This post comes from guest blogger, Sabrina Islam. Sabrina  is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, the University of Melbourne.

Sabrina is a rookie coder, trying to answer what committing to the response by serotonin means at cellular and evolutionary contexts by looking at biological data. 

Here she reflects on academic writing and doctoral identity.



The language tree image source is artist Minna Sundberg              Source: https://www.theguardian.com/education/gallery/2015/jan/23/a-language-family-tree-in-pictures

As I was parallel drafting both my thesis chapter and an editorial for the past couple of weeks, I realised how quickly I flipflop between different personalities when I write different pieces. From this realisation resurfaced a much bigger realisation—I switch my personality every time I communicate in English.

“Learning another language is like becoming another person”- said Haruki Murakami. I sort of agree. Donning a second language feels really very similar to donning a “work outfit”- I am a different person with my work shoes on vs what Aussies call “thongs”. Communicating in the language of academia adds another layer of complexity: it’s like putting on suits. To an outsider or someone who is communicating in English as a second language speaker, this may feel like a new dress-code with a new, more complex set of rules. Having multiple voices in the research arena can be an opportunity, but it can also be a challenge.

Pretty much every PhD student who communicates in academic English has been challenged with some aspects of it. Here are some of my insights to ease the friction of switching between personalities. I am organising my thoughts into two layers: being comfortable in your new outfit; and assembling a wardrobe.

Being comfortable

As any stylist/ influencer/ fashion-forward friend will tell you, the first step to looking good is actually feeling good. Before focusing your attention to academic communication, I believe it is useful to check if you are comfortable with communicating in English as a whole. The reason I like to highlight this is that, in my experience, most international students who are struggling with academic writing for an assignment or paper are nearly always struggling with practising general English. Specifically, in the culture where I am from (Southeast Asia), we consider it our priority to produce students with lots of credentials; and teaching effective communication is considered secondary at best and unnecessary at worst. Here are some of my pointers on finding ease and grace first before making big style choices, so to speak.

Learning by doing

The way people assemble their “second cognitive toolkit”, as Lera Boroditsky called it, varies from one to another. However, if I have to identify one common thread, it would be learning by practising.

I learned English by reading. Growing up, I was a voracious reader–I read books, editorials, and movie subtitles.  I have also realised the more I write, the sharper my toolkit remains. It is usually after a prolonged vacation from writing that my writing starts grinding.

Of course, there are other ways to be comfortable in your new outfit. A friend of mine became super-fluent by choosing to speak English over her first language even among friends and families. A lot of people I know learned English/ Japanese /Hindi by consuming heaps of popular culture. One way or another, active, immersive and engaged learning is the best way to be habituated to a second language.

On writing well

Part of the immersive practice will be writing regularly, of course. Once again, writing for academics and academics only may associate writing with deadlines and general anxiety. My prescribed way to ease this would be to write all the time, not just for your supervisors or committee. The goal here is to find comfort and grace in your new outfit. Pitch for a blog. Write eloquent letters to your loved ones. Even journaling counts. All the while, make your writing intentional, so focus on writing clear, grammatically correct sentences that effectively capture your thought.

Being comfortable with mistakes

Sharpening the toolkit with regular exercises, you will sharpen your awareness of the quality of your performances. You will register your faults and imperfections more quickly and reflexively. Most of us who are well into our PhDs are already in this phase. As you become more cognizant of how you communicate in English, it is important to simply accept your mistakes. The grammatical framework, the vocabulary and the styles will always be, at the end of the day, not our natural mode of thinking. We are bound to make fashion faux pas at least sometimes, no matter how sharp we are as dressers. Therefore, my advice would be to simply acknowledge your mistake and not aim for perfection in general.

Assembling a Wardrobe

Now that we have the confidence and comfort to dress, it is time to put our attention to the style itself—the academic way of writing. To achieve this, we would need to study the trappings of good academic writing. Alongside, we would also need to gather inspirations.

Focused learning of academic writing

Especially in the early stages of your PhD, I would advise reading works on good academic writing, or good writing in general.  I jumpstarted my PhD with Rowena Murray’s How to Write a Thesis—which to me was a very well-designed map of writing your thesis up as a process (Murray, 2011). Another really good discourse on academic writing was Style: Ten lessons in clarity and grace by Joseph M. Williams (Williams, 2000). I would encourage maintaining a continual readership with these forms of meta-discourses on academic writing.

Blogs are another great resource that we, twenty-first-century academics have access to. Comprehensive and structured write-ups such as this are particularly useful (Gopen and Swan, 1990). Routinely reading blogs such as patter, the Thesis Whisperer or Doctoral Writing SIG has the overt benefit of structuring your writing, and the covert benefit of developing your own voice through exploring others.

Finally, concentrated workshops and courses are also very useful resources. I highly recommend the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) Writing in the Sciences course. A common problem pertinent to the English as second language speakers is that their prose often become wordy and convoluted. This particular course teaches a number of tools to unlearn bad writing habits, as well as to write for clarity and brevity first and foremost.

Practising in doses

Most students I have encountered treat academic writing as this super-formal attire only to be donned while publishing papers or theses. As I have mentioned earlier, this: 1. associates writing with anxiety; and 2. the lack of practice blunts your toolkit, making it difficult to wield when needed (i.e., the dreaded writer’s block).

What I practise, and what I would encourage you to practise, is to write often and write at every opportunity. Write up the notes from your meeting with your supervisors/ committee. Write up your readings from a journal paper. Write up the work you did today. Heck, just write up to untangle and crystallise your thought process (this article explains how and why).

And when I say write, I mean to write 1. grammatically correct sentences and 2. organised paragraphs. Focus less on the style and more on structuring and clarifying your thoughts. These small, bite-sized writing sessions will strengthen your academic spine, not to mention they will be the raw material which you will efficiently combine into your thesis.

Mentorship /community

Most faculties have clubs or groups where graduate students come together to write and/or peer mentor. I firmly believe that integrating your writing in peer mentoring sessions one of the best ways to practise academic writing. Specific to the English as second language speakers, the communal nature of these activities eases the impostor syndrome we have around our English skills. Simultaneously, being accountable to your peers keeps the procrastination in check.

A less formal way of mentorship is what I call “mentor texts”, which are thesis chapters from formerly graduated students. Your supervisor is bound to have the theses of her favourite students. Ask for them. Study them, not for the methods or the results, but the communication style. One way of informal self-mentoring could be dissecting mentally and taking notes on what makes a good writeup good.

I would like to wrap up with a personal reflection. The more I converse with fellow international graduate students, the more I realise that our mother tongue shapes our thought processes more than we realise. And that is the beauty of it all—us international students, we can bring our own charms and flavours and style. The reason I metaphorize and combine unrelated concepts is partly due to my first language teaching me to do that.  Some of you may have the cognitive toolkit of precision and direction; some of you may have the capacity to simplify complex concepts, and some of you may have a rich vocabulary.  I would encourage you to seep your individual thought processes into your academic writing, and, hopefully, craft your own personal brand of academic English.

Works Cited

Murray, R. (2006). How to write a thesis (2nd ed.). Open University Press.

Williams, J. M. (2000). Style: ten lessons in clarity and grace (6th ed.). Longman.

Gopen, D. and Swan, J. The Science of Scientific Writing. American Scientist (Nov-Dec 1990), Volume 78, 550-558.