Writing a PhD in your second language: 7 reasons you’re doing great and 5 ways to do even better

Students who don’t speak English as their first language are often very worried about writing an 80-100,000 word thesis. And many supervisors are also worried about the writing of their ESL PhD candidates.

But in the literature, we contest the ‘deficit’ model—the idea that because English isn’t your first language you must be less likely to succeed. You’re actually doing great.  In fact, international students pass at the same rate as local students and often complete more swiftly. So the data says you will do absolutely fine! 

If you are worried about your English, you find writing your PhD in a second language hard, or you have been criticised for you language by a supervisor, this post is for you.

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

  1. Number one, most important: Stop worrying. When we read your work, it’s generally really good.
  2. To get into a PhD program in an English-speaking country, you have to have demonstrated you already have a really high level of English. We set this hurdle, because we believe it is the level you need to succeed in your degree. You’ve proven you meet the criteria—so you meet the criteria. (Go you!)
  3. Writing a PhD is hard. You need to learn a whole slew 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.
  4. You might not be using language correctly, or not understand a term fully, because you are still coming to understand the complex ideas that word stands in for. The problem isn’t that you don’t have good enough English for ‘actor network theory’, ‘relativity’ or ‘translocalism’—but that these terms represent contested, unclear, difficult or developing fields of knowledge.
  5. Unclear, error-prone or bad writing is frequently due to a lack of structure, or a sign that you still don’t understand the concepts and data yet. The problem is often not one of fluency, but of research progress. (This is why early years writing is often very weak—it inevitably will be weaker because the project needs another 3 years of work to be properly developed!)
  6. 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.
  7. All in all, if you are finding it hard to write a PhD 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!

Okay, so a lucky 7 of reasons why you’re doing great and don’t need to worry so much about writing a PhD in a second language. 

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That doesn’t mean there aren’t some strategies that are particularly helpful to ESL PhD candidates. Below I list 5 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 happen frequently. Common examples are subject-verb agreements, or using ‘the’. The issue with your writing probably isn’t ‘everything’, it is likely to be about 5 small things.

  • Make a list of the things.
  • Before you hand in a draft, do a read through just for that error. (‘Do all my verbs agree? Let me look up the rule online or in my old ESL textbook again. Okay, start at line one’). This will involve going over your writing more than once, but each read through will be fast.
  • As you spend time on it, and practice getting it right, you will build good habits, so you will slowly write less error-prone text.
  • It’s similar in speaking: ‘r’ sounds, ‘th’ sounds and ‘p/b’ sounds are common issues. Just practicing those sounds, and listening to native speakers to copy the noises they make, will improve how well people understand your English beyond all recognition.

Second: Improve your academic English in 10 minutes a week.
Spend 10 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 signpost, or make judgements? Are their sentences long or short? How do they show when they disagree? 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 PhD doesn’t give a lot of writing opportunities before your third year, find other ways to keep up your writing skills.

  • Start a blog, find a pen pal in your field at a conference and write to them each week, keep a reflective journal as you research.
  • Join the editorial board of an academic journal, write for your student newspaper.
  • Keep writing, otherwise you may notice 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’ve ever listened to bilingual people talk, you’ll hear them do this in conversation all the time.)

  • I asked a lot of students and they said it was terrible to try to write in their first language and 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 in a polyglot style for your first draft allows you to make progress on your thesis, and then can 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 those techniques, we are using them because they help us explain our thinking better. Many excellent academic writers are proud of their clear, concise texts.

  • You will ‘sound academic’ when you describe academic thoughts:
    a strong argument, critical analysis, deep insight, expert judgment.

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There you go. 7 reasons you’re doing great and 5 ways to be even greater. You’re awesome–now go and write with (more) confidence! 

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Caveats:
This post is influenced by my experience with doctoral candidates writing in English as a second or further language. I do not teach English as a second or further language, or English for Academic Purposes. I do teach doctoral writing, and I do have almost 2 decades experience in the area.
I am using ESL as a catch all term, even though I know this term has significant draw backs. I sometimes draw on data about international students even though many international students speak English as a first language, and many ‘local’ students may speak another language as their mother tongue—but we have better data about fee-types than about family background. I’m doing this because people know what ESL means, when they may be unfamiliar with other terms, and that this is a term often used by the students who talk to me about this issue, the exact people I’m hoping will stumble on this post via Google search or social media recommendation. I also feel this term clearly excludes people for whom reading and writing in English is  fluent and effortless, even if they speak another language at home.

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