Combining professional interests in a Master’s thesis

Marjo Ritala graduated from the Master’s programme in English Studies in November 2020. Her MA thesis combines two professional interests, English and nursing: it is based on interviews with Finnish nurses on their use of English as a lingua franca (ELF) in the workplace.

The thesis, entitled “Towards closing the gap on ELF and nursing: An inquiry of nurses’ views on ELF communication”, found that nurses had a positive attitude towards using English with their patients and that gaining more experience on the job also increased their confidence as communicators.

A Master’s thesis can be the perfect opportunity for a student to explore problems they have encountered in their everyday life or have always been curious about. This proved true in Marjo Ritala’s case, who recognized a problem in the field of nursing and dedicated her thesis to gaining more insight into the issue.

English and nursing

Marjo has a background in nursing and got her nursing degree in English. After graduating and working as a nurse for a few years, she had the epiphany that she really enjoyed studying English linguistics, so she entered the University of Helsinki’s English programme and eventually got her MA. 

For both her BA and MA theses, Marjo wanted to combine her background in nursing and English. One issue she noticed while working as a nurse was that there were multiple cases where she could not understand what a patient was saying, even though they were speaking in English. So, she decided to research English as a Lingua Franca in the field of nursing in her theses. 

The challenges of thesis writing

Writing a thesis doesn’t come without challenges. The biggest challenge for Marjo was that there wasn’t a lot of previous research about her topic. “I felt a bit lost at times because of that,” she confessed. She speculated that the lack of research literature on English as a lingua franca in nursing might be due to multilingual nursing being relatively new in Finland. That is sure to change, however, as more and more people from all parts of the world visit and move to Finland.

Time also proved to be an issue. Marjo’s whole writing process was, in her own words, “just continuous change” because she had to constantly alter her plans and omit ideas in an effort to finish her thesis in time.

Goals, methods and results

First Marjo thought of making an educational tool for nurses already in working life to help them work with patients who have limited English skills. However, she realized that it would have been too time consuming, so she decided to focus on the experiences nurses had about using English on the job.

The thesis is based on interviews with nurses. It shows that the nurses had quite positive attitudes towards foreign languages and were interested to learn them. Marjo also found out that the nurses were relatively confident in speaking English and didn’t have problems with the language.

All the nurses thought that as they gained more work experience, it didn’t really matter what language the patient used. They said that taking care of patients gets a lot easier the more work experience the nurse has, regardless of how well the patient speaks English.  “The more you know about your specific field in nursing, the easier it is to understand what the patient is suffering from by spotting very little clues and symptoms”, Marjo summed up her results.