PhD Writing Camp: Summary of Our Experience

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of joining our Leverhulme-funded Open World Learning programme on a writing retreat in the Derbyshire countryside. It was overall deemed by participants as an extremely productive and useful retreat, and we hope to make this a yearly event for all IET PhD students. Below is an account of how we structured the week and some common discussion themes, as well as participant evaluations and plans for moving forward next year.

Writing camp format
Altogether seven students participated, along with four supervisors. We initially met at the Open University before departing and discussed our goals for the week. The idea for the writing camp was that each person could have space to work on whatever was currently on their plate. For most of the first year students, this was about their upcoming first year probation report. For second year students and supervisors, it was often working on data analysis, writing articles or designing upcoming studies. By meeting together initially, we were able to understand what each person was working on, as well as make connections between those who might be working on similar tasks. Afterwards, we left for Derbyshire to our retreat house for the week, which was near a town called Matlock.

The format for the week was a morning meeting to discuss daily goals, followed by a day of free work time. Some chose to work in their rooms, while other worked in the main common area. As we were all working on different projects, this gave us the opportunity to organize our own productivity (something that seemed to work well). We also met informally with supervisors (sometimes our own and sometime those outside our supervision team), but this was organized on a case-by-case basis between individuals. At the end of the day, we all met to discuss what we had achieved that day and vent any frustrations or stumbling blocks. This was a good chance to exchange pieces of advice, and to hear feedback from participating supervisors.

One important goal of the writing camp was community building, so we were sure to also include social events throughout the day. For example, we met for lunch  each day, and organised teams to cook a sit-down dinner each night for everyone. For evening activities, we brought along board games, video games, and played badminton or tennis. We also managed to fit in walks through the surrounding countryside. Overall, the retreat was a good opportunity to build a strong community of PhD students, as well as form bridges between staff and students.

Common discussion themes

Throughout the week, our informal meetings brought up the following themes and pieces of advice:

  • The importance of taking a break and letting others read your work, and the value of receiving feedback from people outside your topic area and supervision team. After all, your writing may go from ‘A’ to ‘C’, and an outsider can more easily point out that you’ve missed ‘B’.
  •  An important thing to think about in your PhD is finding your own ways to be productive. Some people use research journals, some draw things out, etc – but no one method will work for every person. It takes experimentation to find what works for you.
  • In multi-disciplinary work, it’s important to highlight which field’s perspectives you are taking and how the other disciplines are informing your work, in order to situate your reader on your background and viewpoints.
  • It’s important to invest time in your supervisory relationship and to read your supervisors’ work in order to understand where their viewpoints come from
  • When writing about vague concepts, it is useful to explain what it is, as well as what it is not
  • In the later stages of your PhD, it’s useful to take a few days to go back to the literature to read new things, as well as reread some of the old favourites. Sometimes it is easy to get in a citation cycle, and forget the true meaning of an article.

Participant evaluations
We asked for reflective feedback from participants after returning home. Overall evaluations of the writing camp were positive. Here are a few of the things participants liked:

The writing camp helped me structure my day in a more productive way. As we had set meetings in the morning, afternoon and (informally) at coffee breaks, the times in between these meetings I worked a lot more productively than I work at home at the OU.

It was a very good experience to better meet the other students and supervisors, and especially the opportunity to receive feedback from our work.

The writing camp helped give me some much-needed renewed mental focus.

Participants also highlighted that the writing camp helped them achieve their goals:

I feel more confident in the quality of my probation report. It was nice to be able to talk to my supervisor (or other supervisors) for longer than in a normal situation.

It gave me the space to actually focus on something for an extended period of time.

I could improve my methodology and analyse the data from my interviews, and it helped me a lot to work on my probation report.

Finally, a key experience from the writing camp was the social connections made:

I loved getting to know other students and staff on a more personal level both academically and socially. I’m very much of the work-hard/play-hard philosophy, and there’s no better way to get to know people than to socialise outside of formal contexts.

I enjoyed the chance to get to know each other better, especially the supervisors on a more informal basis.

Suggested improvements
Moving forward, there were several suggestions for improving the writing camp experience, including:

  • More participation by staff members and more of a supervisor presence (this was perhaps the most common suggestion)
  • Built-in opportunities to share work and receive feedback on writing
  • More reliable wifi
  • A specific team-building activity to encourage more connections between people who may not know each other well

All in all, it was a very successful week and, hopefully, a regular addition to the IET PhD student experience.

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