School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies


How to stop worrying and start writing

A participant's reflections

Article by Natalia Mukhina

“Dissertation on the Lake” helps graduate students find inner peace to unleash their writing talents

group photo of 2015 Dissertation on the Lake

30 PhD and Masters students attended Dissertation on the Lake 2015

There was a brisk, lively atmosphere at the corner of Union and Division Street early in the morning of August 24. About 30 Queen’s graduate students from various disciplines were getting together to set out on their journey to the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre (ELEEC). The writing retreat titled “Dissertation on the Lake” was going to start on the shores of the lake for the second time since it had been pioneered in 2014 by the School of Graduate Studies. New campers had to take themselves away for a “five-days-four-nights-long” camp to push their dissertation projects forward.

Say “No” to distractions of everyday life!

Let’s be frank: graduate students’ lives are full of challenges, which can range from presenting at conferences to leading classes for the first time as instructors or teaching assistants. However, one of the most intimidating things for most grads may be writing research proposals and dissertations. This practice demands not only a high standard of knowledge and research talent, but time to concentrate on the topic, silence, and isolation. For grads, writing is the sort of duty that they cannot put off doing until the last minute.

Unlike Marcel Proust, who wrote in a cork-lined room all day long (and not dissertations, actually), grads mostly have no choice but to write whenever and wherever they can. Moreover, the same Proust did not have to write in the age of Facebook and Netflix... Lucky man! Nowadays, it is the elimination of distractions that seems to be the Challenge (with a capital letter ‘C’).

What did participants at the camp-2015 find out upon arrival at the ELEEC from the sweltering heat of the summer city? The coolness of the lake, a peaceful and quiet environment, and a lot of places to work on a dissertation away from the daily routine.

The best place to write, ever

Some campers preferred to set up in the central lodge, which simultaneously served as a gathering space for meals and recreation. Others were dispersed around the ELLEC, using their cabins and porches as work stations, or sitting in the shade of trees and on the lively, sandy beach. During that “writing package holiday”, nobody - except for the permanent residents of the ELEEC, like deer, chipmunks, and hedgehogs - is surprised to meet a person with a laptop somewhere deep in the forest.

“The fresh air, beautiful conservation area and the tranquility of the environment were all I needed to focus my thoughts on what I was doing,” says Raheleh Barkhordari, a PhD student in Management.

Participants take a break from writing to canoe on Elbow Lake

Participants take a break from writing to canoe on Elbow Lake

“Dissertation on the Lake” proves that writing a dissertation can be an enjoyable experience. “While I was making good writing progress at Queen's, I felt that a change of scene and the ability to focus on writing without the distractions of working in my laboratory would help me be more productive,” says Gillian Mackey, a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry. “The ability to move around to new locations, the lodge, my cabin, the docks, gave me new energy for working!”

Can such a relaxing site motivate campers to find into a writing routine? “Definitely, yes!” exclaims Yi Mei, a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Education. “My initial plan was too ambitious, and I am very satisfied with my work in that week. The advantages of the camp are a lack of distractions, clear goals of writing, and a devoted block of time for writing.”

Camp is over, texts remain

Writing a thesis may look like a Sisyphus, endlessly moving a great weight uphill. Graduate students struggle everyday with hard-to-get-started introductions, tedious drafts, and endless revisions. However, when we are surrounded by other grads focusing on their projects, it inspires us. Just sitting together with “writing buddies”, in silence, seems to be more productive than working in total isolation.

Gillian, for example, exceeded her planned writing goal and wrote a first draft of a whole chapter (!) during the week. “While this was partly because I found that I had already written some of the material, I attribute this mainly to the productive writing environment.” Raheleh agrees, adding that she completed about 40% of her whole work just in that week.

Over five days of regular writing practice, campers have processed and conceptualized plenty of material. An intensive daily training in writing reinforced one of the key asset of graduate students - a habit of writing on the schedule, without gaps. Probably, this is the most significant advantage of the camp, that writing comes into daily routine as a natural course of things. The camp is over, but the habit to write every single day remains. Just use this habit in day-to-day life, and the dissertation will go like a clockwork. There are no magic wands and conjurations to propel a dissertation. This secret is surprisingly obvious, but it works!