By Heather Campbell

Heather Campbell has a PhD in History and has studied and worked at Queen Mary University of London for a number of years. As a Learning Developer she now works with undergraduate and postgraduate students helping them develop insights and practices that will contribute to their success at university. As part of this role she helps to organise and run the ‘Thinking Writing’ PhD and staff events which include retreats, workshops, reading groups and Thesis Boot Camps. For more about the work of Thinking Writing, you can take a look at the website: www.thinkingwriting.qmul.ac.uk.

For the past three years Thinking Writing at Queen Mary University of London has been running a Thesis Boot Camp for late stage PhD students. We style our events after the award-winning program developed at the University of Melbourne, in order to help PhD students get over the final hurdle of ‘writing up’.[i]As part of this intensive weekend, we offer students the chance to take part in a brief pilates/yoga class. More recently, we have discussed offering this type of activity at our one-day writing retreats, which has prompted us to question what our overall purpose is with our events. What are we trying to do? If it is only to help students get words down on the pages of their theses, should we take away writing time by offering a pilates/yoga sessions? On the other hand, if it is to enable students to better cope with the demands of a PhD in general, perhaps pilates/yoga has a role?

Pain & Pleasure at Thesis Boot Camp

Looking at our Thesis Boot Camps, our pilates/yoga sessions have certainly helped students cope with what is a very demanding weekend. We start on a Friday afternoon, with a gentle introduction to what the Boot Camp is all about, followed by two and a half hours of writing time, finishing up at 9pm. Saturday and Sunday are early starts, and late finishes (9:30am – 9pm). Writing time is interspersed with lunch and dinner breaks, and some group discussion, but the emphasis is on getting words on the page.

It’s a long weekend. It’s intense. It’s tiring. Sometimes there are tears.

Thesis Boot Camp can sometimes feel like a counselling session. Offering yoga/pilates sessions at our Boot Camp is, therefore, one way we can help take care of our students’ physical and mental well-being. Having sat for hours at a time at a computer, this active break requires students to move and stretch out. Further, yoga can help boost feelings of energy and a sense of power and self-esteem[ii], which supports the message of self-care that we are trying to promote to students.

The yoga/pilates session is not compulsory, but the active break is. Everyone is made to leave the writing room, and those who don’t do the yoga/pilates often go for a walk or sit outside. While for most of the Thesis Boot Camp, students can choose when they have dinner or get a cup of coffee, these enforced breaks signal that time away from writing can be as important as the writing itself. Completing a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint, and self-care is essential to making sure you’ll reach the finishing line.

Importance of Self-Care

While we may have relatively more time and space at Thesis Boot Camp to offer pilates/yoga, both are limited on our one-day retreats. It is not always possible or affordable to find space for pilates/yoga at writing venues. And since one-day writing retreats usually run from 9am to 5pm, having a pilates/yoga break could interrupt the flow of thinking or writing, or provide students an excuse to avoid tackling the hard aspects of their writing. We recognise that our roles may sometimes bleed over from writing support into the areas of counselling and beyond.

In the end, the discussion around what we offer at our one-day retreats centres on an important, but difficult, question to answer – what are we there for? If it is only to help students get writing done, and rack up the word count on their theses, then arguably any time away from this, is time wasted. However, anybody who has worked closely with PhD students will understand that problems with writing the thesis often go beyond issues of academic writing. It’s very difficult to separate out the mental processes of writing from the emotional – indeed some might say impossible. If our role is to help students to cope better with the demands of a PhD, to figure out strategies and mechanisms that help them to perform at their best, then it is worthwhile factoring in some exercise to these events to make the point that self-care is important.

If you have any other self-care ideas for boot camps – we’d love to hear.

[i] ‘Intensive writing program wins the University’s 2013 Norman Curry Award’, April 2013, http://musse.unimelb.edu.au/april-13-108/intensive-writing-program-wins-university%E2%80%99s-2013-norman-curry-award. (Accessed 26/10/17).

[ii] Agnieszka Golec de Zavala and Dorottya Lantos, ‘How yoga makes us happy, according to science’, in The Conversation (June, 2017), https://theconversation.com/how-yoga-makes-us-happy-according-to-science-77840. (Accessed 09/10/17).