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by Cally Guerin

Research students are required to write many different kinds of documents and genres over the course of a degree. I’ve been thinking about this in the context of how doctoral candidates can demonstrate to potential employers just what capable writers they are. One very useful tool for noticing all these writing skills is the Vitae Researcher Development Framework. This framework lists in detail the “knowledge, behaviours and attributes” developed through the course of doctoral candidature, organising them under the headings of: knowledge and intellectual abilities; personal effectiveness; research governance and organisation; and engagement, influence and impact. While writing probably comes under all these domains, the last one, “engagement, influence and impact”, is the most obvious, as it includes a section on “Communication and dissemination”. Yet there is a lot of written communication required of doctoral candidates before they reach Vitae’s endpoint of “Communication methods/communication media/publication”.

To start with, even being allowed to start a PhD requires the ability to negotiate the writing literacies needed to complete lengthy and detailed application forms. Some students I’ve spoken to find this a daunting writing task which perhaps develops both complex positional and rhetorical writing skills but may also teach valuable lessons in how to construct such forms in other areas of their careers.

Then there is the task of writing a proposal. This writing must succeed in providing the right level of detail about the project to persuade readers that this is not only an original and interesting idea, but that it is do-able in the set timeframe. The writing demonstrates that the aspiring researcher can organise the stages of the research in a logical order. Some familiarity with discipline expectations about methods, theory and writing style will also be shown.

After that, the doctoral writer might start doing some more conventional academic writing of thesis chapters, book chapters, journal articles or textbook entries. Here they show that they understand the expectations of the scholarly audience who might read their work, that they know how to use discipline-specific language and have a command of the knowledge in the field. Employers who are looking for evidence that an individual can perform the traditional role of an academic can be reassured that this writer knows the ropes. Writing conference presentations relies on some of this, but often takes on a more conversational tone (though that might depend somewhat on the discipline and/or the particular atmosphere of the conference).

But there are other important documents that candidates might write that demonstrate other kinds of writing skills. For example, those who need to submit ethics applications will soon realise they need to present complex ideas and projects in a manner that the ethics committee—generally composed of people who are not experts in their particular research field—can engage with. And then there might be all the attendant documents, written for participants who are often much further removed from the academic field of research: recruitment materials and invitations to participate in the research (emails, flyers); information sheets; consent and complaint forms. The ability to communicate complex ideas in ordinary language becomes essential—and can be oddly hard to do after becoming adept at talking discipline jargon. Some projects require candidates to learn the skills of writing survey and interview questions. These need to be unambiguous; they also need to be easy for a lay person to understand if they are to get accurate responses.

Others will write grant applications and learn the skills of presenting the significance of their work to a well-informed but not necessarily specialist audience. This is a time to learn how to promote the value of the research, rather than a moment for modesty or humility—the tentative hedging required in other writing has little place when important funding is at stake. And if successful, there are likely to be requirements to write reports on how that funded research has progressed, writing that might be aimed at an industry audience, or those whose priorities may not be identical to those in the academy.

Then (perhaps most importantly of all?!) is the written communication with supervisors, often via email. Here, doctoral candidates learn another kind of writing that is private but at the same time needs to be appropriately professional. In some situations the expectation is that this has a formal, polite, deferential tone; in others, a casual, abbreviated note is perfectly acceptable. Negotiating this while maintaining clear communication requires great skill (we all know emailers who have had the uncomfortable experience of having their messages misunderstood, potentially with very damaging effects). Effective email writing is an asset in any workplace.

More and more doctoral candidates are also writing about their research or doctoral experiences on social media, for example, through blogging and tweeting, or on professional academic sites like Linkedin. Presenting and maintaining a presence in these kinds of forums requires a host of other writing skills and literacies to communicate effectively.

All of this writing happens before the collation of the final thesis or exegesis, a document that demonstrates how doctoral candidates are capable of carefully proofreading a long document. The document must be consistent throughout, present complex skills of referencing accurately, and meet the highest expectations of persuasive argumentation and scholarship. This capacity for sustained, precise presentation is, again, valuable for other long reports or publications.

Through these different writing experiences, doctoral writers learn how to express their ideas clearly, how to structure material so that all sorts of readers can engage with it, and consider the appropriate layout of the document to indicate how it fits together. They learn about the nuances of genre and audience—what’s appropriate, expected, and useful in a range of different writing situations.

It’s a huge list of writing skills developed through the “depth and breadth and height” of a doctoral degree; these skills can be used in all sorts of contexts outside university departments. There are no doubt all sorts of other writing and genres that I’ve missed—please tell me what else I should add to this list to remind doctoral writers of the vast skill set they’ve developed during candidature (and how they might present them to potential employers).