In my inaugural post for British Naval History, I provided some reflections on having just achieved the culmination of my years of study, as well as some observations and suggestions for persons thinking of embarking on the journey toward a PhD or for those already on the path. Since then, my friend, colleague, and fellow editor, Sam McLean, has written two posts on his post-PhD observations and recommendations. I would like to build on his posts and add some additional bits of advice and suggestions from a practical standpoint.
Whether you are about to start, have started, or are several years down the road toward a PhD, make sure you have the best gear possible. By “gear” I mean your laptop and ancillary equipment. Knowing that your project is going to take years, you do not want to start with a four-year-old laptop that may have been state of the art at one time but which now is out of date, low on memory, and slow. The last thing you want to happen is to have a year’s worth of research on your laptop only to have it crash, and then lose all your work, or to get frustrated because your battery no longer holds a charge, or have your laptop and its software become obsolete due to old operating systems no longer being supported by Microsoft or Apple. And do not get a laptop designed or intended for gaming or other activities unrelated to your primary use. You’re a researcher and writer. Save gaming for some other device.
I suggest that someone starting on a PhD obtain a laptop that reasonably is expected to last throughout your years of researching and writing. Spending a bit more on the front end will save anguish and irritation down the road. Your laptop does not necessarily have to be new. For example, I purchased a factory-refurbished and warranted MacBook Air with a 13-inch screen from the Apple website for use almost exclusive in connection with my PhD and saved a fair amount of money.
Make sure your laptop has sufficient storage for your research. I would suggest at least 256GB, if not 512GB or more. Weight matters when you’re carrying your laptop to archives or elsewhere. I would get the lightest weight laptop you can afford (generally, lower weight = higher price). I found a solid-state drive (SSD) to be much faster and lighter and reliable than a more common hard disk drive. While the latter generally is less expensive and typically can be purchased with greater capacity for less money, a SSD is so much faster and lighter that in my view, it’s worth the price/capacity trade-off.
A 13-inch laptop screen was the right size for me. Those with better eyes might find an 11-inch screen sufficient. A 15-inch screen added too much weight for me. I also would strongly suggest getting a decent monitor (22 inches or bigger) to use at home with your laptop. Your eyes will thank you, especially on those days when you spend hours staring at the screen. You can easily put multiple pages of text or a website page and other windows with a large monitor. A good monitor can be had for a hundred dollars or less if you look around on-line. It is a valuable piece of equipment to have.
I would also suggest obtaining an external hard drive, on which to store back-up copies of your research. A 500GB external drive costs very little, and having multiple back-ups of your research provides great comfort. I tried religiously to back-up my research (and later the working drafts of my thesis) to at least two different places (in addition to my laptop). I performed a back up of my work after every day if possible when I was visiting archives.
Carefully consider what type of equipment you will use to take/make images of documents at those archives at which this is permitted. The National Archives at Kew, the US National Archives, US Library of Congress, National Maritime Museum, and many other archives allow researchers to take photographs (without flash) or to scan documents. Other archives, such as the British Library and the Royal Archives only allow you to take notes (usually on your laptop) or to laboriously type out the documents you are reviewing. Sam used a camera and took JPEG images and made recommendations regarding a camera in his second post. I, however, got an iPad with 32GB of memory and used that device, for reasons relating to the app I used, to create PDF images of documents, as described further below. I believe you can connect an iPad to a PC-based laptop with the right software. I just plugged my iPad in to my MacBook Air, which then would create a back up from my iPad automatically. The iPad allowed easy review of images I had just taken and also was a perfect platform for reading articles and other items of interest that I had downloaded.
Whatever gear you decide to use, do not get the cheapest equipment. Spend some time researching the kit that will best fit your needs. You will be “living” with it for years.
Of course, the best gear in the world will be of little value or use if you do not have the right software. Regardless of the operating system (and make sure your laptop is not running an operating system that is due to be obsoleted in the near future), get Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Those are “industry standard” and you want good word processing software for your writing. Know how to use them and how to standardize the formatting for text and notes. Know how to change the dictionary for what you are writing if you need to use English (US) or English (UK) for spelling and grammar. Get the Microsoft Word suite (I did not include Outlook, which is the Microsoft email program and which costs a fair amount extra), install it (whether for Mac or a PC), and learn all the shortcuts available. Create your own shortcuts (combinations of a couple of keys that automatically insert something) as appropriate. Using Microsoft Word should make your life much easier as you write.
As I indicated, Sam recommended using a camera to take JPEG images of documents while researching where allowed. I would recommend instead an app called DocScan HD. There are other similar apps available, but this is the one I used and it’s great. I know it is available for use on iPhones and I used it on my iPad. It allows you to take images of documents without any flash. It will “clean up” the image so it is bright and readable. It creates scans in color or black and white. You can create folders as you take the images and label them for later reference. The images are automatically created as PDFs, which allow ready manipulation. And multiple-page documents can be saved as a single item, so that you do not have to later laboriously combine JPEGs (or PDFs) into a single document as might be appropriate. The app worked great and is (and was) regularly updated. While it is not available, as near as I can tell, for Android or PCs, there are other similar applications available. Just make certain they are highly rated and have the same, or similar, functions as DocScan HD.
Make sure you have good security software on your device(s), especially if you are using PC-based gear. You do not want your equipment to get hijacked, corrupted or compromised in any way. There are many security software programs available. Get a good one and get a multi-year license so that you don’t have to worry about your laptop suddenly becoming vulnerable when your license expires. And don’t “click” on any unknown or strange emails!
I suggest spending the extra dollars to get Adobe Acrobat for reading and manipulating PDFs at a more professional level. While the Adobe PDF reader is free (and necessary), the upgraded software allows editing, reviewing, highlighting and other features that otherwise may not be available. You will spend much time downloading and reading PDFs. Make life easier.
I also would recommend using a cloud-based service in which to store copies of your research and writings. I used Dropbox – which was free – and uploaded all images of my research and also copies of documents on which I was working as frequently as possible. There are other cloud-based storage products available. Pick one that works for you. But have one. With Dropbox, I could upload and save research and then review it on any number of other computers or devices on which I had loaded the Dropbox software. With Dropbox, I did not have to worry about whether some research gathered weeks or months earlier was available or try to remember what it said. I would just go to my Dropbox account and review the item(s) and download them if needed. Again, it made life much easier while researching and writing.
Everyone either has, or will develop, their personal method for conducting research. However, you do it, find a method that works for you and stick to it. I would plan in advance, as much as possible, a visit to an archive, and if finding aids were available on-line, download copies make notes of the items I wanted to review. Where I could order files in advance of arrival (as with TNA or the British Library), I would so that I could start reviewing files immediately upon arrival. I maintained a written notebook listing the archives visited, when, and the files that I wanted to review. I would check them off after I reviewed them. It was a way to ensure that I did not miss something I wanted to see at a particular archive and also was a means to keep track of files at archives that I wanted to review. While needless repetitive visits to an archive should be avoided, you likely will have to go back when the pertinence of some other series of documents or files suddenly become relevant to your research.
As Sam said he did, when I was in an archive, I would take massive amounts of images of documents and not take the time to try to read or review them there. That was for later. I wanted to use my time in an archive as efficiently and productively as possible. I would bring my laptop, plug it in (usually), plug my iPad in to it, and start taking images. I would write in a notebook the files I reviewed and whether I took any images from them. With DocScan HD, I would scan the cover or main container I was reviewing, as well as the names of the folders from which I was taking images. I would label the folders with the DocScan HD app and then place the individual documents within those folders. This allowed me later to easily determine the appropriate citation/reference for any document that I cited or relied on.
Finally, although this should be apparent, as Sam indicated, BE ORGANIZED! You need to be able to find the information or point you need or know you have in a reasonable amount of time. However you categorize or organized or summarize your research: do it. There is nothing more frustrating than to “know” you have some document from some archive that supports the point you want to make, but then have to spend hours (literally) finding it amongst your research. That happened to me more than once and it likely will happen to you. But do everything you can to minimize it. Organization is key. You do not want to drown in your own research.
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Hopefully, these practical suggestions will be of some use. They are one person’s perspective. Feel free to ask questions or engage in discussion on how best to “attack” a PhD. While there is always more than one possible road to take, you want to take the easiest one. No reason exists to make working toward a PhD more difficult than it is.