What help can I get with my PhD thesis before proofreading?

A student with a laptopIf you’re studying for a doctoral qualification, you might be planning to have your thesis professionally proofread before you submit it to the examiners.

Proofreading is the final stage of the work, when you want to iron out any spelling, grammar or consistency issues you’ve missed that could distract your examiners from the strength of your argument. But what about before you get to that stage? What support can you get with issues like structure, coherence and criticality so your thesis is in the best shape possible?

My guest writer, Mark Lawrence, a language tutor at the University of Sheffield, looks at some of the free support on offer to postgraduate students at UK universities. Fortunately, there’s plenty to choose from!

Academic writing and language support at UK universities

Mark Lawrence, Language Tutor, University of Sheffield

Most universities in the UK offer a range of academic writing and language support services to postgraduate students: for international and home students alike. When I speak to students, though, I often find they’re confused about what support is right for them – perhaps because there’s so much of it and it is given different names at different universities. As early on as possible at university, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with what’s out there and how it can benefit you.

I’ve worked at three UK universities in the past ten years or so, and I’ve come across many types of writing and language support on offer. I now work at the University of Sheffield, where I teach on some of the support programmes and provide one-to-one tutorials. This post will give you a brief overview of what Sheffield offers for doctoral students.

Tailored support for PhD students

Your university may offer support specific to PhD students. For example, at Sheffield we have a doctoral support programme where experienced tutors who have PhD qualifications help you through the several years that it takes to complete your PhD – from start to finish. The programme offers four separate modules to students:

Academic writing

This looks at grammar and the basic skills needed to produce reports, literature reviews, confirmation reviews and (obviously) theses. It covers:

  • academic texts and their structure
  • word order and how to link ideas clearly
  • appropriate punctuation use
  • how to find your own voice in your writing, and
  • how to paraphrase and summarise effectively.

Online thesis-writing course

This is for students who can’t attend face-to-face sessions – perhaps because they’re distance learners. The main elements include:

  • understanding all the sections of a thesis
  • effective writing techniques
  • expectations in a UK university
  • strategies used when writing a thesis, including planning and reading for specific information, and
  • general elements of academic writing.

Principles and practice of thesis writing

This module is about how to write a thesis, focusing on structure and style.

It includes:

  • reading, planning, focusing and drafting strategies, and
  • effective citations.

A key element of the course is collaboration with the English language tutor and your peers. This is helpful because it gives you a chance to vocalise your ideas, which is often a good starting point for writing up your research.

Speaking skills for research

This mainly focuses on assessed spoken skills (that is, presenting for a viva) but it touches upon other skills as well.

The main elements include:

  • general presentation skills, and
  • academic discussions with colleagues.

These skills will prove useful not only for your PhD but also in the work you go on to do afterwards.

One-to-one support with your writing

At Sheffield we have a writing advisory service that’s open to all students, including those studying for a PhD. You can book an hour-long appointment with an experienced tutor to look at your work together, and you can book up to seven appointments throughout the academic year. You can bring a specific section that you’re having difficulty with, such as the literature review. The tutor will offer you tips and sound advice on how to improve your work, giving you useful resources, links and examples specific to the issues you’ve highlighted together.

We often find that students need to:

  • be more critical
  • strengthen their voice or position
  • sort out problems with the structure
  • improve the coherence
  • shorten long sentences
  • reference correctly, and
  • correct grammatical and lexical mistakes.

It’s important to sort out the bigger issues, such as criticality and structure, before looking at the more minor details, like spelling and grammar. Under their plagiarism rules, most universities that allow students to use professional proofreaders have rules that say the proofreader must not alter the content of assessed academic work – for example, by restructuring sections to strengthen a student’s argument. That means you need to make sure you’re happy with these things before you have a professional check the language.

Support relating to a disability

At Sheffield, we have a service for students with specific disabilities and conditions that make study-related tasks more difficult. The service supports students who have a mental-health condition, dyslexia or autism, are blind, deaf or partially so, or have another physical impairment. You can get support before you start your course, during the course and with accessing materials. There’s also a one-to-one support service where an experienced tutor will guide you through your studies (often the full term of your studies). They look at many issues, including:

  • exam preparation
  • time management
  • addressing an assignment
  • accessing sources, and
  • learning strategies.

Support with statistics

We also offer help with maths and statistics – areas that may be important when analysing your data and writing up your thesis. This service (called MASH) is available to all students at the university. You can book an appointment with a tutor or attend a workshop.

The areas covered by the service include:

  • analysing statistics
  • using programmes for analysis
  • how to incorporate statistics into your dissertation
  • maths anxiety, and
  • numerical reasoning.

Help with referencing and using the library

At Sheffield – the same as at many other universities – we have faculty librarians who can help you with accessing materials in your department and with using the various referencing systems correctly. University libraries often provide guidance online, but you can also book an appointment if you need support with a specific aspect of referencing or using the library.

Finding support at your university

I hope this helps you feel more secure in the knowledge that help is out there. Remember, all the support mentioned above is available at Sheffield, and at your university it might well be different. If you’re interested in similar support, my advice is to speak to your supervisor, look at your own university website, ask your department and library, talk to other students and even speak to the students’ union. All these will be able to point you in the right direction and help you find the language support that’s best for you at your university.

If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at m.d.lawrence@sheffield.ac.uk and I will be happy to answer.

About Mark Lawrence

A photo of Mark LawrenceMark Lawrence is a language teacher and assistant director of studies with fifteen years of experience in several countries on a range of programmes. He has taught in the UK in three different tertiary establishments in the past decade, predominantly on English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP) courses. He is part of the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield, where he teaches in-sessional courses for mechanical engineers.


Proofreader and copy-editor living in the Peak District, UK. Advanced Professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. 'Owner' (ha, ha) of two feline assistants.

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Posted in Academic writing, Students
4 comments on “What help can I get with my PhD thesis before proofreading?
  1. […] Your university: language tutor Mark Lawrence on academic writing support services available in UK universities. […]


  2. Liz Dexter says:

    Actually just the subject librarians and their referencing lessons, anything else at the university I worked at was just some ad hoc stuff provided in the postgrad centre.


  3. Liz Dexter says:

    A great article on something many people need but few seem to talk about.


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