As I'm not a native speaker and just finishing my dissertation in Computer Science, I wonder what style I should be using. In German (my native tongue) most dissertations, school-books and scientific writing use third person or passive voice to sound 'objective'. I know that passive voice in English should be avoided. In most of my publications I use "we" (e.g. "we can improve the recognition rate by ...").

For the dissertation, as it is my work, should I prefer "I" over "we"? I don't like the idea too much, as it sounds pretentious to me. Currently, I want use first person singular for the contributions section and first person plural for the rest. I try to avoid passive as often as possible. Is this acceptable?

  • 13
    It might be worth reflecting a bit more on the premise that you "should" avoid the passive. Feb 20, 2011 at 4:42
  • "We can improve the recognition rate..." could be phrased actively with "Our novel algorithm based on this cool heuristic improves the recognition rate." Feb 27, 2013 at 15:47
  • 1
    Nothing irks me more when reviewing a student's thesis than seeing it peppered with "we", making it impossible to identify which work a student actually did themself. But people feel obliged to use "we" to avoid "I", which seems perverse. See academia.stackexchange.com/questions/5500/… for opinions specific to academia.
    – beldaz
    Jul 8, 2016 at 23:44
  • This is what dissertation supervisors are for. They should lay it out for you. If they don't, pick one (we, one, I, etc) and stick to it throughout. Jan 17, 2023 at 2:01

5 Answers 5


You should probably consult a faculty member, or look at papers in your own field, in order to decide anything definitively. These kinds of conventions can vary within fields and subfields, so you should see what your peers do.

In my field, using I in a paper is something to be avoided whenever possible, by using the passive voice, the pronoun one, or by restructuring the sentence so that the author doesn't need to be referenced. We is more common than I, although it is normally restricted to papers with more than one author.

You are right that German generally favors passive voice much more than in English. However, the main place where I have found that passive voice is more accepted in English is in formal academic writing.

  • 1
    However, if you're on your own and already wrote your paper using we, just add F. D. C. Willard as a co-author.
    – Mitja
    Apr 11, 2017 at 13:59
  • Wise advice, Kosmonaut. Ultimately, one would hope (there I go) that supervisors and assessors would not judge the quality of a research or examination paper by whether the reasoning is objective rather than whether the style 'feels' objective. The active/passive issue was an obsession when I was at university 60 years ago. It is a matter of style. All the same, check with the supervisor/assessor and in this follow the system if there is one.
    – Tuffy
    Jan 16, 2023 at 22:32

Most of the responses to such questions are based upon tradition, or what someone else has told them. Just as with much other English usage, this can and has resulted in some weird conventions. I believe people defer to "we" because it is predominant in modern scientific literature, but only because most articles are the joint work of more than one person.

I think much depends upon the context. If something can be said generally, "we" or "one" seem most appropriate: "One can find many instances of dogmatic conventions in the literature". For a multi author paper it is easy to choose "we" when describing the work or opinions of the authors. But in a single author publication (especially a thesis) it seems perverse to use "we" instead of "I", and can lead to confusion over the author's actual contributions.

The one downside is that using "I" can draw attention to the fact that only one person was involved in the work. In many scientific disciplines this is a bit of a red flag: unless the author has a strong reputation, the work of a single person is evidence of insufficient collaboration with other experts.


One uses the word "one" to avoid both the first person and passive voice.

One improves the recognition rate by…

It isn't clear to me whether it is your aim to avoid to the first person or to use it, but in an unpretentious way.

If the former, you can use "the researcher." For the latter, I think "we" sounds better, but you might do well to look at some similar dissertations in your field and follow what you find in those. You could also ask the advice of your dissertation sponsor/adviser.


Many English speakers, especially in North America, do not prefer using the passive style. I do not know why. In my language (I am a native speaker of Arabic) we use less passives. Nevertheless, whether in English or Arabic or any other language, I do not think we should be prescriptive about this structure. Just let's use it when we feel it is appropriate. I am a student of Engineering and I am writing my project soon. I asked many graduates students about the use of passive, and they said it is a must in our field.


I have been told that my writing style is "not good enough". My understanding is that, to write my PhD thesis in Engineering, I should describe my work using a gramatical style such as

"Two novel methods … are proposed ... we then propose two … techniques".

I need to start thinking of myself as "we"; as though I had an imaginary friend; or as an independent observer of myself.

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