I'll start by sketching my situation. I first studied a couple of years at institution A where we were taught a couple of things concerning academic writing. (E.g. don't use passives, distance yourself from your work.) After that I did another bachelor's at another institution B (same field, same country, other city). Even though we didn't have a course dedicated to academic writing there, the promoter of my bachelor paper taught me not to distance myself from my work:

You did the research, and not some leprechauns, right? People should know that you did all this -- it didn't happen magically.

However, after my bachelor's I returned to institution A where I am currently going for my master's. The thing is: even though my grades for the first semester were good, I received feedback from different tutors and professors that my work is too personal and that I should use more passives to distance myself. This is completely the opposite advise my promoter at institution B gave me. Normally I would just go with the advise of the current institution, as that's where I am studying now and I don't want to challenge their style. The problem is that the promoter of my master thesis is the same professor as the one who promoted my bachelor paper. He changed institutions the same year that I went from institution B to A and of course he wants me to write from a personal viewpoint - whereas his (new) colleagues advised against that.

Tl;dr: promoter tells me to follow one specific (personal) style of writing, but his colleagues and other of my professor seem to like a non-personal approach better.

Note that this question isn't restricted to the distinction between personal vs. distanced/distant academic writing. I am interested more in the situation itself: what should one do when his or her promoter advises for A when the institution's approach is the contrary?

A promoter here in Belgium is a professor who is your supervisor when writing your bachelor paper or master's thesis. He or she is typically very knowledgeable about the topic you are writing in. In the process of writing your bachelor paper or master's thesis you can ask him or her questions related to your topic. Not only that, I have found that you can basically ask him or her anything related to academics - as long as it's morally and socially acceptable. He will also be the one will grade your thesis at the end of the year - possible together with a jury. The problem thus occurs that in my case this person gives me advice for something, whereas other authorities in the same institution seem to give advice against that. Since he is the one who will have to grade my work at the end of the year, I'm not sure whose advice I should follow.

  • 5
    Sorry, cultural context question: what is a "promoter adviser" and what do they do? I'm in the US and have never heard of this title. Mar 22, 2015 at 13:22
  • 1
    What style is used in publications by top researchers in your field?
    – Ubiquitous
    Mar 22, 2015 at 13:41
  • 1
    @Penguin_Knight I appended a clarifying paragraph. Mar 22, 2015 at 17:35
  • Is there any work which you should write which is judged from both professors? Mar 23, 2015 at 0:52

4 Answers 4


The first thing you need to do is determine if there is an underlying issue with your writing that A and B are trying to get at. If there is, fix that problem and the style issues may be ignored. If it truly is a style thing, you need to talk to them and explain the issue. If one supervisor demands that you never use the passive voice and instead write in the 1st/3rd person and the other supervisor demands that you never use 1st/3rd person and prefers everything in the passive voice, then somebody is going to have to give.

Once you determine it is purely stylistic, you need to decide which style you want to write in. This should probably be influenced by the recommended style of whatever journal/publisher you are targeting and/or any archaic rules your department has about theses. Then approach whoever you are agreeing with, get them on your side and finally explain to the other person the approach you are going to take. They might have a good counter argument or they might give up.


It sounds like you are getting contradictory advice about whether you should write in the passive voice or the active voice. This is a perennial issue in scientific writing. In my opinion, it does not really matter which voice you use. Since the goal of academic writing is typically to publish in a journal, I recommend looking at the journal's style guide or editorials for advice. For example, PRL clearly advises writing in the active voice. If the journal does not give advice, check some recent papers in the journal to see what common practice is. Sometimes, I change the voice based on the goal. For example, in the introduction to a paper, I want to show that I have significant results, so I write in the active voice to show what I did. In the methods section, it does not matter who performed the experiment so I write in passive voice.

You also have an interpersonal issue here where two people have given you contradictory advice. I suggest informing the faculty that they are in disagreement and asking them how you should handle the disagreement. Most likely you will find they do not care very much.

  • "Since the goal of academic writing is typically to publish in a journal" - As the question is about a master thesis, I am not sure the very text being written by the OP is supposed to end up in a journal. Mar 22, 2015 at 17:39
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    "Since the goal of academic writing is typically to publish in a journal, ..." Damn. I thought it was something about communicating ideas and sharing information. Mar 22, 2015 at 19:09

As far as I know, the promoter is the principal supervisor of your research. Hence, it wouldn't be a good idea to go against his advice. On the other hand, every institution has it's own style and norms which you are expected to follow. since your promoter is new to this institution , it is possible that he is not yet well-versed with these norms. One idea is to very mildly and casually inform him that you have got this kind of feedback and see what his response is. If you wish to play safe, you could perhaps choose a middle ground and use a balanced approach, neither too personal, nor too distanced.

  • On the one hand, you should inform the supervisors of the disagreement—in particular, the promoter, who hopefully can navigate the disagreement and the review system. You might have to stick to different styles in different contexts, though that's hard.

  • Unlike others have said, this is not just a matter of convention. I'd say that, given certain assumptions, your promoter is right and the others are wrong (but I don't care about other assumptions). I don't suggest you present things this way to your professors though ;-) Banally using passive to distance yourself typically removes information and confuses the content: "A program was written to evaluate claim X" contains less information than "I wrote a program to evaluate claim X" (who did the work?), and is clumsier. "A program was written by me..." seems clumsy and not distant at the same time.

More in general, this is just one example of a wider conflict between different goals in writing. You can show off you're smart by writing hard-to-read texts: this can be easy or not, and requires more work for the reader. Passive fits there. Or you can show off what you did by actually explaining it well (which isn't easy): this requires more work from you, saves work for the reader, and it might prevent misunderstanding. Since readers live in information overload, the second can be more effective to have people read what you did.

In English you have a choice, also depending on the discipline, but good writing advice suggests reducing work for the readers — that's especially true in Computer Science research (at least at top publication venues). Other languages have different traditions and underlying values.

My recommended writing guide is Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace — the first chapter discusses the conflict, the others teach writing and revising for clarity.

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