I’m back! And my Dissertation got its Groove back!

 *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/Logo2

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.

We made it!

We made it!


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.



Plot Twist


Plot Twist!

Earlier this summer I received a text message from my close friend, on the morning she was supposed to leave for a road trip in New York State. She wrote to me saying that her partner lost his passport, and they decided to drive up to Newfoundland instead.

I could imagine the scene: Andrea and Louis looking through every drawer, on every shelf, and under every piece of furniture in the apartment looking for the single item that would allow them to leave on their much anticipated and well deserved vacation. Their car was already packed with tents, sleeping bags, and many overpriced, miniature versions of household items found in outdoorsy stores. They had unplugged their electronics and set up an “away from my mail” response to their emails. They had a plan.

I found myself in a similar situation last spring, when my dissertation committee decided that I would have to start my project from scratch. I originally had a “flawless” plan: apply for the pre-doctoral internship this fall, write-up in the spring, and graduate by summer 2015. Unfortunately, a 200-page document and five committee members stood firmly between my dream and I.

I instantly switched to problem-solving mode: reading articles, talking with colleagues, drafting research ideas, and writing new proposals. I was so preoccupied trying to salvage my project and clinging onto my original plan, that I ignored other responsibilities, such as sleep and maintaining whatever is left of my sanity.

Although a dissertation is slightly heavier than a Canadian passport, getting either involves an agonizing amount of time, paper work, and money. Both involve changes to the original plan.

Having known Andrea for almost a decade, I can imagine the turnaround when it became clear that Louis’ passport was nowhere to be found. She was likely looking feverishly through his messy desk before throwing her arms up in air and saying something along the lines of “Okay Louis, that’s enough. So we are not going to New York this year, but I am not wasting my 10 days vacation. Get in car, we are driving to Newfoundland.”

Bam! That was it. They drove on, had a wonderful trip, and ate delicious lobster.

I knew I had to do the same: accept the loss and the new direction I was facing. I had to accept that my plans changed and that I will be spending an additional year in graduate school.

Then I came across this piece of online wisdom:


I have moved on. The new plan is to eat healthier so that I live an extra year and make up for the additional one I am spending in graduate school. I will also eat lobster.

Speaking with Andrea about this post, she informed me that Louis recently found his passport, tucked between the pages of a dictionary. It looks like they will make it to New York after all.

ImageAveragely yours,

the candidate

Dear Annual Report


Spring is the time for graduate students to meet with their supervisors and complete the “Annual Report”, or as I like to call it, the “Annual-Reminder-That-My-Goals-Aren’t-In-Line-With-The-Department’s-Expectations”.

The Annual Report is a grown-up version of the report card, where I tell the university what I’ve “accomplished” (based on the university’s definition of achievement) in the past 12 months, in three categories: publications, dissertation, and professional development. My university (like many) is research focused (as opposed to clinically focused), so the first two categories weight more than the third.  There are no grades or gold stars in response to this report. Depending on the year, the Department Head might send me a generic email to remind me that I am in good standing.

report card

When did the email become the Graduate Studies version of a Gold Star?

Truth be told, almost five years into my graduate studies, I have no idea what the department expects from me, but based on my responses on the Annual Report, I missed honour roll.  In response to this deficient but necessary process, I wrote a letter to the Graduate Studies Annual Report.

Dear Graduate Studies’ Annual Report,

Thank you for making your yearly cameo in my life, around the time when the weather gets warmer, undergrads slowly (finally!) leave campus, and I allow myself to contemplate about how unproductive I will be over the summer.

Fortunately, you and I never spend too much time together, because the questions you ask of me are not the ones I tried to answer during the year. For instance, you ask me about the number of publications I submitted. I could tell you that one of my manuscript was rejected…not once, but twice. However, I don’t think you would be proud of me, so I will carefully omit this information. I wish I could include the two editorials I wrote for a CPA newsletter, but I cannot since they are not research.

You also ask me about book chapters I published in the past 12 months. I understand that some graduate students work in labs where their supervisor is asked to write and edits books. Consequently, they have the opportunity to publish book chapters. I am not one of those students. So this section will remain empty.

Finally, you ask me about presentations I presented or submitted in the past year. I managed to squeeze some data out of my minuscule sample, so I can add one scientific poster presentation to this section….but its acceptance is pending. Is that of any value to you?

A third of way through, it is obvious that you and I are not on the same page. You evaluate me on criteria that I chose not to value. How can we mend our differences Annual Report? How can I avoid the feeling of inadequacy that your questions create?

Next, you ask me about the progress on my dissertation. I hold back my tears as I write that I have recruited only half of the participants I had planned to have by now. Unfortunately, the multiple choice format does not allow me to explain that I work with a difficult population in a strict setting. There is no room for me to tell you how convincing parents to bring an anxious child to the hospital for one more appointment is tedious and unbearable for them. All I do is check the “incomplete” box and hope that you will understand.

After being reminded for three pages that I did not focus on publications this year,  I finally shine when it comes to Professional Development. I report a page worth of workshops and seminars. This year, I learnt about the long-term impact of trauma, the theory and practice of mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy, and ethical considerations in private practice. Unfortunately, Annual Report, I heard through the grapevine that you do not care much for PD. I’ve been told that you ask about workshops and seminars simply to be “comprehensive”, not because you believe it is an important aspect of graduate studies in clinical psychology. Is that true? For a fleeting moment, I thought you and I connected.


Annual Report, why don’t you ask me about professional affiliations? Why don’t you ask me about supplementary engagements? I would tell you about everything I accomplished in the past 12 months. If you only had one more page where I could tell you that I am now a certified yoga instructor; that I am working on another treatment study with a psychologist in the community; that I am editor of newsletter for the Canadian Psychological Association; that I published a research review on an popular science blog; I climbed Table Mountain; two students wrote me “thank you” notes for the way I marked their assignment… Sadly, these are negligible details to someone who cares only about publications and data. They are crumbs of a cake.

See you next year,

Averagely Yours,

the candidate.