4. Establishing a Sustainable HDR Writing Ecology

Juliet Lum and Susan Mowbray

Why read this chapter?

Writing is an integral aspect of candidature; it’s also an area many Higher Degree Researchers, and supervisors, find challenging. This chapter presents academic or research writing development within a broader ecological model of higher education. It outlines several initiatives you, as a supervisor, can offer or recommend as additional avenues to help strengthen your Higher Degree Researchers’ writing and engagement. These avenues sit at different strata of the writing ecology and include:

  • providing co-authoring opportunities
  • facilitating writing groups
  • developing peer-led groups
  • running writing retreats
  • developing an ‘always available’ bank of online resources.


Traditionally, Higher Degree Researchers (HDRs) would rely almost exclusively on their supervisors to provide all the guidance, training, advice and feedback needed to complete their degrees, particularly in those jurisdictions where the PhD has no coursework component. Today, however, Higher Degree Researchers have access to a much broader range of support, traversing departmental, institutional, and national boundaries. In this chapter, and drawing on the work of Bronfenbrenner (1977), we conceive this broader range of supports as being part of a wider writing ecology. For us, an ecological model of academic writing support recognises the importance of establishing social avenues of writing support. These avenues can promote a sense of belonging and community; they can also facilitate Higher Degree Researchers’ engagement and progression. Here we describe five avenues you, as a supervisor, may implement as additional avenues to help strengthen Higher Degree Researcher’ writing and engagement.

Introducing Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Model

As Graduate Researcher Developers, we see supervisors and ourselves as part of a larger learning – and more specifically, writing – ecology (Bronfenbrenner, 1977), of which the Higher Degree Researcher is at the centre. Our notion of a writing ecology is informed by Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) ecological model of development.[1] In his model, Bronfenbrenner positions the individual at the centre of four interrelated and nested systems – the micro-, meso-, exo- and macro-systems. These complex, interacting systems capture the two-way inter-relationships and interactions of the individual within their immediate and wider contexts. The micro-system denotes the individual’s immediate context i.e. the home, family, place of work, school, and community. The meso-system captures the interactions between and across two or more micro-systems e.g. home and work. The exo-system relates to contexts that are more removed from the individual but may still be influential on or influenced by the individual e.g. wider societal factors/policies. The macrosystem, as the broadest context in the model, encompasses the institutional systems of society (e.g. economic, educational, political and legal), as depicted in Figure 4.1 (Rosa & Tudge, 2013).


Five circles in a nested shape with arrows showing the interrelationships between different circles. The outer circle is labelled as Macrosystem (Attitudes and ideologies of the culture). The next inner circle is labelled as Exosystem (Social services, Neighbours, Local politics, Mass media, Industry). The next inner circle is labelled as Mesosystem. The next inner circle is labelled as Microsystem (Peers, Health services, school, family). The innermost circle is labelled as Individual (Sex, Age, health, etc).
Figure 4.1 Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory Model by Abbey Elder, used under CC BY-SA 4.0 licence

Here, we conceptualise these interrelated systems within the context of doctoral education and Higher Degree Researchers. Specifically, we see the micro-system as Higher Degree Researchers’ interpersonal connections (e.g. Supervisor(s), Graduate Researcher Developers, peers); we see the meso-system as the institutional supports available to Higher Degree Researchers (e.g. 24/7 online resources, writing retreats, Show Up & Write sessions, Thesis Writing Groups, workshops, collaborative writing); and we see the exo-system as the wider doctoral writing community (e.g. (inter)national conferences, blogs, symposiums, Special Interest Groups/Communities of Practice), with Doctoral Education policies and higher education values and expectations overarching each system as the macro-system (see Figure 4.2). Separately and in combination these areas (in)form the writing ecology in which we work.

Three nested circles. The outer circle is labelled as Wider doctoral writing community. The next inner circle is labelled as Institutional supports. The innermost circle is labelled as HDRs Interpersonal connections.
Figure 4.2 HDR Writing Ecology by Juliet Lum and Susan Mowbray, used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence

Developing a supportive writing ecology

The initiatives we describe below have proven to optimise the writing support provided to Higher Degree Researchers at our institutions. As a supervisor, and depending on your context, you may have more or less capacity to make these supports available to your Higher Degree Researchers. For instance, some of these initiatives will be accessible to Higher Degree Researchers regardless of location or institution; others may require some initial set up by institutional staff; and yet others may run as special events on a semi-regular basis, e.g. annually or once a semester. In the absence of dedicated Graduate Researcher Developers to run more frequent events or facilitate regular groups, we recommend that you collaborate with colleagues such as fellow supervisors, department/faculty Higher Degree Researcher directors, library or writing centre staff; namely, others who make up your Higher Degree Researchers’ writing ecology.

Co-authoring as part of the micro-system

Publishing is important, especially for Higher Degree Researchers aiming for academic positions post-PhD and co-authoring publications are recognised as a very effective way to fast-track Higher Degree Researchers’ writing confidence and identification as fully-fledged researchers (Inouye & McAlpine, 2019; Kamler, 2008; Mantai, 2017; Thomson & Kamler, 2012). Co-authoring with supervisor(s) is a natural way to expose Higher Degree Researchers with no academic publishing experience to steps in the publishing process such as selecting journals, complying with author guidelines, negotiating author order, dealing with rejection, corresponding with editors, responding to reviewers’ comments, and proofing galley copies. You may also consider providing opportunities for your Higher Degree Researchers to co-author with other Higher Degree Researchers, which has been proven to increase their writing and collaboration skills and foster their personal epistemology (Lam et al., 2018).

Facilitated writing groups as part of the meso-system

Synchronous (real-time) online gatherings enable groups of geographically dispersed Higher Degree Researchers to meet, see and hear each other, and to jointly compose and comment on documents in real time. Videoconferencing and webinar tools such as Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams mean Higher Degree Researchers who were previously unable or unwilling to meet in person can now join any kind of group that would traditionally meet in face-to-face mode.

Videoconferencing software is particularly well suited to small (fewer than 8) group meetings, such as doctoral writing groups, group supervision meetings, reading groups/journal clubs, and peer accountability groups. Online Higher Degree Researcher groups that meet regularly in real time tend to be more effective in delivering learning benefits because all members are expected to contribute in some way, such as preparing a draft for peer feedback, responding to that feedback, contributing to a discussion of a set reading, responding to another member’s text, announcing and reporting on one’s own work goals, giving advice or sharing experiences on a particular candidature issue, and so on. Real-time video access also discourages ‘lurking’ (passively observing without ever contributing) during gatherings or turning up only when one feels like it; in other words, synchronous online group meetings promote engagement.

Both of our institutions run online writing groups for doctoral students. Participants value the opportunity to share their work with other members in a familiar and comfortable space and have reported that they experience “less negative judgment and criticism.” The opportunities to have productive discussions, give and receive helpful feedback and “learn from peers” while “being accountable to each other by reading through our writing and pinning our advice to specific needs of each student” are key aspects and opportunities gained from participating in the sessions. In addition to benefitting from peers’ feedback, gaining different perspectives on their writing, and reviewing others’ work, online group participants value learning with and from fellow Higher Degree Researchers, rather than alone with an online video or 1:1 with their supervisor. Online writing groups also help to reduce isolation while simultaneously promoting Higher Degree Researchers’ sensibilities of the expectations of academic writing.

Many of the members of the online Higher Degree Researcher groups we run are part-time Higher Degree Researchers due to full-time work and/or parenting/carer duties. These candidates have even fewer opportunities than on-campus Higher Degree Researchers to come into contact with peers; for these students, interacting regularly with other Higher Degree Researchers who can empathise with the challenges of juggling research with other responsibilities is particularly rewarding. It is also worth noting the online Higher Degree Researcher groups are not restricted to running in business hours or to candidates who identify as off-campus. Nor are they limited to one format; facilitated writing groups at our institutions include fortnightly Thesis Writing Groups (TWGs) and weekly (two hour) and first Saturday of the month and daily Show Up & Write sessions. Flexibility in delivery time, mode and group make-up are key factors in sustaining the momentum of each group and/or session.

Peer-led groups as part of the meso-system

Enabling Higher Degree Researchers to run their own ‘engagement rings’ such as peer support/accountability groups, study groups, writing groups and/or reading groups also supports Higher Degree Researchers’ engagement. Kumar and Atkinson (2017) report that peer study groups promote social networks and safe spaces to ask “beginner questions…how to structure the writing, how to write a lit review…which they would not ask their supervisors” (p. 7). A member of an online peer accountability group at one of our institutions reported on “‘Aha!’ moments” stating that even though she had received similar advice from her supervisor, “it wasn’t until [another group member] mentioned it because she had just come off interviewing a whole bunch of people so she was sort of at that phase of her thesis, [that] it made more sense.”

Peer groups run by HDRs will often form organically once students from the same department or with similar research interests or candidature experiences meet each other at seminars, conferences, writing retreats and other events. However, for part-time Higher Degree Researchers and/or those rarely on campus, such opportunities to encounter peers are rare. Additionally, some may attend Higher Degree Researcher events and seminars but lack the confidence or cultural capital to form a peer learning group.  In these cases, the institution or you as a Supervisor can play an important role in initiating such groups. For some groups, all that is needed to initiate the group is to introduce Higher Degree Researchers to each other and provide a tool kit (such as this one for writing groups or this one for accountability groups) with instructions on running the group; for other groups, you or a Graduate Researcher Developer at your institution can facilitate the first 2-3 meetings and then let the Higher Degree Researchers run the group themselves.

Writing retreats/intensives as part of the meso-system

Writing Retreats/Intensives provide Higher Degree Researchers with an extended dedicated time and space to significantly progress their thinking and writing.  Writing retreats/intensives aim to minimise distractions and maximise quiet time for Higher Degree Researchers to write in an environment that includes opportunities to stimulate thinking and productivity. Writing retreats can be structured or unstructured, and can be a residential (overnight), on campus, or online experience. A structured writing retreat, for example, may include the following: sessions at the beginning, middle, and end of each day where Higher Degree Researchers report and reflect on their goals for each session; workshops on a particular aspect of doctoral writing e.g. making your argument, thesis structure, writing a strong introduction; bookable 1:1 consultation times; and scheduled breaks for Higher Degree Researchers to socialise. The workshops may be mandatory or optional and/or offered alongside the independent writing sessions. In unstructured writing retreats, the focus is on Higher Degree Researchers independently progressing their work in morning and afternoon writing sessions. Regardless of the writing retreat’s form, it’s important to offer short activities to refresh Higher Degree Researchers’ energy levels in between the independent writing sessions. These may include a mindfulness/meditation session, a walk, wrist yoga, exercise session or similar.

Facilitating online writing retreats can be a more cost-effective and inclusive option than running residential retreats. One of our institutions ran several 3-day online writing retreats over Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. While “retreat” may be a misnomer if participants are joining from their regular study location, extended online events can nevertheless provide an institutionally sanctioned reason/permission for participants to retreat from regular activities to work on their thesis, encouraging them to activate an out-of-office email auto-response, and to cancel appointments for the duration of the retreat as they would for an out-of-town conference. This provides the headspace to devote to writing. The success of writing retreats lies in the co-presence of others engaged in the act of writing and the opportunity to normalise one’s experience by interacting with other Higher Degree Researchers; these can be achieved at online writing retreats by requesting that all participants leave their videos on during writing hours and by increasing the social elements of the event, such as “lucky door prizes” drawn at random points in the retreat with prizes such as thesis writing books, introducing facilitators in a less-formal way (e.g. showing a pet on screen, sharing a life hack), and facilitated group fitness and/or mindfulness sessions before or after the lunch break.

Online resource banks as part of the meso- and exo-systems

All of these avenues can be supplemented with a bank of online resources. Making resources available online 24/7 provides Higher Degree Researchers with an ‘always available’ point of reference; it can also promote Higher Degree Researchers’ autonomy. Developing a ‘bank’ of free-to-access static training materials such as online manuals, video tutorials, ‘banks’ of collated materials on key areas such as the methodology, literature review and discussion chapters and recorded lectures can provide much-needed, easily accessible instructional material. Some helpful sites include The University of Manchester’s Academic Phrasebank, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL), and research guides at your own university, such as Macquarie University’s Subject and Research Guides. Similarly, PhD-focused blogs and social media groups can function as a proxy for a community of practice, as advice and individual PhD research experiences can be shared and commented on by others engaged in the same endeavour (Guerin, Aitchison, & Carter, 2020). Subscribing to popular PhD-focused blogs ensures the latest post is delivered straight to your email. These blogs also curate their content so you can easily find all the relevant posts to a particular area in one click. Some of the blogs we regularly access are Patter, Doctoral Writing, Explorations of Style, and Research Whisperer. Links to other blogs and video collections relevant to doctoral study/supervision can be found at the end of this chapter.

Caveats and challenges

Creating opportunities for social and peer learning that acknowledge and cater for the different locations, schedules, preferences, and degrees of access of today’s Higher Degree Researchers is feasible but comes with its own set of challenges. Sufficient staff need to be willing and available to work to facilitate online writing sessions, groups and retreats and out-of-hours meetings. Similarly, it can prove very difficult to find a mutually convenient meeting time for online groups comprised of Higher Degree Researchers who are full-time workers or located in very different time-zones. Running webinars and live-streaming presentations may require someone (e.g. another staff member or perhaps a non-participating student) in addition to the facilitator to attend to the technology and online attendees’ activity, particularly for hybrid sessions where there are some Higher Degree Researchers attending in person and others online. It can also be challenging to build up a network of presenters to reliably deliver monthly information sessions. This means alternative plans need to be ready. Communicating via videoconference can prove challenging in larger groups and when there are connection issues. Peer-led groups require a certain amount of training or at least briefing of participants and tend to work only with Higher Degree Researchers who are pro-active, self-disciplined and committed to each other’s progress to keep groups actively engaged beyond the first few meetings.

Offering the kinds of writing support suggested above may be challenging for supervisors with little or no centrally provided Higher Degree Researcher support, so a team approach is highly recommended: individual Faculties, Departments or Schools will usually appoint a staff member to oversee Higher Degree Researcher training, so working with that person and other colleagues on the initiatives would increase feasibility and sustainability. Another challenge – regardless of central provisioning – is encouraging your Higher Degree Researchers to access available resources, training and support. The vignette below illustrates how this could be done in the context of a regular supervision meeting.


The importance and value of different writing initiatives in helping Higher Degree Researchers progress cannot be underestimated. Creating a welcoming writing ecology that offers HDRs various modes to engage in is an investment in building Higher Degree Researcher communities within and across the wider institution. Such communities can help sustain Higher Degree Researchers’ motivation, facilitate their progression in the doctoral undertaking, promote retention and help to enhance their experiences. They can also involve Higher Degree Researchers, and by extension, their supervisors and the broader institution, in promoting a wider community of thinking and learning people.


The Supervisor “Professor Mitchell” and Higher Degree Researcher “Sam” have spent the last 45 minutes discussing data analysis etc. There are 15 minutes left of the consultation hour.

Supervisor: That sounds like a good plan. So, how are you going with your writing? I notice you haven’t sent me anything to read for the last few months.

Sam: Oh, I’ve been reading a lot. … Actually, I’ve been struggling to write anything on my thesis. There’s so much to read and learn! When I read a paper, it just leads to other papers which sound important to read.

Supervisor: Ah yes, it’s a bit like the infinite social media scroll, isn’t it! There’s always more literature to read and review; you’ll never reach the end of the recommended reading list!

Sam: Oh no! Really?

Supervisor: Yes, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t start writing. You actually know more than you think, and you do have something to say. It sounds like you might find a research writing group helpful, to motivate you with your writing.

Sam: What’s a research writing group?

Supervisor: It’s where a group of researchers – in your case, Higher Degree Researcher candidates – meet regularly to give feedback on each other’s drafts: the group focuses on one member’s writing each time. In fact, two of my other Higher Degree Researchers have been expressing an interest in starting a group, so I can get you in touch with them.

Sam: Thanks, Prof Mitchell. I’m not sure I’m ready to join one of those groups quite yet as I haven’t been working on a draft in a while. There are so many things going on in my life I can’t find time for my writing!  My kids need me to drive them around to activities, my parents often call on me to do jobs for them, and then there are so many emails to respond to from the university.

Supervisor: That sounds hard, Sam. You’ve got a lot on your plate… I wonder whether you might like to join the weekly Show Up and Write sessions that a couple of my colleagues are hosting on Friday afternoons for Higher Degree Researchers and other academics in our department? Those sessions will give you permission to say no to other things and to switch off your email so that you can focus solely on writing for a few hours every week. You can join online or in person. I attended several Show Up and Write sessions last year and wrote a journal article during that time!

Sam: Wow, that sounds like exactly what I need. I’ll definitely sign up!

Supervisor: And I’ll email you some of my favourite blogs about research writing and doing a PhD. Oh, don’t worry: they’re very light compared to the other readings we discussed earlier in today’s meeting! They’re the sort of thing you can read while waiting for a train or your kids. I think you’ll find the advice they give really useful.

Sam: Okay, sure. Thanks so much, Professor Mitchell. All these are really great suggestions! I feel much more positive about my writing now.

Activity – To build and evidence your practice, as part of the meso-system:

  1. What other avenues of support could you introduce at your institution to bring Higher Degree Researchers together, either face-to-face or virtually, to help build connections and progress their writing?
  2. Are there internet technologies you could optimise to extend the avenues of support available to Higher Degree Researchers?
  3. Brainstorm, by yourself or with colleagues, avenues of support you could offer to Higher Degree Researchers, either as a disciplinary or whole group. Here are a few to get started:
  • Monthly reading and discussion group
  • Monthly lunch club and presentation
  • Weekly 2 hour Show Up & Write session

Additional Resources

While most of these sources and additional readings are freely available, some are not. The lock icon beside an entry indicates that the source may be available from your library.

Websites, blogs and vlogs, as part of the exo-system

The University of Manchester’s Academic Phrasebank

Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL)

Macquarie University’s Subject and Research Guides

The University of Auckland’s Quick©ite tool

The Hidden Curriculum in Doctoral Education

Explorations of Style


Doctoral Writing

Thesis Whisperer

Research Degree Insiders

Helen’s Word YouTube channel

Tara Brabazon on YouTube

Cecile Badenhorst on YouTube

Online PhD Groups

Online PhD-StayOnTrack Groups


While most of these sources and additional readings are freely available, some are not. The lock icon beside an entry indicates that the source may be available from your library.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist, 32, 513–531.

Guerin, C., Aitchison, C., & Carter, S. (2020) Digital and distributed: Learning and teaching doctoral writing through social media. Teaching in Higher Education25(2), 238-254. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2018.1557138

Inouye, K., & McAlpine, L. (2019). Developing academic identity: A review of the literature on doctoral writing and feedback. International Journal of Doctoral Studies14, 1-31.

Kamler, B. (2008). Rethinking doctoral publication practices: Writing from and beyond the thesis. Studies in Higher Education, 33(3), 283-294.

Kumar, V. & Aitchison, C. (2017). Peer facilitated writing group:  Programmatic approach to doctoral student writing. Teaching in Higher Education, 23(3), 360-373. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2017.1391200

Lam, C. K. C., Hoang, C. H., Lau, R. W. K., Cahusac de Caux, B., Chen, Y., Tan, Q. Q., & Pretorius, L. (2019). Experiential learning in doctoral training programmes: Fostering personal epistemology through collaboration. Studies in Continuing Education41(1), 111-128.

Mantai, L. (2017). Feeling like a researcher: Experiences of early doctoral students in Australia. Studies in Higher Education, 42(4), 636-650.

Rosa, E. M., & Tudge, J. R. H. (2013). Urie Bronfenbrenner’s theory of human development: Its evolution from ecology to bioecology. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 5, 243–258. https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12022

Thomson, P., & Kamler, B. (2012). Writing for peer reviewed journals: Strategies for getting published. Routledge.


  1. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological system model evolved over time from the Ecological Systems Model to the Bioecological Model, as detailed in Rosa and Tudge (2013).


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Confident Supervisors: Creating Independent Researchers Copyright © 2023 by Juliet Lum and Susan Mowbray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.