Writing a Dissertation in Your Second Language

Writing a strong doctoral dissertation or thesis is a daunting task for any student due to the difficulty of academic writing. Students face the challenge of organizing and maintaining large amounts of text across hundreds of pages. For master’s and PhD doctoral students, writing a thesis or dissertation represents the capstone to their academic career. 

For ESL graduate students from other countries who do not speak English as their primary language, writing a thesis or dissertation may seem like climbing a mountain. So, if you don’t speak English as your primary language but are set to write a thesis or dissertation soon, where should you start?

Thesis or Dissertation Writing in English as a Second Language

This article explores how to write a dissertation or thesis in a second language by first tackling the key characteristics that make an academic thesis and dissertation unique, challenges facing ESL graduate students and researchers, specific cultural issues and problems, and finally, tips to improve your dissertation or thesis writing in English.

What is Thesis Writing?

A thesis is a research report typically written at the end of a master’s degree program. Much more complex than an undergraduate thesis or research paper, a master’s thesis is longer and puts a heavier emphasis on the research literature. Master’s students are expected to show an understanding and command of their research subject. A master’s degree usually takes 2 years to complete. While it can be long (up to 50-100 pages), it is usually not cited by other scholarly or academic works.

What is Dissertation Writing?

A doctoral or PhD dissertation is a substantive piece of independent academic research required of all doctorate students. The most important thing to remember is that a dissertation is an original work that has not been published elsewhere and makes a novel contribution to the field of knowledge.

This contribution could be a new research methodology, expansion of the current understanding of an accepted theory, proof that an existing theory is wrong, or even a new theory altogether. Further, the research performed for a dissertation is typically conducted over a period of 4-7 years.

What exactly is a dissertation anyway?

Thesis & Dissertation Writing is Hard

Academia attracts students, researchers, and professors from all over the world. Whether these individuals come from Asia, Africa, Europe, or the Americas, one thing holds true: English is the common language of scientific and academic writing and publishing.

While having a common language makes academic publishing efficient, it can create socioeconomic, cultural, racial, and linguistic barriers to successfully writing a thesis or dissertation. As a result, the academic world can often be difficult to break into for PhD graduates who are not native English speakers.

Vera Sheridan, a language and intercultural relations researcher at Dublin City University, states in a Nature article:

Many academics assume that students come to them fully formed, but every student has to learn the culture of their discipline. For those who don’t speak English as a first language, the challenge is especially daunting. They can’t do it alone. It requires a partnership with their mentor and their institution.

I know of a case in which a researcher from India submitted a paper that came back to him largely because of language issues. He thought that he had addressed the problem but it was rejected again, not for the quality of the research but for the quality of the English. He rated the experience as one of the worst of his life.

If you are an ESL graduate student or researcher preparing to write your dissertation, thesis, or journal article, check out this Resource Page from the European Association of Science Editors (EASE).

Dissertation Writing for English as a Second Language Students

The challenge facing non-native English speakers when writing an academic journal article or dissertation can be broken down into two categories: language issues as well as cultural issues and expectations.

English Language Issues in Academic Writing

When it comes to thesis or dissertation writing for ESL students, there are two main issues.

A thesis or dissertation is not your typical undergraduate essay or term paper–those don’t take 4 years to write, and a typical PhD dissertation or thesis is 100-200 pages long.

No research author can write 200 pages of academic English without making a mistake or having no room for improvement via proofreading or editing.

As an English editing and proofreading service, Wordvice has surveyed graduate students, college professors, and researchers to determine the most common English writing errors in academia.

Errors that affect thesis or dissertation writing include style, word choice, spelling, grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, formatting, vocabulary usage, consistency, and relevance.

And that’s the simple part!

Some common best practices in academic research or thesis writing include removing personal pronouns, maintaining a standardized style guide, and balancing usage of active versus passive voice.

Cultural & Social Issues in Research Writing

Graduate doctoral and master’s students come from diverse cultures and speak multiple languages. But in the end they must write their thesis or dissertation in English. And while it is hard enough communicating in another language in everyday conversation without losing nuance, academic thesis and dissertation writing creates a whole spectrum of cultural challenges for English as a second language individuals.

Cultural Issues

International students in Western countries in particular face tremendous cultural shock and issues in academia.

An academic study published in the Journal of International Students found that international students from the same cultural background tend to work well with each other, as compared to those from the host country. Indeed, “one’s knowledge and cultural values influence how they learn and engage with instructional content.”

If you’ve ever gone on campus and noticed a split between international and domestic students, don’t just jump to the conclusion that people are biased out of choice. Language and cultural comfort go a long way!

Social Issues

There is a major social cost to being a doctoral or master’s student: writing a thesis or dissertation can get quite lonely, and many students end up feeling isolated.

Second language students are especially vulnerable to missing out on valuable collaboration and feedback from colleagues and supervisors in the process of writing their dissertations.

Academic peer review is extremely valuable and should be treated as a resource, especially as it is a key part of the academic publishing process for journal articles and literature reviews. Missing out on this feedback due to language issues or supervisors not picking up on cultural cues has a negative effect on English second language students.

Tips for Dissertation & Thesis Writing in a Second Language

Now that we know what makes academic writing so difficult and have discussed some challenges facing ESL graduate students, let’s go over some tips for improving your dissertation and thesis writing skills.

Our editors and proofreaders know how to edit dissertations, because they have written one!

Practice Use Cases for Dissertation Writing 

The two most important skills for being a successful graduate student and earning a doctoral or master’s degree are, without a doubt, research and communication. Without research, you have nothing to report. Without communication skills, you won’t be able to convince or engage anyone. 

So your dissertation writing practice should be hyper focused on combining these two factors. That is where the notion of use cases comes in. Use cases are a form of learning and practice where you immediately apply what you are learning in order to determine what you need to learn next as well as new ideas to explore. 

The benefit of use case-based learning is that you immediately start creating or achieving your end goal. In our case, that would be writing a complete dissertation or thesis. 

An example use case schedule:

  • Write one updated abstract every week of your current research.

This will help you focus on clearly and concisely communicating your research focus and efforts while keeping the word count to a minimum. It takes a lot of skill to effectively communicate within just 250-500 words.

  • Document your research methodologies for each iteration/experiment. 

Take note of any changes in your procedures, equipment, and methods. Meditate on why you made these changes and record them. Write repeatedly why each change was made as if you were the reader who does not understand.

  • Add figure legends in English to your notes, sketches, and figures each week. 

Figures are the evidence that supports your research writing. The majority of your Results section will be descriptions of your research data/figures, what they show, why they are important, and what they don’t show. 

Figure legends or captions are even shorter. You only have 1-2 sentences to explain the methods and significance of the figure.

  • Catalog all of your literature citations by author, research topic, date, etc. 

The Introduction and Discussion sections of your thesis or dissertation will mostly be based on the literature, references, and citations. Each citation must briefly be connected with your own research or topic and support your overall hypothesis. 

Combine English with Your Native Language

Any bilingual speaker will often find him or herself speaking in both languages at the same time, often combining words together in order to achieve a very precise meaning that may not be available in exclusively one language. Whether it’s Spanglish (Spanish + English) or Konglish (Korean + English), bilingual speakers find that this mode of communication is comfortable and often effective.

While you certainly cannot write a thesis or dissertation in Spanglish, you can certainly prepare drafts containing placeholder sentences or words in your own language as ‘bookmarks’ to be replaced later on.

This accomplishes two things. First, it allows you to write faster. Saving time is very important. Second, it maintains a sense of fluidity and connectedness in your thesis or dissertation before more precise changes can be made by an editor or proofreader. 

This is important because the most important goal of initial drafts is to get your ideas and content on the page. This can be fixed in the next step.

Get Dissertation Proofreading & Editing Help

No one can do your research for you. And no one should write your dissertation or thesis for you either. Unfortunately, if you’re an English as a second language speaker, your drafts may be a bit rough around the edges when it comes to writing and grammar. 

That’s okay though. Remember, your main goal is to get your research written as efficiently and faithfully as possible.

Dissertation proofreading and editing services help put graduate researchers in the best position to achieve the above goal because they free students up to do the thing they do best: research and communication. Fortunately, many services such as Wordvice employ professional editors and proofreaders with graduate degrees. 

If you’re looking for additional help or have questions about proofreading and editing, check out these writing resources.