Academic Writing: MFT Students’ Struggles


Writing is an important skill, but academic writing is unique and involves its own formal style (e.g., organization of concepts and ideas using a specific structure, ideas supported by references and citations, its tone reflects scientific objectivity, etc.; Paltridge, 2004). Marriage and family therapy (MFT) programs strive to support students develop writing skills to help them write scholarly papers and publish their work. However, this article discusses some challenges minority, international, as well as domestic students face in improving and perfecting their writings and offers some suggestions about better strategies for helping students improve their writing skills.

The first and third authors are PhD candidates and the second author is a senior scholar in the MFT field. The idea for this article comes from the personal and professional experiences of the Ph.D. candidates, including first-hand conversations with other graduate students enrolled in various MFT programs across the country. The second author was an international student in the field early in her career, and now she is a senior scholar, professor, and director.

So, what are we talking about?

As MFTs, we cherish a strengths-based approach to our writing and appreciate constructive feedback. Given the rising number of MFT students (both domestic and international), researchers and mentors should be prepared to provide constructive feedback for those who come to the field as junior scholars. Literature examining the quality of improving academic writing skills and feedback to graduate MFT students is scant. The authors aim to offer some helpful suggestions that hopefully professors and mentors in the field might consider. To this end, the following questions should be considered regarding providing constructive feedback:

  • How much feedback should professors receive about giving students useful and constructive feedback?
  • Should we focus on this crucial aspect of personal and relational growth and conduct some research?
  • Should we pay attention to building up students’ confidence and self-image as much as we pay attention to the actual writing skills?

An international PhD candidate’s perspective

English is my second language (AR) and I have been lucky enough to be able to continue my graduate education in the U.S. I have had many amazing mentors who generously helped me improve my writing and research skills and have been privileged to work and co-author with leaders in our field. Additionally, my husband is a great linguistics scholar who brought it to my attention that academic writing is a collaborative endeavor rather than an individual skill (Lillis & Curry, 2006).

Furthermore, I frequently listen to the AAMFT podcasts, and I remember the exact day that I was listening to the interview with Dr. Daneshpour (AAMFT, 2019). She spoke about how we should give students opportunities to share their perspectives with us in their writing and help students with APA errors, grammar mistakes, or transitional sentences. She talked about how we should let students, particularly international students, bring new dimensions to the diversity of our field. I have heard reports from some doctoral students over the last several years that while they have more achievements and competencies than when they started their PhD degree, somehow, they “feel” much less confident and competent, particularly when it comes to academic writing. I often find myself asking how that could be true for so many of my colleagues.

Sometimes, students feel ashamed to write about an idea, or even think about publishing, because at some point they receive feedback such as, “you are not competent enough.” It is important to note that mentors and professors do not want to hurt students’ feelings intentionally and such feedback is not always explicit. Indirect communication of these messages can include body language and tone, expressing disappointment, frustration, and impatience in working with students.

I have heard reports from some doctoral students over the last several years that while they have more achievements and competencies than when they started their PhD degree, somehow, they “feel” much less confident and competent, particularly when it comes to academic writing.

Most of us agree that MFT clinical trainings and practicum are of high quality. Can we confidently say the same thing about the academic writing training components in our field? Established scholars have acquired a great level of knowledge of the norms of academic publishing that are neither transparent nor readily available for students to learn. Our model of academic collaboration, however, does not appear to be attuned to this reality. Rather, it is common for students to solely bear the burden and responsibility of knowing how to write academically even when they lack the requisite experience. How do we find a way out of this dilemma? While there are no quick fixes, the path toward more effective and ethical approaches to collaborative academic writing begins with a commitment to negotiation accompanied by patience in the face of frustration.

A domestic PhD candidate’s perspective

As an American graduate student who went through a Master of Arts program that put less emphasis on research-focused writing, some of the essential academic writing skills were lacking from my experience. When I began a research-focused PhD program, I received feedback on my writing style and practice from my new mentors. My initial response to the vulnerable process involved avoidance of the discomfort and fear that I now recognize as common for graduate students learning how to produce quality academic writing. Not surprisingly, this approach led to confusion for my mentors about why my work was not meeting the seemingly reasonable standards. In retrospect, I could have benefited from a) acknowledging the lack of academic writing development in our educational system, and b) having an explicit discussion of writing developmental stages with my mentor.

Brown (2012) discusses the impact of creativity wounds on our ability to be vulnerable and take risks when learning and developing new skills. These experiences may change our view of ourselves as learners, and once we have experienced some level of shame around our creativity and voices (including written voice), we tend to hide from learning opportunities (e.g., academic writing). She argues that the only way to heal such wounds and restore our confidence is through relationship (e.g., mentor-mentee dynamics) and empathy. Fortunately, through the development of trusting relationships with my mentors, I learned that I could be honest and vulnerable about my progress, which greatly benefited my writing as well.

For students pursuing a doctoral degree in MFT, we need an approach that encourages creativity, curiosity, risk-taking and exploration, while empowering students’ voices and bravery. Moreover, we must find a way to do this without subjecting them to further hurt and shame through the feedback process. Addressing this issue directly could help to produce future generations of successful scholars in our field.

A senior scholar and professor’s perspective

Academic writing is an imperative skill for graduate students, given the growing pressure to write and publish in English. International students have their own set of struggles as they have to learn to write scholarly papers in a second language. Thus, it is critical to explore the issue related to academic writing in a second or foreign language and its potential difficulties.

Why is academic writing in a second language challenging?

International writers often receive minimal exposure to formal instruction for academic writing as part of their high school or even college education. Even if some writing courses are offered, courses are very basic and don’t teach students the kind of writing skills they will need for their future discipline. In MFT programs, when students encounter problems with their writing skills and approach their professors and mentors, they are only given advice on the essential components they should include in their writing. They are rarely provided any specific guidance on how they may improve their academic expressive ability.

One critical issue is that, oftentimes, professors believe that if someone has a high proficiency in English, it also implies having good academic writing skills. It is true that academic writing proficiency is related to general language proficiency, but improvements in the language proficiency do not necessarily lead to improvements in academic writing.

Faculty and students’ mentors need to know that it is important for international students to improve two sets of skills. One set is related to developing textual competence, which focuses on linguistic accuracy, including how well one has mastered grammar and vocabulary and can construct and interpret texts. The other set is developing competence on academic writing skills, such as using academic conventions, appropriate citations, quoting and paraphrasing, summarizing, editing, writing clearly with well-structured paragraphs, improving organization of the paper, making sure the text flows well, and improving grammar and accuracy.

International students not only struggle with their level of competency in writing skills, they also lack familiarity with features of English such as linguistic structures and socio-cultural subtleties. Additionally, bilingual or multilingual writers have to navigate through different set of rules for different languages without considering each language-specific approach, thus hampering their ability to write at an adequate academic level.

How can international students improve their writings?

The ability to write well academically is a skill that has to be developed. Graduate students should expose themselves to academic texts as much as possible. Learning through experience allows a writer to become familiar with the academic writing style and what an essay structure typically looks like. Also, it is important that during the writing process, writers start with a pre-writing stage of a critical evaluation of literature, then a formulation of problems, and the research questions. In the stage two, they should work on the critical synthesis of literature to support arguments, as well as learn the appropriate use of linguistic and discourse features in accordance with the marriage and family therapy discipline. Stage three is about editing and proofreading, especially checking to see if academic conventions are followed and sources are appropriately cited. It is important to note that academic writing goes beyond a general understanding of simple English language rules. It also requires interpreting and delivering subject content in writing. This is not an easy task for international students to master, even with a few years of training during graduate school.

As scholars, we do know scholarly writing requires a set of skills, but we rarely provide it in our academic programs and expect students to acquire it on their own. Over the years, I have come to realize that as academicians, we did not have formal writing skills training ourselves and acquired the skills by a process of trial and error. Since we all struggled ourselves and many of us did not have supportive mentors to help us, we expect the same from our students and assume they should have this set of skills before they come to our programs. Additionally, not all students have come to our programs from privileged backgrounds to develop appropriate writing skills. Many students from marginalized and minority communities were not even exposed to kind and caring mentorships. We continue working with students with better writing skills and shy away from mentoring those who do not have good writing skills.   

What can MFT mentors/professors/programs do?

While marriage and family therapists should conduct research studies to understand these challenges at a scholarly level, some suggestions based on our own personal and professional experience and knowledge include: 1) Focus on the rapport and professional relationship between mentor and mentee, just like therapy, 2) consider and discuss power in the mentor-mentee relationship, 3) Stay mindful of your body language and tone while you are giving positive or negative feedback, 4) enhance positive growth, 5) give constructive feedback, 6) guide instead of confront, 7) remember you own writing skill level when you were in graduate school.

In summary, academic writing goes beyond a general understanding of simple English language rules. It involves a higher level of understanding that includes interpreting and delivering subject content in writing. It is not an easy task for many graduate students, especially international students, to master, even with a few years of training. Graduate students come to school with many hopes and dreams of achieving academic excellence. We can enhance their ability to reach their dreams by shaping their confidence by showing them that we believe in their ability and can help them achieve their aspirations. These conversations about positive growth should be more intentional and purposeful in MFTs programs. It is hoped that this article provides some insights for marriage and family therapy faculty and mentors who are guiding students to develop their writing to higher academic standards.

Afarin Rajaei

Afarin Rajaei, is a PhD candidate in the Medical Family Therapy program at East Carolina University and an adjunct faculty member at California Lutheran University. She is an AAMFT Clinical Fellow.

Manijeh Daneshpour

Manijeh Daneshpour, PhD, , is Distinguished Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy, Systemwide CFT Director, at Alliant International University, California. She is an AAMFT Clinical Fellow.

Melissa Welch

Melissa Welch, is a PhD candidate in the Medical Family Therapy program at East Carolina University. She is an AAMFT Clinical Fellow.


AAMFT. (2019). Episode 10: Manijeh Daneshpour: Culturally competent MFT. The AAMFT Podcast. Retrieved from

Brown, B. (2012) Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Gotham Books.

Lillis, T., & Curry, M. (2006). Reframing notions of competence in scholarly writing: From individual to networked activity. Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses, 53(Nov), 63-78. Retrieved from

Paltridge, B. (2004). Academic writing. Language Teaching, 37(2), 87-105. doi:10.1017/S0261444804002216

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