Me: What format style does your program require?

1st Year Doctoral Student: What do you mean?

Me: Academic referencing… you know, as in, APA style?  Chicago?  Harvard?

Doctoral Student: Penn!  I’m in U Penn!


It was a cold, dark, winter afternoon in early February when D and I met to discuss his writing.

After nearly three decades of editing professionally for faculty and doctoral students from top universities on four continents, I thought I’d seen it all — from pedantic writing, to paltry analysis, to what I call “Cinderella attempts” to pass off 190,000 words as 80,000 by halving the page and line margins and squeezing the font size from the regular 12 point, to 9.

For many academics and doctoral students, the biggest problem isn’t about meeting deadlines, but the tendency to be overly verbose: using 1,000 words to explain, when two paragraphs would suffice.

Then I met D.

From the outset, it was clear to me that for him, Grad school would be a long and tedious haul.

He showed four pages of what should have been a 50-page research proposal, written in a non-English language, without a clear thesis or theme, and with no in-text citations or list of references.

I decided to tackle the easy bits first.

Academic writing needs citations and references, I reminded him.

He had no idea what I was talking about.

I explained, and showed examples from published journals and book chapters.

What’s the academic style used in your program, I asked.

(I knew the answer, but wanted to hear his.)

He was clueless.

I showed him samples of APA and MLA, and asked if either looked familiar, or if we should be looking at Chicago or Harvard styles instead.

He frowned, shook his head from side to side, sighed deeply, and rolled his eyes.

This went on for several minutes.

Then came the clincher:

“Penn!” he exclaimed, visibly distressed that I didn’t know the answer. 

“I’m in U Penn!”

Punxsutawney Phil was right: it would be a long winter.

Copyright 2018-2019. Dr. Serene Lim, PhD and The Thesis Doctor. All Rights Reserved.