Science

Using the Word ‘I’ in Business and Academia

The word ‘I’ is perfect for describing things about yourself. Likes, dislikes, opinions, and analyses; these are very personal ideas, and so it’s fitting to relay them using the first person singular. In a professional or academic context, however, it is often advisable to limit to the use of ‘I’ as much as possible. This is primarily a stylistic point, but it can make the difference between a sound scientific paper and a bad one or a strong cover letter and a weak one.

Some examples

Starting with the first example, one of the cardinal rules of academic writing is generally to avoid using ‘I’ entirely if possible. This is because an academic paper is supposedly pure fact but bringing in a personal aspect can be seen as diluting the strictly factual nature. If something must be said concerning you, phrases such as ‘my team did X’ are preferable to ‘I did this’ as it makes the action more impersonal. Even better, say ‘X was done to Y’ and leave out the human element entirely as in a scientific paper it should make no difference either way. Finally, in conclusions it is often appropriate to say, ‘we found that X did Y,’ but that too can be depersonalized to ‘it was shown that X does Y’ if you wish to retain that detached style. But the academic world isn’t the only time you need to watch out for the word ‘I.’

Be professional

In any professional correspondence, but particularly in the realm of cover letters, it can be tempting to begin every sentence with ‘I’ (“I have done this.” “I have worked here.”). While many people probably will not give too much thought to the subject, for others, it represents a seriously unprofessional faux pas. However, there are easy ways to avoid this. The simplest is to move the word later in the sentence. For instance, “I have worked in labs across the country” could be “In the past, I have worked in labs across the country.” The meaning of the sentence is unchanged, but between other sentences beginning with ‘I,’ it can make the paragraph flow better. The only risk here is the extra clause possibly coming off as overly wordy.

 Pronoun shift

Another technique is to shift the pronoun to another case. This essentially means reordering the sentence so another word meaning ‘I’ can take its place. As an example, “I am experienced in…” can be changed to say, “my fields of experience include…”. The meaning remains the same, but now ‘I’ is not used at all. These tricks can give a better flow to your writing, and make it sound more professional to an employer or prospective employer.

 

That isn’t to say that ‘I’ should never be used in writing. Especially in speech-writing and public speaking ‘I’ has a prominent place.

 

Research has found that people who use “I” at higher rates tend to come across as more personal, warm, and honest, and people who use “I” at lower rates come across as more self-confident.

So clearly word use has a significant effect on how our speech is perceived. That is why whenever you write, for academics or business or personal, it’s important to keep your eye on the ‘I’.