*note: this post was originally published at: http://www.queensu.ca/connect/grad/2014/09/01/guest-post-rana-pishva-on-dissertation-on-the-lake-or-how-my-dissertation-got-its-groove-back/
The day was not off to a good start. My car-mates and I left before the convoy, and what was supposed to be a 30-minute drive north of Kingston turned into a 90-minute tour of South Frontenac – one that included a pit stop at the home of an elderly couple, who offered us coffee. Eventually, the GPS stars aligned and we made it to the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Center (ELEEC). A large “Dissertation on the Lake” sign along with two smiling organizers from SGS waited for us. The ELEEC is a 400-acre biological field station (read: “natural research lab”) that offers graduate and undergraduate students in biology, geology, and environmental studies opportunities to get their hands dirty. For the next four days, the site of Elbow Lake was to be a space of productivity and recreation for 30 graduate students.
Let’s be honest – doctoral studies are one of the few situations where “number of years of experience” in the program is not a positive thing. Starting my 5th year, I jumped on this opportunity to focus on my project, away from all the distractions of the real world (read: walking the dog, laundry, Netflix, re-organizing my sock drawer). I can shamelessly admit that I had reached a point where my dissertation felt like a chore – not a contribution to science or an accomplishment. Simply put, my dissertation and I needed to rekindle our love, and we had a week by the lake to do just that.
Given our group’s tardiness, most of the students were already working when we arrived at Elbow Lake. Some were set up in the central lodge that doubled as our gathering space and kitchen. In between meals, the space was quiet and comfortable. Others chose to venture out into the wilderness. Walking to our cabin, I saw people working on their personal patios. I took a stroll down by the lake: someone had snatched a spot inside the gazebo and another typed away on an Adirondack chair. Two others had already gone on a canoe ride – no laptops in sight. The possibilities were endless.
I chose to set up shop outside the central lodge and started my first Tomato. You see, in the late 1980s, Francesco Cirillo was having a hard time focusing on his studies. After some experimentation, he developed the Pomodoro Technique – named after the tomato shaped kitchen timer he used to time the 25-minute work intervals that were separated by short 5-minute breaks. I swear by this time management method, because knowing that a break is coming leaves me less tempted to check out what my friends have been up to, whether by checking my phone, or Facebook, etc. I also record what I accomplished in 25 minutes, which leaves me a rewarding list to review at the end of the day.
Three Tomatoes (and 15 pages of coding!) later, it was time for the first communal lunch. It was quiet and people stuck with those they already knew or else kept working. Over time, curiosity about each other’s work, discussions of animal sightings, and the desire for a quick swim after lunch took over the quiet space. To some of us, meal times were a permission to take a break, re-group, and maybe play a short round of “Dutch Blitz.” Everyone eventually returned to their respective work stations, whether in the main lounge or under the shade of a tall tree.
I started subsequent days with a yoga practice by the lake, quick swim, and breakfast. Despite this routine, I started my work day nearly 90 minutes earlier than I would have at home. Finding our individual paths toward a common goal was the theme of the week. Each participant brought their own work habits and goals, and used the beautiful site and bottomless coffee to their advantage. There was a mutual – and natural – understanding and respect for space. Looking up from my screen, I was motivated by the focused looks and felt empathy for the occasional sigh of frustration. But all work and no play does not make a dissertation retreat! In between Tomatoes and after dinner, we gathered by the fire for s’mores, played board games, or enjoyed the many amenities at Elbow Lake.
I had to overcome my guilt about not doing work all day and into the evening. Like many graduate students, I try to squeeze work into every corner of my day: I read articles while food is in the oven and make edits in between episodes of Downton Abbey. There is an odd sense of satisfaction when I unexpectedly accomplish a small, yet important task in a forgotten time slot of the day. But that couldn’t happen while at Elbow Lake, because there was nothing else. Dissertation was my focus and I had the time to gain the momentum I needed to push it to the next stage. I realized that after a productive day – 10 to 12 Tomatoes – I could give myself permission to let go and enjoy the sights.
I left Elbow Lake having accomplished more than I expected. Most importantly, having been immersed in my project instead of moving through disjointed half-days peppered with meetings and laundry, I was excited about it again! I drove back from the site believing that I can actually make a contribution to my field of study. To me, this renewed enjoyment in my dissertation – and the 34 Tomatoes it took me to get there – are the most important outcomes of this writing retreat.