The Think Ahead Team offered researchers from the University of Sheffield the opportunity to apply for funding to organise and host activities that supported professional development, wellbeing and the cohesion of researcher communities. Researchers who received funding are sharing their experiences and the outcome of their activities in a series of #Researcherled blog posts (use tags at the bottom of the posts to find the entire list).
Funded activity: A well-being focused ECR writing retreat
Writing can be an arduous and stressful task. This is often more challenging for early career academics facing pressures to publish, amidst other stresses such as job security and isolation. As such we set out to develop a writing retreat where colleagues from the same department could come together to write, discuss ideas, and thrive as a group together. We also sought to integrate aspects of well-being into our everyday practice. This included structured breaks, mid-afternoon walks in the woods, discussing our writing habits and tips, and having a yoga session.
Our writing retreat was held at the Ecclesall Woods Discovery Centre over two consecutive days in May. Fourteen early career researchers (ECRs) across the Department of Politics came together with one aim in mind – to solely focus on a piece of writing, and doing so in a calm and encouraging environment. The retreat was structured in a way as to encourage effective and focused writing.
We kicked off the retreat with ECRs sharing their goals for the retreat, followed by tips and tricks about overcoming writing block. Some of the suggestions that emerged include:
- If you are unable to find your flow in writing, take a walk to clear your head. Often, the fresh air and activity will help clear your mind and improve your train of thought.
- A paper outline is great for planning how ideas may fit together, but it is important not to be a slave to your outline.
- Using pen-to-paper techniques such as mindmaps is a good way to develop structure and argument flow in your paper.
- Start on a fresh sheet of paper / document when you embark on your writing everyday. Apps such as Scribd allow you to have a new page everyday, which normalises ‘blank page’ syndrome.
Participants were provided with a timetable at the start of the day so that they were able to plan their work accordingly. We worked in 45 minutes to 1 hour blocks followed by short 10 minute breaks to chat and share progress. The lunch break gave participants the opportunity to talk about various aspects of writing (publishing, grant and job applications etc.) and to build collegiate relationships. It also included time for a walk in the woods, enabling participants to get some gentle exercise in nature before returning for the afternoon writing session. The retreat closed with a yoga session to help ECRs relax and restore after two days of intense writing.
When asked to reflect on their two days of writing, participants unanimously agreed that the way this well-being focused writing retreat was organised was very conducive to their work. Feedback from ECRs about their experiences include:
“the How Do We Write discussion was useful in getting me to do some personal reflection… on my writing strategies and to learn from what others do.”
“The retreat provided the rare and necessary space to focus on writing in a productive and supportive manner. Not only did the short writing sessions prove to be extremely productive but I particularly appreciated being held to account by colleagues (in a constructive rather than disciplinary manner). Though this I was able to succeed my objectives of finishing a book chapter set on day one. The setting and well-being elements shaped the supportive environment and I certainly feel I have a better sense of shared challenges and concerns amongst colleagues. It was a really useful space to reflect upon academic practice and I found some great tips from colleagues. Given the precarious and often highly isolated character of postdoctoral, University teachers and early career research this feels like a necessary space and event.”
“I set ambitious goals, but was able to achieve a lot during the retreat. This was due to the fact we had a well structured timetable, and a nice mix of activities and breaks (which improved productivity I think overall). I appreciated the opportunity to be in nature especially. The venue and location were really well-suited for a writing retreat. I liked the opportunity to be in an entirely new setting, and working alongside colleagues who also had similar goals, and faced similar challenges within their writing.”
Overall, this experience has identified a strong need for well-rounded writing retreats that not only provide a suitable environment to write, but a structure that nurtures aspects of writing that are often neglected. Some of the critical success factors were: the opportunity to have time away from campus and administrative tasks; the structured writing sessions; the relaxed environment with access to nature/walking; the opportunity to share experiences, tips, tricks, goals and progress and to chat with other ECRs about writing, publishing and grants etc; and the opportunity to get to know colleagues better.