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The Lake Shift

The Lake Shift is a thesis writing retreat for doctoral students only from Ontario universities. The first year was only a four day retreat in July 2016 at the Queen’s Biology Station on Lake Opinicon (a 50 minute drive north of Kingston). The retreat provided graduate students with structured time to write, workshops on tips for effective dissertation writing, opportunities to network with other graduate students and all in a beautiful location. The objective of the retreat was to enable graduate students to make substantial progress in writing their thesis and to develop foundations to maintain that momentum. The fringe benefits of The Lake Shift included swimming, boating, hiking and campfire conversations and make for a balance of the cerebral with the physical and social for a well-rounded experience.

Be sure to Tweet us with any photos using the hashtag #thelakeshift, and follow SGS on Twitter at @queensgradstudy!

The Lake Shift 2019 – Day 6

The last morning and I knew it was going to be tough.  I never like this time as by this afternoon everyone would have left for home and the world goes back to what it was.  The Lake Shift is in some ways an adult version of kids summer camps.  We meet up for the first time, do activities together whether that be writing, canoeing, swimming or chatting, we make great friends and share stories and then we have to leave.   Watching the bus take many back to the train station is difficult, but then I remind myself there is next year to look forward to.

On this last day, there was still two hours of writing time which many sat down to do.  Goals achieved were put up on the flip chart, and then the last chance for a swim or canoe.  At 11am we all met outside to do the wrap up of the week.  How did we feel about the retreat?  Did we accomplish what we hoped to?  Did we accomplish more?  Did we find out more about how best we can move forward with our thesis, a new tactic or method. What are our take homes to share with colleagues back at our respective Universities.  Everyone had something to say and I personally found it inspiring.

The students are all inspiring.  There are so many stories of how they manage their degree and personal life.  We have students who are single, with partners, with kids, who English is not their first language, who are living away from their University or are there every day.  Each story is fascinating as is the work they are doing.  I consider myself fortunate to be able to hear it and play a small part in helping.

Lunch was a little earlier than normal to allow everyone the chance to pack up and be ready for the bus pick up.  We finally got the cake, which I forgot to put out last night.  Delicious indeed and a great way to finish up.

Thank you to all the staff at QUBS. As usual you were all fantastic to work with and very supportive of our group.  To the Researchers there, thank you for letting us seemingly take over the Biology Station.  We wish you all the best with your experiments.

To the Lake Shift 2019, thank you for a great week.  You have been an awesome group. You have supported each other and respected each other the whole week. I hope you have gone home knowing you have made some great friends and that includes me.

Till next year.

Lake shift day 6 collage

The Lake Shift 2019 – Day 5

So our last full day at camp and that is always difficult. Breakfast saw many who said they have had their best sleep in ages, had already been for a swim or run and others were just enjoying the fact they didn’t have to cook or prepare breakfast for them or their kids.  It truly is magical being here amongst such inspiring people.

It didn’t take them long to knuckle down to their work in their special spots. For me it was a quick jaunt into Kingston to pick up the cake (alas it wasn’t ready) and to drop some things off at the office.  Back by lunch time and the arrival of Marta (former Associate Dean and 3-peat Lake Shifter colleague).  Chat with a Prof has been interesting and I am glad many have taken the opportunity to chat about their work, getting publishing and writing tips and more. 

After lunch there wasn’t much up take on the ice cream run, so Sarah, our photographer from the office, got to taking pictures of our intrepid Lake Shifters while they were writing, swimming, canoeing and chatting.  Got some great photos of the would be canoeist and swimmers.  And we did set up some of the photos but they were all of real people!

After that it was only fair that we treat Sarah to an ice cream and so Marta, Sarah and I, along with a Lake Shifter (yeah Alexandra), trekked down to Chaffey’s Lock.  We met Amy and Sagar there who had gone by canoe.  The line of the day from Sagar after buying a kiddie cone was, when he said, “the kids in Canada must be huge!”  After all the size of these ice creams need to be seen to be believed, they are for giants!

Dinner time everyone was excited to go down to Chaffey’s Lock later. We were all so excited we forgot to bring out the cake! Oh well it will be great for lunch tomorrow.

Lake Opinicon hotel is awesome. Ice cream in one place and a beautiful outdoor patio next door.  About 20 of us shuttled down and back and some great conversations were had all round.

Back at camp the fire was already underway and it was time to bring out the damper mix.   With great help from Kathryn, Alexandra, Alexis and Ashley (with me watching on and giving directions), damper was made and taken over.  Alas the mixture was still a tad too runny (although Bryn was determined to make it work off the stick and did succeed), so back to the cabin to fry it up instead. Thanks to Kathryn for making the Aussie damper look a bit more Canadian (donut shape) and then everyone was able to enjoy it with a drizzle of honey over the top - awesome.

What a day. Tomorrow unfortunately is the end of camp, but I know we have made some great friends.

Lake shift day 5 - canoeing-swimming-damper

The Lake Shift 2019 - Day 4 

The squatters in my cabin (Lake Shifters from Keast), left and made it to breakfast on time.  I think it was the smell of bacon, otherwise they were looking pretty cosy at Cedar. Nice thing is when I got back later, the dishes had been done!

Today some former Lake Shifters (2016) stopped by to spend the day with us.  It would have been easy for them just to go for a swim or canoe, but they got stuck into their own writing and after lunch played a game of Bocce before writing some more.  Nice for them to visit and interesting to see the kind of things they are doing now, like reviewing people’s manuscripts!

For me it was another trip to the icecream shop after lunch.  Seems to be a bit of a theme this year.  I was thinking Queen’s should buy shares for the amount of kiddie cones and more that have been purchased by our Lake Shifters.

It is a little overcast, but that makes it easier at times to sit down and write.  Actually around 4pm we had a down pour but that doesn’t matter when you can still get work done and be in this great place.

Wei and Jie ventured out on to the lake in a canoe.  Looking good guys particularly when you remember to take the paddles with you!

Kitchen duty has been going well.  It is interesting to see the different ways the groups sort out their system for a speedy clean up.  Well done to you all, you are doing us all proud.

One event that has happened each night is the campfire, which we have all got to enjoy.  Great conversations going around and lots of marshmallows on sticks being eaten.

Till tomorrow

Lake shift day 4 photos part 1 -  cleaning-eating and writing

Lake shift - day 4 - icecream, bocce and canoeing

The Lake Shift 2019 - Day 3

So we started with the rain and I thought it was going to be a day of being indoors.  But no, it stopped, cleared the air and we were set for another top day at QUBS. Whether it is the fact that everyone is able to just think about one thing (the writing) instead of TA duties, RA duties or the family duties, there are a lot of people looking a little tired. Now that could be to all the fresh air we are getting or the fact they are allowing themselves some down time.  We say it each year, but you need to give yourself a break sometimes to re-energize. 

Today Dr Kim McAuley (Chemical Engineering) and Dr Louise Winn (Biomedical & Molecular Sciences) popped in to chat with some of the students.  Great to see them taking advantage of chatting to find out how they publish, write and just get some tips.  Thank you to them both for making the trip. 

Lunchtime saw another trip down to the Icecream shop (I think this is going to be a daily event). We have all realized that a kiddie cone is enough as boy are the sizes they serve big.  We packed 7 in the van and off we went, took up the Liars Bench outside the shop and enjoyed every moment of it.  Then down to the grocery store for some sunscreen and bits and bobs, back to the icecream shop to get the chocolate icecream for a fellow Lake Shifter who couldn’t make the trip. Alas it was slightly melted by the time we got back, but enjoyed none the less.

This evening our Dean of the School of Graduate Studies at Queen’s, Fahim Quadir, joined up also to chat informally with the Lake Shifters.  We get great support and I for one appreciate it as I think the students did too.

At camp everyone takes turn to help with the clean up after meals.  Last night one batch of the boys had their turn.  Shiva, Sagar and Jie were on the washing part (Matt managed to scoop the cleaning of tables and floor).  I know they won’t mind me saying this, but at one point, it was like all 3 of them were washing the dishes!  I called out “how many PhD students does it take to do the washing up?” to which they replied and signed “3!”.  Good one guys.

Tonights session was on “the Editing Process” and Susan Korba, Director of SASS (Student Academic Services) was here to give the talk.  Lots of great questions and lots of great advice.

Just before going back to my cottage, girls from Keast Cottage advised me the water in their cabin wasn’t working.  We put a note on QUBS manager’s notice board and then I asked if they wanted to come and stay at Cedar tonight.  I didn’t think they would take it up, but sure enough as the sun had gone down, 1 light and 3 bodies came along the trail with sleeping bags in hand.  Beds were chosen, music put on and a great conversation was had by all.  Good news is we did get to bed before midnight.

Tomorrow is another day, until then….

icecream-washing up-squatters

The Lake Shift 2019 - Day 2

I thought I was an early bird, but it seems some of the Lakeshifters beat me!  Kathryn went for a nice walk into Chaffeys Lock (5km round trip), Alexandra swam a few laps of Lake Opinicon (ok round the point and back), and Jackie went for a run (a long one).  Not a bad morning for some and all that before breakfast at 7.30am.

Today was the first day of writing and it didn’t take long before everyone were finding their spot to write.  From Bryn on the dock at the boat  house, to others in the dining room, the library, the Brown Lab, the grass and in their cabins.  It was so peaceful that it made me realise I needed to do some work too!  Talk about a guilt trip.

Lunch time today Dr Kathleen Norman (Rehabilitation Therapy) joined us for our “Chat with a Prof” over lunch and the next hour.  Some of the students got some sound advice on publishing and all things academic.  While this was happening some took the chance to go to Chaffeys Lock for the amazing icecream or for a paddle in the canoes.  If you have never seen a lock work before, you should come here.  We got to see it twice!  One on the way to buy icecream and then again on the way back!

The afternoon was back to writing, then dinner and then we were treated to a session by two of our Clinical Psychology students, Jackie Huberman (a Lake Shifter from 2018) and Irene Hong from this year.  They discussed with the group “When we are our own worst critic: tools for challenging counterproductive thoughts”.  When I got there, there was lots of chatter, laughs, groans and great advice.

Another beautiful evening, a camp fire (thank you Earl Cottage) and then for some, early to bed.

writing at the dock - icecream - information session

The Lake Shift 2019 – Day 1

I rolled up to the Queen’s University Biology Station and decided to drop my gear off at Cedar Lodge first and who was waiting there for me?  A beautiful deer.   She was a little perturbed that I had infringed upon her grazing by the cottage, but didn’t run away.  What a great start I thought to myself, nature at its best, the sun was shining and the Lake was absolutely gorgeous.  Now I just needed to get ready for the gang of Lake Shifters to arrive.

By 12.45pm I was ready and that’s when I started to get the messages that train # 42 from Toronto was delayed. Next was train # 64 from Toronto – delayed.  Now to be fair to VIA Rail, they had warned us that was a possibility, but I had Lake Shifters that were already at Kingston VIA Rail station waiting for everyone to turn up and then hop on the shuttle bus to QUBS. Those on said trains were concerned we would leave them behind, but no that wouldn’t have been very nice and our very own Wei Yan was at the train station keeping everyone informed of the wait.  Even those driving had their issues with various stoppages along the way. 

So it wasn’t till closer to 3pm that the first person arrived!  Thank you Ashley (Lakehead) I was beginning to think I had the wrong week.  After that the cars slowly kept arriving and then eventually the bus with the trainers by 5pm (only 1.5 hours late).  No time for unpacking, it was get your gear to your assigned cabin and back for dinner.

Everyone looked exhausted, but it was great to see everyone laughing. I mean what else could you do but laugh and get to meet your mates.  After dinner we had out run down of do’s and don’ts for camp and then an inspired (some have said our own comedy act) of Betsy (Associate Dean) and I first session on how to get yourself over barriers this week, do some writing and giving yourself some time out to relax.  T.shirts in hand everyone was kitted out and then the obligatory annual group photo.  We were still waiting on Ibrahim and Josh to arrive, but eventually they did and my Lake Shifters for 2019 was complete.

For those of you who don’t know QUBS there is only one fire pit here and that is down at Earl Cottage. We all grabbed a piece of chopped wood on the way down and a fantastic fire, with marshmallows and great chatter was had by all.  For me my wait during the day and in fact leading up to camp, was exhausting so off I trotted to bed and I crashed at 10pm.  Great sleep, only birds chirping in the next morning.  Can’t wait for day 2.

DAy 1 photos at teh Lake Shift


Registration for 2019 is now closed to both Queen's Students and other Ontario Universities.

For Queen's students only - registration will be via the Expanding Horizons system each year when open. 

For doctoral students from other Ontario Universities - contact your grad office for details and how to apply.


"The Lake Shift is valuable time away from the distractions and anxieties of grad student life. The stability, friendships, and support that the Lake Shift offers allowed me to focus on writing and thinking through my research problems in new ways. Meeting amazing researchers from across Ontario opened my eyes to the fact that all grad students share many of the same challenges in research and writing. I learned so many strategies, techniques, and ideas for writing, editing, and revising my work that will stay with me for years to come. Also seeing a full sky of stars and muskrats was the ultimate break from the stress of grad life.  Thank you for this wonderful time."

James FitzGerald, York University

"I'm a doctoral candidate who works full-time and is also a parent. To say that writing time is hard to carve out is a bit of an understatement, and I was hoping that the Lake Shift would be an opportunity to get that dedicated writing time I so desperately needed to work through some of the more complex parts of my project. However, I didn't just get dedicated writing time. At the Lake Shift, I had an opportunity to rest and reconnect with my work on a level that I hadn't been at in some time. I always say that to get work done, you're best served by either immersion (getting to engage with your work deeply and thoughtfully for a longer period of time) or momentum (getting to engage with your work frequently and habitually, even if only in short bursts). The Lake Shift allowed me the immersion I needed, but it also allowed me to experiment with different ways of working in a low-risk environment. After all, if something didn't quite work, like a new reading strategy or working in a different location, there was time to recoup and try something else later. As a result, I came to learn a lot about my writing habits and ways of adapting my work to suit the time I had available to me, which will serve me in good stead for the duration of the dissertation in the months to come. The organization was excellent, the company was fantastic and dynamic, and the setting was absolutely beautiful. I would recommend that students at any stage of the writing process attend this retreat, but I'd especially recommend it to those who find themselves fatigued, in a rut, or going through the affectionately-named "Valley of S***" that many people end up in during the middle-to-end stages of the dissertation. A change of scenery, the energy of a community of writers from other disciplines, and the perfect balance of structure and freedom that the retreat schedule offers may be precisely what you need to remember why you took on such an enormous project, to begin with."

Diana Samu-Visser, Western

"Thank you for hosting such a great lake shift. I did have a wonderful time there. The lake shift indeed helped me in various way, not only by writing but also finding the motivation to write. The peaceful place and great people around inspired me to think and plan. I am keeping and will keep my writing/reading routine from the lake shift. Again, I do appreciate all your efforts. Thank you."

Wenjing Gao, Carleton University

"...Queen’s University’s Lakeshift PhD retreat on the shores of Opinicon Lake provided a much-needed boost in the home stretch."

Mary Bartram, Carleton