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WriteCast Episode 52: Transitioning From Master’s-Level to Doctoral-Level Writing

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WriteCast Episode 52: Transitioning From Master’s-Level to Doctoral-Level Writing

© Walden University Writing Center 2018

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[Introduction music]


MAX: Welcome to Write Cast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers, a monthly podcast by the Walden University Writing Center. I’m Max Philbrook,


CLAIRE: and I’m Claire Helakoski. 

In today's episode we're talking about making the transition from master’s level writing to doctoral level writing. 


MAX: We have a very special guest today Claire and I would like to welcome Dr. Veronica Oliver to the podcast, who is a writing instructor here in the Walden Writing Center. Welcome to you Veronica!


VERONICA: Hi Max, hi Claire! I'm glad I could be a special guest today. 


CLAIRE: Yeah we're excited to have you, welcome. So, in this episode I'm going to ask some questions to both Veronica and to Max, so let's start off with Max. Max can you give us a brief overview or introduction to your own a master's and doctoral level writing backgrounds?


MAX: absolutely and thanks for that question, Claire I. I started out at a small regional branch of the University of Minnesota system, university of Minnesota Duluth - go Bulldogs! and from there I earned my master’s degree in English, but most of my time was spent in the writing studies department teaching and studying and from there I was accepted to a PhD program in rhetoric and composition at the university of Missouri in Columbia. 

How about you, Veronica? Can you give us a little bit of a picture of your journey and how you got where you are today? 


VERONICA: Yeah, similar to you, for my master’s degree I went to a small university that was in more of like a rural area, and I started out actually in the English department, but with a focus on literature. And I then switched to rhetoric and composition. Then I went to a larger university, Arizona State University in Tempe, for my doctorate degree where I focused on rhetoric and composition, but I also focused on community literacy, so was a little bit more rhetoric focused than my master's degree, but it was with the same overall focus of writing and argumentation.


CLAIRE: Thanks so much for giving us that overview, both of you. What are some of the important takeaways from your master's level writing from your, both of your, smaller university starts?


VERONICA: During my master's degree I was kind of finding my niche as a scholarly writer. While during bachelor's degree I certainly had to write academic papers, obviously at the master’s degree level, there were some different expectations, and I was kind of also trying to figure out what exactly within the department of English I was interested in writing about. So, I was simultaneously kind of finding my academic voice, learning more about… for me it was MLA, but for Walden students it's APA, and you know just kind of getting more used to the scholarly community within my discipline. So reading more within my discipline and thinking about how these writers write to these specific communities while also making sure that that writing’s like accessible and understandable to somebody outside the community. What about you, Max?


MAX: I think the take away that I took from my master’s was everything that you just described, Veronica. Finding my voice, learning what it means to participate in an academic conversation, all those things, but also kind of honing my interests and not just learning what I was interested in, but also kind of learning what I wasn't interested in also. So, part of our program was dual coursework in English and in writing studies. And I took that time, you know I was…I enjoyed the courses in literature that I took, but I realized that studying it and kind of systematically participating in that academic conversation in literature wasn't what kind of drove me. It was kind of just learning what I was not as interested in, in order to focus later on what I really was interested in. 


VERONICA: Yeah, I definitely agree. I mean, as much as I love literature and reading and writing about it, I felt like there was only so much I could do with that, that I was personally interested in, and so I really, you know, got interested in rhetoric and composition, like argument and writing because I could…there were things I could apply using that degree that I couldn't necessarily with, like, a degree in literature, that kind of interested me.


MAX: Yeah, it sounds like finding that focus in the master’s kind of put us on a trajectory to getting where we are now. 


VERONICA: Definitely. 


CLAIRE: Thanks so much for sharing how your interests have changed and how you're writing, in particular, kind of led you down different paths than maybe you thought you were going to go down when you first started your programs. Is there anything in particular that helped you make that transition between writing at the master's level and the doctoral level once you found your subjects?


VERONICA: Yeah, I mean for me I think, like I mentioned before, the more that I read as a master's degree student, and the more that I wrote and kind of like worked on finding my scholarly voice, as well as like using academic style such as MLA, or in the case of Walden APA…that helped me prepare for that transition, because when I was a master's degree student the expectations are high, but they were a little bit higher and different for the PhD. And I don't know if that's kind of what you experienced, Max as well, in terms of expectations.


MAX: Yeah it was definitely a ramping up from my bachelor's degree to masters, but then also kind of taking it to that next level between the masters and the and the doctoral work, for sure. 


VERONICA: Yeah. And I think, too, I found that one of the things that helped me both through my master's and my PhD were, you know, smaller assignments. So, whether they were discussion board posts or other types of assignments, they always kind of scaffolded them so they were building upon each other in preparation for, like, that final course paper. And then also I think during my master's degree all the reading that I did helped me develop a scholarly voice of my own, and so the more I got used to looking at how others in my field were writing, the more I kind of understood what are people in my fields’ expectations. And I don't know if you kind of experienced the same thing, Max, in terms of learning about what are the expectations in your particular field, by reading other scholars and like writing it yourself as a scholar?


MAX: I think so. So, are you saying that you became a better writer by reading more, and that reading at the master's level kind of helped you become a better writer?


VERONICA: Yeah, I mean definitely. I think, when I started out like in the master’s degree program, I think I tried to write what I thoughtacademic work should sound like. So using the big, jargon-y words, which, you know…the problem is that's not really what scholarly writing was about. So I kind of had to learn that like, ‘oh yeah, you know this has to be, you know, it has to be clear. They don't, my readers don't, want a lot of jargon and my readers also might not be people in my field, so I can't make that assumption either.’ And I know that I learned that as well, like, when I would start to read in preparation for, like, my MA thesis, articles from other disciplines and I was like ‘oh yeah, I mean, I can understand this and I'm not in the discipline so I need to be really aware of how I present my ideas.’


MAX: It sounds like you are doing some really effective critical reading and that's… I think yeah, to answer questions from before, that that's a big take away from the master’s, and as I transitioned and entered my doctoral work, was exactly what you said: being aware of what effective scholarship looks like in the field that I'm writing for, and also what it doesn't look like. And kind of helping to make sense of my expectations or what I thought it should do…what scholarly writing should d…and what it actually did. And then also be aware of different situations. I mean, what I didn't realize at that time was, when I'm writing for article publication, that looks different than when I'm writing for a conference presentation, or when I'm writing something as simple or as mundane as class notes or emails to a professor, or something like that. Kind of preparing myself to encounter all of these different genres that are similar and that exist as a master’s student, but you really have to become aware of and critical of an adept at writing in when you are at the doctoral level.


VERONICA: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I mean, you know, the more I practiced the more I improved on my scholarly writing as well as my – just – ability to feel like I was part of that community, that I was investing myself in this particular field of study. And I think reading more critical reading and being really critical of my own writing helped me consider that. So, there are a lot of ways that the master’s degree helped me transition into doctoral writing.


MAX: Another element of writing at this time, in the master …between kind of the masters and the doctoral level, that really helped prepare me for what I was getting myself into, was the idea of revision 


VERONICA: Oh yeah, definitely.


MAX: You know what I mean? And like, and I bet some of our listeners out there kind of can relate to this but having the ability to produce pretty good prose on the first try, you know it's, it's not easy but sometimes you can just like get that stuff out there and it's passable and maybe, you know, it's gotten it's gotten you B’s throughout your schooling thus far, but then so, with the help of some really awesome faculty members at university of Minnesota Duluth, I realized how important an integral revision was, not just for making the words and the grammar correct. Like I was good at doing that already, but for really embracing revision and kind of re-seeing, re envisioning the whole project or what I was working on. I remember I worked closely with a faculty member, Dr Julie Parrish, who is now at the university of Denver, but she helped me and challenged me on my letter I wrote for admission to the doctoral program, she helped me right probably twelve versions of this, of a single letter. And I never really done that before. I'd never really thought about all those different ways that revision can kind of manifest or the way that revision is important even in something as… I mean it was important, but… something as small or small scale as a letter. Any ways that revision kind of worked… that you kind of thought about revision differently during that time, Veronica?


VERONICA: Yeah, I mean that's a great point, Max. Because when I was doing my bachelor's degree… while I did some revising, and at the time it seemed like papers were taking me forever…but now when I think about it, because the expectations were different and because you're entering into a field in a more scholarly way, with the intention of being part of that community and not just kind of dabbling in a bachelor's program, I did find myself working on revisions more often, and knowing that, you know, yeah I mean I, while I did revise during my bachelor’s degree, the stakes are a little higher for a master's. So, I definitely needed to be more aware of what I needed to do to revise my paper. So, I would say, like you, I definitely vamped up my skills at revising during my master's degree program. And it certainly was important for my doctorate as well.


CLAIRE: Yeah, and thinking about revision too, which is something I know we've all talked about before, thinking about revision, I think that as you revise over time you become so much more aware and, kind of an authority on your own writing and your own your intentions for your writing and your own patterns in your writing. So, as you're working, even though it might feel like you're spending the same amount of time revising, you’re getting your work to a higher and higher level, because you can kind of pay more attention to your particular writing quirks.


VERONICA: Yeah that's a great point Claire. Because, I mean, any time you see any written text, whether it's creative writing or whether it's an academic article, a lot of people who do write professionally, they go through a lot of revision. People don't see it, but it is a really important step in the process.


MAX: And I like the way you said that, Claire. The more you do it, the more you stand yourself as a writer. And so, yeah, the time might be the same, but the quality of the revision, the quality of the work you're doing in that time, improves the more you do it. And that's something, I think, when I was in the moment, and when, I see this in our students, when they're in the moment, they’re like, ‘Oh why do I have to revise?’ and you know, ‘I'm going to get a good grade on this,’ you know, whatever the, whatever the reason may be or, you know, ‘I don't have time for this.’ It's those baby steps, that incremental development and success that kind of builds. And just learning about yourself as a writer is a, is an important step in that.


VEORNICA: Definitely. And we're kind of getting at the idea that there were some things that were like surprises and challenges moving from the masters and then transitioning into doctoral writing.


CLAIRE: Interesting. So, we've talked a little bit about those challenges, but what specifically surprised you about writing at the doctoral level?


VERONICA: I guess for me, I think that, when I was a master's student, it was expected that I would start to write for the scholarly community. So, I would get in, you know, I would need to be like invested in understanding what are the expectations of scholarly writing. A lot of that was, by the time I got my PhD, were things that I, professors like assumed I already it had a good handle on. So that it became more about, okay, how does my particular voice and when I am interested and my argument stand out? So, for me it was kind of like I felt like there was more of a push to really be part of that scholarly community, and to also try to publish. Cheryl, one of our instructors, said it best: it's kind of like you're a debutante, like you're at a debutante ball or something like that and like you're presenting yourself to society as a scholar. But I thought that was like a really great analogy she had, because it kind of is like that, I mean you are presenting yourself to the public, to your scholarly field, people in your scholarly field. It's important how you present yourself at that moment, so it was important that I already had a good handle on writing and that the push, kind of, at that point was to get me to write for that community and publish 


MAX: Yeah that's one thing that I really remember too, was being treated and the expectation that I acted like a scholar in the field. And you know, there was some kind of safety when I came to my course work and I was able to practice some ideas, but it was no longer… the question was no longer: should I use academic sources? The question was now: how do I find academic sources in my specific field? And then not only that, but okay, now I have the sources for my field, but what are the best sources to use from the best scholars in my field? And so really being expected, encouraged to really look closely at that particular field that I was joining. One of the things that I had to learn quickly was to select those sources. So, I would write… so one thing that's fun about rhetoric and composition, why I love it as a field is that it's very wide ranging. I mean, the idea, one of my favorite quotes about rhetoric is that like everything is rhetorical. And so you can find lots of different ways to use that, and study that. And so sometimes I would be studying about the rhetoric of food, let's say, and I would be pulling sources from sociology, and I would be pulling sources from agriculture and, you know, they're all scholarly sources, but then I kept hitting this road block and the feedback I was getting was: how does this apply to this field? How is this about rhetoric and composition? And how can you to turn this into a topic that's relevant for our field? And so that was kind of surprising to me… how focused the topic needed to be and it was something that I worked on over time, and then also how focused the selection of literature became. And, you know, when you're putting together a lit review it might seem like there are a bazillion sources on the topic you're trying to study, but really it's kind of a small fraction of the broader scholarly literature that's out there. So, I was definitely surprised at the focus that was that was needed there.


VERONICA: Yeah, definitely. And I don't, I mean, I experienced the same thing as you did, like kind of be like, all these, you know, there's all these great sources I might use, what do I choose? For me one of the things that kind of helped was that everything I was doing in the classroom was kind of in preparation for my scholarly writing, so I was always generating ideas from classroom discussions. Because those prompted other ideas I had. So it would kind of get me thinking like, okay what, you know, I might even ask the professor what I'm kind of interested in writing this, here are some sources I was thinking of, and then they can kind of gear me in the right direction and, you know, what they think is it or isn't working or, you know, tell me ‘Hey, you know, go ahead take a chance and, like use that as a source and see how it works for you.’ But for me, I think in terms of paring down what I wanted to write about, because what I'm kinda getting from you is sort of like, the intonation that, gosh there's so many things you could write about, so many things are like interesting, but you have to choose. So, class discussions and everything we did in class kind of helped me think about what do I want to focus on. Both in terms of for writing for that class as well as, like, eventually for writing that big a document -- the dissertation. But that's sad, I mean, I also sense that there was more self-direction, so, I don't know, did you experience that, Max?


MAX: Yep and that's a really good point, too to keep in mind is you really, I was really treated as an independent scholar at that time. It was kind of like, okay you have an idea, you have skills, make it happen. I had guidance along the way, but it was still definitely an independent situation. There were deadlines along the way, but instead of a course paper do every Sunday, now it was a prospectus do in the middle of the semester, and then a seminar paper due at the end of the semester. And so yeah, needing to have that independence as a worker and a scholar was very important. Did you see that in your in your transition to the doctoral stages?


VERONICA: Yeah absolutely. I mean there is a certain, you know, definitely a certain level of like independence with a master’s degree but ,with a PhD, yeah, I definitely felt as though the expectation was I was supposed to conceive myself as an independent scholar and that's how I was kind of going to be treated, and there were a lot of times where, I mean, you are doing a lot of independent work. Especially when you got to the dissertation, you do you work closely with your professors while, at the same time, it's like a lot of independent work. Because you're expected to kind of really make decisions about what should be kept in your writing, what needs to be revised… So, I mean there's definitely a higher quality of writing expectations at that level as well as the independent scholar, sitting with a ton of books at the library expectation. Not to say, though, that faculty members weren’t there for me when I needed them, but there was a lot of independent writing. So, I mean there are some similarities but definitely like some expectation differences.


MAX: Awesome. 


CLAIRE: Thank you both so much for sharing all these great details about your experience. Do you have any advice for students who are transitioning out from the masters to the doctoral level right now?


MAX: Yeah definitely. I think the main piece of advice is: consider all of the writing that you do to be part of a broader project. And so, I don't mean that every sentence you write for a discussion post will find its way to your capstone project… even though some of them will. What I mean is, use the exper—like, your, Walden students are asked to write a lot in their doctoral course work. And so, use that. Use it as an opportunity to learn about your topic. Use it as an opportunity to practice writing skills, to try out new things, and to develop those skills as a scholarly writer. And you will be surprised, because I was. The first course you take at Walden might -- later down the road when you start your capstone writing process -- might be extremely influential in how you go about completing your degree. So, use all the writing you do, from course notes to discussion post to turning in course papers, as kind of preparation and practice for that bigger thing that you're going to be doing in not that long. Veronica, how about you?


VERONICA: I think for me I would say, we touched on this before, but I would say definitely hone revising skills. It's going to be especially very helpful once you get to writing that longer like doctoral study or dissertation, because those skills will help pare down the amount of time in your degree program. I know a lot of times it can be easy, especially when you get to that point where you've got that large, you know, study to write, to struggle with it because it just it seems so large… so one, I would say hone in those, like, revising skills and also keep at it. So, try not to think about it in terms of one giant document, think about it as chapters at the time. Because that's usually how you'd be working on them… when your professors and committee members look at them, they're gonna be probably looking at them a chapter at a time. If you do you have questions, definitely reach out to your faculty members. And the sooner you do that too, the sooner they will be able to get back to you. So, I know a lot of faculty at Walden also have positions at other universities, or they have other tasks that they are involved in. So being on top of that communication and not waiting to the last minute I would say would be really important as well.


CLAIRE: Right. Well, thank you both so much for all your advice and insights, and thanks, Veronica, for being a guest today.


MAX: Thank you, Veronica!


CLAIRE: So now that we've gone over some verbal advice, some of the resources that we recommend that you check out after you listen to this podcast-- and the links for these will be housed in the blog post where you can find this podcast episode as well -- so first we want to recommend webinars. You can find them on the writing center's website which is, and you can click on “webinars” on the left-hand side of the page. We have a lot of information that would be useful to you as a transitioning writer, but especially take a look at our Writing Process for Longer Projects Webinar, which is under the Doctoral Capstone Students menu on the side there. And since revisions skills are so valuable, which we talked about a little bit today, you can check out our webinar on developing revision skills which is in our practical skills webinar series as well.


MAX: And Claire maybe I'll put in a plug, and just remind Walden students, that paper reviews are such an important and valuable resource as you're transitioning between master’s course work and doctoral work. Doctoral students at Walden are eligible to have two paper reviews per week all the way up until their prospectus has been approved. You can get a one-on-one paper review with one of our friendly writing instructors. You can find the information for that right on our homepage under Paper Reviews 


CLAIRE: Additionally, if you would like some more independent instruction, we produce a lot of content on our blog that can be helpful for that transition. And you can go to our blog at and click on the label Capstone Writing. And that will pull up an entire list of posts all specifically written by Walden instructors and editors to help you. Additionally, if you're in that capstone project writing stage, then you can visit our form and style page, which is, and that will have a lot of resources specific to your capstone work.


MAX: And for any of you Walden students who are interested in reading what a capstone project in your field looks like, the Walden University library has access for you to download and read all of those past Walden dissertations that have been published in your field. We’ll include the link how to get there on the blog post for this episode.


CLAIRE: Also, if you have any additional questions you can email us at, or just leave a comment over on the blog and we will be happy to respond, Thanks again to Veronica, for being here today.


VERONICA: Thanks for inviting me again, Max and Claire, and I look forward to seeing students in the writing center! 


CLAIRE: Remember, Walden students, keep writing…


MAX: Keep inspiring! See you next time!




MAX: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. You can find past episodes on iTunes and on our website We’d love to hear from you. Connect with us on Facebook, on Twitter @WUWritingCenter, and on our blog: Thanks for listening!


[Fade in]


MAX: That's okay, yes, sorry, ummmm okay I can just, all


CLAIRE: Lord Oliver…(I’m totally joking).


MAX: Do you want me to not say Dr.? Was that embarrassing?


VERONICA: You’re like the…oh no, it doesn’t, I just, you are like the only, well other than like students writing to me…it’s so weird ’cause I don’t consider myself a Dr., and then I always think, like, someone’s going to ask me, like, “Oh, I’ve got this aching pain!” and it’s like, no I’m sorry, I’m like, not that kind of a doctor.


CLAIRE: I like it, I think you should be proud and students are gonna like it too.


MAX: Absolutely.


VERONICA: Ok well, sorry, I like, I ruined take one!


[Fade out]