Sometimes it feels impossible to wade through all the email that floods in to your inbox everyday; the journal alerts, department emails, university emails, human resources updates etc., etc. I’m sure a lot of you, like myself, hit delete before reading half of them. Well a couple of months ago, as I hunched over my desk, glaring at the empty screen wondering why I couldn’t will Chapter 4 of my thesis to write itself, an email appeared advertising a THESIS BOOTCAMP being put on by the wonderful folks at the Research Skills Training Unit. If I’m honest I was probably procrastinating and reading anything that meant I could put off writing.
However…participating in the Thesis Bootcamp was a pivotal moment in my PhD. Perhaps THE moment when I realised I was actually going to finish. I will always remember looking up at the end of that weekend to see that the light at the end of the tunnel had gone from a faint glow, to one burning so bright it singed my eyebrows. I have always admitted to writing very slowly. If I manage 500 decent words in a day then I am ecstatic, but in truth it’s usually less. During the bootcamp, between 5pm on Friday and 7pm on Sunday I typed over 10,000 words, going from 500 words a day to 500 words an hour. And that was the average of the 24 participants. Several people wrote over 20,000 words. So how did we do it?
Thesis Bootcamp is modelled after a very successful workshop, of the same name, run out of Melbourne University. When we assembled on Friday evening we were given a few key pieces of information by Liam (who had flown in from Melbourne Uni) and the indomitable Inger Mewburn (a.k.a The Thesis Whisperer). Firstly, Liam stated that producing academic prose requires (an awful lot of) THINKING, and then WRITING, then there is the EDITING and finally the POLISHING before we start the process again. The difference between seasoned academics and students, and I am putting my hand way up here, is that students go through the four step process for every….single…sentence. Then if you are me you do it for the paragraph, the page, the section etc., etc., which is incredibly slow. And so, we were told not to think *, no editing and absolutely no polishing.
“Give your self permission to write a shitty first draft and just get the words on the page”
Inger followed with her own story of trying to complete her thesis. One weekend, she went to her mother in-law’s, handed over her small child, and locked herself in the study. Her mother in-law fed her, watered her, cleaned up after her and made sure she got enough rest, and in this nurturing environment she produced 15,000 words.
“This weekend, you are to view me as your mother in-law”
And what a mother in-law! There was catering (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and cleaners so no dishes. There was an endless supply of coffee tea, chocolates and biscuits. There was the ‘physiotherapy’ room where bootcampers could discuss the roadblocks that were stalling their submission; either practical or emotional. There was a mattress if you needed a nap. We did yoga on Saturday afternoon and popped into a gallery on Sunday. We were awarded squishy blocks for every 5,000 words we completed and we strived to obtain them together. All the participants really wanted, and perhaps needed, to be there. We were supportive of one another, we learned of other people’s disciplines, and of their struggles, but perhaps most importantly, we didn’t feel alone. And the words flowed.
I’ve been agonising over this one chapter for so long. It combines two sites, the oceanography is notroiusly complex, and instead of committing to anything I just keep reading. But over that weekend I wrote what ever came to mind, which ws a lot, because I keep reading…. And yes, it needs editing and yes, there are pieces to fill in, but I WROTE THE WHOLE CHAPTER: introduction, results and discussion. I have brought my submission date forward by months, I believe, if I really put my mind to it I can submit in 6-8 weeks. And that is on top of giving a lecture at a workshop I’ve never given before, presenting at a conference and putting in several applications. My thesis no longer rules me. I rule my thesis. If I could have stood on my chair while writing those words I would have.
I can not thank the organisers enough for putting on the Thesis Bootcamp. It was the pilot program of what will now be a workshop run four times a year at the ANU. If you are at another university then Liam is open to coming in and helping set up a similar program (because he’s just that kind of great guy, contact through here). For those about to begin the write up, I can not recommend it more. I have learned so many valuable lessons that include that writing doesn’t have to be a struggle, that I could have finished by now had I participated in this workshop earlier (!!), and perhaps most importantly, that I should be more careful about the emails I delete without reading…I just regained 2 months of my life!
* we were required to bring a detailed roadmap of our thesis which covered the ‘thinking’.