By Sarah Cassidy |

Having just returned from three days of intense interaction with people outside of my own discipline (eek), I think some reflections on the Burn Retreat are in order.  Annually, PhD students from the University of Edinburgh go away on a retreat to The Burn, in Aberdeenshire. The experience was great fun, both academically and socially. I will always remember, for example, discussions of academics committing suicide alongside a painfully hilarious game of Cards Against Humanity…

The most important component of the retreat (at least on paper) was the inclusion of academic workshops intended to advance our PhD skills. We began by simply explaining our topics to people, which was both fascinating and frightening. How do you explain to someone who studies American civil war songs that you want to look at the archaeology of Roman town house doors and windows!? Of course, the initial overwhelming feeling soon left, and despite the vast variety of topics, not to mention the huge gaps between each person’s interests, I (at least) came away thinking ‘Wow, I never knew that I could be interested in the education in 5th Century Gaul’, and ‘I’ve never read about the Hapsburgs before; maybe I should’ (spoiler: I haven’t yet). Maybe that’s a testament to how well we as PhD students can, when forced into the harsh restraints of a cosy country retreat lounge, assert our topics and big ourselves up.

After introducing ourselves we delved into the important questions: how do you write? What daily targets do you set yourselves? What happens if you struggle to write? How do you deal with problems with supervisors or departments? The discussions allowed an honest, sympathetic space to share ideas, and everyone had an experience or a piece of advice to share. We came to the end of the final session armed with a mental box of tricks which we were all determined to take back to our desks and implement… after the customary gender swapping Christian martyr play and a plethora of alcoholic beverages, of course (we academics really know how to throw a wild Saturday).

The river near The Burn

The river near The Burn

I could talk about the various trips we went on (Edzell Castle, Falkland Palace, Arbroath Abbey), the bouts of drinking, sunbathing (yes), walking, board-game playing (Trivial Pursuit certainly knocked us down an intellectual peg or fifty…), and socialising with the faces we sadly see most days in the office yet never really interact with, but I want instead to focus on the after-effect of the Burn. As a veteran of the Burn Retreat (this was my second visit), I remember the great effect I experienced last time. The office was suddenly a warmer place; I was invited to parties with historians (wow!), and I felt more aware of my place among a larger group of academics. I feel these effects still, and I sincerely hope this year’s trip produces the same positivity. I think we all agreed over the weekend that the PhD can be an isolating thing, breeding on occasion self-loathing, distress, hopelessness (the list goes on); but by voicing our concerns and hearing those of the others we are drawn to the reality of the situation: everyone is in the same boat.

So, with this sense of positivity in mind, I decided to follow Stephen’s excellent writing advice when I returned to my desk on Monday morning. As I walked in I saw a friend writing her ‘warm up words’ for the day, so I followed suit by writing a paragraph on what I wanted to achieve that week. Then I started categorising… the scene quickly turned to chaos: post it notes all over my desk: one ‘To Do’ list, one with ‘What have I achieved?’, one with ‘Social Media’ things I would do when I reached my allocated Facebook time, and one with ‘References to Follow Up’. Amazingly, this system worked; I did some great writing AND administration, and by the end of the day I was able to tell my friends what I had achieved. I even managed a few ‘hellos’ to new postgraduates I had met over the weekend. So as I sit here on Tuesday morning, writing this blog post as my second ‘warm up’, I am anticipating another good day… watch this space.


Sarah Cassidy is a 2nd year PhD student in Classics at the University of Edinburgh, researching scientific influences on Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica. She also completed her MA and MSc at Edinburgh, both in Classics. You can find her on her page.


(Images © Rachel Davis)