When research moves too close: Maintaining awareness of boundaries


By Susan Carter

Some doctoral students find their study overwhelming for more reasons that all the usual ones. Sure, they face the same challenges as others do: the study is vast; there is so much to read and to write; and almost inevitably difficulties occur with the research itself—it’s hard to find participants, experiments don’t work, or data fails to make sense. But beyond all this, some students find that their research topic winds so intensely into other people’s lives it involves something of a meltdown. How can such crises be handled? Continue reading


Turning facts into a doctoral story: the essence of a good doctorate


, ,

By Susan Carter

Recently three experiences collided for me: getting a rejection on an article that I had co-authored; examining a thesis; and giving feedback on a literature review. They brought home how essential it is in the world of doctoral writing to turn facts, even sophisticated original facts, into a story.

I’ve known this for some time, but it was starkly demonstrated by a blitz of seeing for myself how necessary the linkages are. Readers must have narrative guides so that they feel secure they are in familiar territory as they journey through academic writing. As I circled  round each chore on my list at present, I saw that it was problematic when the story-line was lost within thickets of academic writing. Continue reading

‘It’s gold!’ – A treasure to help you through your studies A.K.A “Postgraduate study in Australia: surviving and succeeding”



By Dr Susan Mowbray

Susan is the Academic Literacy Advisor in the Graduate Research School at Western Sydney University working with postgraduate students at all stages of candidature, supporting them to refine and progress their research and writing. Susan’s interests include exploring and supporting doctoral student experiences.

BOOK REVIEW: Postgraduate study in Australia: surviving and succeeding. (2017).  Editors: Christopher McMaster, Caterina Murphy, Benjamin Whitburn, Inger Mewburn. New York: Peter Lang

In 2017 I requested that my library buy a copy of Postgraduate study in Australia; surviving and succeeding. I was interested to read it given its focus on the experiences of Australian postgrad students – I was also curious given its protracted birthing process because “no Australian education publisher was interested in supporting students in their own country”.

The idea for this book came originally from Chris McMaster and Caterina Murphy, two academics from New Zealand (NZ). Motivated to offer meaningful advice to NZ PhD students from other NZ PhD students, they asked new graduates/late phase doctoral students for chapters in response to the question “If you could go back in time to when you started your studies, what advice would you give your younger self?”   Continue reading

A DIY kit for establishing a Research Writing Group



In this series we’ve had numerous stories about large and small social writing events – the focus of this, the last post in the series, is squarely on resources and processes that take advantage of this accumulated knowledge. Judy Maxwell describes the Research Writing Group Kit and how her Centre provides help to doctoral students, researchers and supervisors wishing to establish writing groups. We encourage you to contact Judy if you’d like access to these fabulous resources.

Judy Maxwell works in the Study and Learning Centre at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, where she leads a small group of learning advisors supporting research students. She runs workshops, develops online resources and supports research students individually as well as setting up research writing groups across the University.

The benefits of research writing groups (RWGs) are well-documented. They can enhance research students’ conceptual knowledge and their ability to communicate this effectively through their research writing (Aitchison, 2009; Aitchison & Guerin, 2014). Kamler and Thomson (2006) remind us that research writing is not only about engaging in textual practices; it is as much about developing scholarly identity as a researcher. RWGs effectively contribute to this by encouraging group members to explain their research and share their research writing with others, and this builds confidence and authority in their work.

We facilitated RWGs across the university for many years, but the number of groups grew, and some existing groups became too large to allow all members to have their text discussed. Clearly, we needed a more sustainable approach in terms of staffing. Our solution was to develop the Research Writing Group Kit that would support peer facilitation of RWGs.

The Research Writing Group Kit is a set of online tools for anyone writing research (including research candidates, early career researchers and supervisors) that would like to take part in a writing group. The kit provides information about setting up and maintaining a group; the role of the facilitator; guidelines for coordination and operation; routines and activities for effective writing production; and key research writing issues.

The kit includes the following:

  • A Handbook for Facilitators of RWGs. This includes sections on coordinating groups, managing group dynamics, and a set of trouble-shooting FAQs. It also has a set of templates for a variety of purposes, e.g. a procedures agreement, a contacts list, rights and responsibilities, a needs analysis and an evaluation form. Not all groups use all of these; some run in a more informal way, but they’re there if needed. The Handbook also includes a section on various writing group approaches, ideas for networking and other sources of support.


  • A PowerPoint Presentation to use at the first session of a RWG to generate discussion of issues such as what to expect, what the group won’t do (e.g. it isn’t a proofreading service), and the benefits of a RWG. It also facilitates discussion around ‘housekeeping’ issues such as how often the group will meet, location, how communication will take place, etc.


  • Downloadable resources including:
    • Research writing group kit introduction
    • Establishing and maintaining a ‘safe’ space for critiquing
    • Requesting feedback
    • The art of receiving writing feedback
    • Giving constructive writing feedback.
  • A PDF document for developing textual analysis skills to assist in critiquing research writing texts.
  • Additional PDF resources for 14 writing group activities.


Building sustainable participation

Of course, it’s all very well to develop resources, but often the difficulty is getting uptake. In this case, we developed a flier that we email to all supervisors at the beginning of each year, encouraging them to pass on this information to their research students and to consider facilitating groups of their own research students. We make personal contact with the higher degree research student coordinators in each School and supervisors with whom we’ve worked closely. All research students who have attended workshops or had individual appointments with us the previous year are emailed the flier, and we run a workshop as part of a series of workshops run by the School of Graduate Research: The ‘why’ and ‘how’ of setting up and running a research writing group. Any students or supervisors who express interest are asked to contact me.

This results in varying numbers of new, interested students each year. In most cases, new groups are established along disciplinary lines, although some students express a preference for multidisciplinary groups, which we try to accommodate. If we find only one or two potential new group members in a School that already has one or two group, we negotiate with existing group members to see if they’re happy to have new members.

Institutional roles

Our involvement with all groups is to attend the first and second sessions and then ‘dip in’ when needed. At the first session, we help the group identify a facilitator (pointing out that this isn’t an onerous job and that it can rotate around the group members) and facilitate decisions around frequency of meetings, the location, and how much text should be submitted. At the second session (and a third, if requested), we model the critiquing process with students’ texts by sharing strategies for ‘noticing’ elements of research writing. At the end of this session, we encourage reflection on the process and discuss any issues coming out of this. We also maintain regular contact with the peer facilitator and offer ongoing support. On a few occasions when a group is in danger of disbanding, the facilitator has asked us back. On these occasions we discuss the purpose and benefits of RWGs again and focus on the specific issues the group has, and we’re often able to keep it together. Occasionally this doesn’t work. Sometimes there are unresolvable group dynamic problems, or perhaps the group doesn’t match the expectations. We also offer to run mini-workshops on any areas of research writing the group is struggling with, e.g. they might want to discuss various cohesive strategies, or ‘moves’ in abstracts.

We find that, in general, groups seem to run well with peer facilitation. We encourage supervisors to pop into groups and this does occasionally happen. Currently, we have two groups that are facilitated by supervisors. We also have some groups with a mixture of research students and early career researchers. Groups often don’t have stable membership; as students become more involved in their research, they’re not writing as much (or at all) so they’ll drop out for a few weeks or months and come back when they’re getting back into the writing. Some groups fold within a few weeks, others stay together for a year or so. However, others have run for much longer, with new members gradually replacing those who graduate. It’s probably no surprise that the groups that tend to stay together longer are those with supervisor or early career researcher involvement. In the last five years since our research writing group kit was developed, the number of writing groups has increased each year. This year we have around ten groups. Although that doesn’t seem like many, it’s certainly more than we managed to directly facilitate before the kit was developed, and we strive each year to increase this.

Aitchison, C. (2009). Writing groups for doctoral education. Studies in Higher Education, 34/8, 905-916.

Aitchison, C. & Guerin, C. (Eds.) (2014). Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in Practice and Theory. London: Routledge.

Kamler & Thomson (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. Milton Park: Routledge.

The Nuts and Bolts of Running a Writing Camp



By Mary Jane Curry and Jayne C. Lammers (Warner Graduate School of Education, University of Rochester, US)

This, our last post on large group writing events, comes from associate professors Mary Jane Curry (Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Jayne C. Lammers (Ph.D. from Arizona State University), at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education and Human Development. Mary Jane is director of Warner’s Writing Support Services and her research focuses on academic writing and publishing by multilingual scholars and graduate students. Jayne is director of Secondary English teacher preparation and she researches adolescents’ writing, particularly that which is shared in online communities.

Many of the recent posts on social writing events have highlighted the benefits of writing together—not necessarily collaboratively—but usually in the same time and space. We share this view, and here we discuss the evolution and management of the week-long writing camps we offer for faculty colleagues and doctoral students in our graduate school of education. For the past few years, these camps have taken place in January before spring term and in June to set a strong course for summer writing. We call them ‘writing camps’ rather than ‘boot camps’, not only to avoid a military metaphor, but also to evoke the idea of a structured but pleasurable social experience of doing academic writing.

Photo by Laura Brophy

These camps began in 2011 with a two-day writing retreat offered to faculty members and advanced graduate students designed along the lines of Rowena Murray’s (2015) social writing events. For the first few, shorter retreats, we used a structure in which up to 20 participants alternated individual writing time with discussing writing with a partner and with taking breaks. Continue reading

‘The Winter of Our Discontent…Made Glorious’: Lessons from a Thesis-Writers’ Retreat in Canada



Happy New Year! We are glad to be back to start the year by rounding off our successful series on Writing Events. If you are planning your year ahead, consider reviewing earlier posts – and stay tuned for our final set of stories on all manner of writing groups, retreats and boot camps. We are sure you will be inspired anew.


This beautiful contribution comes from Robert B. Desjardins, PhD, a graduate writing advisor with the Student Success Centre at the University of Alberta.

Early last year, I appealed to members of the Consortium on Graduate Communication for advice on an event that others had refined and we hadn’t yet attempted: a midterm, mid-winter writing retreat for writers who are struggling through their theses.

The request wasn’t unusual; these days, colleges large and small are experimenting with boot camps. However, it carried a special urgency for our graduate students. Living in the most northerly major city in North America – at 53.5 degrees latitude,

Winter at the Muttart Conservatory
Image from: The City of Edmonton

Edmonton endures 4:30 p.m. sunsets and freezing temperatures through the first months of the year – they face a midwinter climate that saps their creative energy.

Colleagues from around the world were generous with their answers. They told stories – some encouraging, some cautionary – and shared articles, event diaries and scholarly bibliographies. Armed with their insights, and supported by our Graduate Students’ Association, we set out to organize a weekend retreat for nearly 30 graduate researchers in a range of disciplines. Continue reading