No “I” in Dissertation Writing?
January 17, 2017
In an essay for The Guardian, Aslihan Agaoglu wrote about one of the first pieces of advice she received from her dissertation advisor when she went to him seeking dissertation help: “He told me that using ‘I’ or ‘we’ is a big no-no.” Agaoglu goes on to explain her dissertation advisor’s rationale: “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’.”
But is it really true that there should be no I’s in academic writing? Agaoglu makes a compelling case that use of the first person shouldn’t be forbidden. She says:
“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.”
Agaoglu is right: when dissertation writers avoid the first person, their prose can become stilted. They often end up using awkward sentence structures. While the resulting writing may seem more “professional” in tone, it can also be difficult to read, and often, difficult to write. In avoiding the first person, dissertation writers also mask the fact that their writing is shaped by their ideas and perspectives. It’s your dissertation – why not own up to it?
However, the question of whether or not dissertation writers can and should use “I” and first-person-singular point of view is complicated. There are very compelling arguments for using the first person in your dissertation, but there are also concrete reasons why you might want to avoid it. A dissertation editor or consultant can help you determine what would be appropriate for your dissertation.
Advantages of Using “I” in Your Dissertation: Clearer Prose Style
The APA Publication Manual recommends that writers use the first person to avoid awkward sentences. As Timothy McAdoo of the APA Style Blog explains, avoiding the first person can lead to sentences that are confusing, and to “anthropomorphism.” McAdoo says:
“Attempts to avoid first person can also lead to anthropomorphism. As the [APA Publication] Manual notes, an experiment cannot “attempt to demonstrate,” but I or we can.”
Using a sentence such as “I will demonstrate” not only sounds more organic than “this research will demonstrate” or “this experiment will attempt to demonstrate,” but it’s also more accurate! Your research or your experiment isn’t demonstrating something; rather, it’s you, the dissertation writer, who is demonstrating something!
Advantages of Using “I” in Your Dissertation: Accessibility
Don’t be afraid to use I if you can: in addition to helping stylistically, it lets you lay claim to your work! In Inside Higher Ed, David Jamul argues that if scholars want the wider public to pay attention to their research and writing, they need to embrace “I.” The temptation to avoid the first person, he says, comes from a desire to seem like an expert. “Academic articles. . . eschew the use of ‘I’ or ‘me.’ Their authors learn in graduate school to rely on the power of their data and the brilliance of their arguments. ” The result, Jamul argues, is that scholars’ writing seems impersonal, making it difficult to persuade the public that scholarship is relevant.
But What Will My Dissertation Advisor Think?
Of course, there is often a disconnect between how we want to approach our dissertations, and how we must approach our dissertations. Even if you want to write in the first person, you may not be able to write in the first person. Some dissertation committees may have no problem with the use of the first person. Others may deem it completely inappropriate. In some academic fields, writing in the first person is a common practice. In other fields, it may be seen as unprofessional. My dissertation committee let me be very creative with my prose, and encouraged me to use “I” whenever it seemed suitable. But other departments, other institutions, and other fields will have different expectations.
In addition, overuse of “I” risks making your prose sound too casual, if you are aiming for a scholarly tone. While you are the writer and researcher behind your dissertation, the dissertation isn’t about you; it’s about your sources and argument. If you do elect to use a first person point of view, be sure to use “I” judiciously.
So . . . Should I Use “I” in My Dissertation?
If you’re in a position where you can use the first person, do so with thoughtfulness and care. In addition to improving the style of your writing, it allows you to lay claim to your work.
A dissertation editor or dissertation consultant can help you determine if use of “I” is appropriate for your circumstances and can help you navigate the practices that are specific to your field or institution. If, on the other hand, you can’t or don’t want to use the first person, a dissertation editor can help you avoid awkward sentences and refine your prose.