Performing scholarly identity and developing voice

Feeling like an imposter is common

Performing identity

“Thesis readers expect to encounter someone who knows what they are talking about, not someone who still seems to be a student writing for approval.” (Thomson & Kamler, 2016, p. 193)

Not only is writing a dissertation text work, it also accomplishes important identity work (Thomson & Kamler, 2016, p. 191).  Through the protracted process of thinking, researching, writing, rewriting, arguing, listening, and talking, you emerge as a scholar.  You may not, however, feel like a scholar, and evidence of your  uncertainty can show up in your writing style. Some of the early identity work is manifested in the literature review (see the lit review page for more), where you learn to position yourself in relation to other scholars. You are expected not just to summarize the work of others, but to evaluate the literature in relation to your own. Evaluation is tricky if you are feeling unsure of your knowledge and your claim to authority.

Thomson and Kamler call this the writing version of the “Imposter Syndrome” (the feeling you are a fake and will be found out), and their antidote is to start performing like a scholar early in the PhD journey:  “the more you act, speak and write as if you are a scholar–regardless of how fraudulent you feel–the more you become one. This process can begin early–even before you complete your fieldwork–or start it” (pp. 111-112). The authors encourage PhD candidates, whom they call “Doctoral Researchers” or “DRs,” to attend conferences, talk about their work, write about their ideas, all the while performing like an academic.  They suggest three strategies to practice this performance:  use talking to clarify your ideas, bridging speech and writing through blogging, and performing at conferences.  See pages 115-128 of Detox your writing on how to use these strategies.


Helen Sword writes that “PhD students across the disciplines were [once] taught that personality should never intrude upon scholarly writing” (p. 36). However, developing  a writing “voice” is now an accepted and expected part of claiming your scholarly identity. Although conventions ruling your discipline will partially determine how you show up in your writing (e.g., math dissertations may not allow many opportunities to establish voice), you are nonetheless expressing your style every time you make a choice about vocabulary, phrasing, and organization.

Historically, dissertation style has had a bad reputation for being dense, abstract, and pompous. “Bad dissertation writing,” says William Germano, “inevitably reminds me of the sort of play in which young actors in gray wigs and heavy makeup play characters forty years older” (p. 102). You don’t have to awkwardly strive to sound important. Although you may experience growing pains as you try on different ways of expressing your ideas, this is all part of the development of voice.

The academic “I”

Using the first person is now widely accepted in academic writing, with some exceptions.  Academics acknowledge there is no view from nowhere; we must always position ourselves in our research, and using “I” is the most obvious way to do this. However, there are ways of using “I” more effectively than others.  Thomson and Kamler (2016) stress the difference between the too personal, narcissistic “I” and the authoritative academic “I.”  They provide some great examples in Chapter 8 (pp. 149-168). Some tips:

  • Generally avoid “I feel” and “I believe,”and instead use verbs associated with scholarship:  evaluate, argue, situate, affirm, conclude, suggest, propose, etc. (pp. 150-151).  However, there are exceptions (for example, in Philosophy you may be expected to write about your beliefs).
  • Use “I” to explain your research decisions and reflexivity (how you have positioned yourself in the research).
  • “Writing the academic ‘I’ takes practice and thought. The DR needs to strike a balance between the focus on the self and focus on the people or things that are being researched”  (p. 156).
  • The use of “we,” Thomson and Kamler write, should be avoided except when writing is done by a team or when signalling “membership of a community” (p. 156).  However, Thomson and Kamler fail to mention another time when “we” is used: Math dissertations typically use the first person plural to invite the reader to follow along with the writer in solving math problems.

Some recommended resources on identity, voice, and related matters:

Elbow, P. (2012). Vernacular eloquence: What speech can bring to writing. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.  Elbow argues that talking through your ideas can help you generate words on paper and will bring a raw energy to your writing voice.

Germano, W. (2005). From dissertation to book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  Germano’s book was valuable to me when I turned my dissertation into a book manuscript and readied it for publication. His chapter on “Making Prose Speak” is an excellent discussion on writing voice and style.

Sword, H. (2012). Stylish academic writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Sword argues that academics need not write in a stodgy, dense style.  Academics can write stylishly, and that include doctoral researchers. She has a chapter on voice (“Voice and Echo”), but her whole book is an argument for developing a distinct and “stylish” voice.

Thomson, P., & Kamler, B. (2016). Detox your writing: Strategies for doctoral researchers. London, UK: Routledge.  Much of this book is about becoming a scholar through writing, performing, talking, and more.  Highly recommended and very encouraging. Now available as an e-book in the UVic library database.

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Page written by Madeline Walker; last updated December 20, 2016