Writing Retreats; or how a trip to the mountains helped me restart my PhD.

Inspired by this call to action from Jessica on collecting the stories of mental health and PhD students, and the fact I am looking forward to working on ‘it’ through the enforced Christmas annual leave that working in a University insists I take (:-D),  I thought I would give an update on my progress of trying to get back on track with my own PhD.

For long time readers, I have been a PhD student (part time, self funded) since January 2009, starting at the University of Leicester and moving back to the University of the West of Scotland in October 2009 (full time, part-funded) – where I was an undergraduate at the previously named Paisley University between 2002-2005.

I am currently coming to the end of 12 months suspension – year out – as I had to deal with a combination of burn out, running out of funding and moving back to Glasgow to be closer to friends and family – and importantly the University where I am enrolled to complete my PhD.

Defining the problem:

My PhD journey, or my PhD story – in one word – has been a struggle. If it hasn’t been a struggle for finding cash to fund it, it is the struggle of receiving enough funding to pay your only your rent and topping it up with many other short term roles across the academic and related research industries. It’s the struggle of not feeling good enough, not being able to conform to some of the bizarre processes that some academics partake in, or the struggle to get my head round what the hell the Westminster government was doing to the Higher Education system. Struggle of course come with opportunity –  I have met so many people, learnt so much, done so much, dare say achieved so much in a short period of time that is 3 years of a PhD, but also blurred lines and distractions that are unavoidable when you are looking for the next series of work to pay the bills and make up the short fall on your stipend. It is getting wrapped up in projects that are relevant to your PhD  – mine is about the Olympics, so try and avoid the attention that gives you – wanted or otherwise – in a country which is hosting a Games during your final year of funding. Obligations, opportunities, blurred lines. It was hard – I sometimes wish I did it on something more desky.

Finding the space to write, the time to give your PhD more than a quick once over between project deadlines, marking, tutorials, travelling for work, is difficult. I would (and did – but cut them out) go into the details, but I don’t need to add to the body of blogging that states how much of an isolating, exhausting heavy-going experience writing up a PhD is. I know it can be done – and I know so many inspiring people who have managed to drag themselves from the brink of drop-out to completing and moving on with their life, doing even more amazing things in the process.

My year out of my PhD as allowed me to gain enough distance from the challenges I was facing when the funding dried up – and enough space to be able to write without guilt about how I felt about having to down tools on something I was defining my entire life on.

When I suspended my PhD, I lost a large chunk of my identity that I could always lean on with it. It was my certain, it was my base point. And I was definitely  not prepared for the polarised advise that came with the suspension, but I got/am getting through it – and probably about half way through June this year, I stopped feeling angry about the reactions, circumstances – or upset like I was a failure and let people down – and that should probably give it a by and move on with my life – but actually felt that it was indeed possible to carry on and get this document finished, submitted and move the hell on.

I know it can happen because I never thought I could be at this stage where I would be able to write a blog post about restarting the PhD. This time last year, if you mentioned the work ‘PhD’ or ‘Olympics’ – I would curl into a ball and rock back and forth, my closest friends would warn people to dare not utter those words unless you wanted to change the mood of the party to black. But despite those feelings, I know now that can see a way of finishing this – and much of it was overcoming that fear of opening the document after 18 months on the virtual shelf.

Restarting the writing process:

I have been working by stealth on finding ways to write and to carry on writing, even if I am technically in limbo officially- writing doesn’t need me to be enrolled for it to happen at this stage.

A few weekends ago, I went to a Writer’s Retreat in Aberfoyle, hosted by Prof. Rowena Murray who has recently joined UWS. I found out about the retreat through some other PhD students (mainly those, who are like me are members of staff too) – and it was one of many that happen all year round.

The format usually takes place over 2 days, where I took part in over 11 hours of group writing, chunked up between 1hr-2hr blocks of working in silence as a group, with 1/2 hour/meal breaks between them. At the start of the retreat we were asked to write a short, medium and long term goal for the weekend, and to discuss it with a partner about how you were going to achieve it – the shortest goal was for the Friday evening session itself (1hr 30 mins), which after a 2 hour drive after work from Glasgow to the remote village of Gartmore near Aberfoyle, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to open my laptop, let along write something relating to my PhD. I had let that document become a demon, something that I could avoid easily – if only for my own sanity, so asking myself to tackle after a day of project work was a scary prospect.

For my short term goal, I said that I would try and rewrite my PhD abstract and to produce a revised chapter outline based on some of the notes I had been leaving myself in Evernote since I started thinking about my PhD again. The thing that surprised me the most is that I managed to do this quite quickly, and it wasn’t as painful as I thought. I thought I might want to completely change my PhD focus and move it towards the work that I have been doing recently, but after a bit of work on it, I was relatively happy with the current approach and indeed, time away from it and distance away from a media-saturated world gripped with Olympic hysteria has definitely helped me with clarity.

I don’t/didn’t have an ethics form prepared for my research, which I should have done back in 2009, so I thought if I was to complete one for the purpose of restarting, it would be easier to start from scratch than retroactively fit to the data I have – but instead, I found myself sketching out the method chapter that I have always wanted to work on – and focusing my ethics on gaining interviews from key participants that I encountered through my ethnographic data from Vancouver games time and London pre-games activity. Therefore my medium goal (what I wished to achieve by end of Saturday evening) was to take all the pieces of writing that I had and to rewrite them in order to ensure I had reviewed my previous progress and to turn the muddled mess that was my head in July 2012 into a document that I can authentically call the bloody thesis.

The final goal (by the end of the retreat) was have a document I could show at my meeting with the head of department the following Monday, a timeline for completion and compiled next steps for the next stages of writing. By the time we stopped writing on Sunday afternoon, I had written over 13200 words in 2.5 days, and had time to go for a swim, have dinner and drinks with friends and eat a lot of different types of cake. Importantly, I had found a way to unstuck the stuck, the possibility to actually open the document and start writing again.

PhD writing

Not only did I have a document I could call a thesis, a plan and the confidence to start writing again, I had unwillingly began the methods chapter – began work towards correcting the massive problem of not having a ethics form (3 years in) and could see how it would be possible to turn what I had into a PhD. The writers’ retreat was exactly what I needed in order to begin seeing myself as a writer – and gave me a safe space with other people who are pursuing writing projects to work together and support each other through some of the isolating factors of dealing with a project of this nature.

I have booked another retreat for the 17th-19th of January, and although I accept that this can’t be the only way that I will be able to work on my PhD, the technical of chunking up your day to focus on writing does help, being able to work closely with other PhD students does help and finding a way to get over the feeling of failure that comes with suspension does help. With the Christmas holidays kicking in from the 20th December this year – and this being the first year where I haven’t had to find a project to work on over the break to ensure the pressure of spending and the lack of holiday pay/steady income doesn’t result in no money come February, I am going to use the next 2 weeks to try and push up the word count on that bloody thesis document and prepare for my next burst of retreat.

My next retreat aim is to get the ethics form, rewrite the methods chapter and pursue interview request for triangulating my data that I already have from both Olympiads. Finding those days where you can dedicate your mind totally is hard, at the moment work pressures are so much that I am finding it hard to find time to sleep and eat properly, but I know that these will pass soon as we move onto a new stage of the project – in the mean time, I am going to carry on when I can, pushing the PhD document forward. It’s not perfect – and I have a long way to go, but I’m in the strongest position that I’ve been with my PhD so far and if it means that I have to wait a little longer to re-enroll, at least I’m moving in a better direction now.

Recommended reading (from Rowena’s Retreat briefing):

Murray, R (2012) It’s not a hobby: Reconceptualizing the place of writing in academic work, Higher Education. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-012-9591-7.

MacLeod I, Steckley L & Murray R (2011) Time is not enough: Promoting strategic engagement with writing for publication, Studies in Higher Education, 37(5): 641-54.

Moore S, Murphy M & Murray R (2010) Increasing academic output and supporting equality of career opportunity in universities: Can writers’ retreats play a role?, Journal of Faculty Development, 24(3): 21-30.

Murray R (2011) Developing a community of research practice, British Educational Research Journal, 38(5): 783-800.

Murray R & Newton M (2009) Writing retreat as structured intervention: Margin or mainstream?, Higher Education Research and Development, 28(5): 527-39.

Murray R (2013) Writing for Academic Journals, 3rd edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press-McGraw-Hill.

Murray R & Moore S (2006) The Handbook of Academic Writing: A Fresh Approach.  Maidenhead: Open University Press-McGraw-Hill.