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Postgraduate study

See these questions in Independent study

For those undertaking postgraduate studies by research, refer to Learning Support for Higher Degree Research students site.

Postgraduate coursework

Ramp up the critique

Introduce yourself to the elements of critique by working through Critical Review Writing in Language and Learning Online.

Acquaint yourself with the language of critique - refer to the sample provided at Taking a position in How can I use the ideas of others? The key point: a critical discussion is not meant to be a description of other people's views in its entirety.


In this extract from short postgraduate Management assignment, the student is attempting to engage with the variation in the field on defining 'competencies'.

Definition of competencies

The definition of competencies itself has been the subject of significant research and debate to the point of it being tainted with contempt, as cited in the article by Charles Woodruffe (1991, p. 31), who quotes Gerry Randall of Bradford University, who says a competency is just a trendy word for "nothing more, or less, than glorious human skills."

Charles Woodruffe (p.191) concludes that it is credible to use the two categories to clarify quite different aspects of this subject. He argues that areas of competence should be used to break down or state specific job roles e.g. establishing filing systems, and competencies used to describe personal behaviour that differentiates high performers.

Equally, Mintzberg (1982, p.250) states that "research literature, by which I mean material that fills the refereed journals [is not in great shape and] those who have occupied the overviewer position before me have decried the state of leadership research, as have many others." To a non human resource person this may seem, in some ways, like semantics; however, the definition in the human resource field may provide some benefit. Further to the above, he makes a more relevant point in that "it is vital that a list of competencies is flexible and able to reflect changes in the organisation's direction".

Other definitions of competencies tend to support a distinction of the two different aspects as posed by Woodruffe. For example, the following definition poses a broad meaning: "competencies represent the knowledge, skills and abilities that exist among and across employees and groups of employees" (Ulrich, 1997, p.68) and, again, for example, where another definition of competency is given as "an underlying characteristic of a person" (Boyatzis, 1992, cited in Woodruffe, 1993, p.31), and then to the concise simple version of "it is the way we do our work" (New, 1996, p.45)

Given the potentially varying and broad meaning of competency, the general area of personal behaviour for managerial leaders will be adopted.

There are some problems here. Some are indicated with a pop down: click on these.

Note, too, that it more usual to refer to the author's family name as a more concise means of dealing with the information you are supplying. The full first name and family name format can be used when it is a very well-known figure in the field.

Apart from that, the student has attempted to give an idea of the variation in the field in defining 'competency' in a good, analytical way. He also attempts to demonstrate some kind of classification - between broad meanings and narrow ones. This also reflects a good analytical approach.

The problem with this example is that it is more of a description of the field. He fails to give the reader an idea of his own definition, or a more appropriate definition given the strengths and weaknesses of the ones he has reviewed, supported by the analysis he has undertaken. He needs to have validated some definition that he supports. He avoids this and concludes 'oh, it's too varying and potentially too broad, so I'll just stick to personal behaviour' - without substantiating his choice.

Take a position

It is important to point out the similarities and differences, the overlaps and gaps in the definitions. It is also important to take some kind of position in relation to the review. This means providing a commentary, rather than reproducing what others have written.

Read broadly

This means "read beyond your Unit Reader". Demonstrate your ability to carry out independent research. This way you can cover the many possible perspectives and sources regarding your subject matter. You can then sort through these approaches to determine which are more valid, more reliable and more supportive of your position. You can also sort these many perspectives into some kind of order for your reader - you do the work for them, essentially, of outlining the strengths and weaknesses of the perspectives. Show the breadth of your research in an extensive reference list.

Consider structure

Structure your assignment around your analysis to show the progression of your argument. Your assignments should be clearly themed around the position you have decided is the most appropriate given your research (the broad reading you have undertaken). Each component should lead your reader through your argument to a logical conclusion.


This is an example of an introduction from postgraduate managerial essay.

Note how the student positions the contention or theme of the assignment within the literature; provides an excellent rationale for narrowing his focus; and clearly outlines his argument in terms of the assignment's structure


The topic statement indicates that three key ingredients (namely, an organisation that actively fosters and supports teams, selecting the right team leader, and the design of the team) have a significant influence on successful teamwork. These ingredients and the others in the research literature have been the focus of research for many years, along with the variation in types of teams and their structure. Subsequently, there has been a sizeable amount of research literature available about teams and their successes and failures. An initial review of this broad knowledge base and the various types of teams has raised the question as to whether it is possible to find any meaningful, consistent and convincing evidence about the necessary ingredient for team success. Because of the likelihood that this essay would be trying to generalise across too many forms of performance (Cordery, 2005), it will define and limit its discussion to High Performance Teams (HPTs). It will be argued that an organisation that actively fosters and supports teams, although beneficial, it is not vital to the success of a HPT. Instead, HPTs can achieve outstanding successes even with hostile opposition from within their own organisation. This essay will then argue that a team leader is relatively immaterial and that HPTs function by means of a strong shared leadership ethic and that the shared leadership arrangement is an imperative ingredient for its success. Finally, this essay will conclude that the design of the team is the most vital, and most difficult, ingredient linked to the success of HPTs. The design of the team, by its very nature, will facilitate a resilient shared leadership ethic and other additional attributes that see HTPs achieve outstanding results, with or without organisational support.

Here is the matching conclusion.


To sum up, there is a vast amount of research on teams in general and how they work. Despite their rarity (Collins, 1995), HPTs have been the focus of this essay precisely because of their success. The essay has appraised the most important ingredients for successful HPTs and, in conclusion, argues that the design of the team is the most vital ingredient for a successful HPT, yet is the most difficult to get right. It is more important than selecting the right team leader. However, by the very nature of a HPT, it will itself generate a resilient shared leadership culture and create other additional attributes which, collectively, are very important aspects of a successful HPT. Furthermore, a HPT can achieve outstanding results, with or without an organisation that actively fosters and supports team. Finally, a question raised by Eggensperger (2004) still remains largely unanswered and under-researched, and that is how HPTs operate after they achieve their objective. This intriguing and fascinating aspect warrants further study.

The theme he established has been very strongly adhered to. He makes good use of language to indicate position - it is not too tentative: for example, 'argues', 'concludes'. At the same time, he summarises for the reader the key points - the structure taken to drive the essay. He provides a nice closing - pointing to future research - an appropriate one in this case as his assignment needs to be based on evidence and research.

Clarity of expression or presentation

Ensure your language carries your argument effectively. If grammar I and academic English are issues for you, work on them. See also guidance on Writing.


You have more freedom in postgraduate study to take the direction you find interesting. This is where originality comes into the picture. And, this is why a breadth of reading is so important - avoid a mere summary of the literature or issue. Instead, engage with the arguments and debates in the field. Ask yourself what you find interesting about the topic under consideration. Then, defend your choice of interest.

Awkward citation here.

This could be replaced with The definition of competencies itself has been the subject of significant research and debate to the point of being tainted with contempt, as indicated in this quote from Randall (1991, cited in Woodruffe, 1991, p. 31), where a competency is just a trendy word for "nothing more, or less, than glorious human skills".

Awkward expression here.

This could be replaced with He argues that 'areas of competence' should be used to break down or state specific job roles (that is, what people have to do) and 'competencies' should refer to personal behaviour that differentiates high performers.

Missing page number for a direct quote
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