Writing Dissertation In First Person

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The PhD is a lonely pursuit. Ask anyone who has ever done one and they will tell you that there is a lot of "me time" during your years of research. It requires a lot of reading and writing, critical thinking, coming up with ideas, then throwing those ideas into the trash and coming up with new, and hopefully, better ones. There's no way around it, the process requires isolation.

This was one of the first things our programme director told us during our induction seminar: to be able to do a PhD, you need to not only to be okay with being alone, you have to love it. Love, that is, with a capital L.

You would imagine that with all this me time, all these academics living inside their brilliantly chaotic heads, having conversations with themselves (not in a crazy kind of way … or maybe just a little bit), academia would be more open to the expression of ideas and thoughts in the first person. But since common sense is the least common of all senses, this is not the case.

When I submitted my very first piece of writing towards my dissertation, I met with my supervisor to discuss the work I had done and he gave me some good feedback on making a plan, constructing a chapter using Endnote, and incorporating more sources instead of relying on just five books. He also told me that using 'I' or 'we' is a big no-no.

Changing the way I write was not an easy task. I had to shut down and reboot my mind, going back to its factory default.

I did my MA in creative writing, where for a year we were told over and over again, that using the passive voice was not acceptable. Good writers did not do that; good writing stayed clear of it. And after a year of strictly using the active voice and telling a story in the first person, removing all the 'we' and 'I' from my PhD dissertation felt as though I was building a wall between myself and the reader.

The reason for not using the first person, according to my supervisor, was that this wasn't fiction but academia – and "there are no 'I's in academic writing".

What's my issue with this (aside from the irony)? Well, it's easy to explain: by removing the first person point of view and the active voice from your writing, what you're actually doing is removing yourself.

This is a big problem since more than half of the academic writing that already exists is on subjects that are difficult to understand for most non-academics. And when you remove the distinctive self (or voice) from your writing, it can become unbearable to read. When you alienate the 'I' from your dissertation, you are taking a big risk: turning your writing into a mere juxtaposition of facts and figures.

There is already widespread debate about academia being reserved or exclusive, with academics writing only for other academics – and for good reason. Academia is supposed to be the place where knowledge is created; a place where people come to make an original contribution to the existing literature. But if we academics can't share this with anyone but ourselves, if our original contribution to the body of knowledge just sits on a shelf at the university library gathering dust, what good can possibly come from it?

If people can't read and understand what we're writing, what purpose does this knowledge serve? And why does academia fear the 'I' so much when academics themselves are famous for loving to talk about themselves and their work?

It is a fact that pronouns are considered informal and the use of them may result in a language that is not appropriate for academic writing. But passive sentences – like that one I just wrote – risk stripping all the spice from your text. And you need spice: without it, reading feels like eating plain vegetables in a Mexican restaurant.

Some practices are so longstanding, like knocking on wood against evil, they have solidified in our subconscious – impossible to change, or even question. This irony is not lost on me. Academia is supposed to be a place to question everything, yet every day I'm surrounded by silent rules that are not up for questioning.

One more thing about us crazy academics: we like to daydream. And today, just for the sake of it, I dream of a world where I can use the dreaded 'I'. I imagine a world where I can own up to what I have created, the knowledge that I have contributed, not just on the cover of my dissertation, but throughout my writing by using the active voice – my voice – and the first person point of view.

Aslihan Agaoglu is completing her PhD in the department of Middle Eastern studies at King's College London – follow her on Twitter @Asli_Agaoglu

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by Timothy McAdoo

I am often asked why APA Style prohibits the use of I or we.I love this question, because the answer is always a pleasant surprise: I or we is perfectly acceptable in APA Style! In fact, the Publication Manual actually recommends using first person, when appropriate, to avoid ambiguity.


What types of ambiguity result when an author goes to great lengths to avoid using I or we? On pages 69–70, the Manual gives three possibilities:

  1. Authors sometimes use the third person simply because it sounds more objective. Authors will often use the authors as a stand-in for I or we, but using this phrase can lead to confusion. Consider this sentence:

    As Smith and Jones (1999) and Drew (2007) noted, there is no correlation between television viewing time and calorie intake. The authors replicated this finding with three experiments.

    Does “the authors” refer to both Smith and Jones (1999) and Drew (2007)? Or does it refer to the authors of the current paper? You would likely guess it’s the latter, but the meaning would be more clear with we:

    As Smith and Jones (1999) and Drew (2007) noted, there is no correlation between television viewing time and calorie intake. We replicated this finding with three experiments.
  2. Attempts to avoid first person can also lead to anthropomorphism. As the Manual notes (p. 69), an experiment cannot “attempt to demonstrate,” but I or we can.

  3. Finally, the use of the editorial we can sometimes be confusing. For example, “we categorize anxiety disorders …” may leave the reader wondering whether we refers to the authors of the current paper, to the research community, or to some other group. But this doesn't mean we must be completely avoided. As the Manual states (p. 70), “we is an appropriate and useful referent.” You could simply rewrite this sentence, “As psychologists, we categorize anxiety disorders …”

It’s not always right, or always wrong, to use the first person. We all have different writing styles, and the use of first person may come more naturally to some than to others. The most important thing to consider, whether using APA Style or another style, is the clarity and accuracy of each sentence in your text. To quote the Manual one more time, “Make certain that every word means exactly what you intend it to mean” (p. 68).

Just one caveat: As always, if you are writing a paper, thesis, or dissertation, your institution may have its own guidelines for the use of first person. The acceptability of first person is sometimes a hot topic, and guidelines vary from one institution to another. Dissertation committees sometimes advise students to follow APA Style with a list of school-specific exceptions, and the acceptability of first person may be one of these. Likewise, if you are submitting a manuscript for publication, you should always check the publisher’s guidelines.


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