'A marathan you're running on your own'

May 30th, 2014

Janet Harron

'A marathan you're running on your own'

A recent pilot project funded by Memorial’s Teaching and Learning Framewor, co-ordinated by the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) and sponsored by the Faculty of Arts’ Writing Centre, has had a significant impact on participating graduate  students.

“One of SGS’s priorities this year is to improve graduate student persistence, particularly for doctoral students who may be challenged in the dissertation-writing stage of their programs,” said Andrew Kim, director, graduate enrolment services, SGS. “We hoped a thesis bootcamp, which is fairly common among many of our peer institutions, could help some students by giving them dedicated time and space to write.”

Memorial’s first Thesis Boot Camp was open to all disciplines and included students from engineering, arts, and science. Held over five days in late April, the program began with an orientation session by Dr. Cecile Badenhorst of the Faculty of Education.

Dr. Badenhorst’s area of research is graduate thesis writing and faculty research writing.

She introduced the students to a technique for conceptualizing research regardless of discipline or stage of the research process. According to Dr. Badenhorst this technique gets students thinking through their research from beginning to end and how that can be translated into writing. She also emphasized the value of writing “terrible” drafts that can be fixed later and issues around writing blocks.

“The purpose of the orientation session is to set the scene for an environment of productive hard work where participants feel enabled to write rather than a hyper-critical environment where we blame students for their deficits,” she said.

Writing Centre director Ginny Ryan played a critical role in creating a supportive environment during the five days of the program.

“The daily procedure never varied – for 30 minutes each morning students broke into groups of three to discuss issues such as why they were passionate about their topic," Ms. Ryan said. "They then worked for five hours (with a lunch break in between) and returned to the same group at the end of the session to share the day’s progress. This process was repeated every day, each day with a different group."

The purpose? To get a wider field of ideas and experiences and to discuss their theses and any problems they were having.

PhD student Alexandra Gilbert appreciated the sense of community that developed among the participating students.

“It makes a difference when everyone is focused on the same thing. The library is a bit touch and go sometimes in terms of a workspace – it’s so easy to get interrupted or distracted there,” said Ms. Gilbert, whose thesis is on Newfoundland literature. She likens the process of writing a PhD thesis to “a marathon you’re running on your own.”

One of the biggest elements in creating that focus was the complete ban on phones and checking of email. Ms. Ryan also encouraged students to resist the urge to get up and do random things.

“The process takes time and you can’t really rush it,” said Ms. Gilbert. “But in a focused environment, I found I was able to do a lot more.”

She made what she calls “phenomenal progress” during the five days and succeeded in writing an entire chapter of her thesis. Ms. Gilbert has already signed up for the next session, which will be held in August.

“I was amazed at what the students got out of the process,” said Ms. Ryan. “They did comment that there was a really fine energy in the centre during the week.”

For the August offering, the program has been rebranded as a Thesis Writing Retreat rather than a boot camp, reflective of the need for students to be gentler with themselves and their requirements for a warm and friendly space in which to do a difficult activity in a productive way.

“I'm not fond of the term 'bootcamp' because it assumes that students just need to be disciplined to get the thesis done, but most graduate students are hardworking and dedicated – they wouldn't be doing these degrees if they weren't," said Dr. Badenhorst. "The solution lies in understanding the hidden requirements and also how to manage the anxiety that goes along with writing a thesis in an environment that is necessarily critical.”

The Thesis Writing Retreat is now being offered as part of EDGE – a comprehensive collection of professional development programs and services for graduate students. For more information about EDGE workshops and resources, please visitwww.mun.ca/sgs/edge.php or contact Ms. Julie Bowering, senior career development co-ordinator (graduate students), atjbowering@mun.ca.