Fresh Off the Boat to Grad School

Updated Jul 22, 2015
Melina GehringMelina Gehring

So you have taken on a Ph.D. student from China, and, after two years of graduate courses and lab work, you have noticed that her writing leaves a lot to be desired. You have told Qingling to ask a native speaker to clean up her thesis proposal or else she might not pass that qualifying exam. Clearly, there is nothing much you can do to fix her English, right?

Yet, leaving things to some angelic native speaker to look over will not do the trick. While even native speakers should have a fresh pair of eyes look over an important text, such as a journal article or a grant proposal, struggling writers will not benefit from having their mistakes corrected with no further explanation.

Sure, you have also told Qingling to work on her English. Now what is she to make of that? After all, your department was satisfied with her TOEFL score when it accepted her into the program, so why is her English now a concern? Her English might be far from perfect, but it is not the main problem. It is the lack of writing instruction in her previous education.

Sure, reading a grammar book cover to cover might fix some of Qingling’s recurring grammar mistakes. But it will not help her keep up with her domestic fellow students, who typically had one or several mandatory writing courses in their freshman year of college and, ideally, the ongoing support from their school’s writing center. Compared to Qingling, they are generally better prepared for the writing challenges of graduate school and, eventually, life itself.

On top of telling Qingling to fix her English, you have also claimed that she cannot think logically. Now, saying such a thing can demoralize your students and damage your relationship beyond repair. Offer constructive feedback instead, such as explaining to Qingling that you want her to write in a reader-friendly way and exploring strategies with her for how this can be done.

Consider this: writing for the reader is not a universal virtue. Other countries don’t appreciate short and simple sentences and good flow as much as Americans do, especially not in academic writing. What you, American professor, might interpret as lacking logic might just be the Chinese/Arabic/ French way of presenting information.

As a native speaker of German, I, too, had to learn how to please Americans. When I write for Americans, I abandon my convoluted, pseudo-intellectual, noun-heavy Germanic style for brief, clear sentences. I use meaningful nouns and strong verbs. My writing is clear, simple and to the point. Every culture has its own way of doing things, and these rules extend to the field of academic writing.

There are many handbooks that can help Qingling with regard to writing in general and academic writing in particular, such as Joseph M. Williams’ ever-so-helpful Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace or, specifically for ESL students in the sciences, Hilary Glasman-Deal’s Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English.

Depending on what resources your campus offers to graduate students, Qingling might also consult the writing center, the academic skills center, the subject librarian or a multilingual specialist such as me.

However, it is your job as a professor or Ph.D. adviser to emphasize the importance of writing in your teaching and advising, to point your students toward the available resources and, of course, to spell out the rules for drafting a text in your discipline.

Including writing assignments in your graduate courses—even if they are just brief responses to an article, a talk or a course session—signals to your students that writing is important. Moreover, your students may enjoy conducting workshops for these assignments in peer-response sessions. In these sessions, they critique each other’s writing and thereby learn these much-needed self-editing skills, on top of understanding the importance of revision in the first place.

Please make sure your first-year international graduate students know about the writing and research resources that their domestic peers take for granted but might not have existed in such form and breadth at their home institutions. These include reference management software, the existence of interlibrary loan systems, and, of course, workshops and documents that explain the appropriate use of citation.

Just because the international graduate students on your campus may have signed some academic honor code document when matriculating does not necessarily mean they share this country’s understanding of what constitutes plagiarism. Learning how to cite sources correctly can also be a valuable learning outcome from writing assignments in graduate courses.

One more point about graduate coursework—giving ample feedback on presentations in graduate courses is just as good an idea as making your students write, especially if you focus on delivery as well as content. After all, you want students such as Qingling to be able to give appealing lectures, conference talks and job talks one day.

Job talks? Now here’s my take-home message: if you and Qingling don’t succeed, as a teacher-student team, to boost her writing and presentation skills, she can have bottomless biochemistry knowledge but she will not be employed in this country, neither in academia nor in the private sector.

Taking on non-native speakers as graduate students might sometimes mean committing to extra work. Yet, you and your graduate program will have to ask yourselves if you want to educate international graduate students, from China or elsewhere, without giving them a fair chance to build a career in the United States.

Melina Gehring is a multilingual specialist at Dartmouth College, where she supports international graduate students with their writing and presentation needs.