How Writing Retreats Can Support You as a PhD Student

Angel Tan

Writing up a PhD can be both exciting and challenging. After all, it might be one of the most significant pieces of written work after years of study and research. Alongside the excitement of embarking on this (final) step of completing a PhD, here come the pressures to write an ‘acceptable’ thesis that will meet the expectations to pass and increase the chances of success for future careers.

For many of us, these pressures and anxiety heightened during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic lockdown period due to increased feelings of social isolation and loneliness. A recent survey of 994 UK-based postgraduate research students showed that a significant number of students did not complete a thesis chapter during the pandemic, despite this forming an essential aspect of progression reviews (Goldstone, Zhang, & Christodoulides, 2021).

When Covid-19 struck, I started setting up writing goals for myself — thinking that I could do a chunk of thesis writing for my PhD with most of the time spent at home. But the truth is, like many other PhD students, I struggled to put words down on the page.

As it happened, I took part in one of the writing days organised by the University. Initially, it started in a virtual environment where a group of us would write independently but come together online to share our writing experiences in regular intervals throughout the day. We refrained from using cell phones, checking emails, and instead, focused on writing in the “Mad Men” typing pool format.

At the end of the day, I remember telling the facilitator that I felt less guilty having a glass of wine on a Friday night, knowing that I had worked hard for the day. It was a productive day. Most surprisingly, it was also the day where I felt the pleasure of writing again. Time away from the distractions of daily life provided a ‘quiet, mindfulness space’ that allowed me to prioritise writing and engage in deep level thinking that I could not have achieved on the cluttered desk in my home office.

The sound of others typing on the keyboard created a sense of community and energy that motivated me to keep my head down and write.

And surely, I am not the only one who has benefitted from a writing retreat. Research have found that students participating in writing retreats valued the uninterrupted time and space offered from the retreats, leading to increased writing productivity (Aitchison & Guerin, 2014; Paltridge, 2016). A systematic review by Kornhaber et al. (2016) also reported that writing retreats present benefits in mitigating challenges in academic writing and improving self-confidence. Writing with others creates a mutually supportive environment where ‘doctoral students […] are likely to find clarity of thinking, energy from others – and are likely to shift their writing forwards’ (Carter, Guerin, &Aitchison, 2020, 57).

So, the next time you struggle to get your words down, would you consider a writing retreat?

Angel Tan is a Postgraduate Researcher in the Department of Psychology at Edge Hill University.


References:

Carter, S., Guerin, C., & Aitchison, C. 2020. “Managing Productivity.” Doctoral Writing, 51–91. Singapore: Springer.

Goldstone, R., Zhang, J., & Christodoulides, V. (2021). Postgraduate research students’ experiences of the coronavirus pandemic. British Educational Research Association. https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/postgraduate-research-students-experiences-of-the-coronavirus-pandemic.

Illustration from Mode-Maker Metal Business Furniture catalog. circa 1960

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