The ‘Digital World’ is drastically changing what a PhD can be, and with the conclusion of the main phase of my PhD, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the issues that I encountered. While some I hope I handled well, such as the integration and participation in the academic community, I did not find solutions to other problems, and so while I cannot provide answers or solutions, I would like to talk about them in hope that other PhD students, grad students, and those undertaking significant academic works may be able to anticipate issues they may encounter. In general they deal with scope.
1) Many historians I know research by going to an archive, and taking meticulous notes about documents. I research by going to an archive, and using my digital camera to document the sources, and especially volumes that I want. I am able to then be most efficient in my time in the archives, and read the documents and take notes in the comfort of my home. This is exacerbated by the reality that so many documents are available online. Websites such as British History Online put entire huge amounts of information online. The number of 18th and 19th century printed sources that are available on Google Play as PDFs is astounding. Many archives, such as the National Maritime Museum’s Caird Library and the National Archives, put significant effort into digitizing documents and making them available. As a result, it is possible for historians to acquire many more sources than they have the time or capacity to properly process. By the time I stopped actively going to the archives, I had in excess of 39 GB of photos of archival sources. As I was writing my thesis, it became clear to me that I was literally drowning in my available sources. As a result, I clung to the documents and examples I was very familiar with and used them repeatedly across various chapters. I do not think that if I had anticipated this problem I would have done less research, taken less photos. But I do think that I would have put more effort into cataloguing and processing the photos, so that I would be more comfortable reaching out to more examples.
2) At King’s College London, the maximum for a PhD thesis is 100,000 words, footnotes included. However, it became clear that writing a PhD is a pretty wordy exercise. Arguments require introductions and conclusions, the presentation of multiple pieces of evidence, context, and analysis. These requirements suffer when an author tries to do too much with the main argument, or in my case arguments. By putting the main emphasis on my process and the frameworks I created, I did not put enough words into the provision of the context and the other content needed to fully explain what I was trying to do. There is space for much to be accomplished, but the scale of what is being attempted is an important consideration. I learned, too late, that a PhD cannot cover a long period of time, and try to be theoretically complex, and other things, all at the same time. Not only did I try to do too much, I did not fully explain everything that I was trying to do. I got so wrapped up in the complexity of my argument, that I actually removed the main argument or result of analysis to keep for an article instead.
3) A PhD thesis is a significant piece of work- and since it is the product of usually more than three years of effort, it will undergo many changes. Certainly mine did, from the even more unsuccessful structure I presented in my upgrade package, to the continual replacement of the labels and descriptions I used as the I worked through developing my methodology. Although I kept all my drafts, I became totally lost in the way that things changed, and concepts, labels and arguments were lost. Ideas and concepts that I had removed, but could have made the thesis better were either last-minute re-additions, or did not get rediscovered until after I had submitted. The sheer number of changes and developments make it impossible to keep track of everything that has been considered, and discarded. Simply keeping old drafts does not necessarily keep the removed content close to mind for future use.
These are just some of the problems that I encountered, particularly in the final stages of writing and editing my thesis. While I was not able to appreciate them, or find a way to solve them, I’m determined to keep them in mind as I move forward with my academic work.
you should check out the Cendari Virtual research environment project. http://www.cendari.eu.
They’re developing an online portal for tagging, collating, and utilising digital images and transcribed text to avoid these kinds of problems.
I think it’s beta testing at the moment, but we did a testing workshop with them in Trinity College Dublin this year, and it looks like a really promising tool.
worth keeping in mind anyway.