Master’s students

See also: The Craft of Research Workshop

Back when you were an undergraduate, I suggested you think of “knowing” as an ability to discuss things with your peers. That’s still my advice. The main thing that changed when you became a master’s student was the level at which the conversation is going on. The line between your “equals” and your “betters” can no longer be as neatly drawn between students and faculty. On some subjects, you may be better qualified to carry on the conversation than your teachers. The trick is always to construct your peer — the person you are talking to, the reader you are writing for — in terms of a body of knowledge that you have more or less “mastered”.

Since your competence remains tied to the reading and writing you are able to do, academic literacy is still very much a concern. You should be honing your ability to compose clear and coherent prose essays, mindful of the fact that your last semester will be devoted largely to researching and writing a thesis. Within in your first year in the program, you should begin to feel at home in the scholarly discourse. (Your coursework is intended to foster this familiarity.) You should be able to write confidently and read with comprehension. You should be able to recognize a citation and find the source of a quote or the basis of a claim. In a sense, your dissertation (and oral defense) will be testing your ability to participate in a conversation with people who are knowledgeable about a particular subject. It will test your mastery of the subject.

One of the new things that should interest you at this stage is the “citation network” around the theories and facts you are working with. This will mean learning to use the functionality of your library’s citation databases, such as Web of Science and Scopus. You will increasingly learn to recognize the names of influential scholars in your area of interest, and the journals in which they publish. You will also develop a sense of what it means, in your area, for an article to be “highly cited”. Importantly, you will have a growing list of key works, both books and journal articles, that can meaningfully anchor your searches of the literature. That is, as time goes on, you will recognize that you are mainly interested in work that cites a particular list of “precursors”. Work that doesn’t cite these papers isn’t likely help you in your own because it isn’t following the tradition that you are trying to become a part of.

In a similar way, you should be building a reading list of classic books. A lot of the books that are published every year are quickly forgotten, despite exciting titles and enthusiastic blurbs. But you will find books that researchers in your field continue to cite year after year. While it may seem like these books have merely “historical” interest, I would very much encourage you to spend some of your time reading them, learning what sorts of books they are. This can easily extend to reading major works of literature. Entrepreneurship scholars, for example, are prone to citing (or failing to cite) Samuel Beckett’s slogan “fail better”. You do well to read this quote in the original context of the work of one of the most innovative writers of the 20th Century. But this is also the time to catch up on less literary classics. You might want to read Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, Karl Marx and Thomas Sowell, Gabriel Tarde and Margaret Mead. Whatever names you’ve seen turn up in your readings. Sometimes it will surprise you what you find when you actually read them.

But what about writing? What should your goals be in terms of writing? Well, I would encourage you to keep working at it, to keep developing your skills as a writer. Your goal should be to be able to write down anything you know in a coherent paragraph that exposes your thinking to the criticism of your peers. Learn how to present your beliefs, along with your basis for holding them, in such a way that people you respect are in a position to tell you where you’ve gone wrong if you have. This ability will help your progress as a thinker and a scholar because it lets other knowledgeable people contribute to it. Of course, being a good writer is also a valuable skill in its own right. If you can write down anything you know using less than 200 words in under 30 minutes you’ve got a skill you won’t regret having. And the best way to do this is to spend 18 or 27 minutes writing a paragraph about something you know on a regular basis. In fact, as a master’s student, you should do this almost every day. Taking weekends and vacations off, I’d recommend doing it 160 times a year.

Finally, remember that a university education should be helping you satisfy your curiosity and developing your ability to do so. So please, whatever you do, remain curious and demand to be satisfied. Don’t fall into the trap of just satisfying others. Make sure that your studies remain enjoyable and satisfying.