My Research “Year”

Full confession: this isn’t the next entry I planned for the Grad School Survival Guide, but I had a bit of writer’s block and decided to just jump around to the next subtopic that inspired me. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to include this, but ultimately decided “what the hell.” Let me tell you about my research “year.”

I am a historian of Egypt, and I had planned to do most of my research in Egypt, maybe with a visit to the British National Archives (as I work on Egypt during the colonial period) and/or one or two collections in France. I applied for a Fulbright Scholars grant to spend 2016-17 doing research in Cairo, and was elated when, right at the end of the fall 2015 semester, I got word that my name had been forwarded to the Fulbright office in Cairo for approval.

So elated, in fact, that it didn’t occur to me to have a plan B.

Two months later, an Italian graduate student from Cambridge University named Giulio Regeni was found murdered in Cairo. Things moved very quickly from there. In mid-March, I got notice that the Fulbright program in Egypt was being canceled over security concerns. There was no consolation prize; no offer of funding if I decided to do research elsewhere–it was just gone.

I tried for a bit to figure out if I could somehow do research independently in Cairo when a friend delivered the bad news that the Egyptian National Archives hadn’t been granting research clearances to foreign scholars–she’d been there for six months and hadn’t gotten approval. Not only that, but she described the atmosphere in Egypt as “tense” and said that she’d pretty much kept to herself the entire time she was there.

This is when I realized that all of my Plans B had involved what to do if the Fulbright didn’t come through and I needed to figure out how else to fund research in Egypt. None of my Plans B involved the idea that Egypt would go offline entirely and that I would need to both come up with a funding plan and an alternate research site.

Emergency Plan B

London was a natural alternative work site: I knew there was material in the British National Archives as I’d been there before, so I began planning an independent, self-funded short (six-week) research trip for the fall of 2016. I also took a look at Geneva, where the League of Nations archives are housed (at the United Nations). I knew I wouldn’t need very long in Geneva–maybe a week or so.

My initial plan was to engage in a short trip up front and make a return trip–or additional trips–once I knew what I could gather in which place. I did this mainly because I had been planning for some time to step down from my full time job at the end of the year to facilitate research and writing, and I wanted to use up my vacation time — I figured if I wasn’t going to have a research stipend, I could at least still collect a paycheck while I was traveling. (I did have an insane amount of vacation time to use up.)

So, I used frequent flier miles to book a six week trip to London, and found a cheap ticket from London to Geneva sandwiched into the last ten days.

Do neither as I said nor did

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“We meet again, old foe.”

So, let me explain what I did wrong.

I scheduled the week in Geneva at the end of the trip.

I know why I did it. I had already booked an AirBnB in London (nonrefundable) and a plane ticket to and from London using frequent flier miles. I would fly to Geneva on a Sunday afternoon, be there for the week, and then … for reasons I am still not sure of … I decided to spend the weekend and following Monday in Geneva, fly back to London on Monday night, and then home to Austin on Tuesday. I’m sure there was a reason I scheduled it this way, but I can’t remember what it was.

Here’s why this was a bad idea.

I know London. I’m like London. I’m comfortable in London. I have friends in London. At the time, I had a niece living in London, and my husband made plans to come over for a week to visit. English is also my first language, so communication was a non-issue.

I had none of this in Geneva. I’d never been to Switzerland. I didn’t know anyone in Switzerland. No one planned to come visit me. I can’t speak French (I can read French, and I was still foolish enough to think that this would somehow help me understand the spoken language. It didn’t.).

I had no idea how unbelievably expensive Geneva was. I mean, I thought London was expensive. I had no idea. Geneva is more expensive than Tokyo, y’all. More expensive than Oslo. It’s ridiculously expensive. I spent $30 on dinner my first night: an entree at a Chinese restaurant (the only place open near where I was staying; everything is closed on Sundays) and two 100 cL glasses of their cheapest red wine–I know the measurements because the glass had a line on the side to indicate how much to pour.

So what it comes down to is that I had a little over a month in London, living a nice life where I had a support network, knew where things were, knew how things operated, things were familiar and then, after a month of this, I flew to a city where I knew no one, had no idea how things worked, and everything was in French (except the TV stations in my apartment, which were all in German for some reason). And I knew I wasn’t going to be there long enough to really want to put a lot of effort into changing that … and it sucked.

Had I put Geneva at the beginning of the trip, when I was still fresh and excited, I would have had a different mindset entirely. Then, slightly tired, I could have gone to London and settled into my comfort zone much easier than I had it working in the reverse order.

Self care is not “silly”

The other mistake that I made is that I had worked myself very hard in London. I’m not saying this to brag, I’m saying it as a cautionary tale.

Six days a week I was at an archive doing work. Usually from about the time they opened in the morning until the time they closed. I was there for almost two weeks before I left the apartment to go somewhere other than an archive or the grocery store around the corner.

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It’s not supposed to be this hot 😥 (I’m not wearing hair gel. It was 33/92 degrees that day).

One day, there was a power failure at the British National Archives, and they sent everyone home. I used the chance to go to a larger grocery store and stock up, then went home and decided to take a nap … and found myself feeling guilty.

  • I’m paying to be here.
  • I’m wasting money not being productive.
  • I should call the archives and see if the power is back.

I did this for almost five weeks. I allowed myself one day off when my husband came over but otherwise he hung out with his niece during the day and we met up when I was done in the evening.

Hence, by the time I got to Switzerland, I was exhausted.

Unlike the flat I had rented in London that was well located to a main shopping street, I’d found a place near the UN in Geneva that wasn’t convenient to much of anything else. The nearest supermarket was a 20 minute walk (a bit far when carrying heavy things in plastic bags). It was also very cold at night, and the heat in the apartment I rented for the week had two settings: on (sauna) and off (freezer). I sleep better when it’s cold, but there weren’t enough blankets to use, and, even sleeping in a hoodie and sweatpants, I froze at night.

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My lack of selfie game is way stronger than your selfie game.

By my last day there, I was clearly getting sick. This almost certainly impacted my impression of Geneva – lest anyone wonder, I know the issue here was me.

The last day I spent in Switzerland was torture. I’d booked a late afternoon flight back to London in case I wanted to have the day to do more research, which I didn’t. I had rented a car for the weekend (I tell people that the most fun I had in Switzerland was the day I went to France), so after checking out of the flat I literally drove around looking for things to do all day while popping medicine for the cold I was clearly developing.

I went to Lausanne and realized I had no interest in walking around the old city when I discovered that it involved hills and more physical energy than I had to spend. I spent $20 on a sandwich and Coke (I said Switzerland is expensive). Then, I finally gave up and drove back to Geneva and turned the car in.

I spent three hours in the British Airways lounge at Geneva Airport. Flew back to London. Got to my overpriced and microscopic airport hotel room around 10 pm. Didn’t have dinner, but I wasn’t hungry. Turned around and went back to Heathrow at 6 am. Flew home to Texas. I know these things happened because somehow I made it home, but I have little memory of it.

I was sick for the next several days.

The point, dear readers…

The reason I wasn’t sure about posting this is that it does appear to be a long “my life sucks” post, which really isn’t what I wanted it to be.

So, here’s the thing. Self care is not “trivial.” Wanting to take a day off, or work five days a week instead of six or seven, is not only fine, it’s a matter of health.

If you don’t know anyone in town and your fellowship doesn’t give you a built in community, try meetup.org or one of the fancy apps the kids are using these days.

Go see a movie.

See what lectures are being given at a museum.

Go shopping.

If you’re homesick and it makes you feel better, go to McDonald’s. No one has to know. (And it’s fun to see what they have in foreign McDonald’s.)

And most importantly: listen to your body.

If you need rest, rest.

If you just can’t, ask yourself what will happen if you don’t for a day.

Don’t be me. Don’t put so much energy into being productive that you forget to take care of yourself.

And you can quote me on that!

The Research Year: Funding (or: how to reconcile what you said in your grant proposal with what you actually want to do)

Okay, I’m back! Easing into the Grad School Survival Guide, I want to address questions that have come from a couple of friends and readers who have asked some variant of the following question:

I wrote a grant proposal to work in a collection, and I said I was going to work on topic x, but now that I’ve been out and about and am starting to construct my dissertation, I realize it’s really going to be more about topic y. What should I do when I get to the archive?

Bearing in mind that the hard sciences work in a completely different manner, and that I am speaking to your average humanities/social sciences person here, and also assuming the “change in topic” you’re worried about is more akin to “I wanted to look at the history of medicine, but I realized I’m doing more of a social history through a medical lens” than “I was doing British History, but I’ve switched more to botany,” you can probably relax.

The fact is that, especially at the level of completing a doctoral thesis, what you actually produce is almost certainly never what you set out to write (mine sure wasn’t. And the project that I proposed in my application to the history program is now so embarrassing I can’t even bring myself to describe it). This happens to everyone. In fact, you should probably be worried if this doesn’t happen to some degree.

Funders are looking for assurances that their money isn’t going to be wasted by someone who wants to look at a handful of documents one morning and then spend the rest of their “archival visit” hanging with friends in New York City. That’s why they ask about your overall project, its research goals, and want to see what you think you’re going to find in the collection before you even get there.

And this is an important step in the process — I mean, I did once read a grant proposal wherein the applicant proposed working with material in a language they had never studied and gave no indication of otherwise being able to understand.

However, if your project is well-described, you have a reasonably academic approach to your topic, and you’re clear about why the research is important to achieving your goals, you’ll at least be in the running. Applications will be ranked, and maybe you might not make the cut, but you’ll be on the list instead of in the “Write back and ask if this applicant is pulling our leg” pile.

When it comes to most smaller grants, like those given by organizations to facilitate research in their collections, I’ve never heard of a funder pulling out someone’s grant narrative and saying, “You said you were going to work on [very narrow subtopic x] but you didn’t address it here, and we were so looking forward to reading your book when it comes out in ten years and we’ve all switched jobs and/or retired.” (Sorry, was that too on the nose?)

Anyone who’s worked with doctoral students will understand that research projects mature and change. It’s the nature of the beast.

Having said all of the above: Rule number one is: when in doubt, ask before you undertake your trip or start spending the grant money. It’s always better all around to be up front and honest.

If you’ve read the fine print and are thinking you may have to hide the fact that your project has morphed, you should contact the grant officer and discuss your concerns. You never know when you may need to work with a particular collection or organization again, and there’s no faster way to burn bridges and get yourself (and possibly your department or institution) blacklisted than misspending grant money.

 

Real brief update

I swear I didn’t fall off the face of the earth, and there are more installments of the Grad School Survival Guide coming!

Things got a little busy. I gave my first post-Ph.D. public history lecture, and I’ve been busy trying to get an article out before application season starts. (I could use pointers on how to write an effective conclusion, as I’ve been rewriting the main body over and over in order to avoid bringing the article to a close).

Don’t forget to post questions (you can @ me on Twitter or e-mail me, too)!