Dissertation Boot Camp: What Eighteen People Did on Their Summer Vacation

Uncategorized / Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Nancy Linh Karls, the Writing Center's Science Writing Specialist and Co-Leader of Dissertation Boot Camp, Summer 2011

Jointly offered as a partnership between the Graduate School and the Writing Center, UW-Madison’s Dissertation Boot Camp is based on dissertation camps offered at such institutions as Columbia University, Stanford University, the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, and Florida International University. (A special thanks to colleagues at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and at the University of Michigan for helping us plan our first camp!) UW-Madison’s Dissertation Boot Camp seeks to help participants accomplish their writing goals, accelerate their time to degree completion, and enable them to learn strategies that will help them with future writing projects.

Admission to this year’s inaugural Boot Camp was extremely competitive, with 84 dissertators applying for just 18 spots. A Graduate School committee selected applicants based on their anticipated time to degree completion, the importance of Boot Camp at this stage of their project, and broad disciplinary representation. Those selected included dissertators from all divisions of the university—arts and humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering—and from each of these departments:

  • Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis
  • Pharmaceutical Sciences
  • Curriculum and Instruction
  • Environment and Resources
  • Surgery
  • Sociology
  • Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Anthropology
  • History
  • Classics
  • Political Science
  • Zoology
  • Comparative Literature
  • Industrial and Systems Engineering
  • English
  • Economics
  • Psychology
  • Botany

Dissertation Boot Camp Participants, Summer 2011
Dissertation Boot Camp Participants, Summer 2011

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to lead Dissertation Boot Camp, along with my wonderful colleague Brian Williams, a recent graduate of the Ph.D. program in English and a former TA Assistant Director of the Writing Center. As we developed the Camp curriculum and activities, Brian and I emphasized three key elements: substantial, structured writing time for at least six hours a day; writing support in the form of one-to-one conferences; and daily writing exercises (including goal setting and reflections on writing process) as well as optional lunchtime workshops.  And all of this was geared to take place within a core community of fellowship and support.

So from June 13th to June 17th, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., participants camped out in various spaces in and around the Writing Center—spaces that came to be affectionately known by such monikers as “The Lake Room,” “The Mural Room,” “The Computer Room, and “The Refrigerator” (a room that always seemed to be at least 10 degrees cooler than the others!).



All participants were required to focus on specific chapters or sections of their dissertations, with some working on literature reviews, others on methods or data chapters, and still others on introductions or conclusions. They set daily and weekly writing goals, with each participant writing for several hours each morning and afternoon. In between these mega-writing sessions, campers participated in writing exercises, attended lunchtime workshops on topics ranging from time management and project management to voice and style, discussed their research and writing processes, met in one-to-one sessions with Writing Center tutors, and gathered for spontaneous chats over coffee and candy in “The Recharge Room.”  They eliminated potential distractions, with email, Facebook, and Angry Birds among the first to go. They faced down the blank page or screen. They talked through problems with content and form.  And working alongside one another through a broad base of mutual support, they wrote.



And did they ever write! All participants made significant progress on their dissertations, with the group collectively producing well over 300 pages of new, quality written material over the course of the week—and deleting scores of additional pages, which they’d previously written and subsequently found to be unuseable. (As one participant noted, “Wow! If we work together, we can crank out a dissertation every week!”) As they continued to draft and revise, participants tackled thorny problems with scope, argument, organization, voice, and coherence. They shared and experimented with new strategies for improving their writing, strengthening their motivation, and increasing their productivity. Some worked their way through paralyzing writing blocks. All reported a renewed motivation for writing and a renewed enthusiasm for their research, as well as a deeper understanding of the expectations for high-powered research writing. And everyone established new connections to help sustain their work over the short and long term.


On the final day of Boot Camp, we celebrated with pizza, a graduation cake, and an opportunity to share our reflections on the week. One participant even composed a song about her experience and dedicated it to her fellow campers! Many participants expressed that with Camp drawing to a close, they felt it was crucial to preserve the momentum they’d worked so hard to build. Some initiated their own spin-off writing groups, with one group planning to meet and work alongside one another every Tuesday for the remainder of the summer. Other participants scheduled a series of ongoing appointments to discuss their work with a Writing Center tutor. Still others shared the writing they’d produced over the week with their departmental advisors—something they said “would in no way have happened for at least several more weeks or months, had they not had the benefit of Camp. One participant summed up Dissertation Boot Camp as a fantastic, rigorous week!


Our deep thanks go to the UW-Madison Graduate School for funding Dissertation Boot Camp and especially to Eileen Callahan, Director of Graduate Student Professional Development in the Graduate School; Jan Greenberg, Associate Dean for Social Studies in the Graduate School and Professor of Social Work; and Brad Hughes, Director of the Writing Center and Director of Writing Across the Curriculum.  Dissertation Boot Camp was made possible because of their efforts and support. And of course, we’re especially grateful to the 18 participants who brought such amazing enthusiasm, commitment, and good humor throughout our time together, day in and day out during that week in June.  Thanks to all of you, we hope to offer additional camps in the future!


With the beginning of a new academic year, the Writing Center has many more exciting, upcoming offerings in the works . . . so definitely stay tuned for more details! In the meantime, we in the Writing Center wish you a fabulous start to the semester!!!

14 Replies to “Dissertation Boot Camp: What Eighteen People Did on Their Summer Vacation”

  1. Wow, what an amazing experience for the participants!! I wish dissertation boot camp had been around when I was writing my dissertation. Thanks for this comprehensive description!

  2. Nancy, what a great way to introduce 18 students to the power of collaborative learning, writing with others (as opposed to in isolation, which is how so much of our writing takes place), and the Writing Center. I wish dissertation boot camp could be a year-round thing. I bet many people would even love to do this over the holidays and spring break, especially since so many students cannot travel home over breaks.

  3. Just want to second Nancy’s praise of the entire week. The participants were amazing in their combined effort, and their individual willingness to really work for a prolonged period of time. And I hope the program continues to expand for next summer!

    (Also, everyone should know that I had to eat the majority of that cake myself over the period of a few weeks, despite the fact that Nancy has an entire household of people who could have made short work of it.)

  4. Yes, we should have this over winter break and spring break too! It looks like there was a lot more demand, so I hope these workshops keep coming.

  5. Hi All

    Just wanted to let you know that I finished my dissertation and passed my defense! Thanks to everyone involved with dissertation bootcamp for helping me to meet my deadline!


  6. Congratulations to Nancy and her entire staff! This is inspiring. My favorite part of dissertation retreats and boot camps is the way students maintain their momentum and then come and tell us they are defending! DE-fence! DE-fence!

  7. It’s so great to hear from dissertators who were successful, so I’m glad Matt posted. I also talked with a “camper” during the week, who said how useful and motivating the camp was. There was so much focused, quiet, and intense energy in and around the Writing Center during that week—a really cool thing to see.

  8. After I shared writing practices and skills we used at boot camp with my advisee group, my advisor and I led a 3-day writing boot camp for ourselves.

    I’m getting close to completing my dissertation, and I know I’m this close largely because of progress made during the boot camp.

  9. Nancy and Brad, congrats on the success of your first Camp! I’m really interested in the fact that the dissertators shared a large writing room — how did that go? Was it a challenge initially for folks to get settled in? We have our dissertators at UM in individual offices, but space has been a big struggle for us every summer, and also makes it difficult to expand into other semesters as we’ve wanted to. Looking forward to seeing how the Camp grows over time!

  10. Nancy, this was such a great post! I had the pleasure of working at the writing center this summer, and the energy and commitment of those who participated in the boot camp was palpable. It was wonderful to see so many students busily writing, talking about their writing, and feeling a sense of community the entire time! Even though I’m far from writing my own dissertation, I couldn’t help but want to be involved in some way. I got an opportunity to work with at least one of the students involved in the boot camp, and it was clear just how valuable it had been for her. I hope I can become more involved during future summers!

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