Reflecting on the 2015 Week-Long Dissertation Writing Retreat
We just finished our spring Dissertation Writing Retreat at the University Writing Center. Last week, May 18-22, several writers from various disciplines met every day to push their dissertation projects forward – and to learn some new things about writing practices and strategies at the same time. Some of the DWR participants were in the early stages of their projects, working on dissertation proposals or their first chapters. Others were nearly finished with their dissertations. The retreat provided them with the time and space to write as well as feedback on their writing in daily consultations. In addition, the DWR hosted daily workshops on topics such as organizing a large writing project, writing a literature review, and leveraging dissertations for future uses.
The consultants who work during the Dissertation Writing Retreat are experienced writing teachers who are also PhD students currently working on their dissertations. After the 2014 DWR, the consultants offered some insightful reflections, and here is what this year’s consultants had to say:
On being in the company of other writers:
The dissertation writing retreat this year reminded me of the power of surrounding yourself with other writers. I’m always so impressed by the camaraderie across the disciplines that happens during the retreat, but also by how much more work these writers are able to get done in this space simply by being around other writers who are all going through the same process. Some writers at the retreat used this opportunity to give each other feedback, comments, and share advice, but there were also times when sitting in silence together was just as productive. Whether you use the time around other writers as a chance to share ideas or as a quiet work time to be around others in order to keep focused, writing groups are valuable opportunities to grow as a writer as well as a great way to keep yourself accountable.
On goal-setting and rewards:
As always, this past week at the Dissertation Writing Retreat was a true joy. My fellow dissertating comrades and I talked deeply about how to stay on track with the book-length project that is “THE Dissertation.” We were really focused on how to negotiate and renegotiate the kinds of working routines necessary to get through this seeming behemoth. We talked about a few really important ideas:
Set a low goal that keeps you motivated but that is easy to reach, like – “Write 100 words per day,” or “Read1 article per day.”
Then, when you reach the goal, give yourself a gold star (or even a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sticker) – just something to acknowledge the success!
- Periodically revisit what you see as the whole scope of the dissertation, but don’t worry if that scope changes dramatically.
- Figure out how to work effectively with each individual committee member, and the committee as a whole. Make sure to develop a comfortable working relationship with your director, above all.
- Remember, it’s your dissertation!
- And, finally, always take some time off for self-care!
It was a wonderful week, and I’m feeling fully energized to get back to my dissertation, 100 words at a time.
The Dissertation Writing Retreat espouses many of the principles that writing centers value, among them making writing a daily habit. This principle resonated with me while I talked to DWR participants last week, especially because I am writing my own dissertation and working on meeting word count goals every day. If writing is a habit – and by writing I mean sitting down, opening a new document or one in progress, and making words in a row happen – then it is like brushing my teeth, looking over my shoulder before I change lanes, or feeding my cat in the morning. I don’t even think about whether writing will happen if it’s a habit. This is one reason why the DWR is a valuable experience for those participating in it. The retreat can teach the habit of daily writing, such that participants go on to continue the practice of writing every day even after the retreat ends.
On being a member of the graduate community:
Over the last week, I’ve been thinking about mentoring. I had the privilege of working with two students in the Biology program who were at very different stages of the process at this year’s Dissertation Writing Retreat. One student was working on drafting her introduction while the other had completed and revised all of her chapters, and was working on further revision to turn one chapter into an article. While I learned a great deal about the growth of invasive honeysuckle plants in our area and colonies of bacteria, I learned even more about the value of mentoring. Throughout our time together, I was able to help the student who was further along with revising her article about bacteria, and she in turn was able to provide insight into the expectations that faculty in the department would have for an introduction on invasive honeysuckle. In this way, we all spent the week learning from each other, and I was reminded what a great opportunity graduate school is to be in a community of scholars, and that valuable help and advice is available from my advisor and committee, yes, but also from others who are at different stages of the process.
On commitment to our projects:
It’s hard to believe this is the 4th time I’ve consulted for the week-long Dissertation Writing Retreat. I’m thrilled that the Writing Center has been able to consistently offer this resource thanks to the support of many offices and departments across campus. While I’ve always been impressed with the work the writers do during the retreat, this year, perhaps more than any other, I was lucky to work with two writers who blew me away with their commitment to producing good work every day. Each took advantage of the writing time, guest talks, consultations, and other resources so that they were able to walk away with tangible progress on their projects. Their commitment was inspiring and reminded me of how much can be accomplished with a bit of consistent focus. It is my hope that they recognize the hard work they did this week and that it inspires them to keep writing just as much as it inspired me to return my own projects.