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I finished my masters with a good GPA, it is an 4.0 equivalent to US grading system. However, I know that a PhD is heavily related to writing a lot and writing is by far the most important thing in science. His idea is to put me in a multidisciplinary team. There most papers are quite long (more than 14 pages). My masters is related to mathmatics.

My English is not good. Should I decline the professor's PhD offer because of that, as I know I want to go to industry afterwards, as jobs are paid much higher and have better long term perspective? I do not have much problems to create new methods in research. My main problem is to get those things somehow into written form.

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    I'm an American, with US English as my mother tongue. My mother was an English teacher, so I learned to write English essays pretty well (papers in high school and college). Once in grad school I had to work hard to master technical writing for journals. You get to skip straight to working hard on your technical writing, which all grad students have to do because the style is quite different from everything before.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 21, 2023 at 13:01
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    Would the PhD be in an English speaking country ? Your English will improve much quicker if you are using it all day even outside a research context. If it's not in an English speaking country and you are required to publish in English, you might want to have a closer look at Cheery's answer. Sep 21, 2023 at 17:35
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    What would be your motivation for doing a PhD? Sep 21, 2023 at 18:15
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    I studied Engineering in Canada, and had a few professors with questionable English speaking skills. It apparently did not keep them from obtaining their PhD. Go for it.
    – Aubreal
    Sep 21, 2023 at 18:24
  • As a foreign national you would be able to write clearer technical English once you learn it. This is something native speakers and experienced writers often struggle with.
    – Trunk
    Sep 22, 2023 at 10:31

11 Answers 11

35

Like many others, writing is a skill that can be learned. You are not the only (prospective) PhD student struggeling with writing. At my university, they offer courses for academic writing and there are also writing clubs for PhD students where people regularly meet and write together (separately on their own paper), and help each other with things they struggle with. Also, as you have written a few papers, it gets much easier as you learn more and gain experience while doing it. Good writing skills also will come in handy in industry, where you might have to write project reports and proposals or other texts.

So do not let your lack of writing skills now keep you from doing a PhD! If you are motivated to learn, you will be able to improve enough as you go. Also, publications are rarely written alone, so your co-authors can assist where you might struggle.

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Do not decline a PhD offer solely due to (what you perceive as) insufficient writing/language skills.

When you start a PhD, you are not expected to possess all skills that enable you to be a brilliant researcher from day 1. A PhD is very much about learning and acquiring new skills that prepare you for further steps in academia, industry, or other sectors.

You have received an offer because the professor (and other people involved in the recruitment process) see large potential in you to succesfully develop into a great researcher. You say that your English is not good. This will have likely become known to the recruitment panel during the process. Nevertheless, they made you an offer, which means that they are willing to work with you on improving that skill (and one may argue that this is actually one of the easier skills to learn).

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    I don't think that the OP should decline the offer, but I will say that each year I see grad students who fail because their English is not very good. If the student wants to work on their skills prior to accepting the offer, that's a great idea.
    – Parrever
    Sep 21, 2023 at 17:28
  • @Parever Sorry but this sounds like there is a lack of support for grad students or something wrong with recruitment of grad students at the institution(s) where you witness this. Sep 22, 2023 at 19:22
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    "see large potential in you to succesfully develop into a great researcher" That is a dangerous but common lie. The offer is made to the applicant who is most likely to help the professor/program achieve the professor/program's goal. Sep 23, 2023 at 1:51
  • @theoretician Yes, but that does not mean that the problem does not exist. I'm just being honest because I'm not the only one of my colleagues who has experienced this issue with students who may have good enough English test scores but who cannot write graduate-level research papers. Again, I do not mean to discourage anyone--I'm just stating my experience in higher ed.
    – Parrever
    Sep 23, 2023 at 20:24
15

Don't decline the PhD offer --- just work on your writing

So long as you are interested in the substantive work in a PhD program, and you have the interest and motivation to commit to four years of research, a better option here would be to work on your skill gap just like any other. Practice your writing and seek help from the study skills centre at your university; you can also undertake courses if you like. Try to get into the habit of reading a lot of books/essays by good writers, and not just in your scientific field --- read novels and all sorts of other books for fun too. (This is a big one; one of the best ways to get good at writing is to regularly read the works of good writers.)

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All of the answers here are assuming that your English writing is in the passable category (for me, that would be C1 on this table, but some may argue that B2 is enough.) And if that is the right assumption, their advice is correct.

However, let me give you the contrarian view, from the perspective of an academic living in the US, and for whom English is his second language.

I get a lot of undergraduate and prospective graduate students who just don't have the language skills to communicate (A1 or A2). A lot of them seem to come with the idea that to get a degree all you need to do is to really want it and to believe in yourself. Well, neither is a pre-requisite for a degree, but English skills are. Just like any other pre-req for graduate school in Biology (my field.)

My first language is Spanish, but I split my time between Germany and the US. We speak German at home, but I would not even think of trying to get a job at a German-speaking workplace without some serious years studying the language until my writing skills were at C1. If only because in my experience, Germans are less forgiving when it comes to written communication.

Try to get an independent evaluation of your English writing skills. Or you could try a self-assessment, like this one from the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

It could be that you are just suffering from impostor syndrome, have other anxieties regarding the prospects of doing a PhD, or have an unrealistic view of other people's writing skills. If that's the case, follow the advice from the other answers, accept the offer, and just work on your skills. But if you are seriously lacking, as in not being able to write a sentence without serious grammar issues, then you'd be well served by taking a year off and using that year to improve your skills. It can be done. I used to a have a recent immigrant as a student, and she did not speak a word of English. Two years later she was speaking and writing. Two years later she had a Master's degree. Last week I heard from her and she's finishing her PhD thesis at an R1 institution.

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    This seems overly pessimistic. The OP has an offer in hand. Something in the application suggested the possibility of success. You don't attend an educational program to prove to people that you don't need it.
    – Buffy
    Sep 21, 2023 at 13:56
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    I suggested the OP get an independent evaluation. This could be someone familiar with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), if the OP is not comfortable with a self-assessment rm.coe.int/CoERMPublicCommonSearchServices/…
    – Cheery
    Sep 21, 2023 at 13:59
  • Assuming that the recruitment process was conducted in English (or at least partly), I think it is a reasonable assumption that anybody holding an offer has "passable" English skills. Sep 21, 2023 at 14:31
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    @Theoretician That might be true. But I am trying to help the OP self-evaluate so that they can gain the self-assurance they seek.
    – Cheery
    Sep 21, 2023 at 14:33
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Anxiety about your writing skills is not a good reason to decline a PhD offer. You can work to improve your writing skills during your PhD. You have already convinced your potential advisor that you have the skills to work with them; do not sell yourself short because of imposter syndrome.

On the other hand, wanting to have a more stable or higher paying job than you could achieve in academia is a good reason to decline a PhD offer. A PhD is not for everyone, and you have to make a personal decision about whether the benefits (such as doing interesting research you love) outweigh the downsides (such as the opportunity cost of lost wages) for you.

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    Important to note, even for the PhDs which have relatively high industry demand, you would most likely have higher lifetime earnings by skipping the PhD and going straight into the workforce rather than doing the PhD first.
    – llama
    Sep 22, 2023 at 15:38
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You seem to assume that writing skills is not important for a successful career in the private sector?

In academics you can often write articles with other people or if you are sole author you can always find someone to read your drafts and make suggestions. In the private sector you do not have that privilege. And having the right communication skills in general is much more important in the private sector than in the academic sector.

In any case writing is a skill you can learn. So lacking that skill (at present) is certainly not a valid reason not to pursue a PhD.

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    Compared to peer reviewed journals, many parts of the private sector are far more forgiving of poor language skills. Not all, but many. Sep 23, 2023 at 1:54
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    "In the private sector you do not have that privilege." Not true. Sep 23, 2023 at 1:54
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Do not get a PhD unless you are completely certain the PhD is right for you.

I have a bit of disagreement with most of the other answers. Yes, you can learn to write better during your PhD. Yes, a decent university provides help to PhD students who need to learn to write better in English. However: A PhD is not writing school, and the people who work there are not experts in helping PhD students write academic papers in English. Your supervisor is an expert paper writer, but not an expert in teaching people to write papers. The staff in the writing center are experts in teaching writing, but they are not experts on academic papers or experts on learning a new language. The people in the language center are experts on learning new languages, but they know even less about the kind of writing you need to do. If you enroll in a PhD, you will find yourself surrounded by mediocre writing help.

Before accepting the offer:

  1. Decide what you want to do after the PhD.
  2. Find people who have gotten a PhD in the program and then done what you want to do.
  3. Ask them if the program helped them achieve it.

If nobody in the PhD program ever went on to achieve the goal you had in mind, it's probably not a good program for you. To apply this to your situation, contact former PhD students in the program who have the same language background that you do. Ask them if they learned to write better while they were in the program. If they say no and you still want to get a PhD, find a better offer.

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I know I want to go to industry afterwards, > as jobs are paid much higher and have better long term perspective?

What do you need a PhD for, then? Get a Masters and go to industry.

(5 years of PhD will improve your writing -- at a huge cost, in terms of stress and high wages not earned. )

You still need writing skills to succeed in industry.

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I am currently finalizing my thesis and my writing is still poor. It has improved substantially from when I started but my papers and chapters still need quite ruthless editing.

As a maths graduate I feel your pain, but you will pick it up and your supervisor will support you. Writing isn't the only thing you'll do and actually, a very small part of the overall "work". While writing is important, arguably the analysis you'll do will be the most important thing.

Please don't give up before you've even begun, as others have pointed out a PhD is a time for you to learn, so take it with both hands!

Best of luck, I never regretted accepting mine.

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If this program is in the U.S., there will be a Writing center on campus that provides tutoring and feedback. There might be other programs for English as a second language grad students. Which leads to my second piece of advice: learn more about the program to find it's a good fit for you. As you talk with professors and other students, do they seem friendly and supportive, or are they competitive? Grad school will be your life for awhile, and it will be challenging but shouldn't break you. And that means it's ok to seek help with your writing and speaking skills.

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Based on your writing of your question, I would say that there are many, many graduate students in the U.S. who do not write in English nearly as well as you do, even when they are quite intelligent people. It will be a bit of an issue, but not at all a deal breaker.

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