The University of Westminster hosted the first Writing & Thriving in Higher Education online workshop on 7 April for the University’s postgraduate students.   


 Facilitated by Dr Sally-Shakti Willow, doctoral researchers from across the Graduate School, from all disciplines and every stage of their study, connected on a Zoom call to share their concerns, ideas and suggestions for coping with the unique challenges of writing a PhD thesis during this time of global lockdown.  

The 90-minute workshop discussed these challenges, such as additional family responsibilities and lack of access to libraries and labs for continuing research activities. Zoom’s chat facility enabled participants to respond to one another’s difficulties, offering suggestions and support to create solutions. 

Using breakout rooms, small groups were able to talk to each other directly, away from the main group, facilitating discussion and connection across disciplines and geographical locations. This kind of connection on a human level, at scales that feel intimate, supportive and sustainable, is an important factor when using global digital technology to replicate the workshop learning environment.

Having concerns heard and feeling supported with challenges in an open peer-to-peer forum where all is welcome can help to alleviate the stress of isolation and overcome the anxiety of separation.  Recognising that others are also experiencing the problems one has been battling alone, and that solutions are available, is a step in the direction towards a positive outcome.

Dr Willow said: “One of the great, unacknowledged, challenges of the PhD process is the difficulty of actually writing the thesis. Often this can be overlooked when attention is focused on the research activity and outcome. At Westminster, the Annual Progress Review structure is designed to ensure that students meet interim writing deadlines with the opportunity to discuss with their supervisors and examiners the quality of both their research and their thesis. But the pressure surrounding these internal deadlines can be a further source of anxiety and stress for many graduate students.  

“Additionally, meticulous attention to detail and a keen eye for close critical analysis, which are essential to the research process and highly desirable qualities in any doctoral researcher, can actually hinder the writing process if not properly managed and understood. While these key skills have their place in the research stages of PhD study, they can inhibit the writing stage to the point of complete inability to begin – also known as ‘writer’s block’. Therefore, it is essential to understand how to recognise these qualities and manage their implementation in the PhD process, while allowing space for other qualities, such as creativity, exploratory thought and trust in one’s own judgement, to be brought in to liberate the writing process.”

Dr Willow, who undertook her doctoral research at the University of Westminster from 2015 to 2019 and who assisted with the planning and delivery of the Graduate School’s ‘Wellbeing When Writing’ programme in 2018, guided discussion and activities around the first stage of writing: Writing as Thinking.  

In the online workshop, researchers at all stages of the thesis writing process shared their unique challenges and obstacles, receiving tailored feedback from Dr Willow to support them. Dr Willow also guided several writing exercises focused on releasing writer’s block to unlock creativity and get researchers writing. Simple breathing and moving techniques to reduce stress and increase clarity and positivity were integrated into the workshop to support students’ overall wellbeing.

Three further online workshops are scheduled over the next six weeks to continue to support the University’s doctoral researchers with all four stages of the writing process. On 21 April it will be ‘Writing as Signposting: Considering your reader while writing’, on 5 May it is ‘Writing as Narrative: Structuring your chapter or thesis’ and on 19 May it will be ‘Writing as Editing: Redrafting your writing for submission’. 

Please contact the Graduate School for further information.

Learn more about the Graduate School at the University of Westminster.

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