Great expectations for postgrad literacy

November 14, 2003

Whatever the changes in higher education, grumpy old academics still crave the write stuff, says Tim Birkhead.

One of my early PhD students was the most charming, highly motivated and sharpest individual I have ever had the privilege to supervise. For two and half years we got on famously - until the time came to write the thesis.

When the first chapter arrived, I was appalled to find it long-winded, riddled with ambiguities and flaunting an idiosyncratic style of punctuation. At the same time, I was horrified by my own incompetence for not having spotted the problem sooner.

With hindsight, I realised that all my previous attempts to get this student to write something had somehow been dodged. Naively, I had assumed that all good traits co-vary in parallel. The months leading up to the completion of the thesis were depressing. It was an experience neither of us will forget and one I vowed never to repeat. That was 25 years ago.

Such a problem is less likely to occur today - the postgraduate training modules have seen to that. And although I curse the extra bureaucracy they impose, they minimise the risk that students will begin their PhD training without exposing their writing skills and forewarning their supervisor(s) of what may lay in store. The irony, I now realise, is that my illiterate PhD student was an aberration. In the past, a minimum degree of literacy was essential to get to university and, as a result, most undergraduates could express themselves in writing: this one was, I suppose, either the product of poor schooling or lacked the appropriate genes.

In my department, we continue to operate a tutorial system in which undergraduates are encouraged to develop generic skills, including essay writing. But sometimes, as I replenish my supply of red pens, I wonder whether it is my job to make endless corrections to a student's punctuation and grammar rather than focusing exclusively on the content of their written work. Shouldn't they have "done" 'ritin' (along with 'rithematic and readin') at school? Today, undergraduates' inability to write effectively is so widespread it is the commonest moan made by grumpy old academics. But the passing of the age of undergraduate literacy is bemoaned by my youngest colleagues (those under 30) as well. There is little doubt that our literary expectations of undergraduates have declined. But what has not changed is that our expectations of literacy at PhD level, and above especially, have not declined. It might be possible to muddle through an undergraduate degree without being able to construct a logical argument, place a comma correctly or compose an unambiguous piece of text, but to make it as a professional researcher or a true academic there is no escape.

You have to be able to write properly. Science in particular is an unforgiving mistress and will not tolerate poor, ambiguous writing.

Of the attributes needed by budding researchers to make it in academia, the ability to write is the one most often missing. Scientific writing comes naturally to only a very few. The good news is that with the appropriate training, writing is the skill most easily improved. A sympathetic, patient and literate supervisor - adopting the right balance between carrot and stick - can do wonders with illiterate students and transform them into something to be proud of. With sufficient willpower, a student can achieve this alone. My illiterate PhD student did just that and now, while not exactly a Claire Tomalin or Michael Frayn, can at least write clearly enough to avoid red faces on the part of the writer or any former supervisor.

Tim Birkhead is professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Sheffield. His book The Red Canary (Weidenfeld and Nicolson), which describes the first genetically modified animal, was published in August.

He will speak at the Royal Institution on December 1.
For tickets, call 020 7670 2985.

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