Diana Zacca Thomaz, Lyndsay Rosenthal and Adam Celejewski

PhD students find balance on the Lake Shift

Lake Opinicon
Above: Lake Opinicon. Left: Laurier PhD students Diana Zacca Thomaz, Lyndsay Rosenthal and Adam Celejewski. Photos by Angela Mastroianni.

In mid-July, five PhD students from Laurier attended Lake Shift, a writing retreat organized by Queen’s University on Lake Opinicon, just north of Kingston. The retreat attracted 50 graduate students from 14 Ontario universities, all in the writing stages of their dissertations. They spent five days canoeing, hiking, swimming and sitting around bonfires — but they completed a surprising amount of work too.

Each day was structured to allow students to work for a few hours followed by breaks at lunch and in the evening to enjoy the wilderness. A ringing bell pulled students from their notebooks and laptops for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Workshops on the writing process were also offered.

“Being surrounded by the lake and crisp air helps grad students find renewed focus and inspiration,” says Laurier’s Angela Mastroianni, a behavioural neuroscience PhD student studying overeating. “Stress can be a progress killer, but it was greatly reduced by the lake, deer, fireflies, otters and other critters running around!”

On their breaks, students explored the nearby trails and islands, swam in the warm waters and played volleyball. Rather than feeling guilty for leaving their work behind, the breaks were a reward for hours of hard work and the carefully structured days were a reminder of the importance of balancing work and play. Spending time with other grad students also gave students a chance to network and commiserate.

Students play cards

“Dissertation writing is often an overwhelming experience, and the sharing of common struggles faced was somehow therapeutic,” says Adam Celejewski, a psychology PhD candidate researching how the availability of food influences consumption habits.

“I think we sometimes get stuck and burnt out and feel really exhausted. You get to the point where you’re just tired — not physically exhausted, but mentally. You get to the point where opening your laptop is daunting, never mind having to write a 20-page report,” says Brianne Redquest, a kinesiology PhD student studying autism. “But just to be able to share those stories and hear that other people are experiencing similar things was really comforting for me.”

Making time to relax and connect with others allowed students to learn about different subjects and to make friends too. Some of the Laurier students who attended the retreat now meet every week in Waterloo Park to write together, using a schedule adapted from Lake Shift.

“Often, as PhD students, we sort of stick to our labs and only talk about our own research, so we really had a chance to step out of that bubble and expand our knowledge,” says Redquest.

Lake Shift students