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I am going to do an oral presentation for my thesis. Normally, when presenting a paper, as the paper is a collaboration work, I always use the pronoun "we".

The thesis is written based on the papers. However, when presenting (for example, when talking about the contributions of the thesis), I feel using "we" a bit odd.

Should I use "we" or "I"? Many thanks.

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Use "we" when referring to something you did as a team, and use "I" when referring to something that you did by yourself. That is what these words are for.

Using "we" and "I" consistently in this way helps to make clear what your contributions were, and this is often exactly what the jury wants to find out during your presentation. If you choose to not go with the above option you should make it clear in some other way what you did and what others did.

Of course, if there is a clear preference in the culture where you are presenting it is best to follow that preference, but you would probably not be asking the question if that were the case.

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    +1 for calling out that it's very important in this context to differentiate your own personal contribution from collaborative (or others') work. I would be very careful to us "I", "we" and "they" very precisely. – CCTO Nov 13 '20 at 19:50
  • That's also what I thought actually. – lenhhoxung Nov 17 '20 at 15:16
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That's a matter of opinion. If it's your official thesis defense presentation, you're representing your work, so it would be fine to use "I". But others may prefer to stick with the common "we".

There is no 'correct' answer here. You should do what you feel comfortable with.

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  • Took the words right out of my mouth. Er... hands. Anyway, spot on. – Buffy Nov 13 '20 at 12:22
  • Seconded here. In my experience, even papers that are authored by a single author typically use "we" (in math at least), presumably to acknowledge the contributions of others they bounced ideas off of, chatted with, etc. even if not formally acknowledged. I would say a thesis presentation (or similar) is basically the only time "I" is commonly used, and even there, people often use "we" simply out of habit. That being said -- I don't think anything bad will happen if you use the wrong pronoun. I think people will be focused on the content, not the implicit attribution! – Richard Rast Nov 14 '20 at 15:09
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    Math papers are a little bit special. They are written in the present tense, and I interpret the "we" as the author and the reader making their way together through the material. – Mark Foskey Nov 14 '20 at 20:08
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There is no rule you have to pick one exclusively. I would not bat an eye at someone using "we" for the collaborative sections and "I" at their sections.

Especially for a thesis presentation, everyone knows you and who your group is.

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    Indeed, something like "Here we were interested in XYZ, so I made samples and analyzed them with..." is perfectly acceptable. "We" for big picture stuff, "I" for stuff you personally did. – Jon Custer Nov 13 '20 at 15:27
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I agree with the options the other answers present, and that in the end it is up to you to decide what to do, keeping your audience in mind. However, the other answers do not say much about which of those options to choose, so I'd like to cover that in more detail.

Those words you're using, what do they mean?

First, let's take a step back and look at what the words mean. "we" refers to a group of more than person including the author/speaker* (unless you want to be patronizing or indicate that you're important than your audience, but I recommend against such arrogance). "I" refers to exactly one person, the author/speaker.

With these definitions of the meaning of "we", we(!) can rephrase your question as follows:

During an oral presentation for my thesis, should I attribute the contributions to myself only, or also to my coauthors?

Your options

And that is a good question! I see 3 workable options1 here:

  1. Attribute all contributions to the group consisting of you and your coauthors, and use "we" exclusively when talking about contributions. Note that this is about contributions only, never say something like "we thank our wife for her support during the writing of this thesis"2. Additionally, when "the group of you and your coauthors" is only a single person (i.e. you3), you should use "I", of course. This is (usually) the case with your thesis, for example.

  2. Attribute all results to yourself and use "I" exclusively when talking about contributions. If you do so, I recommend you at least briefly aknowledge the support of your coauthors at the start of your presentation. They would almost certainly feel ignored otherwise. (and they may still feel so if you only acknowledge them at the start! But that is a risk inherent to this option)

  3. Decide in advance which contributions belong to you only, which contributions belong to all of you, and use both "I" and "we" accordingly.

As you can see, these options are distinguished in how you choose to assign the attribution of your work in cases where ownership is not obvious for the audience. This means that the difference between the options can be minor in practice, in particular when the ownership of most of your work is very clear.

I think there are pros and cons to all of these options. Which one to choose would mostly depend on what your audience expects of your presentation and what your goals are.

Pros and cons

The main advantage of options 1 and 2 is that you do not have to decide (or negotiate!) which contributions are really "yours"3. This makes it easier to prepare for your presentation, and harder to make mistakes. Whether you can afford option 1 or 2 would depend on the context. If, for example, your defense is mainly ceremonial (yes, this is possible. Academia varies more than you think), then it may not be nessecary to assert your personal contribution during your defense and option 1 would be fine. At the least, your co-authors or friends their should not have to feel they are being ignored this way. I personally would not be comfortable with option 2, but there may be communities or cultures where this is acceptable or even the norm.

If you cannot afford or do not like options 1 or 2, then you should go for 3. This is a bit more complicated, as now you will have to decide what your personal contribution is and need to be careful to use the right words during your talk. (while you will probably have to do this sooner or later, a serious defense is likely one of the more confrontational settings to make this assertion) You may need to be careful when your idea of ownership conflicts with the feelings of coauthors present during your defense. Most decent people will not make a big deal about this, but well, not everyone is a decent person. If you suspect that someone might make a big deal about it, it might be a good idea to talk to them about it before your defense.


1. A fourth option would be to avoid both "we" and "I", but the author does not consider this a workable option, as one would have to refer to themselves in the third person when talking about their own (joint) contributions. This would be even more awkward for a speaker than it is for an author. Or at least, this author would imagine so.
2. Paraphrased from How to write mathematics by Paul Halmos, Chapter 13 "The editorial we is not all bad"
3. I mean singular "you" here. This would have been clearer if the English words for 2nd person singular and plural were not homonyms in most forms. (yes, "y'all" exists, but that does not help to indicate the singular, and its possessive form does not appear to be the lesser evil)

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  • "Y'all" IS the singular. The plural is "all y'all"! (Also: thee, thou, thy, thine.) – JeffE Nov 16 '20 at 4:17
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    @JeffE I'm not an expert, but that seems to be a matter of debate. Which in itself implies the term does not decrease ambiguity as much as I'd hoped it would. Thanks for the other suggestions, good to know the English language used to have the words I wanted. I might actually use that when I prefer using stereotypical archaic words over making complaints about the English language. – Discrete lizard Nov 16 '20 at 7:05

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