Academic writing interventions for PhD students seem to be more effective if they are tailored to specific stages of the PhD. I run two-day writing retreats with RLF Consultant Fellow Katie Grant for Humanities PhD students, and we use different formats and approaches for Years 1, 2 and 3. In feedback, participants confirm the benefits of sharing experiences with others at a similar stage and they appreciate activities that focus on the type of writing they are doing at that time.
Year 1, we find, is about uncertainty — about the boundaries and nature of the project and the quality of writing expected at this level. Many Year 1 students lack confidence and carry baggage about themselves as writers. We give these students permission to go back to basics and ask fundamental questions like ‘What is academic writing?’ and ‘Why do we write in this way about research?’ We give them time to reflect on what constitutes ‘good’ academic writing in their discipline, and how to identify their own place and value as an academic writer. We reassure students that ambiguity and confusion are normal in a creative process. Although it feels uncomfortable, uncertainty allows us to keep an open mind and explore new avenues of enquiry.
Year 2 is about choice. Having done the groundwork, students see multiple possibilities. Many students come to this retreat feeling overwhelmed by too much material, unable to see the wood for the trees. Getting them to draw their emotional journey as a timeline, road or graph clears the air and helps them to assess their intellectual progress more dispassionately. We encourage them to write ‘elevator pitches’ for their project and summaries of their argument. Students who said they felt ‘daunted, intimidated and overwhelmed’ before the retreat were ‘calmer, more confident’ and ‘ready to write’ after it.
The Year 3 retreat is about developing good writing habits and improving productivity. Students at this stage tend to want focused and individualised support. They know their writing strengths and weaknesses by now; they need encouragement for the final sprint to the finish. We structure 45-minute writing sessions in a calm, supportive atmosphere and show them techniques to tackle writer’s block.
It’s possible, of course, to design writing training relevant to all PhD students, but differentiating between the years enables a more sophisticated learning experience. Some students organise their own writing groups following the retreat — a development we welcome and encourage.