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Skills for Learning

Postgraduate Study Skills

Overview

Postgraduate study is an opportunity to specialise in your subject. You will gain more in-depth knowledge as you work towards an advanced qualification. You may have recently completed an undergraduate degree or may have returned to learning after a break. Whatever postgraduate course you’re studying, this guide provides resources for learning at a higher level.

We also run interactive workshops to help you develop your postgraduate study skills. Find out about our Advanced Academic Writing and Critical Thinking workshops on the Skills for Learning Workshops page. 

Returning to learn

You might be working towards a Postgraduate Certificate, a Diploma, a Master’s or a PhD. Whichever is the case, you will be learning at a higher academic level than before. Postgraduates often hear the terms ‘more critical’ and ‘more in-depth’ attributed to study at this level. This requirement to ‘do more’ essentially means becoming increasingly independent as a learner.

Asking questions is a great place to start. In your classes, be confident – raise queries and give your opinions. This can be a daunting prospect, but you will get much more out of seminars, lectures and workshops if you contribute. Questioning in class is also good preparation for your assignments, as it will get you into a critical thinking mindset. Use the Seminar Questions Prompt Sheet below to get you started.

Time management is also vital for postgraduates. Visit our Independent Learning and Time Management guide for more information and resources.

Becoming a subject specialist

At undergraduate level, it’s important to gain knowledge. Now, as a postgraduate, the skill comes in applying that knowledge. You will deal with large amounts of information and learn to draw conclusions from what you find. Your views must be unbiased and evidence-based. This might also be described as being ‘objective’ rather than ‘subjective’.

In addition, you will need to develop advanced literature searching skills. Postgraduates are expected to consult a wide range of sources. You may be conducting primary or secondary research, or a mixture of the two. Selecting the most appropriate ones for the task at hand is an important skill. See our Finding Information & Reading guide for more advice.

The more you read and research, the more of a subject specialist you will become. You will encounter a range of perspectives and approaches to key topics. It’s essential to realise that these approaches do not exist in isolation from each other. Rather, you can imagine them all having a place in a vast academic conversation on your subject. Part of your role at postgraduate level is to add your voice to that conversation. You will achieve this through your research and the responses you give in your course assignments. Visit the Skills for Learning Research Skills pages for more specific guidance on conducting research.

Advanced academic writing

Postgraduate assignments are often longer and have more complex instructions than undergraduate ones. You may feel overwhelmed by this jump to a new academic level. Here are some ideas to help get you started.

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Your assignments will be tied to the learning outcomes for your module. Reading your assignment brief carefully will enable you to focus on the right elements of the module. It will also help you select the right sources to complete the task.

One lesson postgraduates must learn is to be less rigid. You may start off with one perspective, then find the data sends you in another direction. As your answers must always be evidence-based, follow the data. It’s OK for your point of view to change as you work. Just remember to edit your assignment as you go so your argument remains consistent. 

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The step up to postgraduate level means you’re dealing with more complex ideas. Conversely, though, it’s more important than ever to write clearly. Your module tutors will be looking for you to express your ideas in ways that are easy to understand. Avoid the temptation to use elaborate language to make your work sounds more ‘academic’. The points you’re making may become less clear if your sentences become too complicated.

At this level, your tutors are interested in your thought processes. They will look at how and why you have come to certain conclusions. So, it’s your job to use your own academic voice to show what you know. Aim to write with confidence, but always support your ideas with suitable evidence. Your points need to be logical – there’s no point arguing the sky is black if the evidence shows it is blue. It will take time to develop a confident, clear and logical academic voice. Listen carefully to your tutors’ feedback and take time to implement changes in between assignments. Try using the Feedback Action Plan worksheet below for this.

Time management is really important, especially if your course is a year or less. Plan as far ahead as you can and try your hardest to stick to your writing goals. Our Assignment Calculator will help you manage your time.

Top tip! Attend a Skills for Learning Advanced Academic Writing workshop for more advice.

Critical working for postgraduates

As a postgraduate, you will develop the analysis and evaluation skills you began to work on as an undergraduate. This involves being a very active reader and thinker. Aim to question to information and make comparisons. You might hear this process referred to as ‘synthesis’. You’ll be bringing together ideas to show your understanding of key topics in your subject area. You might find it challenging to decide which point of view is most relevant to your work. This is normal – different opinions co-exist in academia and often there isn’t one straight answer. It’s all about context – the ‘right’ answer depends on the question you’re being asked.

Here are some tips to help you analyse information critically.
 

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Always think about the task at hand as you read. Are you researching for a seminar, an assignment or to learn more about a specific element of a topic? The Skills for Learning Reading Guide contains further advice on critical reading techniques.

Critical analysis is all about digging deeply into the information in front of you. Just because a study has been published doesn’t mean it can’t be questioned. Could a different approach be taken? Is some information missing? Is the sample size inadequate? The Critical Analysis Questions Worksheet below will help you get started.

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Whether you’re reading or writing, always consider if the information is relevant. One easy way of doing this is to ask ‘So what?’ as you work. Essentially, this question asks you to explain what the evidence means. This approach will help you consider whether the evidence has meaning in the context. If you can’t come up with a ‘So what?’, then the evidence might not be strong enough. In this case, you might want to take a different approach.

It’s easy to take it for granted that your module tutor will follow your argument. But making a clear, logical argument that makes sense is a tricky skill. Check your work carefully to ensure you haven’t assumed the reader will simply know what you mean. Always explain your points carefully as this demonstrates your knowledge and your thought processes.

Critical analysis may seem like a very academic thing to do. However, it’s a skill that’s often used in the workplace. In most lines of work, members of staff have to justify their decisions. They do this by referring to various kinds of evidence. So, while critically analysing an academic article may seem hard, you’re developing sound employability skills.


Top tip! Book on to a critical thinking workshop. Skills for Learning offer two critical thinking workshops: Critical Thinking I and II. The first will be a great refresher, while the second is more advanced.
 

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