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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.