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By Susan Carter

It is not new news that it is tough to write a whole thesis in formal academic prose in English when it isn’t your first language—Sabrina Islam’s post last week showed her strategic approaches to managing this massive challenge. She suggested an inclusive set of attitudes and actions that candidates can adapt.

The supervisor perspective matters in amongst practice too. I know that supervisors worry about supporting international or other EAL candidates’ writing because a few years back I did a research project and got data from 226 accredited supervisors. I was curious as to whether the challenges of sustaining doctoral writing were different across discipline, and sort of expected that they would because the prose styles differ between empirical science and Arts Humanities research writers. I didn’t ask about international or EAL writers, but 66 supervisors mentioned them. A few were negative, most felt that it took more work, and a few felt that international students were the best.  Most comments were that the considerable extra time spent on teaching English literacy at the highest level ever demanded of writers, doctoral writing, meant less time for feedback at deeper levels: content, theory, structure, ideas. This post is based on a workshop I host on this topic for supervisors.

In the workshop, I invite other academics and professionals who provide feedback for international doctoral students at our institution—those who do Diagnostic English Language Needs Assessment and learning advisors who provide English Language Enrichment support bring their own considerable experience and describe what workshops and individual appointments are available to international doctoral students. While in the session we want to make sure supervisors know what is available at our own institution, this post shares some of the ideas from this workshop are not institution-specific.

It’s a commonplace that supervisors need reminding that they are dealing with whole people—we used this idea as the framework for one study I led that produced a useful report on how to support doctoral writing. With international students, that’s especially important, as the Macquarie Cross-Cultural Supervision project spells out: supervisors must pay attention to cultural differences because it is very easy for misunderstanding to arise. Communication around doctoral writing needs to be savvy.

There are studies that flush out the cultural differences likely to play out in doctoral writing.

Fan Shen describes clashes between Chinese and USA cultures: she’d experienced a vibrant Chinese campaign ‘Against Individualism’ with the legend ‘Down with the word “I”’, so when American professors insisted that she use the first person pronoun, she felt she was being driven to become an inappropriately self-focused writer (Shen, 2008, pp. 123-134). Learning English literacy at tertiary level in the west seemed like being ‘reprogrammed’: ‘In order to write good English, I had to “be myself,” which meant not my Chinese self’ (Shen, 2008, p. 125). Anna Robinson-Pant confirms this in her research. She ‘found many students reluctant to write in the first person– seeing this as individualistic and even “selfish” in their home institution. A Saudi student explained that ‘at home, it is forbidden to use the first person’ (Robinson-Pant, 2010, p. 154).

I’m amongst many who point out that in a constructivist paradigm the first person pronoun is used when an author positions themselves in their research. That’s expected according to methodology manuals. Claire Aitchison has written about the use of ‘I’ here. We mention the use of the first person pronoun in a post on voice, too. But in some cultures, the epistemological requirement to describe your own identity as relevant to your research stance, using ‘I’ while you do so, may be uncomfortable and need careful discussion.

Robinson points out other western expectations are alien and may be troublesome to some cultures: ‘Many international students are not making decisions about their research question, research approach, and intended outcomes…on a solely individual basis, but have to take into account their audience and sponsors back home’ (2010, p.148). This point also tallies with the experience of indigenous research students, whose community responsibilities sometimes must play a role in their research decisions.

Then there’s the issue of whether writing is ‘writer responsible’: western preference is for clarity enabled by clear signposting. As a supervisor, reader comfort features often in my feedback on writing (“you could be kind to your reader here by bridging between this idea and the one before it”), whereas in some cultures clear signposting may seem to demean and patronise the reader. Likewise, ethics forms that ask for a signature to say participants have read and understood what they are asked to do could seem suspiciously legalistic, emphasising the distance between the doctoral researcher and home-country participants in a way that seemed like a cultural imposition (Robinson-Pant, 2010).

Then, of course, ‘It is difficult to be critical in another language’ (Robinson-Pant, p.150). Demonstrating critical analysis and criticality in the literature review is hard for all doctoral candidates, but those for whom English is a first language may be more savvy to the complicated nuances of language. In my view, supervisory feedback always needs to be attentive to the demonstration of criticality. International students are likely to find it difficult to be sure of what communication across cultures means: ‘they [my supervisors] tell me I am going well, but I don’t know if that is the truth. Sometimes I feel that I am going very slowly’ (151).

The point is that these will need discussion, and maybe cultural translation.

And mostly with this post, I want to invite readers to share any tips of their own: if you would be willing to offer a blog post on supporting doctoral writing by international or other EAL candidates, please email me at s.carter@auckland.ac.nz with the goal of sharing good practice.


Robinson-Pant, A. (2010). Internationalisation of higher education: Challenges for the doctoral supervisor. In M. Walker & P. Thomson (Eds.), The Routledge Doctoral Supervisor’s Companion: Supporting Effective Research in Education and the Sciences (pp. 147-157). London and New York: Routledge.

Shen, F. (2008). The classroom and the wider culture: Identity as a key to learning English composition. In V. Zamel & R. Spack (Eds.), Negotiating academic literacies: Teaching and learning across cultures (pp. 123-134). London: Routledge.