Academic support groups on- and offline

The beginning of December saw the Faculty of Education and Sport (plus one or two neighbours from English) here at the University of Bedfordshire meet for a research support group, convened by Sarah Cousins from Education Studies. This is a once a term get together and offers a chance to share research successes and difficulties face to face with colleagues across the Faculty, who are in the same boat or who have been there and done that. As a group we were in a range of situations: post-PhD, approaching submission or viva, just beginning the PhD journey, or on a taught MA. After a slice of cake and a tea, conversation soon moved onto writing, especially maintaining a writing habit throughout the demands of teaching and admin roles. As I’ve written about before, this is a subject that I can discuss a lot! (Writing about writing being a worthwhile procrastination, perhaps.)

Having just seen the end of Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo), we talked about the value of group accountability for writing, and whether it can kick start a regular writing habit. We noted the success of PhD2Published’s site and the #acwrimo Twitter feed in encouraging writing through providing a focus for group accountability or even just self-accountability. AcWriMo prompts writing by celebrating even small progress that can be seen by recording daily word counts. A regular reminder to write a small amount or spend just an hour a day on research can be valuable and it soon adds up, plus it breaks down the blank page mountain from something insurmountable. Of course, it’s not always a blank page that’s the problem, but the tweaks and edits once a paper is under way.

The long term deadlines of a PhD can mean it is the thing to get pushed aside in the face of immediate teaching and admin needs. I don’t think the key to successful writing while on a busy schedule is a big secret or a complicated idea – often the advice is block out your writing and thinking time, and protect it. Set deadlines and hold yourself to account, or ask someone else to hold you to account (this is how AcWriMo works). I’ve shared my thoughts on a number of writing techniques elsewhere and this seems a good time to share them again. I’ve also collated below some sources of reading and inspiration on writing, research and the PhD and publishing processes that colleagues may be interested in.

Structuring a paper can be a sticking point for some, and Pat Thomson’s post on common and alternative structures is comprehensive.

PhD2Published have weekly hints and tips on writing, research and academia; this links to their writing category.

The Thesis Whisperer is a thorough look at PhD researching and writing life, with great support.

If you’re a Twitter user, the hash tag #getyourmanuscriptout is a source of support and celebration, helping academic writers to make that push to get the manuscript off your desk and into the reviewers’ or editors’ hands.

Finally, the Doctoral Writing SIG blog contains a wealth of advice on writing, including on structuring the narrative in a paper.

It’s also noted by a number of sources that “in real life” or offline support in the form of talking through your research, regular meet ups, and scheduled writing sessions is beneficial. It’s too easy to hide a paper or chapter away and not acknowledge it when you’re just dealing with it on your own. Kept in sight, accountable to others (or just telling people about your progress or sticking points), there’s more chance of chipping away or making a breakthrough. Explaining something in informal terms can illuminate a point of confusion, resulting in a breakthrough in thinking. It can work better with a critical friend who has no authority over you writing – not a supervisor or line manager if you’re worried about pleasing them and saying the right thing. Just make sure you have a notebook to hand to write down the breakthrough idea! Perhaps this is the next step for our faculty research support group?

Thanks for reading and let me know your advice for support groups in the comments!

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2 thoughts on “Academic support groups on- and offline

  1. Sarah Cousins December 17, 2014 at 12:49 pm Reply

    Thank you, Joanne, for sharing your blog with me. Your writing is at once friendly and informative, and the forum you have chosen is a welcoming one. I look forward to reading further inspiring posts and planning a particular focus for our next Faculty of Education and Sport research tea.

  2. […] have written previously about the value perceived by many academics in having someone to whom you are accountable in terms […]

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