Writing a dissertation or thesis can be a lonely endeavor.
“It is a very solitary activity for the most part,” said Matthew Capdevielle, director of the Writing Center. “We do most of that work in solitude, and for good reason, it’s a necessary part of the project. But, research shows that when we do that writing in a community of other supportive writers, we have an easier time staying on task with our writing and focusing on the project.”
So how do you take a solitary activity, like writing a dissertation, and turn it into a group event? You create Dissertation and Thesis Camp.
A joint effort by the Hesburgh Libraries and the Writing Center, Dissertation and Thesis Camp started in 2010. Taking advantage of empty library space due to students leaving campus for fall break, the program was originally designed for undergraduate students working on their senior thesis.
Early on, the program opened up to graduate students, who have made up the majority of participants in recent years. This year’s program, offered only to graduate students, took place October 16–20 and brought together nearly 40 students from four schools and colleges, Arts & Letters, Engineering, Science and the Keough School.
According to Cheri Smith, head of user services and psychology librarian at the Hesburgh Libraries, who helped run the camp in its early years, the idea behind the week-long camp was to have a place for students to go for research and writing support during fall or spring break. Camp instructors facilitated the writing process by encouraging students to set goals and report on them each day. They also lead workshops for participants.
“Over time, we found out that most students that participate are really past the point of needing a workshop,” said Smith. “Really, what they need to facilitate the writing process is time, space, motivation and community.”
“The real centerpiece of the whole experience is large blocks of uninterrupted time to devote to their project in a supportive environment surrounded by other writers who are doing the same thing,” said Capdevielle. “There is nothing special about the three hours of writing time that we offer in the morning before lunch and the three hours we offer after lunch. They could do that elsewhere, but because they are doing it together and because it’s framed by goal-setting and wrap-up, they are held accountable. Those three hours become much more productive hours than they would have otherwise.”
In addition to goal setting, wrap-up and giving students a block of uninterrupted time to write, camp organizers try to plan each day so that students don’t have to think about anything but their writing.
Monica Moore, graduate outreach and research services librarian and head of research services at the Hesburgh Libraries, began organizing and running the camp in 2022. “If I think about my predecessor, Mandy Havert, she was the person who took this camp to where it is now, I’m reminded of something that she would always say, which was, give them the kind of experience where they don’t have to worry about anything outside of their work,” said Moore.
In order to create that experience, camp facilitators plan everything, down to the food they choose throughout the week.
“How do we creatively make the experience inclusive so that someone who normally has to think about everything that they eat, for a variety of reasons, doesn’t have to worry about that for a week?” Moore said.
Rachel Keynton has attended several Thesis Camps. The sociology doctoral student, who plans to graduate in May, says that she appreciates the focused environment offered by the camp.“I’m very distractible, so I think being in a room where everybody else is focused is really helpful,” she said. “There’s just that sort of dedicated energy in the room where everybody has their heads down, and you're not going to be tempted to respond to text messages. They also feed us, so it helps not having to worry about what I’m going to make for lunch.”
In addition to providing breakfast, lunch and snacks throughout the day, camp leaders encourage students to practice self-care by taking afternoon brain breaks.
“Writing a dissertation is extremely stressful,” said Smith. “So mental health is really important to pay attention to.”
Organizers schedule drop-in yoga sessions during some afternoons. They also use the Data Visualization Lab at the Navari Family Center for Digital Scholarship, where nature scenes and soundscapes play in the background for students who decide to drop in to sit, stretch or meditate.
“It’s a nice little break in the afternoon, so you’re not just hunched over a laptop for eight hours in a row,” said Keynton.
At the end of each day, students regroup and discuss their daily progress. One of Smith’s favorite memories of the camp came out of one of those end-of-day reporting sessions several years ago.
“One grad student said, ‘I finished my first draft of my dissertation,’ and I remember feeling like, this is what it’s for,” she said. “To have people around to celebrate you when you announced that milestone, there was applause from everyone. If you are doing it alone, it can be anti-climatic.”
While finishing a dissertation is an outlier for camp attendees, daily goals typically include writing an introduction, outlining a chapter, or proofreading a section written the day before. It doesn’t matter what the goal is, any progress is a win.“I see the impact when students push through emotional barriers they had to the writing process and get past them,” said Moore. “They might have had a different framework coming into camp or possibly a more restrictive or rigid way of looking at their own productivity. The experience often takes away some of the negative perceptions they might have about their own progress. It connects them to other people who feel the same and gives them new skills and the affirmation they need.”
Facilitators of the week-long Dissertation and Thesis Camps, which take place during fall and spring breaks, have found success in keeping things simple. They provide distraction-free time and space for students to write by themselves, together. Each camper leaves with new skills and connections that will propel them to continue making progress long after the camp concludes.
“I think what makes me the most proud is that the camp is in many ways the embodiment of a healthy research process,” said Capdevielle. “It combines that individual, concentrated, focused effort to express ideas in writing with the communal experience of the collective project of generating knowledge. That’s what research writing is. It’s creating knowledge in this community.”