starting the PhD – learning new vocabulary


Scholarly work often involves learning new words. You know this right? Sometimes it even seems that in order to be considered a scholar you have to speak in words no one else can understand.

Well that’s the stereotype.

But let’s try to unpack this a bit. What words do you need to learn, why and how?

Each discipline has a dedicated terminology

An example. If you study Chemistry then words like composition, structure, properties, behaviour, reactions, bonding and so on are a very basic lingua franca. Most non-chemists have a good chance of understanding what these terms mean, as they have not entirely dissimilar meanings outside of the discipline. But when you get further into Chemistry, say you’re doing a PhD, you’ll possibly be saying things like – electrostatic self-assembly, electron micro probe analysis, enantioselective rhodium-catalysed coupling reaction, supercritical carbon dioxide…

I don’t know what any of these terms mean by the way. But I know that they are associated with research done by my colleagues. And I know that these terms just trip off their tongues and they all understand each other, even if I don’t have a clue what they’re on about. Fortunately, most of them are also able to explain these ideas in plainer language to non-Chemistry types like me. But it’s obviously important if you’re a Chemistry researcher to get on top of this kind of advanced terminology and the various and very specific practices and phenomena that they describe.

And the same goes for every discipline. Whether you’re doing a PhD in English, Politics or Veterinary Science, there will be a whole lot of new words and concepts for you to acquire. They have particular meanings that other people in your discipline understand. You can conduct an ‘insider’ conversation in the scholarly community using this technical disciplinary lingo.

Each research practice also has its own terminology

Researching also has a lot of terms that you don’t use regularly in everyday conversation – like epistemology for example. You don’t bowl up to your seldom-seen aunty and say “What’s your epistemological position?” However, you might very well have a conversation with another PhDer, or your supervisor, where you do talk about epistemology in exactly this way.

And specific types of research use particular words which flag up what they stand for. A “post-positivist” might talk about “validity” to signal their understandings of ‘truth’, and research methods that arrive at ‘truth’. On the other hand, a “post-structurally informed” researcher might use the term “trustworthiness” to talk about the status of the knowledge that they have produced and the process they used. Examiners and colleagues reading a text know where someone stands epistemologically by the specific words that they use.

It’s important to take note of such specific research terms.You need to get on top of them even if you never use them anywhere but in conversation with other academics. They represent our ‘tools of the trade’. During your PhD you’ll need to understand them in order to be able to make choices about which of them to use. You may also need to be able to translate researcher-talk into plain language in order to discuss your work in other contexts. Like with your seldom-seen aunty.

But there’s another kind of word use you also need to get familiar with.

Academic writing also often uses particular kinds of language

Over time, we scholars have developed a collective vocabulary for what we do, a lexicon for our collective ‘rhetorical practices’. We discuss, investigate, categorise, argue, frame, predict and so on. We don’t start and end something, we introduce and conclude. We cite, state and suggest. We often compare and contrast, we further an idea, we infer, deduce, calculate and make an original contribution.

Different disciplines often have their own rhetorical twists too. Some disciplines are fonder of describing and showing for example than illustrating, reporting or arguing. So you will need to get used to reading them and probably using them.

And there’s important news about the wording of academic writing – a lot of academic journals expect you to use this verbiage. Most PhD examiners also expect to read prose which uses this kind of language. They take the use of these terms and syntax as a sign that a PhDer has become part of their scholarly community. So you will probably need to adapt your writing to this kind of lexicon and syntax.

But there are two health warnings about both academic words and their usage.

First, it is important to understand that ‘these more ‘formal’ ways of talking and writing are conventions. So while terms such as frame and infer are common, you’ll see them used quite a bit, it is still possible to write in other ways. However, while you may have a choice about how ‘formally’ you write, there is much less wiggle room about using the generally agreed terminology for the subject matter you are researching or for how you name your research practice and positionality,

Second, some, if not all, of the discipline-based terms that I use without thinking are strongly culturally located. What you can see and say is always limited by the language available to you. So it may be the case that, depending on what you are researching, terms from other languages, places and times are a helpful addition – or counter – to the terms usually used for the kind of scholarly work that you do.(I’m constantly on the lookout for non-English disciplinary terms and expressions and ideas that might push my assumptions and learning.)

Why does word knowledge matter? Well…

Academic work is communication and conversation

Because you will want to tell other people about your work, otherwise why do it, thinking about words and their use is an integral part of your scholarly work. You will want to use your PhD in a range of ways. You’ll work to ‘translate’ from formal academic prose loaded with discipline-specific words into different media and genres for different audiences.

If you don’t want to be stuck for words during a conference presentation, or a talk to the local citizen science group, then continuing to work on words will be part and parcel of what you do as a scholar. It is therefore very helpful to continue to extend your general vocabulary, as well as to deliberately build yourself a solid scholarly lexical repertoire.

So how do you learn new words? No I mean really, how do you consciously set out to extend the words you know and can use appropriately?

Some word-based strategies you might consider

Some people swear by ‘word a day’ apps to build general vocabulary and “cheat sheets” of academic word lists and word banks. I’m much less enthusiastic about these than you might think. Not a fan. However, you may want to check these resources out for yourself.

As an educator, I understand the process of building your own academic dictionary as helpful for owning all the words you want and need. I suggest that it’s useful to:

  • Note down new words that you find in your reading. Build up a word list relevant to your project that you can practice using.
  • Build a glossary of the discipline-specific and research terms relevant to your work. Write their definitions out in your own words – add references if this is helpful. Keep this handy on your desktop.
  • Buy a Thesaurus, or use the Thesaurus online, at times when you find yourself searching for an alternative word.
  • Look for your idiosyncratic lexical tics – words you use too much – and find substitutes.
  • Read good journalism, non-fiction and fiction and analyse the writing. Look for the kinds of language used and the ways in which words are chosen and ordered to support the crafting of ideas.

And you may well find other ways to work with the words you need. Let us all know when you do.

The most important thing is not that you adopt one or several of these word strategies, but that you do take on the task of building specific and necessary vocabulary. Your PhD in part depends on your familiarity with and choices of terms and the academic conventions they embody.

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, English language, language, starting the PhD, syntax, vocabulary, word bank and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to starting the PhD – learning new vocabulary

  1. Frank Carver says:

    Another good article, but I’d like to add that just as each discipline will have its specific terms, often a different discipline will use a familiar word with a subtly (or completely) different meaning. At least with a wholly new word you know it is something to learn, but such “false friends” can leave you either dangerously misguided or adrift in a soup of words, none of which you fully trust.

    As a concrete example, I loose count of how many times I have read the word “methodology” in this blog, but I doubt that any of them had the same meaning as the way we use the word in my home discipline of Computer Science.


  2. Thank you for this, practical and thoughtful as ever…
    I have found the Academic Phrasebank a really useful tool, both in getting to grips with conventions academic writing myself and as a tool to pass on to others:
    I’ve used it as a kind of thesaurus, too, to avoid those overworked phrases which somehow creep into any extended piece of writing.


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