Researchers on retreats: The value of being away together (Silvina Sanchez Mera and Esther Desiadenyo Manu-Barfo)

Many of us take significant private pleasure in becoming researchers.

We whittle drafts away in the wee small hours or sneak a moment here or there to read a book or article. But finding time to just be a researcher can be tough, especially for those of us who have busy work lives or heavy care responsibilities. It can be challenging to get large stretches of time to sink into researcher mode.

Retreats away from the hustle and bustle of ordinary life can offer us these opportunities. In addition to the practicalities of giving us time, many of us find that there is something magical about being away together.

The College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce (ASSC) hosted an annual 2-day, off-site HDR Retreat on the 26th and 27th July. In 2019 the retreat was held at the beautiful Grange Cleveland in Lancefield. The purpose of the ASSC HDR Retreat is to offer graduate researchers an opportunity to reflect on writing and presentation skills, strategies to assist with candidature management, and an opportunity to network and collaborate with other researchers. As a bonus, the countryside setting offers everyone an opportunity to relax, recharge and get to know some of the handsome creatures that also live there (see above!).

Sixty students and 9 academics attended both days of the retreat, with an additional 5 guest speakers presenting across the two days. Academics presented on various topics such as: supervisor dynamics, how to write your journal article in no time flat, engaging in deep work, an introduction to the importance of gaining ethics approval, and identifying and overcoming hurdles for international students (see Kiran Shinde’s post on this workshop here).

Participants at the retreat came from all La Trobe campuses, and from all Schools within the ASSC College.

The ASSC HDR Retreat is organised by ASSC Research in partnership with the RED team, Directors of Graduate Research and Graduate Research Coordinators. The program was developed with the in-put of a planning committee made up of graduate researchers: Esther Desiadenyo Many-Barfo, Ben Nguyen, Angelique Renieris and Silvina Sanchez Mera.

For today’s RED Alert, we have some reflections on the retreat from Silvina and Esther.

Silvina's reflection on the 2019 ASSC retreat

I still remember getting the email from our Director of Graduate Research (DGR) asking for volunteers to help with organising the retreat this year and thinking ‘this could be fun’. I wasn’t wrong! I had just started my PhD earlier this year, so for me it was my first time participating in the retreat as well as helping with its organisation. The Committee met several times from April up until the retreat date, to discuss and develop the program.

The driving force behind coordinating the retreat was Jody (Jody Simmons, Project Coordinator in ASSC College), and having the support of other students on the committee who had participated in previous retreats - made everything smooth and fun. During this time, what caught my attention was the importance given to what HDRs wanted from the workshops, as well as the focus on improving the retreat based on previous feedback. HDRs were really at the centre of concern, and our ‘job’ as volunteers was to act as links between our HDR colleagues and the retreat organisers. We got to share our opinions on the type of activities we should have in order to organise ‘custom’ workshops that addressed our needs. Encouraging participation amongst our colleagues was another task for us HDR volunteers. I’d like to think I did a good job on that regard as for this retreat lots of law HDRs participated (well, not lots lots, since there aren’t too many of us in the first place!)

The venue was definitely something! And although I didn’t get to see any kangaroos I did get to play with two big fluffy cats that I wanted to kidnap. On our first day all HDRs had to give a 5 minute presentation on our research and get feedback from our peers. For me, this was the best part of the program of the retreat. While trying to present what your research is about in plain language –and in my case, my non-native language - is challenging, it is also extremely rewarding. I love my topic, but I didn’t think people from other disciplines would be interested as well (after all it is law, you know?) until I found myself in an ethical discussion with colleagues from Education or debating the conduct of States with colleagues from Linguistics!

The second day was dedicated to workshops. They were varied and general enough to interest everyone present. At the end there was a panel of ‘survivors’, recent PhD graduates, who conveyed their experiences and how they managed to get their PhDs done in time. This allowed us all to remember that it is possible to finish, and that many people struggle with similar things.

All in all, the highlight of the retreat was my colleagues, getting to know not only people but their fascinating research shows you how varied PhDs can be and how personal experiences and interests can drive you and shape your investigation. If you get a chance to attend the ASSC Retreat next year you should definitely do it!

Esther's reflection on the 2019 ASSC retreat

At the 2016 ASSC HDR Retreat at Grange Bellinzona, Hepburn Springs, I watched Anne Brouwer (a member of the organising committee) in admiration as she explained the purpose of our meeting and other details. What struck me most was the flair and confidence in her delivery. It was then and there that I resolved to also partake in events that would allow me to bring out my own confidence. Another two retreats down the line and I had my “moment” this year to stand at the front and introduce details for the 2019 retreat.

As I have participated in a number of these retreats now, I have found that these events are valuable for getting one’s research out there. In this case you are getting your research out there to a broad audience that might be unfamiliar with it. While they may not be in exactly the same discipline, this audience might have the capacity to help shape your research by the different perspectives they bring to it.

The most encouragement I have had in my life has come from people at these retreats. As a result, I have formed lasting ties with other graduate students who I have met in my time away. The retreats have, to a large extent helped me embrace my ‘humanness’ when standing to present my research amidst feelings of nervousness and panic. The ability to do this stemmed from the realisation that my colleagues also experienced the same emotions when it was their turn to speak too.

I have always found the workshops interesting because they have addressed questions I have been battling with. Additionally, the discussions and questions afterwards have provided me with additional insights in terms of what is shared by others.

Apart from just partaking in the retreat, I have derived the most joy by being a part of the organising committee. I have been greatly fulfilled in knowing that I helped bring opinions on board, shape ideas, and above all helped in the overall success of the retreat. The best part is when fellow colleagues thanked me for helping organise a great retreat!


Esther Desiadenyo Manu-Barfo is a PhD researcher with the linguistics department at La Trobe University. She has a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and Linguistics and a Master of Philosophy Degree in Linguistics from the University of Ghana, Legon. Her field of studies is Documentary linguistics. She is currently writing a grammar of Dompo, a moribund language spoken in Ghana. She attributes her interest in linguistics to its inter disciplinary nature and its knack to challenge one to critically delve into language issues. Her research interests are in the field of language description with a focus on phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. She is the vice-president of the Graduate Research Student Society and the Graduate Students representative for the Linguistics Department. She loves to volunteer, travel and sight-see and make new friends.

Silvina Sanchez Mera is a first year PhD student in Law. Her research looks at the International Criminal Court's practice in prosecuting international crimes committed against child soldiers.

She holds a Masters in International Law from Bangor University (UK) and a Lecturer position in International Law and Human Rights at the Catholic University of Santiago del Estero, in her hometown (Jujuy, Argentina).