University of Wisconsin–Madison

Writing camp offers support, workshops for dissertators

By Meghan Chua

Student taking notes
Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison

Writing a dissertation can feel like a mountain you have to climb to finish your PhD, and often, one that you’re climbing alone. But graduate students at UW–Madison can embrace that journey with a group of other dissertators at the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camp.

The dissertation writing camp, which takes place each year in January and May, provides students with dedicated time to write and discuss their work with peers, while also engaging in workshops about goal-setting, time management, and staying motivated.

“Being able to focus all my energy and time to writing and [being] in an environment where others were motivated to do the same made all the difference,” said dissertator Chelsea Blackburn Cohen, who participated in the writing camp in January.

When she applied for the camp, Blackburn Cohen wasn’t close to being finished with data analysis for her thesis, which focuses on the forced displacement of academics worldwide due to the political or ideological nature of their intellectual work. Being accepted to the camp prompted her to prepare her data. During camp, she was able to write almost an entire analytical chapter.

A partnership between the Writing Center and the UW–Madison Graduate School, along with funding from the Mellon Foundation and the State of Wisconsin, make the camps possible.

“The Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps are intended to help dissertators develop effective writing habits; gain practice with setting and achieving writing goals; and experiment with new strategies for planning, drafting, and revising their dissertations,” said Nancy Linh Karls, who directs and coordinates the camps.

She added that participants benefit from the peer support offered by other dissertators in the camp and from individual consultations with Writing Center instructors about their writing.

In addition to providing extra motivation for many students, the camp serves as a support group. Fei Sun, a dissertator in the dairy science program, said being a dissertator can feel isolating if you’re the only one in your department. For Sun, being around other dissertators at the camp makes him feel like he’s not alone in his journey.

“I’m surrounded by 20 other people who have the same goal, and meanwhile we’re supported by the instructors if we have any questions,” he said.

As an international student whose first language is not English, Sun said the camp showed him that writing a thesis in English is difficult for international and American students alike.

“I would highly recommend more international students apply and participate in this camp,” he said.

Dissertation writing camp participant Katherine Robiadek said she became better at being her own coach through the writing process. She said the workshops led by Writing Center instructors helped her recognize her own approach to writing while also improving her style.

During writing time, participants can choose an area where they can talk with peers while working, or sit in a quiet space to work alone. Robiadek selected the quiet space, knowing that is how she works best. But at the end of each day, she said coming together with peers from units across campus to reflect on her progress was a valuable way to work toward her goals.

“That interdisciplinarity was really helpful to get us outside of our own departments,” she said. “We were able to really riff on each other and play off each other’s experiences.”

Applications are open now for two dissertation writing camps happening in May. For more information about Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps or to apply for an upcoming camp, visit