My success story: writing a PhD thesis in a foreign language

Post by Dr Bérengère Digard, University of Edinburgh

I have recently finished my PhD, which involved – as you may know – writing a doctoral thesis. A PhD thesis is no small deed. It definitely falls more in the realms of scientific books than dissertations: it tells an intricate story and tries to make a compelling argument for your findings, covering highly complex ideas in a clear and meaningful way. As you can imagine, few people find this particular part of the PhD easy, especially when you have to write it… in a foreign language.

When I started my PhD, the thesis was one of my biggest fears. English is my 3rd language (in terms of age of acquisition, but 2nd in terms of proficiency), and before the PhD, I could understand everything easily, and speak decently (with a strong French accent). But for the life of me I could not write. I had written an MSc dissertation, but the whole process was excruciating.

When writing in French, I had my own style and tone, fashioned over the years. I’ve always loved using puns alongside unexpected or quaint synonyms. I felt like my writing could reflect my true self. In English… not so much. In writing, unlike speaking, you have all the time in the world to reflect upon your own incompetence. I would start over-thinking everything: “is the right grammatical structure this one or that one? Am I using the right tense? Does this word need a preposition?” When writing in English, I would quickly start feeling helpless, unable to express all my thoughts as they were, limited by the few words I knew. Subject — Verb — Object. The overall style: bland with sprinkles of harrowing dullness. When writing in English, I would feel pretty much like a baboon, a babbling bumbling (band of) baboon(s) (Thumbs up if you got the Minerva McGonagall reference here). As you can imagine this is pretty incompatible with the writing of a PhD thesis.

So, how did I manage this frightening endeavour?

I prepared myself from the start of the PhD, 3 years before the thesis (for a mid-journey check-in, read my #BilingualProblems blogpost on my PhD blog).

1. I read

In French I already had a style, and it could not be exactly translated… which meant that I had the opportunity to start afresh and find a whole new one! I started to feed my language with as many writing styles as I could, and I would devour all the writing I could find.

2. I practiced writing

As it is definitely tricky to find your style when doing only academic writing, I started off with a blog. Writing about anything you actually enjoy eases you into the process, you get carried away and you stop focusing on the grammar. Bonus: eventually I started to enjoy writing in English! Eventually, when I got enough data in my research, I was able to start writing short academic pieces, like abstracts, proposals and papers, to slowly transfer my newly acquired writing skills into academic work.

3. I learned to be proud of my progress

Sure, my writing is still not Tolkien-worthy, and to be fair I don’t believe it will ever be, even in French. Still, the 10-year-old me who could only say textbook sentences such as “Where is Brian? Brian is in the kitchen / Where is my umbrella? It’s behind the door” would be flabbergasted by my current English proficiency. On a smaller scale, I now notice all the grammatical structures and less common words I can use spontaneously, while a couple of years ago I had to actively research them.

And then, when the thesis finally happened:

4. I allowed myself to be of inconsistent quality

On certain days (or when writing about certain results) I was extremely inspired and wrote first drafts so well that they almost didn’t change for the final thesis. Other days (or when writing about other topics) I could not get further than “Subject – Verb – Object”. Well, that’s okay. Ideally all the thesis is of equal quality and style, but the first (and even second) draft does not have to be. On these lower quality days, I just focused on getting words out of the keyboards and ideas onto the screen. When getting back to these sections, by myself or with feedback from my supervisors, I was able to shape them into something better (while not having to start from a blank page, which is always nice).

5. I relied on generous native speakers

Even though I know my new writing style is pretty good, the anxiety of mistakes still crept in near the end of the write-up. Luckily, I was able to count on several native-speaking friends to help me through this last stage. I sent them one chapter each, asking them to point out any sentence that “made sense but didn’t feel right”. They actually found very few of these. I guess I should have been more confident in my own skills.

Thus ends my thesis writing journey, from high school skills to a pretty doctoral thesis. At the very start of my remote viva (lockdown style), the examiners immediately said how beautifully the thesis was written, which is, to me, one of the highest compliments they could have given me. The journey of building a new style and finding in myself the confidence to share my writings was long and sometimes challenging, but achievable! If you are as anxious about your writing as I was, I hope this testimony will help you and motivate you to get out there and share your words. If I could do it, so can you.