Why you should create your own thesis writing retreat (or reasons to travel)

Suffice to say I only had one emotion when Kylie Budge, PhD student at the University of Melbourne and academic at RMIT, sent me this post.

Envy.

Let Kylie give you a justification for planning that thesis writing retreat you have always wanted…

Ever considered the idea of taking yourself away for a self-imposed thesis writing retreat? Would it be helpful? No doubt, like me, you’ve harboured fantasies of doing just this. Taking yourself out of your usual environment and the usual distractions so you can put your head down and tail up to finish a big chunk of writing.

financial_distrcit_ManhattanWell now there’s research to back up your fantasy thesis-writing-retreat idea. @jasondowns tossed me this little piece of scientific evidence gold from Scientific American via twitter recently. Take a long hard look at that fellow thesis retreat writing fantasizers. It’s indeed evidence to support your argument to go off somewhere (overseas, another town in your own country, anywhere that is substantially away from your usual environment) and do some substantial writing.

The article by Shapira and Liberman, explains recent research by Jia, Hirt & Karpen (2009) about the way spatial distance plays a role in creative cognition. If we dig into Shapira and Liberman’s article a little more it’s possible to see that taking ourselves away is an effective strategy to increase creativity because situation and context play a part in generating this for us humans. There’s some well-argued theory in there too about the role of distance in the psychology of creativity. The article’s authors add fuel to your thesis-retreat-argument by saying:

... there are several simple steps we can all take to increase creativity, such as traveling to faraway places (or even just thinking about such places), thinking about the distant future, communicating with people who are dissimilar to us, and considering unlikely alternatives to reality.”

Several steps, yes indeed. Well as it happens, I’m taking one of those aforementioned steps to write some of my thesis. I’d already planned my particular approach before reading about this research on distance and creative cognition. However, I must say, I am rather pleased that I now have evidence to support my need/desire to go to New York for a whole month later this year to do a chunk of thesis writing for my PhD.

That’s right, New York.

Not some quiet little country town in Australia surrounded by the peace and serenity of gum trees and the silence of red earth, but New York – a noisy, densely packed part of the world. And I’ll be based in Manhattan, no less. I’ve had a range of interesting reactions from my partner, friends, family and colleagues (not looking at you @teachingruth). Most have been quite astonished (and disbelieving) that going to NY would help me accomplish my aim (to write a big section of my thesis). Instead most assume my NY thesis writing retreat idea is just an art/museum/shopping-fuelled holiday in disguise.

I will not lie. There will be some art. In fact, as much art and museum-hopping as I can fit in. But in all seriousness, my month in NY will be focused around a daily thesis word target that will keep me locked and bound to my laptop until it is met. It is a firm contract to myself. Once the daily word target is met I have my own permission to flee my writing quarters (it might be the apartment, might be a local café, might be the NY Public Library – each day shall dictate where) to do whatever it is my NY abode-ing heart desires. Or if exhaustion is the flavor of the day, take a walk along the Hudson River or around Central Park or, indeed, have a nap.

New York is a city that buzzes with energy. It’s a city I love for exactly that reason. I’m anticipating that this energy will help create energy and keep me fired up throughout my thesis retreat month. Recently I had lunch with @rellypops and shared my retreat plan with her. To my delight she told me of her own thesis-writing trip in Manhattan several years ago and how it enabled her to do a serious amount of writing. She claims she was invigorated by the surrounding energy of the city and it kept her thesis word count up.

I’ve no doubt this strategy would not work for everyone. Some folk will prefer quieter places to write. Each to their own. And for those who cannot take themselves away to another country or even to another town or place within their own due to practical reasons (work, family obligations, finances etc) take heart in what Shapira and Liberman say about the creative cognitive benefits of merely thinking about far away places.

So what will you do to help you get the words down? Will you take some advice from Jia et al’s research and go somewhere away to write? Or is your imaginative capacity (read daydreaming) strong enough to give you the creative boost you need?

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53 thoughts on “Why you should create your own thesis writing retreat (or reasons to travel)

  1. i did just this. at a make it or break point in my dissertation. i went overseas for one month. to a quiet city by the ocean. got the perspective i needed and wrote.
    and i made it.
    good luck!

  2. I spent a wonderful five weeks as a visiting scholar at Rice University in Houston Texas where I got some significant research and writing done – but fairly early in my candidature – just after I upgraded to a PhD. The only thing I did not factor into my plan was the effect of jetlag. It was a good week before I could actually do any productive work because my brain simply wasn’t up to analytical thinking. I could go through my list of references to find and locate them in the Rice library and photocopy them, but reading with understanding, analysis and synthesis were beyond me. It lasted for days and days and I began to get really worried and then about day 6 or 7, my brain snapped back into gear and away I went. Because I am part time and have since changed jobs and move to the other end of the state, I am still not finished, but this encourages me to think about a shorter retreat in Australia.

  3. My neighbours have a beach house, and I’ve already talked to them about letting me use it when the final push comes. Now to persuade my husband to take some long-service leave so I can get away from the children.

    • Yes, lots of great ideas here already about how people have designed their own thesis writing retreats. And not extravagant, just really necessary for some :-)

  4. Notwithstanding the obvious obstacle of cost, it can be useful – provided the place you are retreating to has the desk space you require. I find the interior of a house/apartment much more important than it’s environs – can I actually sit down with my laptop and work? Is it a dining, kitchen or work table? Is there room to spread out?

    A distant relative had to cancel a non-refundable time share booking during the last year of my PhD, and I nervously took up the offer. It was for a one bedroom apartment in a Paris suburb. It was bland but well equipped and furnished. I occupied the dining room table with my laptop and spread post it notes across the walls as I progressed from raw interview transcripts to fully coded and categorised theories.

    In that instance, I couldn’t deny the charms of Paris, so I used the Pomodoro method to ensure a minimum of six hours work (or 12 Pomodoros) before shutting my computer and going into the city to walk, explore, drink and eat. Late night exhibition openings and drinks in sociable cafés were perfect rewards, and that one week saw more progress than any other up until that point.

    • It’s interesting you should mention the table factor. I looked at what felt like hundreds of apartments in Manhattan before I found one in my price range with any kind of table at all! It was my only criteria really, as well as some decent light. Fortunately I found one but it took a lot of hunting around.

  5. I spent 5 weeks in Europe at around the 3 year period in my thesis. I was still trying to come to terms with some of the data I was analysing, and bring my argument together really coherently. The trip involved visiting a few other people, but it also involved a couple of weeks of just writing quietly by myself (in the French country-side no less). One of my supervisors was very supportive, while my secondary supervisor told me before I left that if she were my main supervisor she wouldn’t have approved the travel.

    Those 5 weeks turned out to be very important – and not just because of the people that I met. I finally had some quiet time completely to myself and got to come to terms with some bit features of my analysis. My thesis wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for that – so don’t let other people’s lack of conviction put you off!!

  6. I love the fact that there is a scientific justification. I was thrilled when I stumbled across that little gem :-)

    I have empirical evidence too – I spent 15 days at a resort in Malaysia with my family. The deal was I could write in the mornings (only until 12:noon) and then it was play time. I got more reading and writing done in those 15 days than I did in the three months prior. It totally got me back on track in terms of wordcount and content.

    I’m totally jealous of your trip. I <3 NY and can't wait to see the photos and hear how well it went for you!

  7. My partner had a two-week teaching gig in Palma de Majorca a couple of years ago, so I tagged along. I worked while she and her colleague were at the Uni, then when they returned to the apartment in mid-afternoon we would go sightseeing. I completely re-arranged my thesis in those two weeks – a huge job.

    But, as I work full-time and normally have to fit my thesis in around my work, my writing retreats have mostly consisted of a week or two weeks working on my PhD every day at home – often half of a chunk of annual leave. And that’s worked really well for me – they have been my most productive times.

  8. Yes! to getting away. I’m writing this from ANU’s Kioloa Coastal Campus on the second of our planned 6-weekly 4 day getaways to concentrate on writing (3 PhDs + 1 PostDoc). Beach + quiet + collegiality – endless social obligations = productivity. Win!

  9. Thanks for the great post Kylie! I appreciate you sharing your plans for New York. I have often thought a secluded place in the Australian bush would be where I would go to get some chunky PhD writing done (I am a farm girl after all!) but I feared I might get too lonely. The idea of a reward such as a visit to an art gallery or some music after reaching my word target is inspiring- I am off to make some plans!

  10. I’m seriously considering Indonesia – I know a few people who go there to get work done from my hometown of Darwin, Australia – and I’m learning the language, so double plus for me there. But I think I would miss my family (and do too much site seeing).

  11. From someone who swings between Melbourne-based academia and New York City-based writing each year (I try to spend all my non-teaching time in the East Village in NYC): good luck with that plan. I spend three months at a time in NYC and I never get a word down in the first month, and I’m a card carrying workaholic (due to habits developed during my PhD years).

    Firstly, there’s the jet lag – it’s kind of hard to get anything done when you’re going to bed at 4am and waking at 1pm. Secondly, don’t underestimate the lour of the city – it takes about 12 minutes from the time you’ve left your apartment to make 6 new friends who will want you to go hang out every night. Thirdly there’s the hangover – don’t need to explain that one. Finally, you’ll be two weeks in and realizing there are about 73 things to do/places to see that you didn’t anticipate and you’ll feel it’s a waste of all the money you spent on the trip if you don’t make the most of it… After all, you can pick up that pesky thesis write up when you get home, right?

    • Yes, the lure of that fantastic city will rely on some grand self control on my part. Luckily for me this is not my first time there or I would find it a big struggle. However, once I’ve hit my word target for the day I will be free to play. I think knowing that will get me through. I’ll keep you posted :)

  12. Oh yes! I wrote an article in Berlin–slept in, wrote for 4 hours (which is all the time you can really generate text in a day anyway) from about 11am, and then Kaffee und Kuchen, bier, mehr bier… art, cute shops, cocktails, dinner, conversation. It was incredibly productive, and yet I still felt utterly refreshed and energised at the end. Bon voyage!

  13. I’d always planned to be a small-time Patroness of the Arts by this time in my life. I’d wanted to have a nice garage-sized cottage on the Vancouver Island acreage. I could invite literary friends for extended holidays so they could relax, write, and generally get
    away from the usual distracting daily duties.
    Then life intervened, we sold the acreage, and
    another dream evaporated.
    My point is that many of you in the future could have the opportunity to gift other intelligent people with time and space to get away from the demands of their daily routines, get energized, and Create. (After you have acquired a stable of humble or stately vacation homes around the planet, that is.)

    • This does sound lovely, but in the meantime, what about house swaps between thesis-writing PhD students? Sounds like a great idea to me! Someone should set up a website to facilitate, if such a thing doesn’t already exist!

  14. Yes, yes, yes Kylie! Thanks for this post and generating the comments. I’ve had two successful mini retreats of 5-7 days in the Blue Mountains, but am now going the whole way with two months in London later this year (while the partner has long service).

    • Oh my Liz! 2 months is very impressive. Great plan. Perhaps you could write a follow up post on how your retreat turns out.

  15. I’m away Sept to mid-Nov (including an actual holiday). When are you in NYC? Maybe two little twin posts with our experiences?

    • Liz – I’ll be done with mine before you so perhaps we can write something together at the end of the year? That would be fun. A bit like an insitu ethnography on the whole city writing retreat idea.

  16. Yes, it’s wonderful to travel to another place entirely. But I also find just going out to a cafe to write can help. Not always the same cafe. Not always the same time of day (or night). But even a small change of place seems to be able to help me get going when I’m stuck.

  17. Pingback: Changing Locations to Finish My Thesis (a writing mini-retreat) | Ish Ism

  18. I have my own retreat fantasy, though I take a different approach to going to one of these exciting, relaxing and culturally enlightening places. To me, Oslo (Norway) is perfect for academic writing.

    Unless I am very unlucky, the weather will be terrible and well suited to writing indoors. It is guaranteed to be awfully expensive (alcohol, coffee, any dining), leaving very little to do other than writing. As a bonus, the academics are very professional and helpful, yet also come across as unfriendly with little interest in small-talk, which is an added bonus for fewer social distractions. (Note: In my view, the above is generalisable to anywhere in Northern Europe).

    Seriously though, I do think there would be a risk that I would spend too much time socialising in a place like NYC.

  19. I cannot tell you how much I need/want to do this. Don’t need anywhere fancy – a quiet place in a quiet town AWAY from here would be perfect. Just for a couple of weeks. But two small children and a partner with sadly inflexible work hours means I simply cannot do it. We’ve tried to work a way around it, but short of hiring a nanny for weeks to care for kids while I’m away ($$$$$$$), it’s not feasible.

    I won’t lie – I’m really, really disappointed and even frustrated I can’t. I feel if I could just get those couple of weeks, I’d get mountains done.

    Life, eh?

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  22. I want to take a thesis retreat around September and try to finally complete my PhD! I’m glad to see others have the same idea.

    I live in Sydney. I would like to find somewhere quiet with good walks in Australia or New Zealand. Ideally a small cottage with good WIFI and a big desk.

    It’s not the type of thing you can find readily through the usual travel websites. Can you provide any recommendations?

    Thanks heaps!!

    • My husband and I are using SabbaticalHomes.com this summer. We’ve found some wonderful people through the site (both to watch our place while we’re gone and to visit while we’re away). Hope that helps!

  23. Pingback: Six Steps for Optimizing your Digital Information Streams | Open Public Safety Institute

  24. Didn’t know that others had the same thoughts and experiences of traveling away to write their thesis, but my idea of doing it has definitely become realistic after reading your article. Living in Copenhagen, but for the sake of changing environment, I’m planning to rent an apartment in Berlin for a week to finish up my thesis in August.

  25. I really like the idea of this, but I was wondering whether anyone had any thoughts on the best time to do it? At the ‘nothing but blank white pages’ stage? At the ‘lots of words but in need of serious editing’ stage? I’m sure it varies from person to person, but I’m interested in hearing others’ thoughts on this.

  26. It was great to stumble on this post, as I’m actually on my way to my own retreat in a week. I’m heading to a remote fishing village in northern Queensland, so the distractions will be more of the beaches and island variety. It was great to hear there’s scientific justification for it, as I wasn’t sure myself if it would “work.”

    I’m wondering, though, what was your target word count? Did you find it productive to have a word count, rather than some other metric?

  27. Pingback: School’s (not) out for summer! | The Thesis Whisperer

  28. I’ve just booked my own self imposed writers retreat – although only for a week, and in Cornwall, UK (but it does have a wonderful sea view!). Would love to understand whether you gave yourself a format for each day and what your daily targets were?

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  30. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great.
    I don’t know who you are but certainly you’re going to a famous blogger if you are not already ;) Cheers!

  31. Pingback: The PhD blog to follow | Keep Calm and get a PhD

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