Ryan Shaw
Ryan Shaw, an I School Ph.D. student who helped spark the Writing Boot Camp, was also a participant, taking advantage of the constructive quiet in 110 South Hall. (Photo: Dick Cortén)

For two weeks in May, the lone “bong” of the Campanile chiming one p.m. signaled the end of a long morning of labor for a determined group of Information School doctoral students, plus one from the Haas School of Business. They had signed up to write, and, by God or Whomever, that’s what they did, from 9 a.m. on, every day until what they called a “boot camp” ended.

Mechanical engineering professor Andrew Szeri, in his far-less-than-secret identity as dean of the Graduate Division, has been evangelizing all over campus for the cause of doctoral completion, which sounds simultaneously arcane and touchy-feely, but has very earthbound practical consequences for individual Ph.D. seekers. Spending extra years on the degree not only costs more — no surprise there — but it has negative effects, not only on the quality of the learning experience for the student, but it delays forming a family, and starting a career later tends to significantly reduce one’s total income.

Since procrastination is a fundamental human drive ranking with, and sometimes above, eating and procreation, and financial backing has been in ever-shorter supply, schools around the country have looked for creative ways to encourage their emerging graduate scholars to knuckle down and get on with it.

A major bugaboo for many students is writing, especially on the all-important dissertation, but on other critical documents as well. Szeri took the notion of an intensive kick-start writing session out to people in the graduate programs, and one of the people who heard it was associate professor John Chuang, the School of Information’s Ph.D. head graduate advisor. Chuang carried it to the I School’s spring town hall meeting for Ph.D. students, and they grabbed the ball. Before long nine of the school’s Ph.D. students — out of its then-current complement of 21 — had signed up for at least a partial fortnight of hard labor with mind and fingers in what they dubbed a Writer’s Boot Camp.

Meg St. John, the I School’s director of admissions and student affairs — who was the boot camp’s behind-the-scenes logistical manager — was impelled by both positive comments and fervent requests to hold a second session, for which 30 students from all over campus have signed up — a response she found “a little overwhelming. Clearly, this is something the students really feel the need for.” The feedback she got from the pioneer group was that “it really focused them on the task.” Some participants, she said, “mentioned how great it was to feel like they weren’t’t alone in this — having a group around them working, even in silence, made them feel less isolated in their pursuit of the degree.”

For Ph.D. student Ryan Shaw, who, like some of the other participants, has small children, the schedule-pledge was the most helpful aspect. “Being committed to being at the boot camp helped reserve time,” he said, while the coffee and bagels “helped lure me there every day and were much appreciated.”