Postgraduate coursework survival guide

Part of the appeal of studying for a postgraduate qualification by coursework is that the courses are short: you can finish quickly and get on with the rest of your life. But if you haven't come straight from a bachelor's degree in Australia, that short time frame can add to the challenge.

We know how hard this transition can be, so we have put together this guide. It will explain some of the:

  • purposes and expectations you are likely to encounter
  • ways of using other people's ideas in your own writing
  • common structures of academic texts
  • common difficulties with language and how to deal with them (whether English is your first or an additional language)

To view a printable version of the Survival Guide, download:

Survival Guide [PDF 849KB]

Survival Guide [DOC 167KB]

Or you can browse the Survival Guide through the sections below.

Health Science students undertaking postgraduate by coursework studies should also check out the Postgraduate Survival Guide [PDF 1.3MB].

Defining your purpose

Everybody has their own reasons for embarking on a uni course. But whatever your personal reasons are, you are now joining a group of scholars that share a wider purpose. Their efforts are directed at making knowledge in their field, which is much larger than the uni department that you now belong to. This field is a vast international community of people who share interests and practices, and who communicate ideas and information via publications in books, reports, and journal articles.

Your course will introduce you to the state of knowledge in your field, and to the questions that its members are currently exploring and arguing over. You will need to be alert to

  • what those questions are
  • why people agree or disagree about the answers to them
  • what perspectives or approaches you find helpful, and why
  • what problems or limitations you find in the approaches you encounter.

To view the full document, download:

Defining Your Purpose - What are we doing here? [PDF 193KB]

Defining Your Purpose - What are we doing here? [DOC 13KB]

Purposes of assignments

If you think of your own studies as part of that wider project of making knowledge within your field, how does that help you to approach your assignments? You'll find that many assignments are focused on the relationship between theory and practice, and that your job is to assess:

  • how the theory informs your practice as a member of your field
  • how that practice, in turn, reflects back upon the theory.

To view the full document, download:

Purposes of assignments [PDF 329KB]

Purposes of assignments [DOC 53KB]

Using other people's ideas in your own writing

For most assignments, you are expected to make use of the 'literature'; and in this context, that doesn't mean fiction, it means scholarly publications on the topic you are exploring. You will usually be assigned readings to do each week, often with lists of 'further reading' to do if you have time. You are also expected, often, to find more readings for yourself, developing your research skills and your ability to judge what sources are most relevant and reliable for your purposes.

It's in all these sources that you find the information, the views, the questions and debates that make up the published conversation around your topic. By considering these sources, and responding to what you find there, you are in a position to join this conversation. In marking your work, your lecturer will consider how far you have engaged with the recommended reading and, if applicable, how well you have succeeded in bringing other appropriate sources into your discussion.

To view the full document, download:

Finding, using and referencing your reading [PDF 405KB]

Finding, using and referencing your reading [DOC 22KB]

Common structures of academic texts

Most uni courses require a lot of reading, and it's much easier to get what you need out of a text if you know where it's likely to be. This means you need to know a bit about the typical ways that academic texts of various kinds are organised. Probably the most common types you will encounter in print are journal articles, books, and reports, and perhaps primary sources.

In this guide, we focus on some characteristic structures of academic texts, which are designed for 'linear' reading even if a version is also available online as well in print.

To view the full document, download:

Working your way through a text [PDF 469KB]

Working your way through a text [DOC 69KB]

And for more information on note taking, download the full document:

Taking efficient notes for various kinds of sources [PDF 451KB]

Taking efficient notes for various kinds of sources [DOC 173KB]

Structuring your writing

After the content, probably the most important aspect of your writing is the way you organise it. To be successful, the writing must be perceived as coherent: that is, readers must think the writing holds together and makes sense. We say that it 'must be perceived' this way, because there is no single standard of coherence. You achieve coherence by organising your material in a way that your readers expect, and that varies with the type of text (essay? report? something else?) and the educational culture within which you are writing.

To view the full document, download:

Structuring your own writing [PDF 406KB]

Structuring your own writing [DOC 102KB]

Writing style

Writing for humanities and social science subjects is ideally clear and straightforward. You may find yourself reading some sources that don't live up to that ideal, but you'll appreciate the ones that do, and your lecturers feel the same about your writing! Under the influence of densely theoretical readings, students at this level sometimes adopt obscure vocabulary or overlong, elaborate sentence structure, but it isn't necessary and it can interfere with meaning.

At the same time, your writing should be formal rather than conversational. That is, we avoid colloquial expressions and contractions (conversational forms like isn't, it's, or would've instead of the "written" forms is not, it is, or would have). We write sentences that are grammatically complete and use punctuation in conventional ways (explained below). It's worth making an effort, in your final draft, to submit writing that is precise (not vague), concise (not long-winded), formal, clear and correct.

If English is not your first language

If English is not your first language, you may encounter some people who think you have less language than they have, when it fact you have more! You might have learned two, three, or several languages before tackling English as well, and it can be frustrating if lecturers and fellow students seem to notice the few things you don't know rather than the many things you do know about using English. Remind yourself that undertaking to study in an additional language is evidence of both your courage and your competence! - but yes, you may also have to keep working on your English writing skills.

Check out our resources to develop your language skills.

Resources for particular purposes

Where to get more help