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Planning a Research Year

Welcome back to the Grad School Survival Guide! Today’s topic is how to plan out a research year.

It probably won’t be as complete as some people would like, and it may go into details others don’t find helpful – the best way to figure these things out is to get advice from different people and see what works best for you.

So, here goes.map

Where to Go

Get out the map

You’ve probably identified the archives you want to visit, at least initially, and have a short (or possibly long) laundry list of cities you want to travel to.

One of your first questions is likely to be whether or not you want to do one big trip, or several small trips.

This is, obviously, going to depend on the level of funding you have and other considerations, like whether you’re keeping the lease on an apartment in your home base, or you’re going to be functionally homeless for a few months while traveling–these are all important considerations to bear in mind.

You’ll also probably want to maximize travel efficiency: see what cities are close to each other and cross several archive collections off at once. People from other parts of the country are usually surprised by how short travel distances in the American northeast are, for example. If you’re going to a new country you often have no concept of relative distances, Google maps is pretty good about showing distance in terms of travel times rather than as-the-crow-flies distances.

In general, both in the United States and elsewhere, flying to larger, busier airports is less expensive than flying into small, regional airports that have only a handful of flights in a given day, and/or are only served by one airline. For example: Cheyenne, Wyoming is less than a two hour drive from Denver International Airport, while Wilmington, Delaware is functionally a suburb of Philadelphia. If you’re likely to need to rent a car while you’re in town anyway, save some money on the flight and see a new part of the country.

If you’re going to be traveling internationally, you’ll also need to check things like the passport and visa situation for where you want to travel to (for example: US citizens don’t need a visa to visit the UK or the European countries that share a common border known as the Schengen zone–but, you can only stay in either for up to 180 days in any 365 day period, so if you’re planning to stay longer, you’ll either need to rethink the length of your stay or figure out how to get a visa for a longer stay. Also, if you’re drawing funds from a local research institution or organization, that may change the requirements, so make sure to check well in advance).

Where to stay: I’ve probably contributed to gentrification using Air BnB a few times, but it worked out less expensive than staying in a hotel or using a rental flat service. I also like cooking for myself, and that factored heavily into the equation. You might want to poke around on message boards, listserves, or as the advice of people who’ve been there — each location has its own quirks to learn.

There are other fiddly bits to take care of. For example, I encouraged you in the last post to plan out the workflow you’ll use to get documents into a form you can use later when you’re writing. Depending on where you’re going, you might run into issues with electrical outlets being shaped differently, or having different voltage. The US, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and much of Latin America use 110 volts AC, while most of the rest of the world’s electric current is 220-240 volts AC. Most computers, cameras, and electronics can handle either these days, but do check before you accidentally blow something up.

{Rant: Also, I don’t care what the travel guides say, Switzerland does have different plugs than the rest of continental Europe, and the ones that work elsewhere don’t fit Swiss outlets. Fortunately the Swiss are used to this and sell adapters pretty much everywhere.}

In short: do your research so that when you get to where you’re going, you can focus on doing your research.

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Archive Access

Spend some time looking up the various archives you want to visit and make note of what you’ll need to gain access to them. This can vary wildly, and it’s not always easy to gather everything at the last minute, or from a remote location.

It’s pretty common that you’ll need to produce photo ID when first registering at a new archival location. Within the US, for example, my driver’s license is usually enough. Internationally, however, the most useful and widely accepted ID is going to be your passport, not your home country driving license–although the latter is particularly useful (in addition to your passport) if you need to produce some sort of official documentation with your home address. Your university ID may also be needed to verify your institutional affiliation.

In addition to the type of ID you’ll need, pay attention to the number of forms of identification you’ll need to produce. I went to one archive that required three for some reason, which required me to go into the back of the closet and dig out that box where I keep important things that I only need to access once a decade or so.

Less common things I have been asked for include a letter of introduction. This is, essentially, a letter of verification from your home department at your university that says that you are who you say you are, that you are affiliated with them, and that you are legitimately conducting academic research toward completion of your doctoral or master’s degree. It is usually fairly critical that it be on letterhead and signed by someone who isn’t you.

It’s probably not a bad idea to write one up, have your advisor (either your dissertation advisor, or the department graduate advisor) sign it, and make a few copies before you set out on your research trip just in case (also, scan it so that you have an electronic copy that you can send by e-mail).

Pay close attention to when new users can register and where to go–registration hours for new researchers may be different than normal archival access hours; in my experience you’ll probably want to get there when they open.

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Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

If you’re a young’un, you probably don’t recognize this subheading as AT&T’s slogan for the yellow pages, which used to be this actual physical book of phone numbers everyone had in their house before Google happened. The idea was that, instead of driving around from place to place to see if they had what you needed, you could save time by phoning from the rotary phone in your kitchen (which had a cord) to ask in advance before you left the house.

The idea is the same, even if we’re now in the era of the Internet.

Some archives allow you to register online in advance, which will save quite a bit of time when you arrive because your information will be already filled out and in the computer system. (This doesn’t always work; I did have a glitch once that had three tech people at the British Archives scratching their heads, although it did make me feel better to know it wasn’t just me.)

Some collections allow you to request items in advance online to have them waiting when you get there the next morning; this may not be an option for new researchers who haven’t yet arrived in person, but it’s worth checking. The British Library, for example, not only lets new users request items before they get their reader’s ticket (in American: library card)–but doing so lets you skip the part of the registration process where you describe your research interests.

Pay very close attention to the need to reserve a time slot at an archive. In my experience, archives that require reservations in advance are very strict about not allowing walk-ins.

Ideally you’ll want to have things sorted early, especially if international travel is involved, but I have contacted some archives with just a couple of days’ notice (“By any chance, might you have an opening…?”) when, for example, I found a file folder in one collection in London described the activities of an organization that seemed relevant to my research–and a quick online search revealed that the organization had its own archival holdings in another collection close by. (This is why having extra sets of documentation helps – you may think you’ve got a set list of everywhere you want to do research, but sometimes discoveries happen!)

Another reason to be in touch early (even if it’s optional), especially if an archive doesn’t have its holdings fully cataloged online, is to describe your project and determine whether there is useful material in the collection. Archivists often know their collections fairly well and this can help you decide how to allot the time you have.

I had one archive tell me point blank that they had nothing useful for me — disappointing, but far less disappointing that it would have been had I spend time and money going out there to get the same answer. Another archive, it turned out, had the files I was asking about digitized and just sent them to me electronically (the World Health Organization in Geneva).

The UN archives in Geneva, especially for the League of Nations period, doesn’t have the most useful online catalog; the archivists there are superb and pointed me in all sorts of directions I never would have considered otherwise.

In short, it never hurts to let someone know you’re coming. The worst thing they’ll say is “we don’t have anything that matches that”–which, while disappointing, is still useful information. If they do, they’ll almost certainly help you gain access if they can.

How Long?

Now. You may have noticed that the one thing I haven’t discussed is this: how long you’ll need to spend in a particular place or at a given archive. And, in short, this is because I can’t answer this question for you.

I would suggest that if you can, you take a few days and visit a collection to do exploratory research–my home department gave small sums of money for this, and I spent a week in London digging around.

The consideration of time is not just about how long it’ll take you to work with a file; it’s also about how long it takes files to be brought out to you, how long you’re able to work with them, whether the reading room closes for lunch, high tea, or something else, etc.

If you can bring a laptop or camera into the archive room, the process will go faster. If you have to transcribe everything on a pencil and pad, it’ll go slower. (Also pay attention to whether a ban on cameras extends to cell phones–some archives don’t like cameras because of the noise, but are okay with phones).

You’re probably going to want to get a sense of all of this before you book A Big Trip. (And, at the risk of repeating myself, it’s also a reason why you want to have your workflow established before you head out — you won’t want to be spending time in the archive itself trying to figure out how to take photos in low light, or realize that you need a cable you didn’t bring).

In general, having more time than you’ll think you’ll need is better than the opposite. It gives you more time with the material, and more time to follow leads to new collections you might not have considered visiting beforehand.

What else?

Update: This post generated a couple of important questions, which I’ve addressed here: Planning a Research Year: Part Two.

I have at least two more posts in this research year section planned, but what other questions do you have? Post in the comments below!

Grad School Survival Guide: The Mental Health Taboo

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s taken me longer to produce the next post in the grad school survival guide, and there’s a rather simple explanation that I posted about on Twitter.

So, there it is. A couple of weeks ago I realized I wasn’t okay, in the grand scheme of things, and that it was more than just me being bored.

What didn’t surprise me was the number of “Me too” responses I got. In fact, I was prompted to make this admission when a friend, Ian Morris, discussed his own bout with depression on a recent episode of the Abbasid History Podcast (it’s in the last three or four minutes of the episode). I figured if someone as brilliant as Ian could do it, I could too, and maybe if more of us say something, we can begin to normalize discussion about it.

Enough patting myself on the back.

The point, dear readers, is that mental health problems often present themselves in graduate school, and there is nowhere near enough discussion about it nor about what one should do. It’s time to change that.

The following post is not even close to a comprehensive listing of dos and don’ts, but random thoughts based on my own experience.

While mental health issues can hit at pretty much any time, they seem to cluster:

  1. At the beginning of your program
  2. Between the end of coursework and comprehensives
  3. After comprehensives
  4. After the dissertation defense.

What all four of these have in common is that they’re all major changes to the way your life is structured. The first usually involves trying to adjust to the change (especially if you’re returning to academia); the last three involve that feeling of drifting–when you’re going from a very structured, high pressure environment to having very little structure, pressure, or deadlines.

When you get to graduate school, assess the mental health services available to you.

It probably goes without saying that this is best done before you need such services, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not that prepared. If you have the opportunity to assess these before you accept an offer of admission, even better (but, again, I’m not that on top of it. I actually thought my institution had a medical school when I enrolled. It doesn’t. Oops.)

Is there a student health center, and does it include mental health services? If there is not, what arrangements exist to address student needs?

Is there a student disabilities office, and if so, are mental disabilities included? (They should be, but policies differ from place to place). As an instructor, I have sent a number of students to the one on my campus because anxiety, depression, and test anxiety were all conditions that “counted,” so to speak.

If you’re a teaching assistant or assistant instructor, are you eligible to use your campus’s employee assistance program? This is a service that students often overlook because they don’t know that they’re eligible. If you’re employed by the university, an EAP can often help you find a counselor who accepts your insurance, which saves you a lot of extra research.

Avoiding Drift

There’s probably a better name for this, but it’s what I call that feeling when you’re suddenly on your own to read for comprehensives, or researching, or writing, and you’ve gone from meeting friends and colleagues on a regular basis with very little effort to being on your own, sometimes in a completely different city, without a support network.

During comprehensives and writing, if you’re stationed in your home base, a reading or writing group can help. Set up a regular meeting with friends or colleagues and discuss what you’ve been up to.

The caveat here is that this is likely to be most helpful if it’s more of a check-in with other people; if the way you’ve structured your group becomes something that requires you to do additional work above and beyond what you’re already doing, it quickly becomes an annoyance that you or your colleagues will start trying to avoid.

For that reason, I was pretty resistant to doing this during the writing stage–I work best on my own, and the idea of adding to my workload by agreeing to read others’ work and offer feedback on a regular basis was just a non-starter for me. If it works for you great, but, again, knowing your own working style will help a lot here.

And, if all else fails, a regular lunch or happy hour date once a week will get you out of your head for a bit. All work and no play only ever boosted Jack Nicholson’s career, and let’s face it: we ain’t Jack.

Self-care on the research year

I’ll discuss the details of my own research year in a forthcoming post, but let me offer the tl;dr version here: I had no funding and crammed it all into six weeks, and I absolutely exhausted myself mentally and physically. I had been in London for almost two weeks before I left my rented flat for a purpose other than going to the grocery or to an archive.

I cannot overemphasize this enough: do not do this to yourself.

While having a set schedule on research leave does help (get up at normal time, be at archives when they open, etc.), I did this six days a week–and that only because everything was closed on Sunday, or I would have done it seven days a week–and I failed to see the signs of burnout until I moved from London to Geneva and just couldn’t deal. I was only in Geneva for eight days … eight miserable days … but the change in routine, operating language (to French, which I can read but not speak), and the massive increase in the cost of everything caused a mental shock that I could barely deal with.

Part of the mistake here was the eight day bit. I wasn’t in Geneva long enough to really have the motivation to do much other than power through. Had I been there longer, I could have put in more effort to meeting people and getting out more. I’m an introvert, so that can be a bit difficult for me.

As it is, I have a very funny (to me) story about the Museum of the Reformation that I may share someday. (“The presentation on predestination is beginning. You don’t want to miss it!”)

If you’re on a fellowship provided by a local institution, you may well find yourself with a cohort of other fish out of water to form a social group with.

Don’t forget the existence of Meetup.org — need to find other expats? There’s probably a group for that.

But again, all work and no play … makes for a very lonely research experience. If you’re in a new place, remember to take time and smell the roses.

Be open and honest

This brings me around to the reason I posted about dealing with depression on Twitter in the first place: a lot of these battles happen behind closed doors, and there is a taboo around speaking about them.

Mental health resources were not discussed at my own graduate student orientation (either of them). It came up in conversation, and I only knew the answer because I was also a full time staff member.

Be open with yourself–this seems kind of self-explanatory, but, honestly, I didn’t really figure out what was going on until a few weeks ago. I’ve been in a funk since May; it’s now July. And, honestly, part of the issue is that my mental issues usually involve anxiety–depression is new, different, and weird to me.

Be open with those who need to know–your adviser (dissertation supervisor, if you’re at that level) should be in the loop.

If you’re still in coursework and don’t feel like having this conversation with multiple instructors, student disability services may be able to help–again, your situation may be different, but at the campus I’ve taught at, part of SDS’s job was to notify instructors formally of these things and we got a lot of training on confidentiality (‘Please do not approach the student in class and say, “SO! I hear you’re suffering from an STI!”‘)

And I’m pushing my own agenda here, but I really do feel like the more we talk about this, the more normalized it’ll become, and we can start moving away from the issue of mental health in graduate school being such a taboo subject.

 

The Research Year: Planning a Workflow

Welcome back to the Grad School Survival Guide!

I have several posts envisioned detailed how to plan your research year, and I’ve decided to start with a couple of posts about what to do before you even leave home or set foot in your first archive.

(Full disclosure: This series will primarily discuss doing archival research; although what I say will be somewhat useful if you do oral history or other kinds of fieldwork, I won’t be targeting those specifically because I have pretty much no experience with them myself).

I’m writing these in no particular order and, in fact, I’m starting with workflow because a couple of friends are already working through this and I thought it would be most useful to them if I started here.

So.

What is a workflow, and why do you need to plan one?

Simply put, a workflow is how you go from this:

file1

to this:

Capture

It’s a bit difficult to see, but the PDF of the document in the top photo with the blue cover is digitally attached to the entry highlighted in the screenshot on the bottom.

(For the record, the top photo was taken at the British National Archives in Kew).

Now, you may be asking yourself: yes, but why do I have to figure this out in advance?

The most important reason to have a workflow figured out is this: you need to determine how you’re going to get those thousands of pages you find in an archive into a usable format and bring them home with you.

1. Photocopying is expensive. Even if it’s just 7 cents a page, if you wind up photocopying a thousand pages (which is *incredibly easy to do*), you’re going to spend some serious bank. Photocopies are also heavy and take up space in your luggage. And then, of course, there’s the question of what happens if they get wet, dropped, spilled, stolen (along with the rest of your luggage), torn, burnt, etc.

2. Photocopying takes time. A number of archives do not have self-service photocopy machines; they have copying services which will do it for you. This comes at both a monetary cost and a time cost, because unless the copyist is literally sitting around with nothing to do, you may not get the copies back the same day.

3. Okay, I’ll scan them. Sure thing! Except that scanning and photocopying are usually two halves of the same coin, performed by the same person at the same copy service that charges per page and probably won’t get to it as fast as you’d like or need.

I’ve been in a couple of dozen archival collections and I’ve seen exactly one with a self-scanner. It was located outside of the special collections room where the material I wanted to scan was kept, and I wasn’t allowed to take the material outside of the room.

4. Scanning has its own challenges. Also … even self-service scanning may not be free. There is a flatbed scanner at the Wellcome Collection in London, which is a research collection that I adore for its cheerful atmosphere, friendly and helpful staff, decently priced cafe with surprisingly good food, and bookstore that I can never get out of without dropping at least £20. In fact, I recommend that anyone passing through London whose research pertains in any way to science or medicine take a look (their catalog is online so you can see in advance what they have).

It is, in fact, the same flatbed scanner that my home university library has, with the same little port to plug in a USB device, and I was delighted to find this out became it meant I wouldn’t have to mess around and figure out how the machine works. I laid out my book, hit “scan” … and nothing happened.

That’s when I saw the little sign saying that there was a cost of £0.10 per scan.

In one of my few moments of actual frustration at Wellcome, I discovered that the cost of the scan has to be paid with a copy card, which can only be purchased in cash. American readers may not see the issue here, so let me clarify that the UK is well on its way to being an entirely cashless society. I had literally not been presented with a cash-only situation during my entire stay in the UK, save for the weekly food market behind Birkbeck College, which had huge signs at the entrance warning people and pointing them to the nearest cashpoint.

I had no cash on me, and as far as I was able to tell there wasn’t an ATM anywhere within the same block as the library. So … yeah.

So, how do I plan a workflow?

What it comes down to is this: you need to have a plan as to how you are going to capture the documents you want, store them securely, and annotate them (this is so, so important), and you need to be comfortable with both the hardware and software that you’ll be using before you leave the house for the first time.

Learning this all in the field wastes your time and money. Most of us are on some sort of research funds (I actually wasn’t–more about that in a future post), meaning that we need to produce while we’re there. Losing a day’s work because you took all of your photos at the wrong ISO and they came out so pixelated as to be unreadable is a risk you don’t want to run (even more if you don’t understand what I just said).

Plan your workflow by working backwards.

Start by asking yourself this question: when you are sitting at your computer writing your dissertation, how do you want to consult your documents? Are you envisioning them as multi-page PDFs with searchable text? As paper copies in front of you (as much as I just pooh-poohed the idea of photocopying, if that’s your thing and you have the funds to support it, go for it)? As something else?

I’ll stop asking you these questions and tell you my personal answer, but I want to emphasize again and again, as I have throughout this entire guide to grad school, that the most important thing is that you devise a system that feels natural to you and that you’re comfortable with. You don’t have to do it the way I did.

I wanted to have PDFs of the documents. I have to admit that I didn’t really think much more through it than that, which became something of an issue when I got to the British Archives and discovered that a file number could refer to a single piece of paper in a folio, or to two massive boxes bound together with twine. This is where creating bookmarks within PDFs became important.

The question for me then became how to capture the documents as digital images and get them into PDF form.

file
Camera, laptop, documents, iPad … check! Turns out this was a bad idea.

I originally did this using my digital camera–the British National Archives has camera mounts for stability–to capture images, which I then transferred to my laptop using Adobe Lightroom where I … you know what, I don’t even remember. I did this on a short research trip and the workflow of getting the images off my camera into Lightroom and thence into a PDF was so utterly cumbersome and time consuming that it literally took me three years to get everything processed.

See, I like to take photos and I know how to use Lightroom … for photos. As it turns out, I did not know the first thing about using Lightroom to create documents from photos.

This is why I insist that you try your workflow at home. Pull that copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire off the shelf and act like it’s a book you need to copy.

I wound up regrouping using a capture device I hadn’t taken seriously: my phone.

A friend pointed me in the direction of a scanner app — Scanner Pro (no, I don’t have this monetized) — that works on the iPhone. There are similar apps for Android and other platforms, and Office365 and I believe Google Docs are jumping into the fray with their own entries.

Scanner Pro isn’t free, but I realized it would pay for itself after about three archival boxes so what the heck.

What I like about it is this: it does a terrific job of capturing print documents, of deskewing them (meaning: if you take a photo of the document at an angle, or the document is crooked in some way, as it might be if it’s bound together, as the British documents are, you can draw a box and it kind of straightens it out; enough for government work anyway), of creating multi-page PDFs, of running OCR (optical character recognition, meaning that it looks for recognizable text within the image–this is what makes the document searchable), and–extremely importantly from my point of view–it uploads the documents to the cloud (Dropbox, Google Docs, and Box are all covered at least).

Hence, by the time I left the archive I would have already uploaded that day’s work into the cloud. Even if my phone got lifted on the tube ride home, I wouldn’t have lost my work.

Now, as I said–I have no vested financial interest in Scanner Pro and could not care less if that’s the app you choose to work with. The important thing is that you pick an app and work with it a bit so that you know how to use it pretty well before you set foot in an archive.

I would suggest that you try out a number of different types of documents in different formats–Goblet of Fire is a big, fat book, so you can see how your program deals with curvy pages. Also try single documents, big type, small type, and if your work is likely to involve images, try those too.

I do not find that Scanner Pro works great with images, but I didn’t have many to contend with and was just as likely to use the actual camera function on my phone for those.

Dealing with the files

Okay, so you now have a system to digitize images into files. Great!

Hey, where are you going? Our work here isn’t done.

In fact, what comes next is VITALLY important.

It’s also incredibly tedious and easy to let slip. Try not to let it.

So, now you have a bunch of digital files … now what?

If you’re like me, your hard drive starts to look like this after a while.

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In case you were wondering, there are six hundred files in this folder.

Also in case you were wondering … those are not the original file names that I gave these. I retro-organized this folder almost a year after I collected these articles because I realized that I had no idea what any of them contained. (The format is YYYY-MM-DD because Windows keeps it in order by date that way).

So, first up: two other tools I used.

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One is a PDF editor. Scanner Pro does a lot, but sometimes I need a little more boost. Or I needed to OCR a language other than English. Or I wanted to insert bookmarks, as I did with this copy (left) of the testimony to the Milner Commission in 1919, because the file I generated was over two hundred pages long.

Sometimes I leave little digital sticky notes in the documents. As long as it took me to learn how to work paperless, I did eventually master the skill because … did I mention there were six hundred files in that one folder alone?

For this task, I lit on PDF XChange Editor. I’m not linking to it here because they’ve changed the way they sell the software–when I first found it, the PDF Viewer and the PDF Editor were sold together for about half the cost of what they’re selling each individually for now.

If you’re with a university and have access to student pricing, compare with Adobe Acrobat or see if your university offers another solution.

When it came to putting it all together, I am a huge fan and devotee of Zotero, which I will link to because it’s free and fucking fantastic.

Zotero is your digital librarian. There’s a lot of training available online (free), and a lot of universities support it pretty well–it can take a bit to unlock all of the things it can do, but here is why I like it a lot.

Here, for example, is what the Zotero version of the folder I posted above looks like:

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I did have to go in and enter the title of each article, the author (if it had one), and date — this is something I would highly recommend that you get into the habit of doing daily. When I would come back to the flat I rented in London for my research stay, I would pour a glass of wine and sit in front of the TV and pick away at this on my laptop. If you let it go, it becomes unwieldy.

But here’s why this is useful. First off, you can include tags on each entry:

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Now, if I want to find all of the articles from the Egyptian Gazette that have to do with unemployment demonstrations, I can find them.

Second … if you double click on the entry, it opens the PDF. (I use Box storage as my Zotero storage). It’s all linked right there.

Third, Zotero has plugins for Microsoft Office and OpenOffice (and other things–as it’s open source, people are constantly developing plugins) so that you can generate footnotes and endnotes without having to retype everything.

You can also import records into Zotero directly from your university library’s catalog — again, you don’t have to retype everything.

Seriously, given the number of people I know who had to spend days “fixing” their footnotes prior to submitting the dissertation, I cannot recommend Zotero enough.

But again, it has a learning curve.

Practice, Practice, Practice

This is my last piece of advice here, and it’s one I’ve said over and over: make sure you know how to use your tools. Make sure you’re comfortable with them. If something is a bit squidgy (academic term), google and see if there’s a workaround or how others have dealt with it.

You’ll have enough unanticipated issues to deal with on the road as it is. Having a solid plan as to how you’re going to work with the material you can collect from the beginning will take a lot of the stress off of your shoulders, so that when you get to the archives you can be productive right away.

In future columns on the research year, I’ll discuss how to plan out what you’ll be doing, and how to try to keep sane while you’re on the road. Stay tuned!

Someone else is doing my topic. Is my academic career over??

Another query from a friend – hopefully they won’t mind me using our discussion as the springboard for a post, because they are not the only person I’ve had this conversation with. Not only that, but I, myself, have been talked off this very same ledge more than once.

It goes something like this. You’re past prospectus, you’re getting reading to embark on research–or perhaps you’re mid research, or even writing your dissertation.

At some point, someone mentions to you–or you see an article, or somehow it is brought to your attention that there is another scholar working on a topic similar to yours.

And you go see what they’re doing.

And you realize their topic sounds familiar.

Very familiar.

And you start to feel like you’re having an out of body experience.

And, at some point, you realize it’s been about twenty seconds since you last inhaled.

Because … they’re doing your topic.

And your palms sweat.

If someone else is doing your topic … then your work isn’t original any more! It’s too late to start over now! I can’t start over! Am I doomed? Is it the apocalypse?

No. No, it isn’t. (Okay, in full disclosure: it may be the apocalypse, but this isn’t why.)

Your work is still original, and so is theirs.

Let’s counter the irrationality of panic and insecurity with some cold hard facts.

You have your sources, your framework, and your theory. No one else has this. Even if the other scholar is looking at the exact same topic as you, the two of you are not going to write the same thesis. It’s just not going to happen. (And if it does, this isn’t the column for you. You need to be looking at pieces on plagiarism and academic dishonesty because that just doesn’t happen).

We put such a premium on the doctoral process involving An Original Piece of Research to The Field that we miss the fact that we’re supposed to be entering a conversation with other scholars. Other people are going to comment on your work. You’re building off of a cadre of scholars who are adjacent to your subfield. And, yes, maybe one of them will know something about your topic too. It’s okay! That’s what academia is all about (or it’s supposed to be, anyway).

But this is a hard lesson to come to. For years, whenever I read anything that came a little too close to my own research my face would start to burn and I’d feel like a fraud. My work isn’t new, I’d tell myself. Everyone knows this. I’m just rehashing old territory.

You’ll feel like this a lot when you’re in the midst of research and writing because you’ve spent so long with the material that it feels like common knowledge. Trust me, it isn’t.

I guarantee the other scholar isn’t using your sources. They have stuff you don’t have. You have stuff they don’t have. And even if you come to the exact same conclusion, you’ll have taken different routes to get there, and both of your works will benefit. Don’t see this as a threat to your own work.

Edit: when I posted this on Facebook, a colleague commented that:

A graduate student emailed me freaking out that I had “beat him” to the topic. Since then, we’ve submitted grant applications together to conduct an expansive oral history project.

Think of the opportunities: conference panels, grants, etc. You’re starting to find your tribe!

Do, however, take steps to protect your own work. I never posted anything dissertation-related online, except for some public history pieces and a very short (10 page) paper I gave at a conference. I’m happy to share my work with interested scholars, but until I’m ready to publish it and put it out there for the world to see, I’m not broad-banding the draft versions. This is just common sense, and I’d recommend it to everyone. You can’t be too careful.

In my next posts in the Grad School Survival Guide, I’ll discuss the process of planning a research year, and how to try to get through it in one piece. Stay tuned!

 

Grad School Survival Guide: Oral Examinations

For this entry in the Grad School Survival Guide, I begin with a story.

In the fall of each year, my department had meetings with the students in their first, second, and third year (individually) to discuss benchmarks in the program, student concerns, etc., sort of as a coaching meeting at the beginning of the year.

I was not in my third year when this story took place (in fact, I was in my eighth, and final year), and I had absolutely no intention of attending the third year meeting. I was just looking for a place to drink my coffee before meeting with a new visiting research fellow who also worked on Egypt, and I figured that the fourth floor common area outside the research fellows’ offices would be empty.

I was wrong.

Off I walked from the elevator in my best “I’m not teaching today and don’t have to look pretty” clothes (which is to say, the ones that didn’t have visible stains on them or had been co-opted by the cats as a nest on the floor of the closet) with my headphones in, carrying a paper mug from the ‘bucks and I don’t know what else … and discovered that twenty sets of eyes were watching me do so.

Had I but been naked it would have been a scene from a nightmare.

“Oh, hi.” I said over whatever Scandinavian pop-rock I was into that day blasting into my ears. “Um, can I sit here quietly? I’m meeting someone in twenty minutes.”

And that was when the invitation was offered. “The students are a bit nervous about comps,” said the graduate advisor. “Come offer words of wisdom.”

Trying to wrap my head around the need to be social–I am an introvert. I have learned to be an extroverted introvert, but I still, in my mid-40s, do not react well to discovering that I need to be social when I was not expecting to be–I came and took a seat at the table and asked the assembled group, “So, what about comps is stressing you out?”

It transpired that the students were nervous about the oral component of the comprehensive exams. And herein I said something that made our normally unflappable graduate advisor flinch:

“Oh, orals stressed me out. I was way more stressed about my oral comprehensives than I am about my dissertation defense.”

And, for the record, having now been through my dissertation defense (successfully), let me say definitively: yes, I was much more stressed about my oral comprehensive exams than I was about the defense.

If you are feeling as though this might be the case for you, let me offer this piece of sage wisdom: it’s not just you. And also, relax.

man in white shirt using macbook pro
Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

Why you’re stressed

You probably don’t need me to delineate the causes of your stress, but let me boil it down to one simple thing that, for me, fed into all the rest of my comps-related stress: I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

You see, oral comprehensive exams aren’t open to the public. I think they do that so that there’s no additional pressure on the examinee, but I’m not sure that’s actually the end result. By the time I started my doctoral program I had attended a handful of dissertation defenses. I knew what sorts of questions were asked, and I knew what they sounded like when they went well.

Later, I would discover what it sounded like when they did not go well (disclaimer: it wasn’t mine). One defense went so poorly that one of the committee members later apologized to me in her office because she said that “you poor students all looked pretty traumatized, and I want you to know that’s not how things normally go.” There were a lot of extenuating circumstances. I won’t go into it here, as it’s not my tale to tell, but it also served to demonstrate that for things to go that badly at a defense you have to put some effort into it. If your advisor and committee tell you you’re ready to defend, there’s absolutely no reason to lose sleep over the defense.

But … what about comprehensives? I’ve heard of people who don’t pass their comprehensives. What sorts of questions are asked? What does the right answer look like? I mean, this one time at a defense I saw a candidate deflect a question by coolly responding, “That’s an excellent question, but I would have to argue that it’s outside the scope of this project.” And the committee accepted that! Can I do that in comps? (Note: I wouldn’t advise it).

For a long time there was even a prohibition on sharing the written examination questions and essays with colleagues. I don’t know if it’s still in place, but I do know a couple of colleagues who posted their comps portfolios online. In my day, I didn’t even have a sample of what the stupid things were supposed to look like.

adult blur business close up
Photo by Nguyen Nguyen on Pexels.com

A note on the written examinations

You’ll notice that I haven’t written a separate entry about the written comprehensive essays. And this is because they are not one-size-fits-all. Some universities put you in a room and give you x amount of time to do a brain dump of everything you’ve learned. Some give you a couple of days per essay. Mine gives you a month to do all of them. In short: advice that worked for me probably won’t work for you.

I had all my sources and materials at my beck and call. The “short” essay–at 24 pages–had hundreds of footnotes. If you’re locked in a room for eight hours and doing a stream of consciousness data dump of the previous year’s reading based solely on your memory, my advice will be completely useless.

For the written: Paint with big strokes, identify large themes, and write until you’re done. The purpose of the essay is to demonstrate the wide breadth of knowledge you’ve accumulated. The best advice I can give here is to suggest that you treat your written examination as a preparation of the orals. This is a document you’ll be coming back to in that session. Lay out your argument and explanation here.

trial

So. Orals.

There are two very helpful pieces of advice that were given to me about comps.

The first is that the oral exam is that it’s like an Oral Proficiency Interview in a foreign language. Now, if you’re in one of those lucky fields where you don’t have to do these (or you specialize in dead languages), let me explain how these work. The test is designed to determine how high your language ability goes. The key–and often missing–piece of information for the testee is that in order to determine how high your ability goes, the test has to exceed your ability to communicate in that language–in other words, for the test to work, you have to fail.

The conversation will begin with “hello, what is your name?” and proceed through “order this at the grocery story” to “please explain the macroeconomic impacts of Prince Feisal’s plan to develop the natural gas sector of the economy” gradually and slowly over the course of the session. At some point, your vocabulary and/or grammar will run out, and your ability to communicate will break. It’s supposed to, unless you’re a native speaker (in which case, why the hell are you taking a proficiency interview in a language you speak natively?).

Your language aptitude is then measured at the highest level where you were able to perform competently. Some mistakes, but you were able to plow through and make yourself understood despite them.

The comprehensive oral examination is a bit like this. The questions will be probing. You’ll be asked about areas that the committee feels you deviated away from, or didn’t address as fully as they wanted. They’ll push you to defend certain points you made. You might have been wrong once or twice. (These are all things that happened in mine). The idea is to see how much knowledge you built up over the past year and determine that it is Satisfactory.

You will not be asked names, dates, and places. More likely you’ll be asked about authors and arguments.

What I find helpful about the OPI analogy is this: you’re not expected to be able to answer everything. Not all questions are for answering. Some are to make you think. Knowing this makes a huge difference in how you react.

The other piece of advice I got, which I fear is also true, is that the comprehensive oral examination is academic hazing.

In my case…the committee decided before I even entered the room that I had passed the exam and spent the next ninety minutes putting me through the wringer mainly to get me to think about the things I hadn’t addressed fully in the written portion, so that I could be aware of them as I moved into the dissertation phase.

Why they couldn’t just tell me this I don’t know. There is an element of “we went through it, so you will also go through it” to all of this.

The Bottom Line

If you’ve done well in your reading for the exams, if you feel like you’ve done competently on the written essays (no one feels like they aced them, except for that one friend of mine who will message me the moment he reads this to tell me that he did … I see you, CMB), you should be well prepared for the orals.

If, on the other hand, you just skipped an entire section of your reading list because you found the material boring and uninteresting, then you probably have reason to be worried.

I know people who feel the need to “cram” for their orals. If this makes you feel better prepared, I won’t discourage it, but by all means don’t pull an all-nighter. You’ve had a year (or longer). You’re not going to shovel it into your brain at the last second. Re-read your written essays and get some sleep.

You’ve made it this far. It’s in no one’s interest to see you fail now!