Taking Your PhD out from Under the Bed

I signed up to the Sociological Review’s Writing Retreat early in 2017 in a desperate bid to write up some papers from my PhD that I had hidden, figuratively and literally, under the bed. I had been gripped with an anxiety during my PhD that spilled out from imposter syndrome in the early years into something more widespread during the final stages before submission. During this time I struggled socially and physically, as well as mentally. I withdrew from friends and family, asking them not to ask or talk to me about work, and ached with chest pains that felt like a belt being slowly tightened around my chest. These experiences eased slightly following the completion of the PhD but haunted me when revisiting the work, paralysing any writing. I rationalised this paralysis as a product of post-doctoral life that comes with juggling fixed-term research contract work and jumped at the chance to attend the writing retreat.

The anxiety creeped up again as I pulled together materials to bring along a few days before going to the retreat. It was made worse by googling my fellow retreat attendees and reading their impressive achievements. Upon meeting the group outside Glasgow Central for our bus trip to the venue, there was a sense of relief as initial discussions centred on travelling and our bus driver’s love of Paolo Nutini. Arriving at the retreat itself the facilitator, Rowena, talked us through the plan for the retreat and set out a number of recommendations. The most important of these was about sharing goals with each other and focusing on the task of writing rather than the content.  At the beginning and end of every writing session we shared our plans in rough terms; words, paragraphs, sections. There was no need to share theory, methods, or findings unless we wanted to. This approach spilled over into our downtime; we talked about travel, self-care within academia, television, and politics. This meant that, unlike most conferences and workshops I have attended, meal times and breaks were a respite from work that left me refreshed when going back to the desk to continue writing.  

The writing itself was challenging, as I had anticipated, and in the longer writing slots I struggled when the paralysis slipped in. If I had been on my own this would have been the time I stepped away from the computer. I would have gone to make coffee or procrastinated online. In the retreat setting, however, surrounded by peers typing furiously at their desks and with no coffee or internet available, I was forced to sit with my discomfort. Remembering advice from the facilitator I decided just to write anything to get through the difficult bits. Rather than getting stuck, I just pushed through. The writing wasn’t great but it was something to work with. This was not a simple solution and I had to go through the process of being stuck and unstuck during most of the writing slots, but the result was that I made more progress in two days than I had in two years. At the end of each writing session I was buoyed by the progress rather than the usual dismay.  

Reflecting on the retreat itself, there was a number of other factors that contributed to the success of the experience. As well as the company and the organisation of the writing, we were looked after. Food and refreshments appeared every two hours, removing the emotional labour of having to think about and prepare meals and we were encouraged to walk and enjoy the beautiful location. Having spent hours writing productively, cake and walking were a reward that I enjoyed guilt free.

A colleague recently claimed that time was never the simple solution to writing, and to an extent they were right. The writing retreat was a success because it did not just offer time, it offered space. Space in which the experience of writing was shared with peers and, for me, space in which I could sit with discomfort and work through what I wanted to write. This was a space in polar opposition to the isolation I used as a protective strategy during my PhD and that is a common experience in academia. Writing in a group is a useful alternative that I would wholeheartedly recommend. It is also very time effective. Over the two and half days at the writing retreat we spent just 10 and a half hours actually writing. In that time I started and finished my paper. I submitted it a few days after returning home. Regardless of whether the paper is accepted or not, the feeling of success rather than fear is associated with this particular bit of writing. Now the PhD and anxiety is out from under the bed, who knows what might happen?

The author would like to thank the Sociological Review for the funding to attend the Writing Retreat 2017 and the fellow attendees for their support and encouragement. They preferred to remain anonymous when this reflection was published.

Originally posted 28th November 2017.

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