Writing a PhD is hard. Writing a PhD in English when it isn’t your first language is even harder. ESL PhD students have their work cut out for them, that’s for sure.

We’ve created an infographic that sums up the most common challenges ESL PhD students face, things that you need to bear in mind if English is your second language, quick fixes to improve your writing and where to go for extra help and support. It draws upon our experience and summarises the common concerns we see. 

Click on the infographic below to download a high-resolution copy. It’s designed to be self-contained, but if you want more detail about each of the steps and elements then keep reading. 

Struggles facing ESL PhD students

Some of the challenges you’re facing are obvious – writing in technical, academic English is undoubtedly a challenge felt by many – but others are less obvious. For example, if you are from a non-Western country you may not have stopped to think about the unique challenges that come with writing for a Western academic audience. We’ve published a separate post that deals specifically with this concern.

ESL PhD students (and non-ESL students too, for that matter) often complain about a lack of support from either their supervisors or universities. This is always sad to see, particularly given the impact it can have on students of all abilities. By failing to provide adequate support, universities are assuming – arrogantly and incorrectly – that PhD students are equipped with the necessary skills to write to the required standard. No matter how academically gifted you are it is likely that, when you start out, you’ll be poorly equipped as an academic writer. These skills take time to learn.

This doesn’t make your life any easier. It means you’re sometimes on your own when trying to improve your English writing skills. Let us offer you our advice and suggestions.

Interested in group workshops, cohort-courses and a free PhD learning & support community? 

The team behind The PhD Proofreaders have launched The PhD People, a free learning and community platform for PhD students. Connect, share and learn with other students, and boost your skills with cohort-based workshops and courses.

Things to bear in mind when writing your PhD

If you’re an ESL PhD student you need to bear four really important things in mind:

  • Write as concisely as possible

  • Write critically

  • Be direct

  • Remain neutral

Write concisely

Keep things as concise as possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean short, but does mean that you should avoid being unnecessarily wordy. We’ve written a guide elsewhere about how to make sure you’re writing clearly and concisely. Check it out here. You also need to adopt the correct academic tone – make sure your writing isn’t informal and doesn’t use slang.

Being concise is being kind to the reader. Your job when writing is to make their life as easy as possible, so they actually enjoy reading what you have written. Being concise is the easiest way to achieve this.

Other than making their life easier, you’ll also find it easier to get your point across and you’ll save precious words. 

The heart of being concise is having an awarenesses of: 

  1. The point you are trying to make
  2. How you are making that point
  3. Whether you are doing so in the most efficient manner possible

Again, this means you have to have a good idea of what it is you are trying to say in a particular section, paragraph or chapter. It requires you to structure arguments properly and to make sure that your chapters are laid out properly. 

Be critical and question everything

You also need to make sure you’re being critical when you read and write. For many ESL students this is the hardest skills to learn. Often – particularly in non-Western countries – students aren’t taught sufficient critical thinking skills. This means that when you arrive at Western universities you think in fundamentally different ways; you may be more inclined to accept things as fact, whereas your peers may be more questioning of what they read and write. 
The key to success in your PhD is mastering your critical thinking skills. Check out our guide to being critical in your literature review. Whilst it focuses on the literature review, a lot of the tips contained in it are useful for the PhD as a whole.

Be direct and get to the point

There is a tendency though when writing critically to get lost in words. You must remember to be direct and get to the point as quickly and concisely as possible. Western audiences value directness. 

This means two things. 

  1. Discussing only the topic at hand and avoiding unnecessary detail
  2. Using language that is clear and precise. 

This means you need to have a really clear understanding of what the PhD as a whole is doing and the purpose of each chapter and sub-section. Our free PhD Writing Template can help with this. 

Once you have a good idea of what’s going on then get to the point. Quickly. Don’t waste words talking about things that are irrelevant. Make your point clearly, concisely and as early as possible. 

Then stay on point. Always. 

Why? Audiences appreciate not having to sift through information to find out what they need to know. Ambiguity can be seen as a failure to understand the material or literature, so it tends to be frowned upon.


Use medium certainty

When you’re writing, it’s easy to introduce bias and your own personal opinion. You need to do all you can to avoid that. Western academic audiences value neutral, impartial reflection. 

Remember, the PhD is a largely scientific exercise. You are required to reach conclusions objectively and on the basis of logical analysis. If you aren’t neutral when you discuss your research design, for example, you’ll end up with a project that has built-in bias. That won’t go down well with your examiners. Nor will a misrepresentation of your findings because you’ve introduced personal bias and value judgements. 

Sure, you might think that it’s impossible to completely distance yourself from your research but that’s not the point. The issue here is that you need to see things for what they are. Don’t judge your findings because of a personal preconception. Use a scientific, rational approach instead. Don’t choose a method because you love it. Choose it because it’s the most appropriate for your aims. Don’t discredit a finding because it conflicts with a personal belief. 

Separate yourself, as much as you can.  

Your PhD thesis.
All on one page. 

Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis. 

Quick Fixes To Improve Your Writing Today

Improving your writing is a slow process. It takes time and effort. But there are a number of quicker fixes that you can use. These pack the maximum punch and have the biggest payoff for your PhD writing. 

Spot your mistakes

Try and think about what mistakes you make most frequently. If you’ve ever had your work proofread, have a look at the changes that the proofreader made. Can you spot any patterns? If you can, make a note of them and see if you can learn them. 

When you write something new, take another read through it, paying attention to these common mistakes. 

Read it out loud – it helps.

Read, read, read

Spend time each week reading well-written journal articles or book chapters. Carefully consider how they have been written. 

Often the problem with writing English in a second language isn’t just spelling or grammar, but sentence structure and academic tone.

Ask yourself:

  • How have they structured their introduction? 
  • How have they structured the article as a whole? 
  • Do they use long sentences with lots of commas or do they keep their sentences short?
  • How do they conclude? 

Thinking carefully about these things will help you understand your own writing. How do you introduce your argument? How do you structure your introduction? How does that compare? Is there anything you can learn? 

Write as much as possible

Write as much as possible. The more you practice, the better you will become, especially if you’re having your work checked by a proofreader, taking note of their suggestions for changes and keeping an eye out for repeated mistakes and patterns. Writing PhD chapters as early as possible is good practice anyway, so it’s a double-win. 

Write in English, but if you get stuck on a word include it in your first language

The worst thing you can do is write your thesis in your first language and then translate it to English. Instead, write the text in English primarily, but if you are having trouble with a particular word include it in your native language. You may already do this when you’re speaking in English and don’t know a particular word. It’s the same principle in writing.
Doing this will mean you can move forward in your thesis. Then, when you go through and edit things, you can translate the individual words into English. 

Bigger is not always better

Lastly, you don’t need to write with long, complex sentences. These are hard to read and add an unnecessary level of complication to your work. Instead, focus on presenting your ideas in short, concise sentences that are easy to read. 

Conclusion: Where To Go For Help

If you’re an ESL PhD student struggling to write their PhD remember this one thing: your struggle is no reflection of your competence and skill. It is a reflection of the unique challenges you face as an ESL writer. With time, dedication and perseverance you can improve your writing. Our tips and infographic are part of that journey, but there are other places you can turn to.

I recommend Purdue’s Online Writing Lab. It’s a great resource for both ESL and non-ESL writers. It contains lots of easy to read, clear and useful guides and tips.

You may also want to check out your university’s resources, if they’re available to you. Many universities run ESL writing courses. They aren’t perfect, but they’re often free.

You may also want to check out our very own PhD Knowledge Base. It’s written for both non-ESL and ESL PhD students, but it contains lots of useful advice to help you clarify your thoughts, structure your PhD and improve your writing.

What are the things you struggle with the most when writing? Leave a comment below.

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