‘Time to write’: a virtual writing retreat for PhD students

What is ‘time to write’?

Time to write’ is a virtual writing retreat for PhD students, designed and run in collaboration between Library Services and Organisational Development. ‘Time to write’ is a light touch version of the popular Thesis Boot Camp, which was created by Dr Peta Freestone to help PhD students with their writing.

We chose to follow a lighter approach as a direct response to Covid-19, and the challenging situation facing PhD researchers as a result of lockdown. With the aim to help PhD students who may be feeling isolated and distracted in very difficult times, ‘time to write’ gives PhD students advice and structure for writing, as well as a chance to catch up with fellow PhD researchers.

How does it work?

‘Time to write’ is run across two main platforms: Zoom, and Slack. We use Zoom for face-to-face communication at scheduled times, and Slack for chat and discussion outside of these times. The scheduled days have previously been running twice per week, but from mid-July they will be once a week.  

When first joining ‘time to write’ everyone attends an introductory day. We have been running an introductory day every three or so weeks so far, to enable new people to join us as time progresses. The introductory day begins with a Zoom session where we all introduce ourselves, and hear from a guest speaker who has previously completed a PhD. We then discuss some writing tips, and consider what distractions people may be facing, and how to overcome them. See below for an example word cloud of some of the distractions our PhD students face!

Words submitted in response to "what are some of your distractions". Includes "phone", "hunger", "sunshine", "neighbours", and "laziness".
Distractions which needed to be overcome by PhD students

On days that are not introductory days, we have a shorter welcome session in the morning. However we still have a general catch-up, share some writing tips, and encourage discussion of aims and potential challenges for the day.

Following the morning Zoom session, we move into the first intensive writing slot. This time is spent away from Zoom, as attendees spend time independently writing. We soon meet again for lunch though, as we have an informal hour-long lunchtime Zoom slot where people can drop in, or spend the whole hour with us, discussing their morning, their research, or just having general chat!

The afternoon then continues with two further intensive writing slots, broken up by a forty-five minute ‘active break’, where we encourage everyone to do something active. This has ranged from country walks to hoovering, paddle tennis to painting a garden fence! We use Slack to share photos of our active breaks. At the end of the day, we meet again on Zoom for a short debrief, and to hear how everyone’s days have gone. We also encourage no more writing for that day!  

What has the feedback been?

As organisers of the course, we have found it to be hugely rewarding to meet a whole range of PhD students, and learn from these students as much they learn from us! We have also been very grateful to receive a broad range of very positive feedback about the sessions. Here is just a selection, as we think past attendees can let you know the benefits of the course better than we can.

“I really appreciated the flexibility to attend where I could and dip in and out of the sessions when work became a priority.”

“I found it to be a great space for peer learning, as everyone was willing to share their own experiences and advice, and to help each other out with suggestions of what works for them.”

“I found having a scheduled day that included breaks and an opportunity to speak with others especially useful, particularly at the current time.”

“I think participating remotely removes some of the pressure of more formal workshops, while still maintaining structure and support, which I have found really beneficial.”

How can I get involved?

Bookings for our next introductory sessions for ‘time to write’ will open in August, but you can register your interest now to be notified as soon as registration is live. Do get in touch with Anne Kavanagh (akavan@essex.ac.uk) or Hannah Pyman (hpyman@essex.ac.uk) to be added to the mailing list, or if you have any further questions about the course.

We look forward to working with some new PhD students soon!


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