“It’s comforting to know that writing is hard for everyone”

An unfamiliar room filled with strangers. No Internet. No distractions.

Sound like an Escape Room scenario? For the nearly 20 participants in the first-ever Milestones and Pathways Dissertation Boot Camp for Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) students this spring, it presented the perfect conditions for getting some serious writing done.

Dissertation Boot Camps are not new to the U of T graduate community. For four years, they have been a staple of the programming offered by the School of Graduate Studies through the Office of English Language & Writing Support (ELWS), soon to be renamed the Graduate Centre for Academic Communication (GCAC). Hearing from students in the dissertation writing stage that such supports are invaluable, FAS decided to use a portion of the support received from the 2016-17 School of Graduate Studies’ Graduate Program Innovation Fund towards a similar initiative, offered as part of the Faculty’s Milestones and Pathways programs. Joshua Barker, Vice-Dean, Graduate Education at FAS, is excited about the results. “This is a great example of the School of Graduate Studies and Faculty of Arts & Science working together to provide important supports for graduate students.”

Room 111, 63 St. George Street

Graduate writing groups can book meeting rooms at the School of Graduate Studies.

Boot Camp organizers enlisted the assistance of ELWS instructor Rachael Cayley, who applied her tested-and-true approach of opening all three days with a mini seminar: on the first day, how to cultivate a positive writing space; on the second, how to develop strategies that encourage productivity; and on the third, how to revise effectively. The remainder of each day offered blocks of uninterrupted writing time, breaks, and an opportunity for the group sharing of resources and collective airing of general concerns or challenges arising from the writing process. Doctoral students already finished their research and in the later stages of writing were eligible to apply.

Michael Cournoyea, a PhD candidate at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, found this combination of preparation, dedicated writing, and “group therapy” to be invaluable. When he reached his dissertation writing stage, he, like many other graduate students, wasn’t sure he was up to what seemed like a monumental task. “You’re not prepared to become a professional writer for several years,” he says, acknowledging the importance of acquiring the level of discipline required in writing: setting goals for yourself, mixing pure writing days with reading or research days, and identifying “problems” in your topic that will require longer reflection time.

Determined to keep up the momentum of the Milestones and Pathways Dissertation Boot Camp, Michael continues to meet 3-4 times weekly with his own writing group. Being accountable to others and approaching writing a dissertation as a “9-to-5 job” help keep him on track as he finishes his final draft.

Raili Lakanen, a Geography and Planning PhD candidate in the final stretch of her dissertation, wishes she could have taken Dissertation Boot Camps throughout her writing process. Praising the “dedicated, directed energy” generated by the Milestones and Pathways Dissertation Boot Camp setting, she points to two strategies she would have benefitted from knowing about a whole lot earlier: reverse outlining (restructuring information with a reader in mind) and freewriting (writing through any tough parts and resisting the urge to double-check sources as you go). She applied both strategies to her introduction, the section she brought with her to work on during the Boot Camp. And in the intervening weeks, she has submitted her introduction to her supervisor and has begun to review her other chapters with a reader’s eye.

Lisa Aikman, a PhD candidate in the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, votes for additional Dissertation Boot Camps tailored to students who are still in the research stage. Prior to starting an 8-month stint without any teaching responsibilities, she applied for funding from the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Milestones and Pathways programs to create her own biweekly writing group and hold a spring writing retreat at Hart House Farms.

Lisa’s writing groups use the Pomodoro technique, which encourages writing in short, timed intervals, separated by breaks. Her writing group now meets in one of the bookable rooms at the School of Graduate Studies: being in a neutral environment with access to natural light (and coffee) are great advantages of the change of venue. Lisa is excited that, next year, her own department will fully fund her writing group, which can now be held weekly. She will also have the funds to invite speakers who can share strategies on all aspects of dissertation writing and defence.

For Joel Rodgers, an administrator of the Milestones and Pathways Dissertation Boot Camp and PhD candidate in the department of English, this kind of departmental support is ideal. It means that Milestones and Pathways can continue to fund new projects proposed by FAS students, faculty, and graduate units that encourage professionalization and program completion among graduate students.

Joel felt lucky to have taken part in the inaugural Dissertation Boot Camp at FAS. The most valuable part of the experience? Getting visual proof that writing is hard for everyone.

As he looked up from his laptop each day, Joel saw the faces of students engaged in a similar battle. He realized that yes, writing a dissertation is challenging, but there are many supports available to help make the process more productive — and less solitary.


Are you writing a dissertation? Here are some useful resources:

You may also be interested in the Research Article Boot Camp and Writing Intensive Proposal courses, also offered through ELWS. Learn more.



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