Posted by Carolina Lara Mendoza @carislaris
Doing a PhD is hard. Writing a thesis in English when English is not your first language is harder. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2015, more than four million students were enrolled in higher education programs outside their home countries. Since 2005, international PhD students at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, have contributed to 45% of all PhD students. This means that from the period 2014-2016, approximately 2,552 students have enrolled in the doctoral program at Auckland Uni. That’s great! And it illustrates the good work that the University and the government have done to reduce fees and make more scholarships available. At the end of the day, we live in an era of globalisation and English is its language.
Before enrolling in a doctoral program overseas, every PhD student must prove they are proficient in English. This is measured through either a TOEFL test, an IELTS test or by an internal English examination. But does passing those tests mean we are ready to write a dissertation in English? From my experience, I must say that is not enough. Furthermore, PhD students who are non-native English speakers are expected to complete the degree with all the struggles while still learning advanced English (academic English). I’m not discounting the efforts of the University of Auckland, because we’re provided with workshops aiming to improve PhD student’s academic English, but think it shouldn’t just be up to the institution and the student. Supervisors of students for whom English is not their first language also play an important role in providing adequate and constructive written feedback, and need to be aware this will likely take time and patience. Raul Pacheco-Vega recently tweeted something of great importance “For those of you who supervise doctoral dissertations in English to be written by non-native English speakers; particularly those of you whose first language IS English: please remember and check your privilege: you get to write in your own language. They may lack the background”.
In the meantime, here are some tips that have helped me to write my thesis in English:
- Be proud of yourself and celebrate small achievements. Sounds hard while doing a PhD but it is important. Remember you’re doing something great by writing a thesis in a second language! You wrote a whole section? Celebrate. You wrote two sentences? Celebrate. Everything is a success!
- Embrace feedback from supervisors. After 3.5 years of doing a PhD I still find this challenging. Getting feedback on a manuscript makes me feel anxious and quite often I feel like I’ve failed. It cannot be further from the truth. Feedback is the only way we can improve our written academic English!
- Practice writing as much as you can. And don’t leave it until you start writing your thesis. For me writing grant applications at the early stages of my PhD (some of them have been successful!) was very useful, as was writing blog entries throughout, which was good for learning how to target my writing to different audiences.
- Have a friend in your field proof-read your writing. Getting feedback from someone other than your supervisors is a good idea and helps you gain practice (and confidence).
- Use the available tools. Either at your institution, books or even online. I’ve found that thesaurus.com is incredibly useful when I can’t think of a synonym or when looking for a word’s meaning.
- Don’t give up. If you’re consistent and patient, you’ll get there. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Carolina Lara M. is a PhD Candidate within the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her research interests focus on seed dispersal networks within fragmented landscapes. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jason Tylianakis, Karine David, and Anna Santure.