Supervisors hold differing opinions on this, but here are a few hints to guide you in deciding whether a personal pronoun would be appropriate.
- One reason supervisors dislike the use of ‘I’ is that it suggests a lack of objectivity. A police detective does not say ‘I think X is guilty’, but rather ‘The evidence points to the fact that X is guilty’. Using ‘I’ can lead you to adopt an informal, chatty style in which it is easy to start spouting opinions rather than concentrating on the hard evidence. Supervisors are more interested in your ability to weigh up evidence than in your opinions!
- Sometimes the use of ‘I’ can add something specific and useful to your essay, as in this example: ‘While Jones argues strongly for the applicability of theory X in this context, on the basis of the evidence available, I would contend that Y is a more appropriate model’. Here you are distancing yourself from another critical view, and proposing a different one. The personal voice as used in this example is very effective in rhetorical terms, as your own voice and argument emerge clearly, but still within a formal, academic register. The impact would be lessened if you used the structure more than a couple of times in an essay. As a general rule, use ‘I’ if you want to distinguish your ideas or arguments from those of others.