a double plus bad PhD experience

A few weeks ago someone posted this comment on patter. I think it’s worth reposting.

As a non-native English Phd researcher, my conclusion is that doing a PhD written in English language is almost doing a PhD in creative English writing. In that sense, I wonder if all PhDs in social sciences and humanities in the UK could be clubbed together as a PhD in English creative writing? There is an unwritten minimum requirement that is not specified when we apply for the admissions and we realize this much later in the process that we don’t have the basic level of academic English writing.

I feel discriminated when I see my supervisors happy and so complacent with native English writers who might not have any depth in their arguments but make up that deficiency due to their comfort of expressing in their native English words that non-native English speakers don’t have. we need twice the amount of time to write. Don’t universities train supervisors to know that international students who comprise nearly 50% (at my university including EU students) of the student intake and that we start from a very different level as we don’t speak English at home and that they should be patient and not judge our research purely based on grammar?is there any solution to this instead ofspending thousands of pounds hiring a copy editors in addition to our staggering international student tuition fee and maintence costs while doing PhD in UK? Don’t universities owe some responsibility to help international students get the academic support we require like additional time, extension, and other different writing support?

I am very proud about my thesis but it is my writing that is letting me down to the point where I see my supervisors bullying me in every supervision and we never discuss my arguments and concepts at all. It’s commas, hyphens, and other typos that is discuss instead. I have no where to turn. I am devastated and demoralized. My problem is so embarrassing that I cannot even discuss with colleagues nor the head of the department. I know many who are like in my situation but don’t have the courage to come out. I have lost confidence in my supervisors and don’t want them to write me letters of reference.

I’m sure this is not an isolated experience. I’m sure that the problems described here – universities that provide inadequate support for both students and their supervisors – are not terribly unusual. Does anyone have any helpful advice to offer?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in English language, international PhD, supervision and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to a double plus bad PhD experience

  1. migdalit says:

    The only advise I can give is to talk to others that have been in the same shoes; talk to more senior academics that also did their PhD as non-native English speakers.

    With me the problem was not so much the actual language skills, but the different writing culture. Speaking to more senior academics that have worked in both my country of origin and in the anglo-american region helped me gain awareness of just what is going on, and helped me find ways how to better “switch” between the two.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Equally, I have dyslexia, and during my masters I had a dreadful time trying to get my tutor to talk about content. Her feedback on my penultimate dissertation was : “you need to right-justify the margin.” ?!?!!! Furthermore, the sheer effort that went into the final drafts wasn’t acknowledged. Twenty years ago it put me off academic learning. Lucky today I’m more disheartened by unprofessional behavour than my own shortcomings! (I have a super-visor! He seems to understand what’s important- not just cosmetic)


    • Sandra says:

      The thing is, doctoral training is not meant to merely benefit the individual. It is meant to train future scholars (and weed out those who want to become scholars but aren’t actually suited for it). If one cannot keep up with doctoral work, how could one keep up with the much more rigorous demands of work as a university scholar? Not everyone has what it takes to be a scholar. Many very clever, capable, lovely people who would thrive elsewhere lack the requisite skills to become scholars.


  3. I read this at the time, and tweeted it to the attention of the #eapchat and #tleap communities (English for Academic Purposes) … not sure what my colleagues thought about this or whether they in turn responded. Many (most?) UK universities provide EAP classes at insessional level (for students who are already enrolled on a degree programme such as a Masters or PhD) and I advise all of my students to take this up because it often comes in the form of one-to-one consultations with an EAP expert (who, ideally, will have a background in applied linguistics, a specialism in EAP, and will also have research writing experience). It is probably too late for this doctoral researcher, but if there are students and supervisors reading this who are currently in this alienating situation, then knowing that EAP provision exists may help future students. There is a lot of support for this, it’s just a question of who provides it: some universities outsource this, others have EAP units built into their Graduate Service programmes, others still have them as part of Student Services, in my case, EAP tuition falls within the remit of the School of Education. Doing a PhD is hard enough, and I dread to think what it must be like when further layers of doubt and uncertainty are piled on because of unfamiliarity of the academic discourses, something that even so-called native speakers find challenging.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anna says:

    I am a PhD candidate in my last year and I have the exact same experience and feelings.


  5. nkechychuks says:

    As a foreign student doing a PhD, I have asked senior academics if supervisors are trained to meet the complex needs of the wide range of students who come to the UK from other parts of the world. It doesn’t appear so. If you are lucky enough, you might be assigned a supervisor who has the experience and cultural dexterity to sympathise with you and help you overcome the barriers to writing. I am quite lucky, in fact I count myself blessed to have had a supervisor like that. I cannot say the same for many others that I know. It is expected that with the rate at which the UK is advertising higher education around the world and mostly inviting non-native speakers, universities will ensure academics can handle the complexities that international students sometimes come with.


  6. neva roslyn berryman says:

    I do not know the answer for this person, but feel I must express empathy for them and make some possibly naive suggestions. As a native English speaker and a new research student I do not have many skills in academic writing yet either. In the university I attend we have what is called a learning centre where students can go to get help. It is no shame or stigma to go there and ask for help. Many of us do that to ensure we are on the right track. There are a number of writing skills workshops advertised by the learning centre at my university perhaps there are some at yours? For someone who feels bullied there should be a counsellor or student representative that a student can go to seek help urgently. Whoever wrote this should try very hard not to feel demoralised or devastated. Instead imagine your supervisor trying to do an academic research paper in your language! Could they ? Could they even express themselves as eloquently, as you have done in English, in your native language? Would they even attempt it? Have you ever tried to tell you supervisor when they concentrate on the punctuation how you feel? Is your work is so good they feel they don’t have to comment on it ? If so take heart! Are there councillors at your university who are there to help? There is no shame attached to seeing a councillor they are there to help you look at a problem a different way and help you solve it yourself. Can you try to take the emotional feelings out of your problem? Can you see the writing style not as something embarrising but as a yet to be learned communication strategy that needs to be mastered in order to complete your thesis ? I am sure you should be proud of what you have achieved so far.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jeanne de Montbaston says:

    I’m a first-language English speaker, but like Mole, I have dyslexia (and agree right-justified margins are evil!). While I would have hated to spend supervisions discussing ‘commas, hyphens, and other typos’, I wish it had happened!

    My supervisors were lovely and kind, and talked to me a lot about concepts, but somehow we miscommunicated about just how bad my spelling, grammar and general level of presentation was. I don’t blame them, but I do wonder if your supervisors are putting you through this because they know that it has to be done, and better now than later? I failed my viva corrections first time around because I’d simply never grasped how bad the problem was, and you do *not* want that to happen.

    I’m not making light of bullying (hope that is clear), but just wanted to offer a perspective that might show why they’re making such a fuss.

    It would be much better if trivialities didn’t matter so much, but they do!


  8. Valerie says:

    My experience was exactly the same as Jeanne’s and my viva examiners were scathing about my poor proofreading. What to me seemed the trifling matter of no full stop at the end of each note seemed to incense them. Much better that these issues are ironed out before you get to the viva. Look carefully at hard copy examples of your department’s previously successful doctorates to see what you are aiming for. Be obsessively nitpicking about any formatting requirements of your institution. As Jeanne remarks these trivialities are sadly important.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pat thomson says:

      I don’t think the comment intends to negate the importance of technical matters. The writer is suggesting, as I read it, that the focus ought to first be on revising the actual research and its staging. I’d argue that that comes first, with proofreading as a final thesis stage. And yes, proofing certainly is important!

      Liked by 3 people

  9. The issues raised by Pat’s anonymous commentator are deeper than the requirement to produce polished copy, and I don’t think it is fair to reduce the concerns raised in this post to stating the obvious, namely that we all need good grammar and spelling before submitting our work. That, surely, goes without saying.

    The issue here is about what counts as knowledge, how to recognise it as ‘knowledge’, and whether spelling and grammar mistakes should be prejudicing the way we engage with somebody’s ideas (there is also evidence that good journal editors can see the ideas beyond the form, so why shouldn’t supervisors?). A perfectly penned sentence may be spouting more nonsense than a grammatically disjointed one, so the issue here is about whether supervisors are hearing what their students are saying, regardless of how they are spelling it or pronouncing it.

    As academia further diversifies into wider landscapes of international voices and perspectives, teachers need to listen more carefully to their students because they can no longer afford to default into their own comfort zones of what counts as worthwhile knowledge and what counts as the ‘ideal’ way to express it.

    Sometimes a spelling mistake or a grammatical error can mask a perspective that needs to be made explicit, not dismissed because it cloaked in a error of style or mode.

    Without going into the details here, there is a vast body of research in the field of Academic Literacies that deals with this – see for example this free e-book (aimed at teachers of academic writing, but reassuring for students, too):

    http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/19177/1/Mary_Scott_V1_formatting.pdf (and my review of it: https://www.academia.edu/9500097/Review_of_Voicing_the_text_by_Mary_Scott).

    Mary Scott uses the metaphor of the ‘ghost’ in the text to refer to orthographic and grammatical errors that may actually be concealing new and fertile ideas. Ergo, teachers, supervisors included, should perhaps be engaging more in what Theesa Lillis calls ‘talk back’ in order to tease out the thought that may be obscured by the ‘error’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anon says:

      I totally agree with this view but also like to add that supervisors /examiners too need to go beyond commenting ‘address expression’ etc…to specify which sections in nearly 100,000 text they like us to address. What is irritating and important that they feel must change. Otherwise we will be left guessing which sections to change, what words are bothering them. I must also say some of the comments in this thread is so irritating and missing the point as watching TV is not an issue the big issue is power of specific knowledge over the other views of the world.


  10. Business academic says:

    The university I work at offers academic English speaking and writing classes, learning advisors and student advisors. None of these help overly much if you do not grasp the language, and the requirements for a research degree are higher than most people envisage. I remember attending a session where the speaker (whose name I do not remember) suggested that an IELTS of 7.5 was the minimum for academic English. My university has raised their cut off from 6 to 6.5 – a start but not really adequate. I have supervised 6 non English speaking background students to completion in a research degree and it has been torturous for all of us, with an editor paid at the end to copyright the document (duly acknowledged). The people I have supervised are intelligent and incredibly hard working, but they just don’t get the subtleties in the language. Subtleties matter in qualitative theses in the social sciences. It is very difficult to understand the research and to be able to provide guidance, if you just cannot understand the point they’re trying to make. Weekly meetings with discussions can help clarify the main points though, but so much gets lost in translation.
    I feel for the student and my advice is to embed yourself in the language, talk to native speakers over coffee, watch television, read anything from magazines to fiction, because grasp of the language will bring rewards. I also feel for the supervisor because it is a massively frustrating experience to have a student that you know is talented and try as you might their language skills make the meaning almost impossible to grasp.


  11. I have experienced very similar situations/feelings during my PhD, where I was told early in my first year that I need to proofread my text. A that early a stage it can be very de-motivating to hear this, as I am thinking I will NEVER get to finish my PhD if everything needs to be proofread before it goes to my supervisor. I have largely ignored my supervisor on such comments. Now in my third year I have even been told I have very bad english, it is kind of comical. I KNOW my english is fine (I’ve done my undergrad and masters in the UK!!). I know it may not be perfect: that I at times write too long sentences and don’t quite know how to punctuate appropriately; and that at times I put a word in the wrong place, where a native-English speaker may hear that it is wrong, but I don’t. I also feel very annoyed that I did not get comments on my writing (the research side), that my supervisor simply could not see past the errors in the text to see the arguments. I know it is possible, because I have done so when marking essays from exchange students. It is a shame that a student-supervisor relationship should suffer so much from such small things as minor (negative) comments here and there about the poor language/grammar/punctuation. I know that I need to have my thesis proofread at the very end before submitting it. But unless someone pays for it throughout my PhD, then they just have to suffer with me and my poor language until the end. The thing about “bullying” in a PhD is problematic, because us students might feel bullied, but we really have no place to go with our concerns, as our supervisor should be that closest confidant in many ways, and they should be motivating and encouraging us, rather than making us feel shit about everything we do. I am certainly jealous of those PhD student’s who talk about lovely supervisors, who hang out with them after work, and whose supervisors state their role as cheerleaders. Not my experience at all. I have no real advice to give regarding this, other than try and ignore most of the comments for the time being and just keep them in mind for when you are working on your final draft. Don’t take the negative stuff personally. I always try to think that there is some other reason than me, why my supervisor would want to try and pick holes in everything I present (because after all, I would like to think that my supervisor wants me to succeed!). And lastly, if it is any consolation – you are not alone in this.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Can you exchange written materials – chapters or even sections of chapters – with another student who is a native English speaker, and check their papers for ideas and logical flow? Even native English speakers make mistakes. No one is perfect. Another idea is to join a website like PhinisheD ( http://www.phinished.org/ ). They have forums in which you can ask other people to check your writing. You can check the writing of other people who are writing in your language. A web search might help you to locate someone to exchange writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I sympathise with this difficulty. I am a copyeditor, and although I have never proofread or edited a thesis myself, I know many editors who offer this service. As far as I know this is usually paid for by the student, or sometimes their university or funding body. It does seem unjust that students should have to pay for this themselves, as this discriminates against non-native English speakers and those with dyslexia. Do any universities have a fund to help non-native English speakers with their academic writing, through training or editing? The Society for Editors and Proofreaders (of which I am a member) has an FAQ on using a copyeditor or proofreader that could be useful to readers here: http://sfep.org.uk/pub/faqs/fusing.asp, and they also have guidance for editors about working on theses. (I now manage a team of editors to work for researchers and publishers and also train STEM researchers in writing and getting published.)


  14. Anon says:

    As Julia notes this is not just about spelling. I too had a very bad experience while I am confident in my contribution to the knowledge and the perspective from the culture and communities I study in the requirement albeit not explicitly demanded is to present it in a Eurocentric arguments which is not always easy if we want to be true and authentic to the voices of the people we study. Also the cultural differences that exist between the ‘north’ and ‘south’ in various respect and the power relations are an important issue that also applies in the student – supervisor, thesis- examiner relations. I am devastated too by the comments about the English language from the examiner’s to the extent that disabled me to move on with the corrections this is despite the use of proof readers and my own two supervisors checking it too. Examiners have undue power over our work and kill creativity and now I am desperately trying to learn ‘copying’ mainstream ways of describing and imitating my examiners including adding their work. This kills my own work, my own identity and more importantly the voices of the people that I so desperately want to represent (not claim giving voice but a hearing to their views)! Glad this important aspect is coming out but common Patter and Others use your privileged position and voice to to set some agendas that address this important issues of inequality and power. In my case I am sacrificing lots of time in which I could be using to do more transformational work in the area of my study by still being bogged down to do correction in the way that pleases examiner not changing the substance of my arguments but presentation. I cant wait to finish and publish the exact original thesis that is my own when time allows.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sandra says:

      It sounds like your work would make a very valuable contribution to the field if it were published in your native tongue (or a language in which you were actually fluent). Since your English is not up to par, perhaps you could publish in another language, then coordinate translation of your work into English? That would probably work better for everyone in the long term than demanding that English universities lower our standards to accommodate your individual needs and ambition.


  15. I empathise completely with this experience and think that such an experience could and should have been avoided. .i think working with a proof reader periodically throughout the PhD would have really helped, as this would have given the opportunity for learning and adoption of academic words, structures and conventions critical to bring ‘ authoritative voice’ and academic identity to her work.. Im glad though she feels proud of her thesis, well done!


    • BNV says:

      ِWorking with a proofreader in every single draft COST a lot of money.


      • Ps. Yes I know paying for professional proofreading can be costly, which is why I said ‘periodically’ which doesn’t mean ‘every single draft’. I do know that there are some native speaking students (like me) who would gladly offer to proofread a non- native speakers work, on an ongoing basis for a small fee, which would enable you to learn the conventions and structures etc, give continuity, develop security as well as the benefit of someone who is learning your topic as you do, ( and so can ask u intelligent questions and clarify unclear points).


  16. I have found this a good resource – http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/writing-resources/editing
    It can keep both student and supervisor on the same page about what type of feedback and at what stage of the writing process. Also, my institute uses a Meta-Macro-Micro framework (developed by Cynthia Nelson) .
    For instance, at the 1st draft / Meta stage – you (and Supervisors) are focusing on academic rigour. Does your argument make sense? Is there logic? How conceptually sound is your work? Is the research purpose/focus clear? Does it relate to disciplinary discourses and knowledges?

    At later stages, then ‘micro’ issues are addressed- spelling, grammar, precision etc.

    It can be good to have a formal agreement, or even flag in the accompanying email when you send your work, the level of feedback that you are expecting.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. swipel says:

    Tricky as arguments, otherwise content, is wrapped up in a language that must meet the minimum requirements even though knowing the language does not automatically imply cogency. As well as having brilliant supervisors at Sheffield Hallam University, I have Doctoral colleagues who would read my draft chapters and make comments both about the content and suggest improving certain phrases that may obscure meanings. Today I have had two books published in English. As well as teaming up with peers/colleagues, highlighting this problem in the way that it has been here, I would say it’s not something to be embarrassed about but rather something to consider in the on-going process of learning


  18. Kate says:

    I’m a native English speaker and my supervisors were intent on correcting my grammar and style as I was developing my ideas – I barely even knew what I was writing let alone worried about the style! I wanted feedback on the content at least initially because so much of what was written was changing anyway, but I did not receive much of that kind of support. I did ask for it, too. I imagine that your experience of this would have been worse than mine given what you have described. I ended up with a breakdown and a year off to recover but with ongoing problems with supervision (feedback on my work was just part of a hugely horrible experience), so I really feel for you.

    I second Eleanor Carsen’s advice. I also highly recommend speaking with one of your university counsellors. I attribute my being able to return to my PhD and imminent (I hope!) finish to assistance from a wonderful university counsellor.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Anon says:

    It sounds like the original commenter is feeling unfairly judged and let down – he/she should be reassured that it’s human nature to make the odd mistake, and I’m sure it’s normal for a PhD student to have moments of feeling of overwhelmed by the judgemental nature of the writing/supervisory process (I know I do and I’m a native English speaker…). I would definitely urge any student in this position to take all the support they can get from their institution, including counselling and extra language lessons.

    When asking for feedback, I think it’s helpful to guide the person giving the feedback, so they know whether you are looking for advice on spelling, grammar, style, content/argument or whatever. Of course, all of these are important, so if your supervisor is only giving you feedback in one area, it’s a good idea to ask them some specific questions about the aspects that you would really appreciate their guidance on.


  20. Reading from a US perspective—recently I did a guest lecture for a newly offered class on “Writing for Publication” at a nursing school in Seattle. This class came about because a certain cohort of PhD students (mostly native speakers) kept going to the administration and demanding direct support in developing academic writing skills.

    In some schools/disciplines it seems that “writing skills” are assumed, or thought to be learned by osmosis, I don’t know. Until the end of the process, at which point it emerges that these skills were never in fact taught. Writing is a complex skill that needs to be taught—even for native speakers let alone nonnative speakers. And writing is something that academics need to engage in again and again as a central part of their work after achieving their PhDs.

    So after acknowledging the pain, and the good advice in the previous comments about finding support and setting expectations, I also see a need for organizing to demand that universities provide specific resources for students to learn these important skills.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Thanks for reposting that comment Pat. It resonates with many obviously, me included.
    I am not native, English is my fourth language and my first year and a half on the PhD programme were not easy, to say the least, regarding the writing “element”. I think my good fortune of having excellent supervisors, one of which not being native English speaker himself, helped me clarify issues I encountered with the comments I received on my drafts and what not. And that is my first advice; be open with what you are experiencing/feeling with regard to your writing and the comments you receive. The sooner the better.

    It is not easy, I will admit that. Being in a such postgraduate programme entails certain expectations from others (& may I say from your own self too!). Academic writing is not easy, it is a practice that needs continuous refining and also reflective thinking on one’s own style and voice. This includes examples like you mentioned (grammar and punctuation).

    I realise I might be stating the obvious but if you do not clarify issues/notes such as your wish for less concentration on commas, hyphens, and semicolons and much more on argumentation, core ideas, and methods there is a good chance they, your supervisors, do not know that. More importantly, you need to explain the “why” as well. What I mean by that is maybe supervisors have expectations that they are actually giving equal (or enough) balance on both scales and/or under the idea that both, concepts and grammaticals, need to go hand-in-hand all the way through the PhD. Supervisors might be under the impression that this is implicitly understood and if you do not tell them otherwise they will continue doing so and assume that you are happy with this.

    I am not suggesting that there is no responsibility on supervisors to be a bit proactive and anticipate such issue among international students, I am speaking of my own encounter and experience as well as from colleagues’ that I know closely. Mine worked out well, I clarified my stance about the feedback, acknowledged I need to work harder on my academic writing, and showed I am aware it is an integral part of my PhD and I need to address it. It made things easier for all of us and I even managed to have a co-authored publication that I am glad about.

    My other advice, as many have stated, would be to look for support. No matter how uncomfortable it seems I’ll just say this: it is worth it! There are many workshops, support groups, etc.. that one can join. It takes time and effort but remembering to treat it as a crucial part of the PhD journey helps in getting the ball rolling.

    All the best of luck in what is left in your research work. It is one more episode of the bumpy PhD ride, you shall overcome it.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. swipel says:

    I know that this is all about the writing. But in cross context studies, the problem non-native English speakers, most of whom are non-westerners, is not only about writing in a borrowed language but also using ‘borrowed’ ideas. It was frustrating for me to use a theoretical frame and be questioned by a colleague that the idea/theory was developed by a Westerner, as if using it was effectively borrowing and therefore taking it out of context. ‘Double de-contextualisation, a methodological myth or reality’ is a book chapter that effectively responds to the challenge; in ‘Africa through structuration theory-ntu’.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. I wonder what “Freaknomore” – the commentator who inspired this post and has spurred this debate – makes of all these responses! Clearly s/he has opened a can of proverbial worms!

    A very timely, controversial, and relevant debate at that! Thank you, Pat, because internationalisation raises uncomfortable questions on what counts as acceptable academic writing, and acceptable academic knowledge, and I suspect this controversy is unlikely to be resolved simply through recourse to a competent proofreader.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Am I the only one here who worries about whether people who can’t write in English should be admitted into PhD programmes in the UK? I’m down here in Australia. The problem is here too. As someone who only speaks English, there is simply no way I would attempt to enrol in a French doctorate, for example. The idea of enrolling in a programme where I would be expected to deliver a thesis in a language I do not speak fluently strikes me as selfish and presumptive. Exactly why should supervisors be expected to ignore poor grammar, missing periods, and incorrect spelling? They won’t ignore such errors in the writing of a native English speaker. Why should a foreigner get a free pass? It’s a simple matter. If you don’t speak the language fluently, don’t enrol in the degree. Plenty of options are open to people these days. But if you don’t speak a language fluently you should simply accept that doctorates in that language are closed to you, until you learn the language properly. I think there are some entitlement issues at play here…

    Liked by 1 person

    • pat thomson says:

      The commenter doesn’t actually say grammar etc isn’t important. The concern is that 1. the substantive ideas of their research aren’t being dealt with and 2.that the supervisor doesn’t seem to have any expertise in supporting someone writing in a different language – and this in a university that is happy to take very substantive fees. I think the big questions here are really about institutional policy and practice as well as the agency of the doc researcher to get some additional or different support.

      Liked by 4 people

    • Dwayne, the issue here is much wider and ultimately relates to geopolitical and economic questions of linguistic dominance. English happens to be the language of global research so many students have no choice other than to get a degree through the medium of English if they want to be part of global conversations and transformations. Your example of doing a degree in French suggests that this would be in the context of a personal choice rather than necessity dictated by access to the job market or to the research communities that get funded. But global trends are forcing thousands of students (and the parents who are usually the unsung sponsors and who in many cases go to great lengths to give their children the best chances in life) to spend ever-increasing amounts of money to get English degrees.

      So I think some responsibility to support students does lie with the institutions that are part of the cause of the hegemony of English, and this includes the academic publishing industry. Not everybody has the good fortune to have been born and educated in the currently dominant English-speaking world. That trend may well change, and it could well be our children who have to do degrees in Chinese, Arabic, or other …. and yes, they will have to get up to speed, too, but let’s not forget that given the choice, most of us would choose to do our intellectual workouts in our native tongues.


      • I reiterate, there are entitlement issues at play here. Student feels “bullied” and has “lost confidence” in supervisors. Why? Because they are enforcing basic literacy standards. We are taking inclusivity too far when people who are not fluent in English feel they are being “bullied” by professors when they have the temerity to point out egregious spelling and grammar mistakes. Just look at the original commenter’s text. Filled with grammatical errors, evincing a stunted grasp of the language. The doctorate award is supposed to certify this individual has made a substantial and original contribution to the literature. How can this be when it reads in broken English? I agree that it is unfortunate the universities are taking money from unqualified applicants. The solution, however, is not to give them special treatment, but to stop admitting unqualified applicants. Otherwise, all too often these unqualified and underqualified candidates turn to essay mills. Witness, for example, The PhD Consultancy. Check it out at http://www.thephdconsultancy.com/ – these slimeballs will actually sell you a thesis. Unqualified applicants are being admitted to candidacies they are ill-equipped to complete. To cope, they sometimes turn to fraud (and myriad shades of grey in between). I’m obviously not accusing anyone, and I don’t enjoy playing the bad guy, but isn’t the solution obvious here? If you do not have the language skills required, you should not be admitted to the degree. Julia said my French example was a matter of personal choice. Well… Nobody is forcing non-English speakers to take a PhD in English. It’s a matter of choice for them, too. And it’s a privilege. If you can’t speak English, you’re not being forced to take a PhD in English. It’s a goal of yours, a wish. But you’re not qualified. So, sorry. Come back once you’ve learned English. We know you have big dreams, but those dreams have pre-requisites. Yes, some people were born into the English language. But those are the breaks. There has to be a standard, a baseline. It’s not a matter of discrimination, it’s a matter of setting standards. I hope I’ve made that clear, and with much respect to all.

        Liked by 1 person

      • swipel says:

        Every university should have a set of admission criteria and minimum language skills (whether French, English or Lingala…) for their candidates. But there comes a time when language is/should be incorporated as a research methodological skill where tutors will need to be equipped to help depending on the varying needs of the students.


      • John Earle says:

        A major part of the problem is that some universities are agreeing to admit a student onto a postgraduate degree course whilst setting the admission criteria unrealistically low. Why? Sadly, it is rooted in financial pressures within the universities in so many cases. The low language requirements for non-native English speakers are administered extremely flexibly in some cases. It is grossly unfair to the student to admit him on to a course for which he is not fully prepared but for which he pays a very substantial amount of money. This raises the expectation that having accepted the student, the university will provide whatever support is needed – but this so often does not happen.

        Many universities are paragons of virtue in this respect but sadly there are some which are not. Prospective students should get a statement in writing before admission as to exactly what support will be offered in case of language problems. This should give the student a starting point when looking for the university to fulfil its promises.


    • I think your comment’s are somewhat unfair towards the original commentator and also to anybody else doing their degree or doctorate in a foreign language. I don’t think this particularly commentator’s writing is quite as terrible as you seem to think it is. I have certainly marked much worse texts from native english speaking undergrads, who know absolutely nothing about punctuation etc.
      There is also huge difference between speaking a language fluently, and writing it fluently, and perhaps even understanding it fluently. I consider myself fluent in all those regards (and then English is only my third language), but that doesn’t stop my supervisor commenting on my poor english. CONSTANTLY. And it wears you down. As some have said here, it is not just about non-native speakers, but dyslexic etc. Surely it is only fair to expect some effort from supervisors also concerning this. Would you tell a dyslexic to come back and do the doctorate only when they have overcome their dyslexia?
      You could certainly not argue that foreigners get a “free pass” as you so eloquently put it, given the staggering amounts of fees they pay for their degrees in the UK. Much of the responsibility here lies on the accepting institution, who really should support struggling students and not just take their money.
      If you also give some consideration to the fact that many students take up to five years to complete their doctorate, then perhaps they should be entitled that same five years to accrue a sufficient level of language skills. Language (and particularly academic language), is after all something you continue to learn, nobody is born fluent. So I say let a a student who has sufficient english skills come and do their doctorate, and let them learn a better english over the time of their degree. It’s not like you know everything about your PhD topic at the start, so why should you know everything about english at the start?!

      Liked by 1 person

      • In response to Dwayne, above, nobody is questioning the need for linguistic accuracy and standards – to question this would be tantamount to endorsing the law of the ridiculous reverse.

        What is concerning, however, is that Dwayne seems to be conflating:

        – ‘linguistic standards’ (whatever those are and for whom, given the still very current debates between descriptive and prescriptive grammarians, the varieties of Englishes and their hegemonic status (cf Canagarajah, Krachu, Crystal), the modes of academic communication (which are not uniquely confined to writing), and as Paula rightly says, we ALL have to learn academic discourse)


        – ‘relevant contribution to knowledge’.

        The latter can, and does, occur in spite of the former; and given that much of the doctoral journey is processual and formative rather than summative, one would expect good supervisors to be foregrounding and engaging more with the contribution to knowledge. The best linguistic fit for expressing that contribution usually ensues from a joint and negotiated effort, not as a pre-packaged formula, but as part of the disciplinary dialogue that supervisors should be initiating and maintaining. With students for whom English is an additional language or who are unfamiliar with academic discourse this may require a more explicit focus, but it shouldn’t detract from engaging with the research.

        Without knowing the exact details of Freaknomore’s situation, we will never know what actually went on there, but your comments, Dwayne, reveal a general animosity towards those who may not be meeting your standards of linguistic dexterity despite the fact that they may be contributing egregiously to our knowledge systems which in turn benefits us all: diversity in academia boosts knowledge creation rather than allowing it to stagnate because of monolingual and monocultural myopia.

        In any case, in spite of your unfounded and disrespectful protestations to the contrary, the anonymous commenter has actually written well enough to be published by Patter, read by thousands, and have us all debating the finer implications of their lamentation, and as a qualified EAP tutor, I’d be inclined to give him/her high marks for engaging with the genre of academic ‘blog post/commentary’ since they have pretty much fulfilled the social goal-oriented function that such writing requires!


    • Iya says:

      Well, I guess you missing link between being fluent in English in general, being good researcher or making minor grammar mistakes. I’m fluent in speaking, and yes I do make English grammar mistakes. Thus I have valuable working experience in my field and ability to generate and develop concepts. Does it make me worse that any native English speaker who don’t make any grammar mistake, but has an “empty head”, or lack of practical experience ? I’m very doubt in that. The author’s point was that we are (none native English speakers) very often abused based only on the grammar mistakes, and not on our research ability or/ and working experience. I’m PhD US student .English is my 5 th language and my native language has very different grammar. So, instead of working in research I suppose to clean floors only because I do have an accent and minor grammar mistakes? A lot of native speakers speculate on that. It is very comfortable to show superiority based only on correct grammar. Do you speak any other languages than your native?


  25. Jane S says:

    Thank you, Pat, for throwing a spotlight on these questions. I’m with Julia Molinari as well as others here, and the sheer number of comments appended testifies just how many are suffering. While UK universities are admitting an ever-increasing number of overseas students (well, they *do* bring in a lot of money, don’t they?) English for the non-native speaker / writer is a major hurdle ~ albeit some foreigners speak better than many a UK native, and are far more syntactically correct.

    Academic writing is difficult enough for those of us who *are* natives, but even we can suffer from over-zealous crits which focus only on “commas, hyphens, and other typos” and we’re “devastated and demoralized.” Too true ~ I wasted a whole academic year at the beginning of my research because of similar issues. I nearly gave up on the whole enterprise. Nit-picking in matters of punctuation, margins, justifying, formatting and indents, at the expense of a researcher trying to convey *thoughts* in the first instance, made me believe the topic was worthless. The insistent refrain of ‘it’s not what you write, it’s the way that you write it’ was very nearly curtains for the project. Perhaps supervisors didn’t actually have any cogent comments to make, and seized on what they could merely to have something to say? In the real world of commercial publishing an editor would never squash aspirations in such a manner.

    As a creative writer, I was already familiar with mechanics: thinking out the design and drafting the thesis, esp. in Word: Windows does it all for you. However, what Anon refers to as the killing of creativity (your ‘voice’), and desperately trying to learn ‘copying’ mainstream ways of describing and imitating examiners, including adding their words or works, does more than murder your own authorial identity. Surely it must lead to a lack of authenticity?
    The scholars I admire in my own field are remarkable for the lucid clarity and simplicity of their English; the more complex and significant their theoretical arguments, the clearer the prose.
    Ideas matter ~ it’s a shame if people feel so stifled by petty or irrelevant considerations that refreshingly original or unique topics can’t breathe and are being asphyxiated.
    Is this one of the reasons why much obscurantist academic prose is so totally unreadable?

    English is not an easy language in which to acquire facility, let alone the level of fluency needed for academic writing. You need more than a competency, but it is also a tongue which forgives many an idiosyncratic grammatical construction ~ our classic Eng. Lit. authors, e.g., Austen, Dickens, Trollope *et al*, were adroit at manipulating sentences or phrases which would have an examiner reaching for his or her editorial blue pencil.


  26. As a non-native English speaker as well, I find this conversation fascinating.

    Admittedly, I did have a good control over English when I was first accepted into my MA degree, but I quickly realized there were academic expectations I wasn’t aware of – luckily, yes, there was support for Academic English (for native and non-native both) and that eased my worries a bit. I ended up actually proofreading essays and thesis for my English native colleagues, since my grasp of grammar, punctuation and such was actually a lot better than theirs.
    My supervisors were good, only pointing out now and then turns of phrases that, while not wrong, sounded ‘weird’ to their ears and relying on me following the formatting guidelines provided for academic writing.

    However, I do firmly believe that in many instances:
    a) some foreign students underestimate how poor grammar/punctuation/formatting makes it almost impossible to actually understand what their argument is (and in some cases, verbal expression too)
    b) some universities are way too keen to get the extra fees but then sort of abandon the students and their supervisors to sort out language issues themselves (an unfair burden)

    It’s a compound problem. I agree completely that in many cases, students have little choice but to do their degree in a second language (in this case, English) – at the same time, universities should make sure the students they take in are able to follow courses and understand/write/speak well enough (by admissions tests, sample course work, etc) and provide (perhaps make compulsory?) English for Academic purposes classes.

    Liked by 2 people

  27. BNV says:

    I proofread all my documents and I try to submit chunks of 2000- 3000 ws to focus more on the content. I have to proofread everything just to make sure my supervisor would focus on the quality of my work otherwise a one missing comma or a wrong word choice would stop him for so long.



  28. DC says:

    Please advice where else outside university non-native speaker can get help or practice Academic writing, especially in writing research or papers, in addition to reading from books. as some university have a limited help offer for non-native speakers.

    Or any recommendation for any good books please


  29. Pingback: Link Round-Up: PhD Advice - How To Do A Literature Review

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