Academic Writing for International Graduate Students

Challenges of Academic Writing for International Students

Academic writing is not an easy journey for all. International students aiming to publish research articles in academic journals in the Global North/Western academia face a range of challenges to achieve their goal. With English as their second or third language in most cases, it is often difficult to make the transition to writing in the language academically and structure their articles to clearly present their arguments. Additionally, it is challenging for writers to identify suitable journals for publication and be aware of issues such as plagiarism that may adversely impact their writing.

The Sustainable Futures in Writing is a series of yearlong workshops that aim to address these challenges and support international writers and researchers from the Global South/Africa, South Asia and South America on their journey towards academic publication. A cohort of 15 writers are currently in the process of developing their journal articles with mentor and peer support for publication in academic journals. Some of the mentors and mentees are from the Sustainable Futures in Africa Network – you can learn more about the network here. In this blog we share some academic writing features and top tips that our writers benefited from during the workshops.

Academic Writing Features

Academic writing is characterised by some key features, some of the most important being the use of formal language, clear communication and supporting your claims with established referencing standards. It is important to use accurate vocabulary, be objective and present a well-planned argument. Professor of Education Pat Thomson discusses finding your angle in a piece of academic writing and encourages us to ask a series of key questions:

  1. What’s the paper about? (the field and the paper focus)
  2. Who is the reader? (What’s the journal)
  3. What does the reader already know about the topic? What’s the usual way that the topic is discussed? (What’s already in the scholarly conversation in the journal in particular and the field)
  4. What’s the new approach that your paper will offer? (Why will the reader find this angle of interest?)

Academic Writing and Publishing - Top Tips

A very helpful list of top tips shared by journal editors during one of the workshops:

  • Be brave and tread your own path!
  • Focus on your topic and take your time to write.
  • Look at how other writers make their arguments.
  • Read journals to keep up to speed with what’s going on in your field.
  • Read the editorial guidelines and submit to journals fitting to your work.
  • Consider what’s been published this year, or last year. How does your article speak to these issues?
  • Be resilient.
  • Think about whether you might write to the editor in advance, to try to establish a relationship or gauge interest.
  • Foreground your ‘big idea’ clearly and soon in your submission. In your opening paragraphs, in your abstract, and in your cover letter, try to be distinct with your big idea to get the attention and buy in of your editor and reviewers.
  • Journals are a community and editors may well be connected in some way. Think about who the community you’re trying to speak to is.
  • Include references to articles that have been published in the journal you’re targeting.
  • Read and respond to editorial comments. You might choose what to respond to, or you might respond to everything, even if just to briefly acknowledge and explain why you don’t think this would be an appropriate change.
  • If you really disagree with something in one reviewer’s approach, you can talk to the editor.
  • Remember, you can withdraw your paper if you feel its integrity has been compromised (rather than your pride or your time!)
  • Ideas feel like our own when we are working on our own, but they are influenced by a much bigger conversation. The review process can help you as you build something new to contribute to this conversation.
  • We don’t write in isolation. There is generosity in reviewing papers to try to strengthen the quality of work. Sometimes we take our personal context as universal. A reviewer can help us understand what might not be obvious to a reader from outside this context.
  • Being vulnerable is hard but it can allow your ideas to flow. But: choose your journal – does it value this approach?
  • Different pieces take different amounts of time to complete, and to place.

A life changed - Narrative from a fresh University of Glasgow Alumnus

By Stewart Paul, SFA Malawi Hub

The past 12 months of my life (September 2019 to August 2020) have been quite defining. It was the first time that I lived outside Africa, in search of a “good” education. Through a prestigious Scottish Funding Council (SFC)-Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) funded project, I was able to access high quality postgraduate education at the “World Changing” University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom. I have been able to get international exposure and connections to professionals from various institutions such as the Glasgow School of Arts and Glasgow Dental Hospital and School. I have also received professional development trainings such as the Graduate Skills Program (GSP) and the Professional Skills Program (PSP) offered by the University of Glasgow – College of Social Sciences.

The scholarship that I was awarded had a research budget attached to it – which would have necessitated me to travel to and undertake research activities in Malawi. My research interest was on the implications – for access and attainment – of foreign aid on education policy and practice in Malawi. Although I managed to travel to Malawi between December 2019 and January 2020 for pre-research activities, I was not able to proceed with the rest of the research plan due to the unprecedented impacts of the COVID 19 pandemic. Regardless, I was able to carry out a robust piece of research after changing the study design and methodology.

The studentship supported me to build academic skills that turn out to be very pivotal in enabling me to progress in my career trajectory in socio-ecological sustainability and community education in Malawi. The academic and research skills, the expanded international experience and network, and the outputs and outcomes of this research will put me in a strong position to develop this work through doctoral studies, through direct research contribution to the Malawian Sustainable Futures in Africa (SFA) hub in general and Abundance NGO specifically, and to the education and development sector more broadly. In the end, I hope and intend to significantly contribute to changing other people’s lives, especially youths in the area of education and development.