Doctoral students “dive into the dissertation” at the Lake Shift

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

"I will finish writing this dissertation come hell or high waters," says one boot camper to another as they clear the plates after lunch at the Lake Shift. Not only was the expression befitting as participants were near a body of water, but it was also a testament to the determination among doctoral students at the Lake Shift Dissertation Writing Bootcamp. The Lake Shift Dissertation Writing Bootcamp, aka Dissertation-on-the-lake, is a yearly writing retreat organized by Queen's University School of Graduate Studies for doctoral students from across Ontario universities, and is held at the Queens' Biological Station situated on Lake Opinicon.  Supported by Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs, five University of Waterloo graduate students, Maša Torbica, Sagar Patel, Shefaza Esmail, Stephanie Barr and myself (Jennifer Kandjii) were among the participants of this year's retreat held July 14-19, 2019.

Stephanie, Maša, Sagar, Shefaza, and Jennifer at the Lake shift

Front to back: Stephanie, Maša, Sagar, Shefaza, and Jennifer at the Lake Shift.

The writing retreat at Lake Opinicon provided a valuable opportunity for structured writing without the day-to-day time-consuming realities of meal-prep, family and work commitments, and university teaching or research assistantships.  The daily program comprised of two writing sessions, meal times, and a group session. Each day, participants wrote their goals on sticky notes, which they transferred from the goal chart to the accomplishment chart, when they achieved the goal. This visual representation demonstrated that as collective, participants were meeting their goals.  

Maša summarized her experience at the Lake Shift as one that "offered a productive balance between structured writing time and social immersion in a scholarly community." As the writing sessions were flexible, writers were able to plan their day to incorporate fun water-based activities such as swimming and canoeing. The hydrophobic could instead hike to Cook island, get an ice-cream at the nearby village, or take a short nap to re-energize. 

Another key aspect of the retreat was providing space for graduate students to network.  With diverse research focuses and social interests, participants talked about their research across disciplines and formed connections over areas of social interest, such as arts and crafts, music, physical fitness, comedy, or simply the latest show on Netflix. These conversations happened over tasty meals prepared by amazing chefs, the nightly campfires, and during the many social activities. Sagar, for example, articulated his experience at the retreat as one that "helped reinvigorate" his balance between "writing and breaks” as well as grant him the opportunity to converse “with graduate students from diverse fields of study." 

Charts with sticky notes representing goals and accomplishmentsFour Lake Shifters at a local ice cream shopLake Shifters sitting around a fire at night

Images from left to right: From goals to accomplishments, a visual representation of what Lake Shifters accomplished at the end of the week; Lake Shifters grabbing some ice-cream at a local café at Lake Opinicon; and the nightly campfires were a source of deep conversations, marshmallow roasting, and networking.

Moreover, the workshop sessions covered various useful topics, from writing and editing strategies, to the importance of assessing negative thoughts and their impacts on our behavior and well-being, and writing barriers and challenges. Participants were able to draw connections across the sessions, as there is an association between writing impediments and perceptions of oneself and one’s work.

Overall, the serenity and pleasantness of the natural environment was instrumental in reducing stress, enhancing relaxation, and improving wellness. Indeed, nature has the power to heal, soothe, restore. Writing near a Lake under these conditions only made the writing process all the more productive and the experience enjoyable for participants. For the University of Waterloo attendees, it was a great opportunity, as Shefaza would say, "to dive into the dissertation."

Group photo of all Lake Shift participants

Seated are all but two participants of the Lake shift dissertation boot camp, with the amazing Colette Steer, organizer and facilitator, laying in the front.

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