A PhD in any discipline requires a student to produce a substantial written document, which is then assessed by a group of experts in the specific discipline. In the discipline of computer science, it has often been noted anecdotally that many students struggle with the English writing skill needed to produce a thesis (and other documents, such as scientific papers). English writing skill issues seem particularly acute for students for whom English is not their first language, especially as undergraduate degrees in computer science generally do not require students to undertake significant amounts of English writing.
In this project, we investigated the level of competence in written English that is appropriate for Australian PhD students enrolled in Computer Science. In particular, we sought to determine the appropriate level of writing skill required, how the level of skill may change during the students' candidature, and the reasons for this change, as perceived by both students and supervisors.
We approached these questions by surveying both students and PhD supervisors from a variety of Australian universities, to determine both their perceptions of the writing skill requirements that are appropriate, difficulties encountered, and support services, in the context of the English language learning background of all participants.
We also analysed the performance of students on a given writing task, which was assessed by experienced PhD Computer Science supervisors, English for Academic Purposes support staff and by an IELTS examiner.
We found insufficient awareness of the writing supports available, a need for writing support targeted at technical writing, and an average supervisor expectation of IELTS 6.5 for writing at PhD commencement.