Thesis Boot Camp: Drop and given me 20,000 words!

Over the past few years CAPOD has developed and integrated various ‘Writing Boot Camps’ for postgraduate students.  The impetus for such events arose from a PhD student who had previously studied at another institution where an assortment of student-led writing groups had been instrumental in providing a supportive and productive environment for ‘getting words down on the page’.  The student, Dawn Hollis, was keen to initiate the same sort of cross-disciplinary, grass-roots groups at the University of St Andrews, and approached CAPOD for some support.

Although CAPOD already offered a number of workshops on the mechanics of writing and improving writing, less support was offered in terms of the process of generating writing, a common problem faced by Masters’ and PhD students alike when confronted with producing a longer piece of written work.  The initial outcome of Dawn approaching CAPOD was a ‘home-grown’ Writers’ Boot Camp that was open to both cohorts, which ran over three days and received positive feedback.  Dawn designed the Boot Camp based on research about such events elsewhere, including the well-known Thesis Boot Camp model, which had also featured on the popular research blog The Thesis Whisperer.

Based on the initial success of this event, in 2016 CAPOD paid to bring in an external consultant, Dr Peta Freestone, to run the award-winning Thesis Boot Camp developed at the University of Melbourne.  The first St Andrews Boot Camp had 32 attendees and ran over three days: Day 1- 16:00-20:30, Day 2- 09:30-20:30 and Day 3- 09:30-20:30 (though participants could leave any time from 16:00 onwards).

The core tenet of the model is a focus on generative writing (participants have to come with a plan and are focused simply on getting words down on the page at the actual event).  A number of techniques were deployed to help students reach the aim of reaching 20, 000 words (or the equivalent of a thesis chapter) over the 21 of hours of intensive writing across the weekend, including goal setting and motivational tricks, peer support and the introduction of the Pomodoro technique as a good way to structure writing time and remain focused. (The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks).

Thesis Boot Camp 2016 was highly successful, with participants rating the quality of materials, presenter and structure of the event very highly: 

Thesis Boot Camp Level 1 Evaluations 2016

Evaluation question No of responses Average result (max score 5)
How well the event met its stated objectives 26 4.8
Quality of materials 23 4.6
Ability of presenter(s) 25 4.8
Structure of event 21 4.6

They also rated the event very highly in terms of relevance to development, their likelihood to make a change to behaviour as a result of attending, and meeting personal objectives.  Qualitative feedback was also overwhelmingly positive, with participants commenting on what a thesis-changing experience it had been and how much more manageable writing had become.  The supportive and intensive nature were also highlighted as strengths, as well as many positive comments on the break-out activities (a yoga session and walk were offered on each weekend day respectively).  Comments on what could be improved included:

  • Larger desk space.
  • Elements of the catering—including having fruit available at all times.
  • Heating.
  • Word target feeling exclusionary for Science students who do not write as long theses.
  • Further advice about how to edit what you produce at Thesis Boot Camp.

While running Thesis Boot Camp, Peta also ran a ‘train the trainer’ experience for CAPOD to allow the event to continue to run in house.  We were keen to run the event for Masters’ students and, although Peta was sceptical about how the model would transfer, she was happy for her model to be adapted; we invited Dawn Hollis, who had attended Thesis Boot Camp as a participant, back to help run and develop a Dissertation Boot Camp, which also ran successfully in July of 2016.

After the success of Dissertation Boot Camp, Dawn was invited to facilitate Thesis Boot Camp in 2017 and 2018; although largely based on the same structure and principals of the ‘original’ Thesis Boot Camp, the model was adapted based on feedback from participants and our in house experience of running Dissertation Boot Camp.

The time table for 2017 and 2018 remained largely the same, although the content of the facilitated sessions was changed slightly, most notably to incorporate the inclusion of a session on editing on the final day.  Some participants had commented that it was a bit demotivating having participants leave any time from 16:00 onwards on the final day, and so in subsequent years we have encouraged people to stay until 19:00 and have provided a light dinner.  A bigger change made this year was to create a separate ‘word target’ for science students; previously they had been left to work out what their equivalent target would look like (e.g. how many words a figure might count for, or what was the equivalent of 20, 000 words in their discipline).  Although we encouraged students to work to their own personal targets, we felt that providing more structure to this for Science students would help them feel less excluded from the model.  As such, a distinct word target of 10,000 was introduced and students picked the one that they felt most closely matched their discipline.

Feedback on these subsequent iterations has again been overwhelmingly positive, with the highest levels of satisfaction across the board so far reported this year:

Thesis Boot Camp Level 1 Evaluations 2018

Evaluation question No of responses Average result (max score 5)
Quality of materials 26 4.7
Ability of presenter(s) 25 4.9
Structure of event 25 5.0
Evaluation question No of responses Average result (max score 5)
How relevant was the event for your professional/personal development? 23 4.8
How likely are you to make a change (to a process or behaviour) as a result of attending this event? 24 4.8
How well did the event meet your personal objectives? 24 4.8

At Thesis Boot Camp 2018, students collectively wrote a whopping 278, 489 words.

This year Level 3 evaluations were also distributed a few months after the event.  Although only 12 participants responded, selected comments suggest the event had a lasting effect on those that did respond:

“I am more confident I can easily draft a chapter. Working with the 25′-method [pomodoro technique] regularly, I write and work more efficiently than before I attended the workshop.”

“I feel more capable of writing without fear and getting stuff down on paper – which was exactly what I needed!”

“The session has given me the extra motivation to accomplish my writing.  This workshop helped me very much in finding a way to deal with my writer’s block that I was going through at the time. I’m able to write more using the strategies suggested in the Boot Camp. Since I’m able to write, the level of my confidence also improving.”

Significantly, some participants have subsequently been involved in similar ‘boot camp’-like events run on a smaller level:

“… Additionally, other aspects that I changed after attending boot camp is [sic] looking for this “writing atmosphere” in other places. I have changed the main place I work, which is much more silent (the library).  I have also participated in another CAPOD session, as well as a thesis boot camp weekend with some colleagues.”

“Something particularly helpful was the fact that together with other Boot Camp attendees, we hold 2 weekly sessions of thesis writing, which prove to be a big success and motivation in day-to-day struggle with thesis writing. I find this the most helpful part of the consequences of the Thesis Boot Camp.”

One Thesis Boot Camp participant from this year explained in a short follow up interview how the Boot Camp had a longer term impact on her and other PhD students in her department:

“Since my success at Thesis Boot Camp, I became very interested in how I could use the techniques I learnt to make my writing time more effective. I was particularly interested in collective writing and the Pomodoro technique. As the rest of my office (4 other IR PhD students) were also interested in this too, we set up a regular writing group.

We normally write every Monday, for around 3 – 4 hours. We use the Pomodoro technique and everyone has to physically get up from their desks in the 5 minute breaks. We all set a target before we start writing, which we share with the group, and at the end of the session we discuss if we made the target, and if not why we think this was.

We have all found the sessions extremely helpful and even if we didn’t all reach our targets each week we all achieved a lot. We also found it useful to have them on a Monday as it set up good practice for the rest of the week, and was motivating knowing that we had already achieved a big goal.

After hearing about our writing sessions other offices began to replicate similar sessions. I know another IR office (none of whom were at the boot camp) aim to have a writing afternoon once a week using the Pomodoro technique. They even have a bag were everyone has to deposit their phone during the session.

Rebecca Wilson, PhD Student, International Relations

Thesis Boot Camp has been an exceptionally successful event from its introduction and the, albeit small, increase in satisfaction from year to year suggests that the developments made to the model have been effective and suit the audience in St Andrews.  Follow up feedback this year which highlights subsequent spontaneous writing sessions taking place is also exceptionally encouraging.

Now, drop and give me 20,000 words!

Dr Eilidh Harris, Student Developer, CAPOD

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