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

“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.

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.

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 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!

Grad School Survival Guide: The Mental Health Taboo

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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 — 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.