How Thesis Boot Camp helps PGRs to beat the block

Dr. Paul Spencer, the Bristol Doctoral College’s PGR Environment Development Manager, took some time during December’s Thesis Boot Camp to reflect on the aims of the weekend — and why it’s so beneficial for the postgraduate researchers who take part.

It’s a Sunday morning in mid-December, I can see great big flakes of snow falling outside the window to my right and I’m writing away along with 25 postgraduate researchers who are making stellar progress on writing that thesis. Why? Well, the Bristol Doctoral College (BDC) is running our first Thesis Boot Camp here in the School of Education this weekend. The BDC will run two more in the coming months, so I thought I’d take the time to explain what it’s all about.

What is a Thesis Boot Camp?

Dr Paul Spencer at December's Thesis Boot Camp

Simply put, it’s about getting late stage postgraduate researchers together in a peer group and setting them a seemingly impossible target of writing 20,000 words between Friday evening to Sunday evening.

Many postgraduate researchers find themselves writing alone, struggling to make progress on what can feel like an unreachable goal. Thesis Boot Camp turns that on its head and brings people together to harness the power of collective motivation and progress.

Why Thesis Boot Camp?

All creative ideas involve some sort of theft, and so it is with Thesis Boot Camp. There are many writing retreats that groups of authors often engage in and this is just an iteration of that. It’s really quite simple: provide some comfortable space, food, drink, an empathetic ear, plenty of opportunity for connection and just let the postgraduate researchers write.

What key things are we trying out here?

The key concepts that we ask the participants to experiment with are things that experienced writing tutors may be familiar with.

  1. That writing in a group, especially of like-minded individuals, can be hugely productive.
  2. Often the sense of perfectionism that doctoral researchers aspire to can get in the way of writing productively, so neatly described in Katherine Firth’s blogpost on ‘The Perfect Sentence Vortex’.
  3. To be productive, you first need quite a lot of material to begin with — make a big mess first and then tidy it up!
  4. Preparation is crucial, so participants are given lots of ideas and suggestions on how to plan and be ready for Thesis Boot Camp before it happens. This involves a bit of planning — to really think about what each chapter is trying to achieve and how it fits into an overall argument or thread that forms the backbone of the original contribution claim in a doctoral dissertation.

So, how is it going?

The first thing that has really struck me this weekend has been the overall enthusiasm and positive approach from the postgraduate researchers on this Thesis Boot Camp.

The willingness to lean into the discomfort of trying out unfamiliar approaches to writing, the collegial nature of the interactions, the supportive conversations that I’ve witnessed. It really drives home the absolute key ingredient for me, and that’s the importance of a community of writers/peers who offer each other encouragement and support collectively whilst pursuing their own writing goals.

Key ingredients

Here are a few things that really help make a Thesis Boot Camp work.

  1. A good, flexible venue. In this case the entire top floor of the School of Education in Berkeley Square — self-contained and able to support a DIY approach to the provision of copious amounts of tea/coffee (essential!).
  2. Regular meal times. A good range of wholesome food — and being able to eat together without effort — is crucial for the community dynamic. Plenty of snacks in between is also essential. Boot Camp runs on biscuits!
  3. Taking regular breaks. We took full advantage of our great location and went for a walk to the Cabot Tower on Brandon Hill on Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday with the sleet and snow falling, it was easy to pop over the road to the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. As one participant said, viewing the dinosaur bones certainly brought a sense of perspective to the thesis writing.
  4. The rewards! I know it seems silly, but squeezy coloured Lego bricks at regular word-count milestones (5,000, 10,000, 15,000 and 20,000) are a real symbol of progress and productivity and the participants really took to the concept. The real magic of these is that you take them home, pop them on your desk and they serve as a reminder of your achievement to inspire you during the writing times to come.

And that of course is the most important part of Thesis Boot Camp: the legacy. Creating ways for postgraduate researchers to remind themselves and each other of their progress during just one weekend helps inspire them to continue to meet, talk, write and encourage each other to get to that dreamed of finish line. Being part of that is something pretty special.

The next Thesis Boot Camp will take place over the weekend of 23–25 February 2018. To find out more — and submit an application to take part — visit our Thesis Boot Camp page

The PhD student as political animal

University of BristolRhiannon Easterbrook is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History. Having gained degrees from Cambridge and UCL, she took a few years out to work but is delighted to be back in academia. Her work is on classical reception in performance and performativity in Britain, 1895-1914. She is interested in how the Edwardians used ideas from the ancient world to think about embodiment, gender, and sexuality.

I read Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum back in 2011.  At the time, we were looking towards the increase in tuition fees to £9000 and the drastic cuts to teaching grants for arts and humanities degrees. While I didn’t agree with every word in the book, Nussbaum’s impassioned argument in defence of the humanities as a vital component in the education of democratic citizens inspired me.  It can come as no surprise that, as a Classics student, I have a long-held belief in the benefit of humanities degrees: as an undergrad, I was challenged to develop my analytical skills to be as rigorous as possible, exposed to different ways of experiencing and understanding the world, and driven to re-evaluate what it means to be human. As far as I can see, all three of these outcomes have a political implication: how do we process the information about policies and politicians presented to us? In a heterogeneous group, what kinds of differing perspectives must we accommodate? If we are entitled to certain rights based on being members of humanity, then what does that say about being human and who gets to decide? It was unquestionable to me that studying a humanities degree was not just personal choice but a deeply political one.

But, if studying for a humanities degree is a political choice, then why have I spent so much of my PhD so far feeling like I was failing as a political animal? When climate change is an ever-present threat, conflict rages across the world and hundreds of thousands of people are using food banks in this country, studying for an advanced research degree about some classical-ish plays put on a century ago can feel at times like an indulgence and that I should somehow be going out and helping change the world.  Plus, having to juggle so many different commitments in order to stay afloat and work towards my intended career requires a great deal of attention.  (I’m aware I’ve complained about this on the blog before).  Staying focused on research and worrying about income are not necessarily conducive to staying politically active and tuned in. It also doesn’t help that the classic imposter syndrome – the plague of so many PhD students – has come along and infected this part of my life too, leaving me feeling that there is always someone else better qualified and informed to talk about the issues of the day.

Yet at the same time, I have been much more conscious of how my work as a scholar reflects my political and social interests.  Feminism has been extremely important to me since my teens. In the last few years, I have begun the process of reassessing my stance on several issues and have developed an interest in intersectional feminism. This has led to the conscious incorporation of intersectional feminist analysis in my research.  Now this has come full circle and I am ploughing what I learned in theory back into practice.  Along with a group of excellent colleagues, I am working towards establishing a society for women Classicists. An awareness of intersecting oppressions has meant that we advocated establishing positions on the committee for other minorities: people who experience oppression as women, whether they’re disabled, LGBTQIA or BME, all deserve attention paid to their specific experiences and we all need to develop our understanding of where we may be a bit more privileged.

While this only a small step in a society which is riven with so many inequalities, I hope that I can begin to do my bit. Part of this is about reaching out and keeping discussions going.  I am honoured to know so many thoughtful, insightful people – including a considerable number of brilliant women who offer mutual support and advice – people whom I would never have met had I not started my PhD.  Whether I’m marching with them at Reclaim the Night or chatting about our theses in the pub, this community inspires me to be a better person and a better researcher.

As the future of the Human Rights Act looks uncertain questions of what it means to be human may gain more attention. But as I think again about the humanities and their role in this discussion, it is now clear to me that it’s not just why we do the humanities that’s important, it’s how we do them. It’s about re-evaluating our own subject-positions and how they influence our research, remembering that there is no neutral position. It’s about the voices we privilege and the voices we sideline. How often is it acceptable to have all-male panels, for example? Do we make our work and teaching accessible? We all have to live and right now, I have chosen to live as a researcher.  However, that does not mean that I’m isolated from what happens outside the Graduate School.  I’m beginning to see more and more how, while academia might feel like part of a strange bubble, it’s really part of a much wider community, capable of reproducing social problems and able to speak in dialogue with different parts of society, like any other sector. It could well be that very few people will ever read my thesis but I know that I can take what I learned me as I go through the world.

Stellingen: The ten most important propositions from my PhD journey

University of BristolDominika Bijoś is a final year postgraduate researcher from the School of Clinical Sciences, based in the School of Physiology and Pharmacology. She studies smooth muscle contraction and examines how other cell types influence it in bladder tissue and in the whole organ. Initially, she used molecular and cell biology techniques, but spent last year watching and analysing moving bladders and the conclusion was – they dance the samba!

Getting a PhD is a ritual. Different countries have their own customs surrounding the process, preparations, ceremony, and so on. The thesis I spent the past three and a half years doing experiments for and writing up (like Richard), is an impressive brick containing over 40 000 words and 50 data figures. Let’s be honest: despite my best efforts to make this book readable, accessible and nicely presented, not many people except for my colleagues and examiners will read it. To ease this problem, Dutch tradition has a solution – stellingen (propositions).

In the old days, the 10 propositions (stellingen) would have been the ten statements of the thesis you actually defend. Nowadays, they present the most accessible summary of a few years of work and characterise the PhD candidate: their values and reflections regarding their work. So, I decided to borrow this custom to say what it is that I have learned over the past few years, not only scientifically but also personally. If you would like to know what I spent over 3 years researching, you can watch me tell the story in 3 minutes.

The top 10 messages of my thesis are:

1) A PhD is a Gesamtkunstwerk (from my friend Babett)

This German word describes a piece of art which uses many forms, a total artwork. I see my PhD as a total artwork: the art of honing my microsurgical skills, the creativity of troubleshooting, the beauty of statistical significance stars, the poetry in writing papers and reports, etc. The endless hours, months, years of perfecting all the techniques culminating in the thesis and title of “Dr”. The PhD is an all-together-piece-of-art.

2) If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? (Albert Einstein)

Doing postgraduate research is about answering questions NO ONE, not a single person in the world, knows the answer to. I often felt dumb (just like Madeline), and I didn’t always know what I was doing. Technical learning challenges were huge, data analysis difficulties were even harder. I struggled; I fought hard to trust the method, to distinguish a real effect from the noise. I won and I found out something no one knew.

3) Ano1 in juvenile rat urinary bladder (my thesis)

This is the title of the paper I published in the open access journal PLOS ONE. Getting my research peer reviewed and published makes my contribution to world knowledge publicly and freely accessible (and makes life easier for my examiners).

4) Movement depends on initiation, propagation and tone. (my thesis)

Although my research was on the movement of the bladder wall, what I learned throughout the project was that every action needs to start (initiate) and then be followed through (propagated). I made action plans, but they only mattered if I executed them.

There were times when I worked too much… and I also learned that constant contraction of the system is impossible. You need to relax too! This is a tricky balance, but when achieved, it gives happiness 🙂

5) In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm…in the real world all rests on perseverance. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Science isn’t achieved easily, but enthusiasm and perseverance drive it.

For me, it was curiosity and love of discovery during the good times, and perseverance all the rest of time, learning to take things one step at a time (just like Rhiannon!)

I told my friend Bartholomew, we get the PhD for surviving the process rather than the actual achievement. It isn’t entirely true, but because in science we do so much more than the world will ever see, it cheered me up on many occasions after failed experiments. Every step, even failure, was a part of figuring out how the world works.

6) Your life, your PhD, your problem

I had problems. If you’re doing a PhD – you will have problems. It is your life, so take control over your career. Being at Bristol, there are plenty of options to solve the problems you might have: technical or personal. You’re not alone! Take control and act – plenty of opportunities land in your mailbox every week.

7) Curiouser and curiouser(Alice in Wonderland)

During a postgraduate degree, we are surrounded by loads of amazingly smart and passionate people. During my PhD I had the chance to hear about fascinating science and meet inspiring scientists. Did you know that this year’s 2014 Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, Edvard Moser, gave a talk in the Neuroscience department exactly two years ago (19 Nov 2012)?

I got my nose out of the lab and went to seminars to hear what else is out there and asked colleagues what they do. For science, one of the best forms of communication is coffee breaks, so use them – not to network, but to make friends. It worked for me – thanks to this I have an entire thesis chapter based on collaboration!

8) Communication – the human connection – is the key to personal and career success (Paul J Meyer)

So you are a rocket scientist? Well, unless you can write a paper about it, give a talk I can follow and understand – no one cares.

Writing is difficult for everyone, but you can learn to be an effective writer and better communicator. Online courses, onsite courses, practice, practice…There are plenty of options at Bristol Uni. Writing well and speaking well are assets, whatever you do.

9) Constitutive response to when something turns up is YES (Jim Smith)

When an opportunity came – I said yes. I had a chance to do something for others and created a yearly meeting for early career researchers in my field (the Young Urology Meeting). Saying yes to new opportunities gave me experience and created even more opportunities.

10) To pee or not to pee? (adapted from Shakespeare)

My research has contributed a tiny bit to the understanding of how the body works and parts of this might be used to answer the existentially painful question of patients in the clinics with bladder problems. But it left me perpetually full of questions no one knows the answers to. So for me, the only option is: Science: yes or KNOW!

Getting a PhD is a journey full of obstacles and interesting people, struggles and discoveries, dumb moments and personal growth.

My journey not only pushed the knowledge boundaries of the field, but most definitely pushed me. It pushed me to be at my personal best: in the lab and in the office, to be a better person, to be a thorough and tireless researcher and to be in charge of my project, my time and my life.

The last year…and out of the other side

Photo of Richard BuddRichard Budd was awarded his PhD in September 2014, having successfully defended his thesis a few weeks beforehand. Based in the Graduate School of Education, he conducted a comparative case study of how German and English undergraduates understood and negotiated their respective higher education contexts. This required implementing a qualitative research design, conducting in-depth interviews with students at universities in each country. 

The last year of my doctorate presented challenges far beyond the intellectual. I started a part-time research assistant role a few months after my three-year scholarship ended, and this was then supplemented by an inter-university project coordination role a month later. Having the thesis, working full time, and having a young family, meant that I was working overtime for what seemed like an eternity. The workload was hellish, but I was still in love with my project; shaping it into a coherent narrative while reflecting on my academic development brought immense satisfaction, and this, along with supervisory support and desperately wanting to be finished, kept me going.

Tracking back a year from the end, I had finished the analysis and had well over half the thesis written. I presented some of the findings at a conference in the autumn and thought I‘d be done by Christmas. I’d underestimated how much was still to do by some margin! Some chapters were far from polished, while others were far too big, and it took me until the end of March to get to a full draft. By that point I’d been beavering away for 20-30 hours a week in addition to work, plus trying to be involved in family life. I had a little respite while my supervisors chewed through the draft, then it was another three months of the same. Draft Mark I went through various incarnations until it reached Mark III, and even then there were weeks of tweaking and tuning. Having thought for long periods that I was never going to be done, I worked through a final list of changes and suddenly, it seemed, it was off my desk.

One of the big problems for me over this period was not knowing where the finishing line was. Trying to work out what ‘enough’ might look like is pretty hard. Your supervisors have a good idea, but it is a tricky thing to articulate. Overall, in addition to the thesis being original and your own work, it has to be presented as a coherent, appropriately justified argument, and you need to know where it sits in the field/literature. These are big questions, and I’ve broken them down in more detail elsewhere: see ‘Unpacking the viva’ at ddubdrahcir.wordpress.com.

After submitting in July, I left it alone it for over a month. I needed to reconnect with family life, sleep, and revel in not feeling guilty for loafing about aimlessly in my free time. Free time! A few weeks before the viva, I read it through again. This was initially not very helpful, in that — in addition to the typos — I’d had time to reflect on the whole from a distance; you can’t do this just before submission because you’re too close, too caught up in the detail. I spent a few days worrying about how I could — should — have improved it, and one piece of advice really helped. This was that a PhD was always imperfect. It is supposed to be as far as you can go in the given time frame, and if you tried to perfect it, you’d never hand it in.

By the morning of the viva, I’d worked through rafts of potential questions and felt that I could answer them with confidence. Looking back, this was when I somehow knew that I’d (probably) pass; being able to field those questions made me realise the scale, depth and nuance I’d achieved in the thesis. The chief remaining question was the extent of the corrections: how much would be left to do? I was comfortable in the knowledge that I could have done some things differently; being aware of the pros and cons of all of your decisions over the lifecycle of the project is a key part of the process, not a sign of failure. I spent the morning talking it all through with a friend, and this warm-up — without any pressure — really helped. By the time I walked into the viva itself I was internally contorted with apprehensive tension, but then it got going and I was too busy thinking on my feet to have space for nerves. The defence took about two hours, although it felt like far less. The first half was heavy going and very challenging, but after a while it developed into something more conversational, a healthy exchange and discussion. After a brief break at the end, I was invited back in, was told I’d passed, and had pretty minor corrections.

The corrections took a (very long) day and now, a month after the viva, it has sunk in. At first I couldn’t believe that it was over, that this ‘thing’ I’d been gestating for years no longer needed any attention. I also missed it. There are publications and presentations to come, but the thesis itself is finished. Having it behind you is a serious fillip, a sign of being accepted into the academic ranks. It goes some way to assuaging the ‘imposter syndrome’ that I felt most of the way through my doctorate, that I was woefully short of some of the stuff I was reading, and my unmasking as an imbecile could come any minute. I’m still a little self-conscious about being ‘Dr Budd’, not quite used to wearing it, but it’s a marker of having changed. I’m intellectually unrecognisable from the person who walked into my first supervision meeting, and that’s the point of the whole exercise.