Writing in your discipline

Take a quick survey of our Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETD) database. You’ll see there a variety of writing styles and conventions in different disciplines. For example, cruise through some social science and humanities dissertations; you may notice they are sprinkled liberally with  “I” and “my,”  whereas a peek at science dissertations shows they rarely feature first person.  Perhaps you’ll see the royal “we” employed in  a math dissertation. Explore dissertations in education: You’ll notice eclecticism here. Some border on creative non-fiction with lots of figurative language. How about nursing? Again, a huge variety of styles and approaches, one written in the form of a novel, another a philosophical treatise. As you look around at structure, you may note that some writers use numbered headings; others employ word headings only. Some studies follow the old IMRAD (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion) structure. Others play fast and loose with IMRAD.  The use of passive voice varies widely, you’ll see, but appears more frequently in scientific writing. Although many writers may start with the MS template provided by the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS), you will see local variations in the use of capital letters, formatting, and more. Bibliographic styles, of course, display great variety: APA, Chicago, MLA, and others.

How will you learn what writing styles, conventions, and rhetorical structures are expected and acceptable in your discipline?  As a doctoral researcher, your style is determined not only by your individual voice, but also by the pressures and requirements of your chosen field of study and the preferences of your supervisor and other committee members. You can browse theses and dissertations in the ETD database, but another way to get a sense of how language operates in your discipline is to do the following exercise, suggested by Janet Sheppard. Although writers’ styles in published articles of course differ from dissertation styles, they provide a realistic view of the shape of academic writing in your fields of research.

Ask a research librarian to help you find the top three peer reviewed journals in your discipline. If you are working in more than one discipline, find three journals in each.  Now look for two articles NOT related to your topic (so you don’t get too immersed in content) in each journal and analyze the structure of each one: What’s going on in the intro? Conclusion? How are headings used? Is there an abstract?  Is there an “I,” and if so, how present is the writer and his or her voice?  How does the author approach argument? Evidence? Data? Methodology?  Once you analyze several articles, you’ll start to get a sense of what rhetorical moves the authors in your discipline are making and how your style can fit in.

And then there’s the interdisciplinary dissertation. According to Ryan, Walker, Scaia, and Smith (2014), “there are significant career-altering consequences for interdisciplinary students who trod unknowingly on the toes of guardian scholars, and interdisciplinary mentorship specifically related to assuring familiarity with the not-so-familiar ‘second’ discipline is rare” (p. 298).  You may need to seek out mentors and negotiate style and discourse with various committee members to find a compromise.

See also the pages on scholarly identity, literature review, and argument.

Ryan, M., Walker, M., Scaia, M. & Smith, V. (2014). (un)Disciplining the nurse writer: Doctoral nursing students’ perspective on writing capacity. Nursing Inquiry 21(4). 294-300.

By Madeline Walker, updated March 17, 2017