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Is there a non written rule to which person to use in the PhD thesis, 5 years of using "We" in the papers have brought me to the innate necessity to do it every time I describe something.

Recently, though, one of my lab-mates told me that I should use I, since it is your work, if the thesis were co-written, then it would be a different story.

Is there any standard in your universities, or do you have any preferred practice.

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What does your university style guide say? What does your supervisor say? –  EnergyNumbers Nov 28 '12 at 7:06

4 Answers 4

up vote 18 down vote accepted

I generally avoid "I" in scientific texts altogether, though some authors are in fact using it if they are the sole author. I can't remember seeing it in a thesis though. In texts with a sole author, I usually understand "we" as meaning the author and the reader, and I'd suggest that it's fine to use it in places where it can have that meaning. For example something like "When substituting a by b, we get ..."

A generally useful advice would be to read into some of the theses written in your group, department, and university (in decreasing relevance), and see whether there is a common pattern.

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I also personally prefer "we", though I agree with silvado that the best advice is to check what is done in your research area. That is, in principle, the audience you're writing for, and the ones that will read it for your examination. –  Luke Mathieson Nov 28 '12 at 8:44
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When you discuss an experiment being done, you can hardly use “we” as “author and reader”. Compare “we can derive B from A” to “I synthesized 3 grams of product K”. –  F'x Nov 28 '12 at 12:56
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@F'x: I'm typically not writing about experiments, but reading sometimes, and I hardly see the use of either "I" or "we" in this context. To me it appears that most authors use passive voice in such descriptions. I think the reasons is that these protocols should be "de-personalized", focussing on the activity, not the person that does it. –  silvado Nov 29 '12 at 8:31
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@begueradj I would still use "we" since it includes the author(s) and reader. It makes the reader feel like he/she is part of the discussion (i.e. the paper that is being read). –  Ryan Aug 4 at 17:43
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@Ryan your answer is short but gives a full sense to what i am looking for, thank you. Regards –  user14487 Aug 4 at 17:50

Summary: Think about the habits and traditions in your field, think about the nature of your field and do not hesitate to take responsibility for your own (possibly not that great) ideas.


Now, let me elaborate more:

The question encourages personal opinions for a good reason. Various sources on writing research papers differ vastly, though it seems majority does not favor the first person "I" form. For one of the more serious in computer science not in favour of "I", see e.g., Knuth's Mathematical Writing (pg.4) - although later on, the material also discusses the opposite (pg.62 and 113).

Now to a personal position. I do make use of "I" in some contexts. Namely, when I write a paper as a single author and I did so in my PhD thesis. At the same time, you should have clear rules when to mix it with "we" and how. For the dissertation, I explained those rules very early on in the preface: I use "I" whenever the text speaks about my own decisions and choices I made and is the default voice. It means, that it's me who is to blame for whatever incorrect decisions exposed in the thesis. Only if I can show that there is an external force which would push anybody on my place to take the same route, I would use "we" to mean the (research) community, or humankind. I use "we", whenever the discourse is explanatory, such as an exposition of a proof. Therein, "we" stands for "me and the reader". I also strictly use "we", whenever I speak about an insight, or a result which was produced in a collaboration, such as developed in a joint research paper with somebody else. As a side-effect, since this voice is not the default one, occurrence of such "we" always enforces a citation to the joint work, which is a Good Thing.

My personal opinion also is that third person is very bad writing style, since it offloads responsibility for the presented results to some external entity. As if it wasn't me who made the stupid decision to push that other guy from the cliff, but the guy was (somehow) pushed from the cliff. In my opinion, "we" solves that problem only a little bit, because now the writer admits a bit of responsibility for the act, but still dilutes it by taking into the game somebody else (either the reader, or the abstract research community). Saying "I did this and that and by doing it I personally found this and that" for me is fully taking responsibility for my results. It's not about bragging, or so. Now in some fields, this might be inappropriate, e.g., in pure mathematics, one studies a problem and is not pushed into any arbitrary decisions (e.g., regarding experimental setup), so a style "we" = "the two of us, you, the reader, and me, the writer" is more appropriate.

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The first rule, as usual, is: what is expected of you? Ask your advisor, read earlier theses from your group, etc. to get an idea of what is the established practice.

The advice I give, and which I try to follow myself, is to mix the use of “we” and “I” depending on context. Most of the experimental or simulation work is a team effort, so “we” makes a lot of sense to describe that:

From the results of the simulation, we have calculated the spatial dispersion of ∆, which is presented in Figure 42

However, a PhD thesis should show that the applicant has a clear understanding and autonomy in a given research project, and thus is capable of making technical and strategic decisions (though not always alone, of course). As such, I encourage the use of “I” to describe such decisions, orientations and reflexion. I try to give an example:

After consideration of the points discussed above, I decided to focus my effort for the most part in optimizing the gigawattage of the circuit, which I consider based on all the data gathered to be the factor with the largest potential for improvement.


Silvado gave an answer that is, in my opinion, perfectly applicable to mathematical derivations, and the discussion of results. In those cases, you can safely use “we” to mean “the author and reader”, as in “we thus derive theorem X from lemma Y”, or “we see on Figure 42 a clear correlation between A and B”.

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Mixing "we" and "I" can be very confusing, particularly if they're in proximity to one another. The use of "we" can often be omitted through clever rewriting: "Using result A, X leads directly to Y." The use of "I" is probably harder to eliminate, and I would argue it shouldn't be. –  aeismail Nov 28 '12 at 13:43
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Mixing “we” and “I” is confusing if you use them interchangeably, but not if there is a logic to it. I have now seen it used in quite a few theses, and it works fine. I agree with you that clarity is the one true criterion. –  F'x Nov 28 '12 at 14:05

I always view "we" as "you and the reader" and you and your reader journey through the subject together.

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I think this was already covered quite well by @silvado. Also, as I noted below his answer: when you discuss an experiment being done, you can hardly use “we” as “author and reader”. Compare “we can derive B from A” to “I synthesized 3 grams of product K”. –  F'x Nov 28 '12 at 20:15

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