How to Write a Dissertation in Your Second Language

This commentary first appeared on the blog Research Degree Voodoo.

Students in doctoral programs whose first language is not English may worry about writing a thesis of up to 100,000 words. Their academic supervisors may also worry, but about the quality of the English their Ph.D. candidates write.

Here I would like to offer seven reasons why some of those students are probably doing better than they thought they were, and five ways they could do better.

It isn’t true, as some studies suggest, that because English isn’t your first language you must be less likely to succeed. Actually, international students at Anglophone universities pass at the same rate as local students and often complete more swiftly. So the data say you will do absolutely fine!

If you are worried about your English, or you find writing your Ph.D. dissertation in a second language hard, or you have been criticized for your English proficiency by a supervisor, this post is for you.

The advice that follows is collated from the things I find myself saying over and over again, in coaching sessions, in writing circles and in emails. You are not alone, and you can definitely succeed.

Number one, most important: Stop worrying. When we read your work, it’s generally really good.

To get into a doctoral program in an English-speaking country, you have to have demonstrated that you already have a really high level of English. We set this hurdle because we believe it is the level you need to have reached so that you can succeed in your degree. You’ve proven you meet the criteria—so you meet the criteria.

Writing a Ph.D. dissertation is hard. You need to learn a set of high-level, complex writing skills. Your native English-speaking peers also have to learn these new skills—and they will be finding it hard too.

You might not be using language correctly, or not understand a term fully, because you are still coming to understand the complex ideas that a word represents. The problem isn’t that you don’t have good enough English to write about “actor network theory,” “relativity” or “translocalism’”—these terms represent contested, unclear, difficult or developing fields of knowledge.

Unclear, error-prone or bad writing is frequently due to a lack of structure, or a sign that you still don’t yet understand the concepts and data. The problem is often not one of fluency, but of research progress. This is why writing, in students’ early years, is often very weak—it inevitably will be weaker because the project needs another three years of work to be properly developed.

Blaming the language barrier is easy. Correcting grammar and spelling is easy. Helping people with structure, developing new concepts, or understanding theory is hard. Supervisors who don’t have expertise with developing writers often default to commenting on things they know how to fix.

All in all, if you are finding it hard to write a Ph.D. dissertation in English, you are doing it right—you are learning, engaging with issues, and developing new skills to be able to write a book-length, original, scholarly work.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some strategies that are particularly helpful to Ph.D. candidates whose first language is not English. Below I list five of the techniques that candidates tell me are useful to them.

First: What are your most common errors? They are probably small!

Typically, in writing and speaking, we see that most of the trouble is due to one or two small errors that occur frequently. Common examples are subject-verb agreements, or improperly using “the.” The issue with your writing probably isn’t “everything;”’ it is likely to be about five small things.

Make a list of those small errors.

Before you hand in a draft, read it looking just for those errors. (“Do all my verbs agree? Let me look up the rule online or in my old ESL textbook again. OK, I’ll start at line one.”) This will involve going over your writing more than once, but each read-through will be quick.

As you spend time, and practice getting these things right, you will build good habits and gradually write with fewer errors.

It’s similar in speaking: “r” sounds, “th” sounds and “p/b” sounds are common problems for some people. Just practicing these sounds, and listening to native speakers to copy the sounds they make, will improve how well others understand your spoken English.

Second: Improve your academic English in 10 minutes a week.

Spend ten minutes every week reading a well-written book, article or thesis in your discipline for style, vocabulary and structure (rather than content or ideas). How do they introduce their argument? What words do they use to express concepts, or to make judgments? Are their sentences long or short? How do they express that they disagree with something? What goes in the introduction? Build up an idea of what is normal. You are expected to write using the same words and forms—so borrow their vocabulary and phrases. This is not plagiarism.

Third: Practice writing regularly.

If your doctoral program doesn’t present a lot of opportunities for writing before your third year, find other ways to maintain and develop your writing skills.

Start a blog, find a pen pal in your field at a conference and write to them each week, or keep a reflective journal as you conduct your research.

Join the editorial board of an academic journal, or write for your student newspaper.

Keep writing, otherwise you may notice that your skills go backwards.

Fourth: Write your drafts mostly in English, but if you get stuck on a word, put it down in your first language.

If you listen to bilingual people talk, you’ll hear them do this in conversation all the time.

Many students have told me that it was a mistake to write in their first language and then translate it into English—it was so much work and so much is untranslatable or difficult to render into an English academic prose style.

Instead, writing your first draft in a polyglot style allows you to make progress on your thesis, and you can later go through and translate all the individual words in one go.

Don’t spend too long looking for the best word. A clear, simple word is good. A close enough word is a good enough start. As you develop as a writer, or using feedback from your supervisor, you can make other word choices later if you need to.

No one is writing perfect academic texts–we’re all compromising and doing our best and struggling and being just good enough a lot of the time. You aren’t held to a higher standard because English isn’t your first language!

Fifth and finally: Long sentences, fancy words and jargon don’t make you sound academic.

If scholars use these techniques, we are using them because they help us explain our thinking. Many excellent academic writers are proud of their clear, concise prose. You will be writing clearly when you use a strong argument, critical analysis, deep insight and expert judgment.

There you go. Seven reasons that you’re doing great and five ways to be even greater. Now go and write with (more) confidence!

Katherine Firth teaches research and writing skills at La Trobe University, Australia. She first wrote this article for the blog Research Degree Voodoo.


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