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

Representing the misrepresented

Wingrove_1Louise Wingrove is a third-year postgraduate researcher in the department of Drama: Theatre, Film and Television. Her research is focused on how the lives of working women were represented by serio-comediennes on the Victorian music-hall stage, using the characters and careers of Jenny Hill (1848-1896) and Bessie Bellwood (1856-1896) as case studies.  Most of her research is archive based, piecing together long lost careers, songs and venues through files of reviews, photographs and sheet music.

This is Louise’s third entry for the ‘Year in the Life of a PhD’ blog. Her first entry, entitled ‘Belonging in archives’, discussed the challenges of finding your niche as a researcher and the joy of learning new skills, and Louise reflects on her experiences and what lies ahead in her second post ‘New Year’s revelations’.

Entering my write up stage, I am strangely surprised to find that the clichéd phrase “the time will fly by” uttered to me so many times at the start of my PhD is completely true.  It has been a whirlwind of nineteenth century studies, learning curves and more personal realisations than I can count and I have loved it more than I ever imagined.  Now, having felt and acknowledged the imposter syndrome and panic attacks, it is a preoccupation with preconceptions, clichés and misrepresentation that is currently plaguing me.

I am a Chihuahua owning, dyspraxic, ex-bibliophobic PhD student with an almost unhealthy sitcom and RuPaul’s Drag Race obsession.  Each of these things in isolation are pre-loaded with assumptions and clichés about my personality, whether representative or not.  Even my choice of Music Hall comediennes as a topic for research comes with many preconceptions – something I am sure we all find when trying to explain the nuances of our study to someone else.

My clichéd preoccupations initially began after realising that I had had the following conversation to the point of it becoming a cliché:

Lovely person who doesn’t realise the can of worms they are opening:  “So, how many words do you have to write for a PhD?  Really?  How can you write that much?”

Me:  *not at all trying to be smug, but maybe with a little too much pride*  “Well, it’s more like how can I possibly fit in all I have to say – I have too much material and not enough room!”

I heard people answer in the same way before I started my PhD, and I have fallen into the cliché myself.  What I don’t say, however, is that at each stage I too have wondered how I would make the word count.  By studying performers whose huge popularity is now largely forgotten, I (secretly) worried that I would be lucky to scrape enough material together.  Then I learnt more about their careers, their personal lives, the importance of placing their work within a social historical context and the separating of truth from urban myth, and I soon discovered there was a lot to cover.  This resulted in my choosing only two performers to research.  This again filled me with a “not enough material” panic until I went even deeper and found myself surrounded by so many different spreadsheets and case studies that were “vital” that I couldn’t possibly cut it down without major tantrums.

During this, I found the truth in another piece of advice given to the point of it becoming a cliché –the importance of your relationship with your supervisor. I have always said I have been exceptionally lucky to have such an amazing supervisor, but it was at this point I really began to understand the importance of this relationship.  Her ability to both calm and offer constructive suggestions of ways to order and present the wealth of research obtained in an archival approach has been integral to getting me through my study.  My research content continually shifts, affecting the usefulness of different ways of presenting the data.  However, each way we discuss has made it clearer to me whilst allowing me to follow my instinct and calmly continue on to my next hurdle.  This stable relationship has even enabled me to send work off to be looked at without the crippling fear that I will get an email back simply saying “Why?” and “Give up!”

But it is now that I am facing my biggest cliché, preconception and misrepresentation hurdle of all – how to represent Jenny Hill and Bessie Bellwood.  On a simple level, I am myth busting; showing how preconceptions surrounding these comediennes careers and materials are flawed.  It’s about showing how performers engaged and reflected a variety of social issues and me challenging assumptions surrounding the working methods of these women and what they wished to represent to an audience.  On a more complex level – I have fallen in love with Hill and Bellwood!  I feel like I know them exceptionally well, making me overprotective of them.  This makes me want to include every tiny thing I know about them and cut nothing so as to build a full picture, highlighting their good and explaining any ‘questionable behaviour’ as I don’t want people to form assumptions about them.  I wouldn’t only want to be remembered and represented by one aspect of my life, which could skew understanding of my complexities as a person.  I’m not only a Chihuahua owner!  I must remain objective, documenting their career development and material and, ironically, the ways in which their reputations were possibly misrepresented by the press to keep them within social ideals and constructs.  To represent them properly, I must learn to distance myself as I am building a picture of them based on archive materials, not on my first hand knowledge of them as living people.

So now, I must face up to the biggest drama cliché of all and “cut my baby,” represent them as best I can and stay thankful to all the support around me.  And possibly buy shares in Rescue Remedy for all the tantrums!

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.