The examiner-perspective lens for doctoral editing



By Susan Carter
Doctoral students are often anxiously interested in what research shows about examiners. It is a useful practice for doctoral writers to measure their work against the questions examiners are known to ask before submission. It’s a writing task, revision not for grammar or punctuation or structure or referencing, but with the examination criteria in mind. And with those first readers in mind: the examiners. For those doctoral candidates whose examination proces includes an oral defence or viva, preparation for facing the examiners is a crucial part of completing the PhD.

Vernon Trafford and Shosh Leshem research doctoral examiners and examinations. When I placed their work in the writing section of my book on Developing Generic Doctoral Support, they worried I had made a mistake. However, I deliberately put them there because their research findings are so useful at the writing stage.

One of Trafford and Leshem’s earlier articles suggests that it is easy to guess the kind of questions you will get in the viva because the same clusters of issues underpin all examinations (2002, pp 7- 11). Then they provide a breakdown of predictable questions. To me this looks like a checklist against which doctoral writers can audit their work before submitting the thesis.

Trafford and Leshem cluster these predictable questions. Here I have clipped their work back to just what seems applicable to all doctoral research, regardless of epistemology or methodology—this is just a sample, and may inspire you to follow up their work.

Some predictable examiner questions from Trafford & Leshem 2002 that suggest defensive writing in the thesis before submission:

Cluster 1 Opening Questions
Why did you choose this topic for your doctoral study?

Cluster 2 Conceptualisation
What led you to select these models of…?
What are the theoretical components of your framework?
How did concepts assist you to visualize and explain what you intended to investigate?
How did you use your conceptual framework to design your research and analyse your findings?

Cluster 3 Research Design
How did you arrive at your research design?
What other forms of research did you consider?
How would you explain your research approach?
Why did you select this particular design for your research?
What is the link between your conceptual framework and your choice of methodology and how would you defend that methodology?
Can you explain where the data can be found and why your design is the most appropriate way of accessing that data?

Cluster 4 Research Methodology
How would you justify your choice of methodology?
Please explain your methodology to us.
Why did you present this in the form of a case study?
What choices of research approach did you consider as you planned your research?
Can you tell us about the “quasi-experimental” research that you used?

Cluster 5: Research Methods
How do your methods relate to your conceptual framework?
Why did you choose to use those methods of data collection?
What other methods did you consider and why were they rejected?

Cluster 7 Conceptual Conclusions
How did you arrive at your conceptual conclusions?
What are your conceptual conclusions?
Were you disappointed with your conclusions?
How do your conclusions relate to your conceptual framework?
How do you distinguish between your factual and conceptual conclusions?

Cluster 9 Contribution
What is your contribution to knowledge?
How important are your findings and to whom?
How do your main conclusions link to the work of [other famous scholars]?
The absence of evidence is not support for what you are saying and neither is it confirmation of the opposite view. So how do you explain your research outcomes?

Some of these questions are invitations to doctoral students to spell out things that they do actually know, but might not have articulated in the thesis. The list above could be a great help before the thesis goes over the counter to be sent to these questioning examiners. The list above, and several other lists from those who research examiners and examinations could be consulted.

If you have suggestions as an examiner, or know of other research on examiners’ questions that might help doctoral writers before submission, post a comment!

Carter, S. (2008). Examining the doctoral thesis: A discussion. Innovations Education and Teaching International 45(4), 367-374.
Johnson, S. (1997). Examining the examiners: An analysis of examiners’ reports on doctoral theses. Studies in Higher Education 22(3), 333-347.
Tinkler, P. and Jackson, C. (2000). Examining the doctorate: Institutional policy and the PhD examination process in Britain. Studies in Higher Education 25(2), 167-179.
Tinkler, P. and Jackson, C. (2004). The Doctoral Examination Process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors. Berkshire: Open University Press.
Trafford, V. and Leshem, C. (2002). Starting at the end to undertake doctoral research: Predictable questions as stepping stones. Higher Education Review, 34(4), 43-61.

One weird trick to get a research grant


Great ideas here for writing a successful application

Originally posted on The Research Whisperer:

Psst. Wanna know a secret? This one weird trick will let you read other people’s grant applications, even before they are funded. Not only that, you get to decide who gets the money.

And it won’t cost you a cent.

1 tip to get a grant. See applications before they get funded. You decide who gets the money.In the past, when talking about how to write a better application, Tseen has advised you to ‘be the assessor’ – to channel the assessor and understand what they are looking for. It is great advice.

The most effective way to do that is to actually become an assessor for a granting agency. Actually, I recommend that you put your hand up for two – one in your home country and one overseas.

Here’s why:

Write better applications

Grant applications are a particular genre of academic writing. They are carefully structured documents that provide detailed plans for the future. They require information that never appears in other sorts of academic…

View original 1,254 more words

Getting published (in English)—it’s not just about language


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Pressure—or the requirement—to publish during doctoral candidature is becoming increasingly common in many global contexts, to the extent that many doctoral candidates are aiming to put their work in the public domain in one form or another before finishing their degrees (Paré, 2010). Most high-ranking scholarly journals are English language publications, which poses very real challenges for those candidates and their supervisors who may not have English as a ‘first’ language.

This week’s blog by Mary Jane Curry (co-author with Theresa Lillis of A scholar’s guide to getting published in English: Critical choices and practical strategies and Academic Writing in a global context: the politics and practices of publishing in English) explores some of these issues.

By Mary Jane Curry

Getting published in academic journals isn’t easy—for anyone—but scholars who use English as an additional language may have a harder time with finding publishing success than “native” English speakers do. Contrary to common belief, though, these difficulties may have less to do with multilingual scholars’ language abilities and more to do with their ability to find resources and connect with people who can facilitate publishing success.

Which resources support publishing success?

As an academic working in the U.S. and earlier in the U.K., I can count on having the crucial material resources that support academic writing: First, a well-stocked university library that will get the books and journal articles I need, whether by purchasing them or through interlibrary loan (at no cost to me). Second, a department that provides administrative and research assistance (including graduate student assistants and a transcriptionist) and considerably supports my conference travel and other research expenses, including through internal research grants. The existence of funding agencies in both the U.K. and the U.S. has held out at least the hope of getting research grants, although they are highly competitive (and in the U.S., less interested in research on the geopolitics of publishing). Last but not least, having time to do research and write about it is essential—but challenging for scholars who work in institutions with heavy administrative and teaching loads.

From research Theresa Lillis and I have done on the publishing experiences of scholars in other parts of the world (Lillis & Curry, 2010), we know that these material resources are not available everywhere. But these resources matter, because success in publishing depends foremost on knowing the ‘conversations’ of your discipline and how your work can speak to these crucial debates. Scholars find out about these conversations through reading journals and books, going to conferences to hear what people are talking about, and by collaborating with others. So developing strategies to access this range of resources can be crucial to getting your work published (Curry & Lillis, 2013).

Which people can support publishing success?

The image of the solitary writer working alone in the attic is well out of date when it comes to writing for academic publication. Our research shows that beside colleagues, different types of people may support scholars in getting published: supervisors/advisors, peers/colleagues, and people we call ‘literacy brokers’ (Lillis & Curry, 2006). Academic literacy brokers are scholars who might work in your department, institution, or local area, or in another city or country. They know your discipline and they can tell you about upcoming conferences, help you write or revise a paper, and identify suitable target journals for a paper you want to publish. Language brokers are people who can help with producing the text—whether or not they know about your specific discipline, they typically focus on language use in paragraph- and sentence-level writing. But as helpful as language brokers might seem, our research shows that academic literacy brokers are the best bet for supporting publishing—their knowledge of the discipline trumps language brokers’ specialist knowledge of academic English.

How can you get access to these people and resources?

International collaboration and co-authoring are increasing every year. Scholars make connections with collaborators—one type of academic literacy brokers—by joining or creating academic research networks (Curry & Lillis, 2010): connecting with people in your institution; going to local, regional, national and international conferences; contacting scholars in your discipline through their webpages/emails/Facebook page/Twitter account. Joining organizations and groups specifically for postgraduates, which may seem counterintuitive, can also be a way to meet others in your discipline, who may remain peers as your career develops. In some areas of the world, formal networks have also been set up to support research collaboration, but the jury is out on whether these networks are more productive than informal networks. But they are worth knowing about. Network participation has helped scholars in our research to learn about and receive funding for research and conference travel, to access journals they can’t get in their contexts, and to co-author with colleagues across borders.

So is it harder for multilingual scholars to get published in English?

Getting published is not easy and current global politics of publishing increasingly push multilingual scholars to write in English—whether or not they are interested in doing so. So far, I haven’t said much about English per se. Clearly, to write for publication in English, it’s helpful to have some proficiency in English. While many people think translation is the answer, it’s often not an option, not only because it’s expensive but also because finding a translator who has the kind of insider knowledge that an academic literacy broker has is challenging. In fact, what we know, from our research and other researchers’ work, is that publishing success depends on knowing the ‘rules of the game’, having access to a range of resources, working in collaboration rather alone, and not giving up when faced with rejection or confusing and conflicting reports from journal referees (Belcher, 2007). While scholars working outside of well-resourced locations are often disadvantaged, activating networks may be a way to connect to both the social and material resources needed for publishing success.

Mary Jane Curry is associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Curriculum at the Warner Graduate School of Education, University of Rochester, U.S., where she is also director of the Writing Support Services.


Belcher, D. (2007). Seeking acceptance in an English-only research world. Journal of Second Language Writing, 16, 1-22.

Curry, M.J. & Lillis, T. (2010). Academic research networks: Accessing resources for English-medium publishing. English for Specific Purposes, 29(4), 281-295.

Curry, M.J. & Lillis, T. (2013). A scholar’s guide to getting published in English: Critical choices and practical strategies. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Lillis, T. & Curry, M.J. (2006). Professional academic writing by multilingual scholars: Interactions with literacy brokers in the production of English-medium texts. Written Communication, 23(1), 3-35.

Lillis, T. & Curry, M.J. (2010). Academic writing in a global context: The politics and practices of publishing in English. London: Routledge.

Pare, A. (2010). Slow the presses: concerns about premature publication. In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler, and A. Lee, (Eds.) Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond (pp. 30-46), Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Publishing while completing your PhD



Gina Wisker, (Head of the Centre for Learning and Teaching at the University of Brighton in the UK) has been a guest author for us before – here she writes on the challenges and delights of publishing during doctoral candidature. If you’d like to know more –check out her new book Getting Published: writing for academic publication

Like a seven-year-old whose front teeth have yet to grow back, your PhD in process is both delightful and lovable, awkward and unfinished. You’ll nurture it as it grows. Publishing the right bit of it while you are writing the whole might look like procrastination (why aren’t you getting on with this huge task?) but could really help you focus on defining your contribution to knowledge, and refining your discipline language. As you proceed through the later stages of your PhD and into the examination, there is nothing so psychologically supportive as knowing you have been accepted as a scholar in your discipline community by having your work peer reviewed and published:

‘doctoral candidates who publish on early phases of their work – it moves them ahead quite substantially. Their identity shifts to one of ‘now I am a researcher’. There is no doubt in my mind that publication is central to being an academic.’ (Wisker, 2013)

You have already arrived, you have selected part(s) of your work to share, honed it, structured it, situated it in the literature, defended the methodology and methods, developed a lucid argument backed up by the data, and established your contribution to knowledge. That is what good publications do, and it is also what good PhDs do. However, deciding when and what to publish is a different matter.

When publishing through the course of the PhD

You need to pick the right part of your work and neither publish too much, too soon, too raw, nor hang on to all of it without sharing. Your raw chapters will not make publications – no journal will welcome your raw data, nor your introduction. Some might find space for a well turned out literature review if they publish these, but most will want a standalone piece that perfectly presents a contribution to knowledge in the field, using discipline language, and the language, format and focus of the journal. A journal article is less literature and methodology top heavy than a thesis. I suggest processing several journal articles from the journals to which you would like to submit, to see their interest, the way that articles are written for this journal, and the formats. Author guidelines are usually available on the publisher’s website for each journal, as are examples of published pieces.

Publishing from your PhD while you are completing it is, it seems, dependent on discipline, supervisor advice, and where you are doing the PhD itself (Dinham, and Scott, 2001; Hartley, and Betts, 2009). There are different expectations and different rules. In Scandinavian countries, and in the sciences broadly, internationally, you might well be expected to publish from your PhD early on. The Scandinavian PhD often involves, three to five (sometimes nearly published) publications and a theorised ‘wrap’, situating the whole of the work in the literature and the methodology. In other disciplines and contexts (for example, UK literature PhDs), you may still be advised by your supervisor not to publish until you have passed. In some other instances (where a patent is involved, the whole team in a funded project intend to publish together at the end of the project, or the PhD itself is considered a publication), you must not publish until you have gained the PhD and a few years have passed.

A study in Hong Kong found that students resented the time spent on publishing, taken away from their research (Kwan, 2010, 2011) and some supervisors advise against publication as detracting from your focus. So it is wise to select a part which lets your best work be seen in a good light, not something which takes you down a side road. If your best work is truly world class, you might want to wait until you have the PhD before you share it. Be proud of what you do submit – your work will improve from the publishing process – but don’t send in half written, half-baked work and expect the editor to finish it off for you.

When you have the reviewers’ comments back, you will need to be quite thick skinned to separate the advice from what seems like criticism. Review your work, make a plan to revise, let the reviewers know what you have revised and where, and if you have chosen not to change something (because of a good reason) let them know why. This is often done best in a grid and in an accompanying short letter.

In summary:

If you do publish from your PhD while it is in process, make sure you:

Check university regulations about publishing from the PhD in process.

Choose the right, exciting, readable piece of your PhD to publish first.

Pick a part of it that can stand alone. Make a case, clearly grown from your shortened, targeted versions of literature review, methodology and methods, data and discussion and so on and let your new knowledge, your contribution grow from these.

Find the right journal which accepts early career researchers as well as leading figures. Don’t necessarily pitch to the top journal first. Only write for and send to one journal at a time.

Research journal article rules for your chosen journal: the length, format, size and amount of data, charts, quotations and so on.

Reshape your work for the journal readership.

Produce a clear abstract and key words (so it is picked up on search engines), and a conclusion emphasising factual and conceptual conclusions, how you have added to meaning, knowledge and understanding.

Be ready to deal with reviewer comments, learn from them and re write accordingly – this is peer review.


Feel very pleased and congratulate yourself, and share the success, once the article is published (online, and in hard copy – usually several months apart). You are in print!



Dinham and Scott (2001) ‘The experience of disseminating the results of doctoral research’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 25(1), 45–55.

Hartley and Betts (2001) ‘Publishing before the Thesis: 58 Postgraduate Views’, Higher Education Review, 41(3), 29–44

Becky S. C. Kwan (2011) Facilitating novice researchers in project publishing during the doctoral years and beyond: a Hong Kong-based study. Studies in Higher Education: 1–19, iFirst Article.

Gina Wisker, (2013b) ‘Articulate – Writing, Editing and Publishing Our Work in Learning, Teaching and Educational Development’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 50(4).

Gina Wisker (in press) Getting Published, London: Palgrave Macmillan.


Gina’s podcast on publishing from your PhD at:

Gina’s podcast on publishing journal articles at:

You can also listen to two podcasts by Gina via the following links:

Questions students ask


By Claire Aitchison

I started this blog when running a writing retreat for research students last year. Some writers were working on a paper for publication that needed to serve the dual purpose of being a stand-alone publication while also being a segment of their thesis as a series of publications. Others were writing research papers connected to their doctoral research that wouldn’t be submitted as part of the examinable thesis. And some were writing chapters or sections of the more traditional ‘big book’ thesis. Students came from all stages of candidature and from all disciplines. In this post I reflect on the questions students asked in individual consultations that day:

  • Should I just write it first – let it all out, and then structure later – or decide on the structure first, and then write into that? (This came up twice.)
  • Should I write the chapter first and then derive the article from that, or the other way round?
  • I’ve got this rough draft of a chapter and my supervisor says I have to make it into a publication – it is 14,000 words and needs to be 7,000. How do I do that?
  • One of my troubles is that I write bits of information and it is just blocks of stuff. My supervisor tells me I need to connect the bits together. How can I do that?
  • One of my supervisors is sick, and the other goes on sabbatical at the end of the year. I need to finish asap – how long will it take me to write the thesis?
  • My supervisor says I am verbose. It could be cultural – but it seems too abrupt, like I’m writing a manual when I do it your way.
  • How do I write a methodology section? I have read so many methods books that I feel overwhelmed. Now, apparently I am writing like one!
  • I feel like I’m going round and round. I don’t know what I’m saying anymore.

It’s interesting to note that most of the queries were about writing processes – how to actually do the writing. This is such a beautiful challenge. Some people like to begin with an outline: they need the roadmap first to guide their writing. Others like to begin writing freely, drafting as they gradually and organically find the form (and the ideas) they require. It’s easy to see why these two very different approaches can sometimes lead to misunderstandings between supervisors and students.

A number of student queries were about cohesion and linking. These prompted us to discuss the organisation of ideas – sequencing and logical development of an argument, along with the use of metadiscourse for linking segments and for helping writers articulate the rhetorical raison d’être of their structure.

Other questions related to writing style. The student concerned about writing the methodology section was experiencing ‘model assimilation’. Methodology books are mostly written in a textbook style for a student audience and provide a theoretically detailed account of methodological approaches and methods. In my experience it is not uncommon for doctoral writers to initially mimic this style. Helping students identify voice and writerly stance can assist them to learn how to replace the voice of the informant with their own authorial voice as their writing project develops.

When the big book thesis also contains a series of related, integrated publications, writers will need greater dexterity (and nerve!) to accommodate the unpredictability and uncertainty of these emerging forms. There are fewer models for students and supervisors to draw on, and they may have less control over the form and timing especially as plans can be disrupted by the reviewing and publication process. In addition, students sometimes struggle to distinguish between the requirements of a chapter and a journal article where the same story has to be told differently.

Apart from form and process, these questions made me think about where students can find answers.

Of course, students can speak to their supervisors … or can they? Some questions cannot be asked of supervisors; at times students may feel uncomfortable asking their busy supervisors, or maybe they just want a second opinion. In the main, doctoral students have few opportunities for low stakes conversations about their writing. Family and friends hardly seem best placed (and too many questions may stretch the friendship!).

Other doctoral students, especially more senior peers, may have some good advice – but not all students have access to such colleagues.

Increasingly, institutions are providing opportunities for students to access writing help (e.g. via 1:1 consultations, workshops, guest lecturers or credit bearing courses). Nevertheless, ongoing support for doctoral writing is still, all too often, secondary to the task of getting the research done. Not all institutions are equally well resourced, nor perhaps do they recognise the value of supporting writing. Similarly, not all students are comfortable seeking feedback on their writing. In fact, some students say that they have only ever shown work to their supervisors – despite the fact that doctoral scholars who regularly show, share and talk about their writing are less likely to experience writer’s block or the debilitating shock that can accompany some reviewer feedback.

The student queries above also speak to the very nature of writing and authorship. They remind us yet again of the deep complexities of doctoral writing – of the temporal and relational nature of writing, of the emotional and subjective aspects of writing, not to mention the skills and knowledge requirements for discipline-specific research writing. Open, genuine forums for discussions about writing help bring these complexities to the fore and help reduce the stigma some people feel about sharing their writing.

In many ways, any writer embarking on a new writing task faces these questions, particularly when they are not part of a dynamic community of writers. Questions about writing are perfectly legitimate; our institutions need to encourage and resource vibrant and ongoing discussions about writing so that such conversations are deeply embedded in the practices of scholarly research.

Do you want to tell us about the places and spaces where writing discussions happen in your life?

Writing a conference paper: questions to consider


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by Anna Morozov with Cally Guerin

Here at DoctoralWriting we often focus on issues related to thesis writing, but of course doctoral candidates need to write all sorts of documents. For some, learning how to present ideas in a range of genres for a range of purposes is one of the rewards of undertaking research at this level. Writing a conference presentation is very different from writing an article or a dissertation. While writing the script of a presentation recently, a list of questions arose for us that might be useful for others doing this for the first time.

How do I adapt my PhD to this context?
Some big conferences might attract a rather broad audience; on the other hand, smaller niche conferences often focus on a more specific subset of that disciplinary ‘tribe’ (Becher & Trowler, 2001; Trowler, Saunders & Bamber, 2012). Even for those in the habit of working across more than one discipline, adapting the PhD to fit a slightly different context is challenging. The conference might need to have different aspects of the work emphasised, and different language or terminology employed, compared to the thesis version of the research.

Who is my audience?
In the smaller conferences, the audience one might expect to find is potentially more predictable than the possible readership of a published article. This makes it possible to tailor the presentation to a very specific audience with particular interests in terms of their preferred theoretical stance, the emphasis they are likely to place on certain details, and the kind of language they might expect. Thinking carefully about what this audience already knows can help to determine the content and focus of the presentation.

How do I introduce myself?
Another question that arose during preparation was to decide how much personal information was relevant. The speaker needs to position him/herself as ‘one of the gang’ in the particular field, an insider in the current debates with something worth listening to. Wisker (2012) explains that a literature review for a thesis engages in a dialogue with the discipline; a conference presentation is literally an opportunity to be part of the conversation. And part of this is to present a more personal approach to the topic by owning the content: that is, be willing to say ‘I’.

How formal should I be?
When presenting in person, it’s possible to be more chatty than is usual when writing a journal article or thesis. This will, of course, depend on the conventions of the specific disciplinary/discourse community, but on the whole we would expect rather less ‘lexical density’ than in a written version. That is, there are fewer content words in spoken language than in written academic language, and lots more ‘filler’, giving the listener a little extra time to process the information (Halliday 1985 has a much more sophisticated way of explaining this). It also helps to write a one-sentence summary of the main point of each slide to reinforce the message as the story proceeds.

How much can I say?
One big challenge is to conceptualise the conference presentation as a standalone piece of writing that is separate from (but grows out of) the bigger project of the PhD. It’s not helpful to condense the entire PhD into a 15-minute presentation, but at the same time that overall project provides a context for this particular element of the study. A conference paper can’t say everything; it needs to be closely focused on a single main argument so that the audience can engage with the ideas. It’s important to think carefully about the relationship between the paper and the thesis.

Do I really have to be so tentative?
It’s also important to calibrate the strength of conclusions in the conference paper, especially if presenting work in progress. Leaping ahead to where we hope the data will lead can result in an unpersuasive version of the research. Be very careful about pushing the conclusions too far or over-generalising, particularly when only a small part of the data is being discussed. It might add to the research credibility if you can support your conclusions with direct quotations from your study participants.

How should I divide up the time?
Although it sounds like a small detail, one useful tactic in the early stages is to decide how many of the 15 minutes should be allotted to each section of the presentation. For example, the project is new to this audience, so a little bit of time needs to be assigned to setting the context for the study (maybe 2 minutes?). But then, it’s also important to make sure this audience leaves with a sense of having learnt something new, so in this case should we keep around 6 minutes for presenting results? More? Less? It can be helpful to decide early on how to balance the weighting of the various sections as a guide to how much detail could be included.

What about graphics?
The big advantage of having access to PowerPoint or Prezi alongside the spoken presentation means that the graphics can enhance communication. Given the very short timeframe for presenting complex ideas, graphics allow more information to be presented – but do ensure that the visuals match the verbal content. And, of course, don’t crowd the screen with too many words. Think about the layout to ensure that the audience can see at a glance how the visuals fit with the verbal message. Images add interest and help to keep the audience focused. So, if you have decided to use images in your presentation, make sure the pictures are from copyright-free stock if you don’t have your own to use.

What other issues have you come across when working with PhD candidates on their first conference presentations? What are the useful tips that become second nature after you’ve done a few presentations, but are not so obvious when starting out?

Becher, T. and Trowler, P. (2001). Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Disciplines (2nd edition). Buckingham: Open University Press/SRHE.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1985). Spoken and Written Language. Waurn Ponds, VIC: Deakin University.
Trowler, P., Saunders, M. and Bamber, R. (eds) (2012). Tribes and Territories in the 21st-century: Rethinking the Significance of Disciplines in Higher Education. London: Routledge.
Wisker, G. (2012). The Good Supervisor: Supervising Postgraduate and Undergraduate Research for Doctoral Theses and Dissertations (2nd edition). Basingstoke and NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

What level of English competence is enough for doctoral students?


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By Cally Guerin

In recent weeks I’ve been involved in a number of different situations focused on assessing the English language skills of international students, which has made me think yet again about what is most important in this regard for those entering the world of doctoral writing. An article in Times Higher Education served as a timely reminder that this continues to be a vexed issue at all levels of university study in this era of internationalisation. It is also useful to remember just how complex it is to accurately assess language levels, especially under high-stakes exam conditions.

In Australia, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is commonly used to determine English language competency. All four language skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) are tested in four separate parts of the exam. Another widely accepted language test, the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), is conducted online and includes tasks that integrate writing, reading and listening.

At my current university, international students are required to have an entry level IELTS score of 6.5 or higher. This is equivalent to the 79-93 range in TOEFL. But what do these numbers mean? IELTS explains:

Band 7: Good user
Has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings in some situations. Generally handles complex language well and understands detailed reasoning.

Band 6: Competent user
Has generally effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings. Can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.

According to this measurement, our students are usually somewhere in between. (For more information, go to

This may sound adequate, but what 6.5 or 79-93 looks like in real life may seem like quite a lot of inaccuracies to some supervisors faced with drafts of their students’ writing. Maybe most sentences have small errors such as absent or misused articles (a, the), uncountable nouns used as plurals (researches or evidences), lack of agreement between subject and verb (participants has reported), or wrong word forms (have observe).

On the whole, I’m not too fussed about what I would regard as ‘surface errors’ like these. So long as the sentence structure is more or less in place, and the reader can understand what the student is getting at, I am more than willing to work with that. But I am aware that as a former English language teacher I bring particular skills to this task that others may not necessarily have.

Working as an editor for academics whose first language was not English also taught me useful lessons about writing and English competence. In that position my employing company policy stated that editors were not to intervene with ‘corrections’ unless there was actually a mistake – it was not regarded as appropriate to impose personal or stylistic preferences on others’ writing. There is an important distinction between actual errors and personal preferences that is relevant to doctoral students too. When we urge doctoral writers to ‘find your own voice’, they may choose to include some stylistic quirks that are not strictly conventional in academic writing, yet communicate valuable aspects of their own perspective on the topic. Again, it’s necessary to consider whether or not it is ‘wrong’, or whether it might be quite acceptable to many academic readers.

I think it’s also very important to recognise what an author is achieving in their writing, rather than focusing on what is not grammatically accurate. For example, doctoral writers should be commended for successfully ensuring that all the relevant information is present and properly referenced; that the overall argument is structured into a logical sequence; and that the headings and paragraphing clearly communicate the central ideas. Instead of noticing only what’s wrong with the writing, supervisors can encourage students by taking time to acknowledge what is right with it too. On the path towards developing writing skills, such positive feedback can be very heartening.

But lots of other supervisors are less comfortable—and much more impatient—with what I would regard as an acceptable level of English language competency. So where do you draw the line regarding how much English is enough? Do you expect the first draft to be entirely free of any grammar errors? Do you find yourself reworking nearly every sentence so that in the end it feels as if you’ve written the entire thesis yourself? What would you like the English language entry level to be for doctoral candidates at your university? I suspect that many of our readers have very strong opinions on this topic and it would be great to hear from you.

“Help with writing” vs “learning about writing”


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By Cally Guerin

It seems to me that students often turn up to workshops run by academic developers and learning advisors, or join writing groups, because they have realised that “I need someone to help me with my writing”. It’s encouraging that they recognize that their writing isn’t as effective as it needs to be, but I don’t think this is the best way to think about the issue, especially at doctoral level. Instead of conceptualising their situation in these terms, they might be much better off thinking: “I need to learn more about writing”.

My impression is that sometimes PhD students are looking for someone who will sit with them one-on-one in order to provide extensive editing and proofreading of their work. Or even better, simply “fix it up” for them. Occasionally I get the impression that they hope someone can tell them the “answer” to research writing so they pass the “test”. Unfortunately, this approach takes no account of how they’ll cope next time in a similar (but not identical) situation. After all, research writing is not just a simple process of imposing a formula; rather, it’s a complex matter of understanding and applying the concepts, adjusting and adapting to each unique writing situation.

I suspect that at the root of this problem is the mistake of thinking that doing a PhD is really only about making an original contribution to knowledge in the discipline. From that perspective, the focus is on the technical skills required to undertake the experimental work or to gather and analyse the qualitative or quantitative data. Writing, by contrast, is regarded as secondary.

Of course disciplinary knowledge is the linchpin of the whole enterprise – one of the key criteria for examination at most universities is that the research reported in the thesis makes an original contribution to the field. However, it is also important that doctoral candidature is a time for learning the broader skills required to be an effective researcher. This is part of the current discourse about the PhD as “research training”, rather than an end in itself. Learning to write well about research is central to this training. Good writing skills are a necessary graduate attribute for PhD candidates, yet doctoral candidates can be resistant to accepting just how important writing is. But it turns out that not everyone is as focused on doctoral writing as we are in this blog community (probably no surprises there, really!).

I’m repeatedly reminded of this when I run a workshop for PhD students that includes an exercise using Boote & Beile’s (2005) literature review assessment matrix. This matrix lists the criteria that could be used to assess literature reviews in doctoral theses. The assessment criteria are organised into five categories: Coverage, Synthesis, Methodology, Significance and Rhetoric. In the workshop, participants are asked to imagine they are PhD examiners who will use the matrix to assess their own (i.e., the students’) literature reviews. The task is to decide what percentage should be assigned to each of these elements. Nearly always, students award only 5-10% of the marks to Rhetoric, which they understand as relating to the quality of the writing. While they argue that the other criteria can’t be done effectively without good writing, they rarely want to place too much importance on the writing as a separate category.

As supervisors, learning advisors and writing teachers, we might provide the most useful support for doctoral candidates if we were to encourage a shift in attitude to learning about writing as a necessary doctoral skill, rather than offering to “help students with their writing”. We are interested in whether anyone has tools or language that they routinely use to persuade doctoral students that writing skills are part of the transferrable set of skills they need to acquire before graduation, even though the acquisition is not always easy or painless.

What to do with ‘leftover’ data?


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By Cally Guerin

On winding up a research project recently, I got to thinking about the ideas and data points that didn’t make it into the final publications or conference presentations. After collecting survey responses and focus group transcripts, the research team looked over the findings and decided how to divide it up into publishable chunks. Then for each paper we took the data that was relevant to that topic, analysed it thoroughly, and then decided what the main argument could be – that is, what is the new knowledge gained from that part of the research? But there are still a few intriguing bits and pieces of data left over. The process brought home to me how often doctoral writers are faced with ideas and data that don’t quite fit into the scope of the doctorate. To avoid feeling that work is ‘wasted,’ it is helpful to think about how those leftovers might be used.

In doctoral research projects, as with any quality research, ensuring that the work has followed rigorous research methods and thus produced reliable data helps us answer the research question we set out to address in the first place. When it comes to doctoral writing, the integrity of the methods and the interpretation of the resulting data are presented in the thesis, keeping a close eye on examiner expectations. Obviously, this is central to how a doctoral study proves itself worthy of a PhD. Elsewhere in the DoctoralWriting blog I have written about the importance of constructing a thesis that is not simply an exact record of all the components of the research journey – decisions need to be made about what needs to be left out of the thesis, just as much as what needs to be included.

Having constructed the thesis version of the research for doctoral examination, there are likely to be bits and pieces of data that don’t find their way into the main argument, that seem to be left over at the end of the project. Sometimes, though, these leftover items of data stay in the researcher’s mind, hinting that there is more to be said about the topic, niggling away in the background and refusing to be put aside.

I firmly believe that there is a place for the intuitive hunch in research, the idea that attracts attention even when it is not fully worked out, the idea that seems to be left over from the main project. I have taken heart from the work of Maggie McLure in relation to this. She writes about data that ‘glows’, by which she means ‘some detail – a fieldnote fragment or videoimage – [that] starts to glimmer, gathering our attention’ (McLure 2010: 282). McLure provides us with an example of how she works with such data in ‘The Wonder of Data’ (2013).

These glowing data points tell us something interesting, but maybe it’s not always a really big idea or argument that is to be made, at least in relation to the current research project. Or perhaps the glowing data stands out from what’s already been said, not contradicting the main argument (of course!), but moving off on another tangent. It might be something really interesting even though it does not fit logically alongside the central point of the thesis chapters or articles that finally make it to the light of day.

I’ve starting thinking that perhaps an important role for research blogs is to provide a place to explore leftover data that may or may not turn out to be big ideas. When writing for the DoctoralWriting blog, I often find myself exploring ideas that start out tiny, and maybe grow into a blog, and occasionally continue to blossom into a full-sized research project. For doctoral candidates, publishing one’s work through blogs is not always straight forward and should be approached cautiously. But perhaps a similar process of writing up short pieces that may later be revisited can be a useful practice. This procedure has the advantage of not throwing away the data that doesn’t make it into the final thesis, and of encouraging ongoing writing habits.

I’m not sure that the leftover data is a concern for all doctoral researchers, though. Perhaps the possibility of confronting leftover data is more common in qualitative research, for example, where interview participants might expand on related ideas that are not quite directly on the main topic of the formal interview questions.

In workshops I remind students that nothing is ever wasted in the work they do towards their research, and suggest that it’s good to keep any extra ideas in a separate file if they don’t seem to fit into the main thesis. I too have got one of those files and it seems to keep growing, but at the moment I’m not quite sure what I can do with it.

I’d be interested to hear from readers who have made good use of leftover data from their research, especially those who undertake quantitative studies (can ‘outliers’ be informative in unexpected but useful ways?). I suspect that the leftover data that glows can inspire us towards new research directions, whatever our methods.

Doctoral theses online: when copyright permission is not required


By Melanie Johnson and Susan Carter

Our previous post looked at when copyright consent is required once a thesis is posted into a digital portal, and how to obtain permissions. This post explains the situations when copyright permission is not needed.

The law will vary from country to country. For example, in the United States all works created by the Government are free from copyright, whereas in New Zealand, government work is protected by Crown Copyright for 100 years from the date of publication.

Most universities have someone whose responsibility includes advising on copyright, so if doctoral candidates have a specific query, they should check with that person to find out what their national law requires.

In broad terms, in the following circumstances permission is not needed.

Copyright has expired

Works in which copyright has expired may be copied in full and dealt with freely. In New Zealand, copyright in literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works expires 50 years from the end of the year in which the author died; in Australia, the US and Europe and many other countries, copyright expires 70 years following the end of the year in which the author died.

In New Zealand, copyright in sound recordings, films and communication works expires 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work is made or communicated or made available to the public. If the identity of the author is not able to be ascertained by reasonable inquiry, copyright expires 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work is first made available to the public. Overseas, the term of copyright for these works varies with each jurisdiction and national law must be checked.

A less obvious protection exists for the typographical arrangement of a work. This means that a work in which the author has been dead for hundreds of years can be protected by copyright if the publisher brings out a new edition, whereupon the typographical arrangement is protected for a further 25 years.

Quoting from a work in which only the typographical arrangement is protected by copyright and not copying the format or layout means that you can use that work in that way without permission.

Creative Commons licences

Works on the Internet may be made available under a licence such as a Creative Commons (CC) licence which would allow you to include it in your thesis and post it on-line without having to request permission.

Creative Commons licences allow creators (licensors) to retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work. All work licensed under a CC licence must be properly attributed to the licensor.

Creative Commons offers 6 main licence types. Providing that the licence permits the original work to be copied and distributed online, it may be included in a thesis. The following link is to a Quick Reference Guide to Finding Creative Commons Material for Teachers and Students.

Although NZ Government works are protected by copyright the government has issued a directive to the effect that works subject to Crown Copyright should be made available under a creative commons licence.

If you are wanting to use work, including data sets, which are protected by NZ Crown copyright, then this link provides useful information on using NZ government works and how to obtain permission: Other countries are likely to also have government guidance, and someone at your own institution may help you find where.

Copying which is “fair”

There are certain exceptions in each country’s copyright laws which allow copies to be made for purposes which are thought to benefit society and for which the copyright owner would be unlikely to grant permission. This is generally classed as “fair” and may fall under “fair use” if you are in the US or “fair dealing” if you are in New Zealand, Australia or the UK. In New Zealand the “fair dealing for criticism and review” allows copying for criticism or review purposes. Any use of works under this provision requires that the original author is acknowledged with the usual reference needed for thesis citations.

No copyright

In some jurisdictions, no copyright attaches to certain works in the public domain. Under the New Zealand Copyright Act no copyright attaches to the following works which may be freely copied:

  • Bills and Acts of Parliament
  • Regulations and Bylaws
  • Reports of Select Committees
  • New Zealand Parliamentary Debates
  • Judgments of any New Zealand court or tribunal. Note: Head notes are protected by copyright and may not be copied without permission
  • Reports of New Zealand Royal Commissions, Commissions of Inquiry, Ministerial Inquiries or Statutory Inquiries

In the US, any work created by a federal (but not state or local) government employee is in the public domain, provided that the work was created in that person’s official capacity. However, state and local laws and court decisions are in the public domain. See more at:

In general, those working with historical documents will need to ascertain early on whether these works are likely to be protected by copyright and whether or not permission is required.

Copying permitted

A final group of works are protected by copyright, but can be freely copied, including for commercial purposes. In New Zealand this includes:

  • abstracts of scientific or technical articles accompanying an article in a periodical indicating the contents of the article;
  • buildings and sculptures permanently on public display may be drawn, photographed or filmed – this does not extend to copying someone else’s graphic image, photograph or film of a sculpture or building on public display. As explained in the previous post [include link],s a separate copyright exists for the graphic image, the photograph or film itself, which belongs to the artist, photographer or filmmaker;
  • text or images relating to a medicine imported by the Crown and published overseas by the copyright owner.


Commissioned works include photographs, computer programmes, paintings, drawings, diagrams, maps, charts, plans, engravings, models, sculptures, films or sound recordings. Ownership of a commissioned work varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In Australia, if someone is paid to create a work for private or domestic purposes, the person paying for it owns the copyright

The general principle, as well as the exceptions, can be modified by agreement. It is good practice to have written agreements with all the contributors involved in your publication project to ensure copyright ownership is clearly determined early in the process.

See more at:

Under current New Zealand law, the commissioner retains copyright whether or not it is for private or domestic purposes. However, the commissioner can contract out of the default position. So, unless there is an agreement to the contrary, the owner of the commissioned work also owns the copyright, which means they can use the work as they please. In the rare case when doctoral students commission someone to create a work, candidates must check any written agreement they are asked to sign to ensure that they retain copyright or have a licence to use the work for future purposes.

Note that the commissioning rule does not apply to literary works or musical works, so if a doctoral candidate commissions music or a text for inclusion in a work that they also want to include in their thesis, they should either ensure that copyright is assigned to them in writing or that the work is licensed to enable the thesis to be deposited in the repository.

If the creator is unpaid (in effect has given their work), then the work will have to be assigned to the commissioner by way of a deed for them to own copyright. The deed must be signed and the signature witnessed. However, only a nominal sum is generally sufficient to be regarded as payment.

In summary, where a work is commissioned and paid for and that work will form part of a submitted thesis, the candidate who has commissioned that work by default owns the copyright in that work—unless it is a musical work or a literary work. If ownership of the work is unable to be obtained, then a license or permission from the copyright owner to use that work is sufficient.

And to emphasise the take home message: all doctoral candidates should talk about any copyright issues early on as they make decisions about the doctoral route. Then, if copyright is required, they should get consents as early as possible so that submission of the thesis is able to go ahead smoothly.

Melanie Johnson, the copyright advisor at the University of Auckland, has explained copyright as it affects those posting doctoral theses on a digital portal in this post and the previous one. Make sure that you read both!





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