Graduate Students and L2 Writing

Much discussion on academic writing revolves around undergraduate students and their transitions from secondary school into university. Despite the large numbers of international students enrolled in U.S. institutions—nearly 400,000 in 2016-17, according to the Migration Policy Institute (Zong & Batalova, 2018), with up to 81% of students in some STEM fields coming from other countries (Redden, 2017)—far less has been written about the genres graduate students write or how instructors and advisors can support their learning to write in those genres.

Why Graduate Writing Is Different

One reason graduate school presents new challenges for multilingual writers is that they are suddenly expected to know how to write in genres in which they have never before had to write. Professors often assume students have learned how to write in those genres during their undergraduate studies or can figure it out from assignment descriptions. The best recognized genres of graduate school are those major assignments—term papers at the end of individual courses and theses and dissertations at the end of programs. These texts are themselves difficult to write, primarily because writers must take on a degree of authority over their subject that they did not need to hold when they were undergraduates (Kamler & Thomson, 2014).

Think about the difference this way: Undergraduate students are usually assumed to know little about their topic; they write to prove to a professor that they have learned something the professor already knows. In contrast, graduate students are doing research that no one else has done; they write to reveal their findings to both professors and other readers. Even in literature reviews (a common genre of grad school), writers must take a stand on an issue and build an argument for that perspective through critical synthesis of published work by other scholars—a far cry from the summaries they may have written as undergrads.

The major writing task of most graduate programs is the thesis or dissertation, a book-length text describing an in-depth original research project. For many graduate students, this is the first project they have carried to completion over an extended time period. The dissertation is written in multiple stages, each with some feedback from experts (a committee, usually composed of three to five professors). Students first defend their proposals to the committee and then carry out the research. The final dissertation fulfills multiple purposes: situating the study in a theoretical and methodological context (including identifying the gap in existing research findings that the study helps fill), describing the research methods used in this particular study, reporting on the outcomes of those research methods, and discussing the conclusions that can be drawn from the results of the study. In all these moves, student writers must assume an air of expertise over the topic, even if they are simultaneously terrified their committee will point out fatal flaws in the methods or analysis. This process can be even more challenging for second language (L2) writers who lack confidence in their control of English. These writers may also come from cultures where students should demonstrate respect for their academic elders, even as they present a dissertation study that may contradict previous findings.

Occluded Genres

Another challenge of graduate school writing lies in what Swales termed “occluded genres” (1996): all the other texts we write in academia that are not visible in the final, published products. These texts are often high stakes for students, but it is not easy to find models for a specific purpose. One genre that recurs throughout graduate programs is the statement of purpose, where students must write about their goals for graduate admission, scholarships, fellowships, and so on, providing details of their accomplishments without sounding like they are bragging. Other occluded genres are assignments not modeled after published work, such as the “MBA thought essay” (Loudermilk, 2007) or discussion board posts (Loncar, Barrett, & Liu, 2014).

Much of the academic work of professors and researchers also fits into the category of occluded genres, although these, too, are texts that we expect graduate students to write without much if any instruction. These include conference abstracts (Swales & Feak, 2009) and many parts of the publication process, including journal manuscript submission letter (Swales, 1996), responding to reviewer feedback, and writing acknowledgements and biostatements (Swales & Feak, 2011).

Graduate students teaching classes at the university also have to write pedagogical genres (including syllabi, assignment descriptions, and written comments on student writing), some of which carry multiple stakes depending on who is reading them—not just the students in a class, but also supervisors, administrators, parents, and hiring committees (Neaderhiser, 2016). Graduate students also receive little instruction on job application materials, including cover letters, teaching philosophy statements, and research statements.

Helping Graduate Student Writers

So what can we do to support graduate students’ writing? One key action is to check our assumptions about what students already know how to do and determine where they could use more explicit support, particularly with high-stakes and occluded genres. Several good books offer advice to supervisors of graduate writers:

Teachers of academic writing classes for students in different fields might check out the genre-based resource books by Swales and Feak:

as well as Caplan’s (2019) book focused on the grammar of graduate writing, Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers, Second Edition. An excellent resource for those developing courses in support of graduate student writers is the Consortium on Graduate Communication, where members can access sample syllabi, bibliographies of research, and recordings of presentations at the consortium’s annual meetings. If you are doing research on graduate students’ publication writing processes, a new academic journal should offer useful sources as well: check out the Journal of English for Research Publication Purposes.

What support did you receive as a graduate student? What have you or your institution done to support graduate student writers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Loncar, M., Barrett, N. E., & Liu, G. -Z. (2014). Towards the refinement of forum and asynchronous online discussion in educational contexts worldwide: Trends and investigative approaches within a dominant research paradigm. Computers & Education, 73, 93–110. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2013.12.007

Loudermilk, B. C. (2007). Occluded academic genres: An analysis of the MBA thought essay. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 6(3), 190–205. doi:10.1016/j.jeap.2007.07.001

Neaderhiser, S. E. (2016). Hidden in plain sight: Occlusion in pedagogical genres. Composition Forum, 33(Spring). Retrieved from

Redden, E. (2017, October 11). Foreign students and graduate STEM enrollment. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Swales, J. M. (1996). Occluded genres in the academy: The case of the submission letter. In E. Ventola & A. Mauranen (Eds.), Academic writing: Intercultural and textual issues (pp. 45–58). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2009). Abstracts and the writing of abstracts. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2011). Navigating academia: Writing supporting genres. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Zong, J., & Batalova, J. (2018, May 9). International students in the United States. Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from

About Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland
Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she is chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.
This entry was posted in TESOL Blog and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to
Graduate Students and L2 Writing

  1. Betsy Gilliland Betsy Gilliland says:

    While I was writing this post, I forgot that the Second Language Writing Interest Section did a great webinar two years ago, with Michelle Cox and Nigel Caplan offering some advice for supporting ESL graduate writers:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.