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This July I will be in the fifth year of my PhD. I am doing my PhD from India in bioinformatics. Within my four years, one year was for coursework, so that I did not get to delve deep into research in that time. In our institute, every year we have an annual evaluation, where it is decided whether a student’s fellowship will be extended for the next year or not. Today, my advisor expressed to me that he is not happy with my work.

My current work status:

  • one published review article,
  • one article has been rejected four times in peer-review. Most of the times, the decision was based on technical issues raised by the only peer reviewer. I try to incorporate all the reviewers’ comments as much as possible. Not much of language related issues by reviewers.
  • two articles are ready for their first submission to journals (my advisor still not happy with grammar),
  • another article is in preparation.

I think the amount of work is pretty good to get an extension. When I asked him why he is unhappy, he said he had no question regarding the volume of work but my grammar mistakes are too much (I did tell him that I make my paper go through Grammarly (free version) and Microsoft word and also my husband who himself is a PhD). He also said that my papers are not getting accepted; hence he isn’t happy. Each draft that I write goes through about twenty times of checking by my advisor, yet they are getting rejected. I am not getting any technical help from my advisor so I have to depend on the reviewers’ comments for this.

My point is: The work is in my hand but not paper acceptance right? It’s no one’s fault that paper isn’t getting accepted, right?

These uncertainties of probable fellowship discontinuation are stressing me out. I do not know what to do. Sometimes it feels like I will give up. Can somebody please tell me how to make my professor understand that paper acceptance is not in my hand and that he is increasing stress in my life which is doing me no good? How do I make him understand that grammar mistakes and papers not getting accepted are either too trivial an issue or out of my control (respectively), so that he does not discontinue my fellowship? Can someone point out to me where my mistake is?

What I have understood is that he wants me to work till 2021. My institute will allow me to submit my PhD before 2021 and not beyond that. But he wants to stop my fellowship. It's like working without pay. He wants me to work without fellowship. He is not saying he doesn't want me as a PhD student.

Also, my institute does not have the privilege of having a writing center or having someone who checks English before publishing. We do all of this alone. Indian universities mostly doesn't have these priviledges. And mine isn't even a university, it's a research institute.

Now many of you may be thinking I am not working hard enough. I try to dedicate as much time possible to my research.

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    "Its no one's fault that paper isn't getting accepted right?" That's not correct. But it's at least as much his fault as it's your fault. That doesn't help you much however. – Roland May 17 '18 at 8:23
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    One mistake is putting up a fight over trivial things like grammar. Doing another good paper is 6-12 months of effort. Careful proofreading is a matter of hours. And you can't win that fight anyway. – A Simple Algorithm May 17 '18 at 9:04
  • @ASimpleAlgorithm I am not putting up a fight, I have given up to him, I have told him that I do check my paper via Grammarly and MS word but somehow the mistakes don't show up. He does not seem to accept my reply. – girl101 May 17 '18 at 9:07
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    Instead of relying on tools (especially MS Word), is it possible to ask a colleague/friend, who does not even have to work in the same field, to proofread your manuscripts and fix some language problems? – Mark May 17 '18 at 9:18
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    Professional proofreading of manuscripts is surprisingly affordable in comparison to other costs that went into the research. However, I doubt that this is the main issue you and your advisor have with each other. – Roland May 17 '18 at 10:26
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Many answers and comments focus on the grammar. Equally important is the paper organization: saying things clearly, in the right order. Of course you also need unpublished scientific content. Most reviewers are not native English speakers either if the science is good, a few typos or grammar mistakes would certainly not lead to a rejection (possibly, minor revisions).

Your supervisor accepted you as a PhD student; that comes with some tasks, one of them being to teach you how to write good papers. Of course in most fields the system pushes professors to accept as many students as possible to publish as much as possible and they don't have time for their students. If your paper has been rejected four times, that's more your supervisor's responsibility than yours: he should have identified that the first submission was not of high-enough quality. He corrected the paper many times, so maybe he is not good at writing paper either...

Well, I think you should tell him (nicely) that he has his share of responsibility. You should also identify the actual reason why he want's to stop the fellowship. It can't be because you're not publishing enough: that's IMHO mostly his fault, since you are working hard. It could be that you have weak scientific bases, you work inefficiently, maybe that he spent many hours with you rewriting articles and that you are not learning fast enough?

You could also bring the article to another Prof or experienced researcher, ideally not related to your Prof to avoid diplomatic issues, and ask if they can identify enormous issues with the article.

In any case, asking to work for three more years without salary is not reasonable.

Concretely, this is what I suggest:

  1. Identify the actual issue with the article and understand really on what ground your supervisor wants to stop the fellowship.
  2. Try to find an agreement such as: both of you finalize the article and submit it in the next X months, and you keep the fellowship for Y months.
  3. If not possible, see if you could end your PhD quickly without fellowship.
  4. If not, either try to find another supervisor (very rare, but there have been such cases), or find another job...
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This is a tough one.

To be brutally honest, from your post I can gather that your English is not up to scratch for English language journals. And that's not a minor issue.

Thing is, it's not your supervisor's job to fix your English mistakes and it's not ok to keep giving him draft over draft over draft. Academics are super busy people. And if you want a paper published it has to be free from English mistakes. No-one is going to fix that for you.

In regards to the rejected paper, four rejections is a lot. It shouldn't take more then 2 revisions to get it accepted. Do you fully understand what the one reviewer want fixed? You need to fully address the issues the reviewer raised, otherwise you won't get it accepted.

Having said that, if you've done enough research for five papers, you've done very good work. It looks to me it's your English that's holding you back, not your research.

Can you get help with English from someone? Don't rely on software, that's not going to fix it for you. Can you afford to pay someone to fix it for you, there are people you can hire to proofread? Can you take a 3-6 month break and do an advanced English course? Is there someone at your university you can talk to?

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    No-one is going to fix that for you. – That’s not correct for most journals: They have copy editors who are capable to fix mistakes of English such as the ones in the original question (which aren’t that bad). There are people with far worse English who have no trouble getting their papers published. Finally, there was at least one paper rejected for reasons other than bad English. – Wrzlprmft May 17 '18 at 12:02
  • also universities – SSimon May 17 '18 at 14:54
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    The OP's English is good enough to be honest. I can understand them without too much difficulties. Many (good!) researchers have far worse English language skills. So, I don't think English is really the main problem here. – xuq01 May 17 '18 at 17:18
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If your advisor has brought up the grammar issue repeatedly, but your response is "my software checker isn't good", then I can see why he would tire of you as a fellowship student. You are getting a fellowship, a privilege many students fight hard for. But instead of trying harder to fix your grammar issues, you regard them as "too trivial". I wonder if that is your attitude towards other things your advisor and your referees bring up.

I knew a fellow PhD student whose grammar was very poor. He took his papers down to a university writing center several times a week and went over them sentence-by-sentence with a person whose job it was to help international grad students with their English. The papers would come back with many marks made during the revising sessions. I saw these because occasionally he would ask me for help, but most of the time I would just see him sitting at his desk struggling over editing his papers.

Since I lived with him for a time, I got familiar with his schedule. I estimate he spent about several hours every morning, revising his papers' grammar and style. In comparison to other grad students I knew, he got up very early, usually by 7am.

I wish I had learned more from his example back then.

  • I get up at 7 am reach work by 9 traveling 15 kms and get up from work at 5. I reread the paper multiple times yet the errors get overlooked. – girl101 May 17 '18 at 15:14
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    If you made bad grammar mistakes to begin with, you won't realize those mistakes when you reread them. That shouldn't be mysterious. Try and find a better solution, like my fellow student did. It sounds like you have a tough commute, but I think my point remains: how much time a day do you spend revising your papers? – Chan-Ho Suh May 17 '18 at 15:24
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If grammar is the main problem, get a tool such as gramarly to check your documents for you.

Regarding the papers:

  • How many do you need for a PhD at your institution? Some institutions only require 1 accepted and 1/2 submitted depending on the field of study.
  • Why was the one paper rejected 4 times (grammar issues or technical issues)?
  • Why are there 3 completed papers that are not yet submitted?

I would advise you to maybe (without seeing the work and assuming gramarly fixes the grammar issue), combine the papers into larger contributions if they are getting rejected on technical merit. Take the reviewer comments to heart and work to significantly expand the papers and and address the limitations they see. Some (bad) advisers try to produce as many papers as they can, and this can result in papers that are "thin" and easily get rejected.

Keep up hope, the fact that you have 1 peer reviewed paper accepted is a good indication that you are probably on the right track and it proves you have what it takes to complete the PhD. So aim for completion of the PhD. This work is your career, and you should obtain your PhD while doing it. The work is not done after you completed your PhD.

  • I have checked my papers using Grammarly (free version) and Microsoft word. I have failed to find errors. – girl101 May 17 '18 at 9:06
  • There is no clear rule as to how many papers you need. depends on advisors – girl101 May 18 '18 at 3:55
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I see you are guilty of what we all are guilty of: You love your results. You are proud of them. It is out of the question for you that those precious results of your work are trivial or not enough to someone else.

I am not trying to ridicule you. I really mean that we all are guilty of this.

Paper rejections hurt, they hurt badly. The time, the effort, the sleepless nights, the countless boring hours spend re-reading it word by word to find typos. The idea, your idea. That cannot go lost. Truth is, quite a lot of papers never get published. And they do so for a reason. Yes, sometimes reviewers are cruel. But often they just feel cruel to you, because they criticise your "baby".

You have one published review article (Nice, but not your work. It is a proof that you know your field and are good at writing. I am fairly sure nobody would publish a review with bad grammar. It is supposed to provide a comparatively easy to read overview in a much more "fluent" language than research articles often have.)

The first article about your own work is in an endless review loop. Not because of the language, as you say, but because of technical details. And that is your work. How the other two articles will fare during review you do not know. Probably reviewers will be much more focused on the technical details than on language.

Your supervisor corrects language, tells you your problem is language, but I think they are either missing something or avoiding to criticize your work. I cannot tell you why (without knowing either of you and your work). But I suspect like the only "actionable" criticism you get is from the one reviewer. I know you state that there is no problem with your work and you put much effort into it. But sometimes effort is not enough and it just does not work out. (I am sort of in that situation, so not speaking from a high horse here.) But this is the point where you need to try and improve things. You need to get the results closer to the expectations (of your supervisor and reviewers). When that is achieved, you can still find some help with the language if necessary.

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