I often talk about my pole or personal life on this blog, but not often enough about being an academic. A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to take part in a (university-funded) PhD writing retreat at the gorgeous Monkton Wyld Court in Dorset, so I’m taking it as an opportunity to spam you with pictures of this stunning place while also updating you about what being a PhD student in cyber-criminology feels like.
Me and My PhD
I got an email from a senior academic in my uni about the possibility to go to this retreat and I was like: COUNT. ME. IN. I am a huge fan of retreats (read about my digital detoxing in Bali here and here) and I thought I could use some PhD writing time.
I guess I could call myself a cyber criminologist because 1) it makes me sound like a bad bitch 2) it’s my actual topic and I’m not just doing it for the Gram. I’m looking at establishing a modus operandi for users who commit cyber-harassment on high profile criminal cases. This is a development of my MA criminology thesis and a really cool way to blend my interests with my professional experience as a social media strategist, PR, freelance journalist and blogger.
The PhD life has its ups and downs. I teach at university in both the criminology and journalism fields, but I teach part time and to round things up I work as a freelance researcher and social media consultant. Freelancing and being an academic means my working week is flexible, and that I can make room for training for pole and for writing novels everyday, but it also means I’m always running around like a headless chicken trying to do everything all at once. More on my routine below, in my podcast interview with A Girl In Progress:
Struggling to focus
Especially after my data collection, and once I started juggling academic teaching and preparing for various pole competitions at the same time as promoting myself and my writing while also being treated for my anxiety and depression, I found myself procrastinating and struggling to get to work on my PhD.
Not gonna lie to you, what you think when reading this post is probably true: bisshhh why you doing all this shit? That’s probably part of why you’re anxious and struggling to focus. Yup. No lie in there. Thing is, I like doing all these things and I don’t want to give them up. I like being able to develop different skills and aspects of my personality. So I’m not stopping.
This doesn’t mean writing became any easier. I am a very fast reader and writer. I can take in complex issues and rephrase them and fit them into my framework quite well, because I am accustomed to how criminological and media theories work, and because as a PR I had to read reports and newspaper articles quite fast while still getting the gist of what they were about. There was one day where I had to write about 20 press releases for an event before close of play. So the writing itself is not a problem.
What is a problem – according to my supervisors – is that I can read and write so much content that sometimes one struggles to understand how it all links together, so the content only makes sense in my head. Which doesn’t get any easier if then I get distracted by all the things I’ve got to do all at once – as one of my colleagues aptly said, my mind is often polluted. This is where the retreat came in.
PhD writing retreat and digital detox
I had already decided before going to Monkton Wyld Court that it’d be both a PhD writing retreat and a digital detox. This turned out to be the recipe for success, both for my writing and my mental health. Here’s how the retreat played out.
We arrived on a Monday afternoon and already had a goals sheet. I am not huge fan of goal-setting because I feel like #goals is something that the business world and Instagram have created to burn people out, yet I did have some loose objectives for my time at the retreat.
I needed to work on my findings: I had about 10 2,000-word chapters that didn’t have a structure and were not linked together, so my plan was to make them connect in a meaningful way. I also had to work on my ethics application form to conduct interviews to round-up my findings, and come up with questions for my interviewees. If I had time, I also wanted to continue working on my third novel.
Monkton Wyld Court turned out to be the perfect location to do this. Literally in the middle of nowhere, it’s a gorgeous former school turned bed and breakfast in Dorset, at the centre of never-ending green fields. With limited wi-fi access and many opportunities for walks and getting close to nature, it was the perfect digital detox.
Three days without social media wasn’t a huge commitment, and I was able to let my creative and academic juices flow instead.
Monkton Wyld Court
In the 1970s, Monkton was a school for creative pupils who didn’t want to conform and could work on their creativity without the rigid structures of the British education system. Now it’s run by a community of volunteers that live in a few scattered properties on site, cooking for guests and minding the fields and the animals.
Every meal we’ve had at Monkton was vegetarian, fresh and delicious – and almost entirely sourced within the community. All the dairy came from the cows, and so did the natural fertiliser (if you know what I mean) for the fields where the vegetables we ate were grown. From veggie lasagne to pizza, from fried halloumi to chocolate and berry cakes, everything we had at Monkton was wholesome and yummy.
My time at Monkton
I had a single room facing Monkton’s church and cemetery and this made me really happy cause y’all know cemeteries are exactly my aesthetic and vibe.
We could have breakfast between 7 and 9 am and I woke up at 6.30 for a little morning meditation, a stretch for my forever aching muscles and some journaling before a shower. Who am I kidding, it’s not like I set an alarm – some loud and persistent chirping from the birds outside would have woken me up anyway! Still better than the London traffic though.
I had breakfast in the guests’ dining room, very Harry Potterish with its gothic windows and large tables facing the garden. After breakfast I went for walks in the garden, or just sat on a bench facing the fields. No wonder the British countryside inspired so many painters – these fields already looked painted!
Bathrooms are shared at Monkton by the way, and while that isn’t my favourite set-up, they do have loads of organic soaps and products to make up for it. You also have to wash your own dishes, but I must say it was all quite enjoyable to do as a team, as it added to the whole hippie community feeling.
I pretty much stuck to our writing schedule, which really helped me structure my day. We’d write from 9 until 1, with a short break in between. Then we’d have lunch, have a post-lunch walk and get back to it until 6 pm.
This way, I was able to join up all my findings in a way that I hope won’t make my supervisors’ brain explode, and I also managed to work on my ethics form and interview questions. I even started to have a stab at my concluding chapters and I’m now at 73,000 words of my PhD… it has to be a maximum of 100,000, so I better start reining myself in!
One of my favourite outcomes of the retreat at Monkton however was going back to writing my third novel (the sequel to the detective story I finished writing in January) on a notebook. I bought a £2.50 pint of local Otter ale from Monkton tiny pub and sat either outside or in the gorgeous piano room, writing away.
About that piano room. I think I saw a ghost going out of it one night… but she wasn’t angry, and didn’t bother me, and it might have been the beer. They did call me Caro 2 Sips at work…
Detoxing always helps me
This was a very long account of three fantastic days in the country that got my creative juices flowing again and that helped me reset. I was getting into a really disruptive social media checking loop that prevented me from working properly and always put me in fight or flight mode. I wasn’t enjoying myself, and I often felt on edge.
CBT is teaching me to prioritise my needs and to challenge unhelpful thoughts and behaviours, and I feel that this retreat played a huge part in doing this.
If you’re ever thinking of doing a PhD, I’ll say this: I am lucky because I have always loved the process of writing it and working on it, and I don’t hate it yet. But it’s a lot of work, and many of my colleagues have started hating theirs. It’s like a newborn baby that always needs your attention – and I’m a very bad mother sometimes. So don’t take it lightly.