If I knew then what I know now

A Note on Academic Writing, Referencing, and The Power of Peer Review

25 Jan 2021
A Note on Academic Writing, Referencing, and The Power of Peer Review

Hi, my name is Conor, and I am a second year PhD student in UCC’s economics department. If I knew then, what I know now is a platform which allows us postgraduate students to pass down the knowledge we have acquired during our time in UCC, with hopes of making your transition into third level education as smooth as possible. While incoming first years will undoubtedly benefit most from this type of blog, I guarantee even final year students will learn something from at least one of these (past or future) blog posts. 

The aim of this post is to combine topics that I think deserve mentioning, especially to incoming students, but don’t quite encompass a blog on their own. 

Academic Language 

To novices, academic writing and reading can look like a different language. Even now, a full year into my PhD, I am not fluent in either academic reading or writing. Aside from me sometimes not really knowing what is being talked about, I have not yet suffered for my slow learning. So, don’t let the academic language intimidate you, you’ll get there.  

Because this language can be such a shock to the system, it follows naturally that doing any activity which uses this language will be harder than normal, and that is important. Academic writing is hard, and with incoming students often leaving an education system where grades of 90%+ are attainable to many, this is certainly not the case in university. 70 is the new 90 (or 100, as it felt sometimes) is what I came to learn through experience 

In my experience, a feeling of inability, or borderline stupidity, can strike you down especially hard when researching/reading academic articles. To this day, it sometimes takes me multiple reads to understand what some papers go on about, so I urge you not to get disheartened if you struggle to keep up with the piece, it happens to all of us. 

My advice is to not stress if you aren’t immediately fluent in academic language. Take your time when reading. Over time, I found a good gauge of judging my ability in this regard came through attending lectures. If you can understand your lecturers and the (general) concepts they are addressing, you are doing great. It’s not a perfect system, but it might be a nice starting point to gauge your relative fluency.  


Referencing could drive you mad. The longer you procrastinate with learning how to do it (or the longer you put off learning how to use the websites which do it for you), the bigger a pain it will become. In my opinion, learning to manually reference in no more than two styles (depending on your discipline. One is normally enough.) should be in the back of your mind when starting out. I say this because once you learn the basics of generally any style, transitioning to automatic systems (like Mendeley and EndNote) and websites (such as CiteThisForMe) becomes a very easy and safe process.  

Knowing how to reference every type of source by the comma is obviously not what I am advocating here, but if you know which pieces of information are the most important (if you don’t, they are: authors name, publication year, publication title, DOI’s), and how references generally should look, you are in a great place to audit the quality of automatic resources.  

If you are a final year student undergoing their Final Year Project (FYP), or a postgraduate, manually referencing becomes a waste of time. In fact, I would say that for any projects over 5,000 words, manually referencing is a waste of time. When working at that level, it simply takes too much time to manually compile, sort, and input reference lists and in text citations/footnotes.  

These automatic systems come into their own here. Having manually referenced throughout my entire undergraduate (and through an FYP), I now use Mendeley every day, and painfully look back at how much time it could have saved me during my FYP. Naturally, I recommend using Mendeley, but my supervisors and many lecturers I’ve encountered prefer EndNote. However, I urge you to try a few, and find your favourite. 

Peer Review/Group Study 

Finally, I feel peer-review and group study is a topic worth discussing. While I personally have little time for group study (because I tend to work best on my own), many of my friends stand by it in tough modules as a great way to get through difficult topics, sometimes advocating that it got them over ‘the line’ in exams.  

What I have a lot of time for, is peer-review. I discovered peer-review in the final year in my undergraduate, when my friend and I swapped assignments and provided comments and suggestions on each other’s work. His feedback totally enhanced my body of work and from reading his, I found ways to improve my writing through observing his style. I advise you to give either, or both, of these methods a try. As someone who was plagued by 58s and 68s throughout their undergraduate, I sometimes wonder if these would have pushed me over the line. If you don’t have a friend to swap assignments with, do not worry, the Skills Centre provide an Asynchronous Essay Feedback service, which serves the same purpose! 

Skills Centre

Q -1 (Q minus 1), Boole Library,