The hardest thing about doing a PhD isn’t the research, the literature review, the research design. They’re all hard, sure, but the hardest thing about doing a PhD is the constant worry about whether what you’re doing is ‘good enough’. The trouble is, we only have so much control over making it good enough.

I know when I first started my PhD, I wanted to achieve perfection. I wanted the research design to be flawless, the methods to be rock-solid and the epistemological underpinning to be logically consistent and internally robust. Then, as time goes on I realised that perfection is impossible and futile.

In other words, a PhD doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be good enough.

A thesis that is good terrifying

When I realised that, it was empowering. But it was also terrifying. Although I felt relieved, I now begun to constantly question whether my thesis was actually good enough. One thing I always took for granted though was that, regardless of the nature of the study or the quality of the findings, I was able to write fluently and didn’t even think about what a gift that is.

I know from lots of people I proofread PhDs for that a big frustration is knowing that whatever they produce won’t be good enough simply because they aren’t able to communicate fluently in English. This is often the case with international students who speak English as a second language. The design they’ve chosen and the data they’re presenting are certainly good enough, but everything is let down by poor fluency. And that’s something that is out of their hands.

It terrifies them.

The Perfect Thesis If You Speak English As A Second Language: An Impossible Dream?

Imagine a scenario for a second. This may even be happening to you right now. You’ve got control over your design and your theoretical framework. You’ve got control over the kinds of questions you asked your interviewees. You’ve got control over your experiments. You can read and learn about methods and theories. That’s all fairly straightforward; you can become a better version of yourself and become good enough by learning the skills required in each of those areas.

What isn’t straightforward is writing fluently. You see, unlike your research, which remember only needs to be good enough, the language needs to be perfect. Remember, one of the criteria for a PhD is it being of publishable quality. Think about that for a second. If you write English as a second language or struggle to write fluently for whatever reason, you’re never going to be able to achieve publishable quality, even if you’ve got the best research in the world. Sure, by this stage, if you speak English as a second language your language is probably pretty good. But it probably isn’t perfect.

And it needs to be.

That’s what terrifies a lot of people. Learning complete fluency to the standard required isn’t like learning new methods or theories. It’s beyond the scope of the PhD training. But that doesn’t change the fact that it needs to be of publishable quality. They don’t have the control necessary to make their thesis good enough and they know that however good everything else is, the thesis won’t pass because, once you factor in the way it’s written and the language that is used, the thesis will never be good enough.

Two pieces of advice.

So there’s two pieces advice you should take from this.

First, if you’re a native English speaker, don’t take for granted the power of being able to communicate in English to the standard required. You might not be the greatest writer in the world - let’s face it, us academics aren’t - but your writing is enough to satisfy the examiners.

Second, if you’re speaking English a second language, don’t underestimate the importance of language and grammar fluency and don’t suffer in silence if you struggle with achieving publishable quality. Worrying about whether your thesis will be good enough will sap your energy, energy you desperately need as you write and plan your thesis.

Instead, reach out. Talk to your supervisors. Ask them what they think you can do to improve things. Get native speakers to read through your work and ask them what they think. And, if you still think your language isn’t good enough, get in touch with us. Our job is literally to help people like you overcome problems like this. We’ll make your thesis good enough.

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