ability to draw upon the framework of information provided through lectures and further readings, but more importantly on your ability to demonstrate well-informed judgement in approaching the issues relevant to the field of study.
As a postgraduate student you will find that textbooks can provide the basis for developing an understanding of an area of study. But textbooks are only a starting point. It is worth buying your own copy of the recommended textbooks as part of your professional reference collection; the library does not stock copies for all students. Instead you will find that Deakin provides access to up-to-date scholarly resources, many of which are to be found in the online library databases which are also accessible off campus rather than stored on bookshelves.
Don't just restrict your study to older well-established publications; you are expected to refer to current research published in academic journals. These journals publish articles several times a year, and these are often available through online databases, whereas books are usually updated only after a period of years.
Do not confuse scholarly electronic sources with other kinds of information available on the web. The Deakin University Library can help you select appropriate information sources and find relevant information on password-protected online databases. The library can also help you develop skills in evaluating these resources.
Because you are expected to demonstrate the breadth of your knowledge, you will be faced with an enormous amount to read. You need to be strategic in working out what is worth reading and how to read efficiently. Much of the material may seem impossibly complex, so you need to learn to work through the layers, starting with your Study Guide then moving onto wider reading, to bring together the relevant information. Taking relevant and accurate notes should help you make sense of the vast amounts of information available; it will also help you reference your sources accurately.
Failing to correctly attribute the source of ideas and information carries a high penalty in academic circles. In your postgraduate studies, failure to appropriately acknowledge the sources of your information can lead to charges of plagiarism. Make no mistake; this is a serious disciplinary matter that can even lead to students being excluded from their course. To understand why, you need to remember that scholars build on the research of others. In the Western academic tradition you are expected to acknowledge 'the intellectual ownership of other people's words, ideas, research findings and information'. Presenting the views or research of another scholar without giving them due acknowledgement is therefore seen as intellectual theft and dealt with through the university's discipline procedures.
In order to acknowledge the sources of your information and to help other scholars locate the origin of your ideas, you will need to reference each idea specifically, down to the page (or paragraph in an online page, if you can). This is called in-text referencing and can take different forms according to the referencing style used.
What is a referencing style and which one should you use? Referencing styles are shorthand codes devised by scholars in different disciplines to help colleagues locate the research to which they are referring in their writing. Scholarly referencing styles always include two ways of acknowledging the work and ideas of other scholars: referring to the source of information within the text of your essay or report to show how you are building on the ideas of others, and also listing all the sources you have used so that your reader can look them up easily.
There are several styles of referencing, and each is used in particular academic disciplines. For instance, the author-date (Harvard) referencing style, commonly used in Business and the Sciences, is becoming more widely used in other disciplines like Education and Arts. There is a particular referencing style used in Law in Australia, while the style developed by the American Psychological Association (APA) is generally used in Health and Behavioural Sciences. You should check the unit guide to find out the referencing requirements for each of your units. It's important to get this right.
In some referencing styles in-text references take the form of footnotes; in other styles you use the family name of the author and date of publication in brackets. To complement your detailed in-text references, you also need to provide a full list of the sources you have consulted, in the precise format used by the relevant referencing style. In some referencing styles this is called a reference list and in others it is called a bibliography . Don't attempt to make up a style that makes sense to you; you need to meticulously follow both parts of the style recommended for a particular unit. The Guide to assignment writing and referencing covers the different referencing styles in the context of the development of your academic writing skills.
Good academic writing is clear and concise, and the most effective academic presentations also choose words judiciously. Forget about using pompous words just to impress; your lecturers aren't easily fooled. You will need to structure your text with care, and edit carefully, so remember to make sure that you leave enough time to re-work and check your writing.
But the most important aspect of academic style is the ability to integrate the information gleaned from other sources to effectively present your own argument, while paying due respect to your scholarly sources. This is an art, which allows you to subtly indicate your level of agreement with the researchers you are drawing upon, and show how the evidence relates to your main argument. Again, the Guide to assignment writing and referencing can help you develop the skill of presenting your scholarly judgement economically and elegantly in the way you write.