Writing and supervision of PhD dissertations in English

Writing and supervision of PhD dissertations in English

Purpose/research question

The purpose of the project is to study how PhD students experience and handle the processes and product requirements associated with writing academic English (as a foreign language), and how they are addressed as part of the supervision.

  1. How do PhD students experience and handle the processes and product requirements associated with writing academic English as a foreign language?
  2. How and to what extent are these processes and product requirements addressed as part of the supervision?
  3. How can PhD students be supported most appropriately in their choice of writing language and in their writing in English?


The project formed part of a two-year international research seminar (2011-13) based at Elon University, North Carolina in the USA: Writing and the Question of Transfer. The focus of the Danish sub-project is on transitions from postgraduate to PhD level, and in particular on writing dissertations in English and how to address this in connection with the supervision of PhD students.

The background of the project is that many PhD students face increasing demands for publication in international, usually English-language, journals. In order to write – and publish – competently in English, they need solid linguistic competencies, within both grammar and semantics. Moreover, they are expected to possess well-developed discourse skills, i.e. the ability to communicate coherently within key academic genres, e.g. abstracts and literature reviews. However, knowledge is still lacking as to whether students do in fact acquire these skills, and whether they feel confident in applying them.

Data and analyses

The study is based on

1) Quantitative data from a questionnaire-based survey conducted in spring 2012. The questionnaire was sent to all Danish PhD students enrolled at Arts, AU (N= 274). The response rate was 54% (N= 149)

2) Qualitative data in the form of responses from 21 PhD students to questions for reflection, written assignments and evaluations, collected from the course in Academic Writing for PhD students in 2011-2012.


Our analyses showed that 57% of respondents chose to write their PhD dissertation in English. Of these, 67% stated that the quality of their academic texts in English is very good or good. However, 30% of these respondents had very limited experience of writing academic texts in English when they started their PhD programme. Furthermore, 54% stated that their supervisor had not read any of their texts in English before they decided which language to write their dissertation in, and 66% had never taken a course in academic English. Not surprisingly, 42% stated that they had reservations about writing in English. The qualitative analyses confirmed the findings and documented, in particular, that academic writing in English is closely associated with personal identity and a feeling of uncertainty and a lack of confidence.

Discussion og perspectives

Our study shows that many PhD students have reservations about and difficulties with academic writing in English, but that they are largely regarded as individual problems. The choice of writing language and support for writing in a foreign language are issues which are rarely addressed as part of the supervision; also, the institution offers little support in the form of language courses in the initial stages of the PhD programme. We recommend that the necessary organisational framework be established and that the necessary resources be allocated to tackling this challenge. We also recommend that requirements and expectations as regards the students' language choices and skills be communicated more explicitly.

Status: finished

The project results have been disseminated in a wide variety of contexts: