In this blog, I’m going to be talking about some of the tricks and tips that I learned while I was doing my PhD. These helped me with various aspects of the academic process, and with the social aspects of my studies.
I learned quite a bit by the time I resubmitted my thesis. I’m going to break this up into what I consider the five processes of history. and then I’ll talk about other aspects as well. This post is aimed at readers who are about to head into grad school, or are considering grad school, and for those who are starting their PhD. In many ways, this is a list of “don’t make the mistakes that I made”. Some of these things sounds very obvious, and are. But I know from experience we can get wrapped up in both trying to do well, and trying to seem like we know what we’re doing that we can avoid things or not do things in case we do them wrong or look silly.
Defining your Topic/Question
This is tough, frankly. There are really only three bits of advice I can give.
- Your question will change. At least once, if not more, especially in response to a) the existing literature b) sources that you find that grab you and won’t let you go. This is not a bad thing, and it certainly isn’t a setback.
- You will find yourself constantly refining your question. It will get smaller, and smaller. There is plenty of space in a hundred thousand words to provide plenty of context, explanation and significance for the very precise question you’re exploring.
- Don’t avoid reading the work of others whose topic is scarily close to your own. Read their work. All of it. Email the writer, become their friend, and support them.
Things are quickly changing- and the ever increasing ability to access and hold more documents and information can be quickly overwhelming. By the time I submitted the first version of the thesis, I was drowning in documents, and the primary reason that I removed the ‘argument’ from the first version of my thesis was so that I could talk about as many types of documents as possible.
Personally, I far prefer taking digital photos of sources and then reading through them fully at home. So here are the tips for doing archival research
- Get a camera that has a socket for a mount- because using a camera frame so you can flip/click/flip/click is so much easier and faster. There’s nothing wrong with taking photos of an entire volume of documents, two pages at a time. It takes more time to get through later but I’ve found I’d rather have the document and skim through it, than not.
- Get lots of extra batteries- because you’re going to drain them faster than they can recharge.
- Get as high quality photos as you can- storage is cheap now, and it’s better to have the photos then have to go back to the archive again.
- Cataloguing is critical (and I didn’t really start doing this properly until a year or so in). At the beginning of every volume,take a photo of the label or the order slip or whatever. Because otherwise things get chaotic.
- If you take photos of an entire volume (even the documents you don’t really need), then it makes it easier for referencing b/c the folio numbers may not be marked.
- Make sure you take photos of the back and front of letters- to get the address information (
- Make friends with the archivists/librarians. Even if the catalogue is very good, they will know things that are hidden, and can point you to really cool documents.
- I have no problem sharing photos of documents from my time in the archives. If I can help somebody out by giving them things to look at, I’m happy to. Your time in the archives is valuable- whether you share documents you’ve found is your decision. I would argue that when we can, we should help others out.
Of course, not all research is done in archives. !So !Much !Research is now done online.
- When you download articles from sites- often (like from JSTOR) they just have a file number. Please, please, please name the documents. It’ll make your life *so* much easier. Unlike me, who had 215 PDFs in my “Articles to Read” folder on my harddrive. I found it easier to have them all open at the same time then hunt through them.
- Download Mendeley, or something similar, to organize your downloaded articles, and help with citations. This will make your life so much easier. By the time I decided to try, it was much too late. One of my jobs over the next couple of months is to do this with all the articles I’ve downloaded.
- Absolutely use software to help you with your references/citations. This will make your life *so* much easier. I did not, and I regret it. There are many options, each of which has a rabid fanbase and an equal number of people who doesn’t like it. Just remember that once you’re a fair ways down the track, you can find yourself wedded to a program. So do research ahead of time.
- Use websites like British History Online and Google Play ruthlessly. The former is brilliant, and it provides you with citations in various formats. The latter has text-searchable PDF scans of hundreds of historical books and documents. Be as ruthless with access to EEBO, and other repositories. Download what you can. I would also suggest creating a GMail account just for academic books, so it’s not mixed with non-academic things. I even downloaded Google Chrome to be my ‘academic browser’ on my laptop, so all the bookmarks etc there were academic, it was linked in with all my usernames and passwords.
Organization is *critical*. I would suggest figuring out your organizational scheme before you do any research. I would put all the articles in one folder, for example, all downloaded books in another. If you break it down by topic, you’ll spend a lot of time flipping through your drive hierarchy. For archival photos, I divided it Archive/Series/Volume. Also, back everything up. You could use Dropbox or Google Drive, which certainly have benefits- but you’ll definitely max out you storage space. I would suggest buying a 200GB (or so) external harddrive, and using that. If it’s a solid state drive, you can take it with you. But it’ll save your butt when you have computer issues. Also, read widely, including and especially outside your discipline. This will certainly help you find other sources and things that are important. As for secondary sources: You will never read all of them. You will continue finding new things and adding them to your literature review, to your thinking process until probably a couple days before you submit your thesis. This is *fine*. I found that finding and reading new books actually helped push my analysis along.
This will be something you do constantly, especially as you’ll always be incorporating new sources, new books, new ideas and arguments you have with your friends in the pub. It’s important to make sure that as you’re doing your analysis, that you come up with a methodology. Whatever it is, write it down. That will go into the introduction of your thesis. It is particularly important to push the disciplinary boundaries and cross into other disciplines when you’re doing the analysis. For my thesis in particular, I was inspired by computer science, and I actively engaged with sociology. Considering how your topic is addressed in other disciplines will force you to ask questions about your methodology that will help you solidify your process. How are you analyzing the sources? What is the metric for your evaluation? These are important questions to ask yourself.
Creating your Argument
This phase is all about taking what you’ve discerned from your analysis, and creating the message you want to communicate. You’ll constantly doing this while you research, analyze, and write. You will go through many arguments. I strongly suggest going to conferences, giving seminars, talks, lectures, any opportunity you can to try out your argument-of-the-moment. The questions and feedback that you get will be so helpful. Put your argument out there, so that people can poke holes in it, and be open that it’s your current argument, and that you’re working on it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with presenting a work in progress. Also, for historians, remember that you’re not necessarily trying to solve a problem. Yours will not be the final word on a subject, or the only acceptable argument. What you’re aiming to do is to add something new to a complex ongoing discussion. If you keep that in mind, it makes dealing with the pressure of ‘so what’ much easier.
Communicating Your Argument
In undergrad, I was told that I was a good writer, so I didn’t work to improve at it. That poor decision (and arrogance) has caused me so much stress and duplicated effort since. I certainly am in no position to lay down some glorious rules about writing, so I’m just going to talk a bit about some of the things that I learned/relearned, especially while getting the thesis ready for resubmission.
- Write constantly, and from the beginning. Write chapter drafts, ideas, rough drafts, book reviews, blog posts, stream-of-consciousness things. Get things down ‘on paper,’ and save all of them.
- Show people your writing often. If you can, get them published in journals, or online on websites (like this one), and with collaborative projects like Port Towns and Urban Cultures. Get your ideas out there so that can people can read them and provide feedback. This is incredibly important and every time I did this, I got something useful out of it.
- Write for audiences that are different than you’re used to. I presented to a conference on religious history in York, and (twice!) showed my writing to a group of legal historians in Toronto. Get new perspectives on the content, on the argument, on the way you structure things. Different audiences will raise very different questions.
- Structure is incredibly important. If it doesn’t sit quite right, rearrange things. Repeat. I had to completely restructure my thesis after my Viva. And I found myself restructuring a chapter twice in the last two weeks before I submitted this time (both times, it became much better).
- If you find yourself repeating a statement or explanation, move it to the introduction and address it there, because it’s clearly something that is central to your argument.
- Kill your darlings- but when you remove them, move them (And anything else) to a file of things that you’re keeping. I was surprised how often I moved things back from that file to another section of the thesis when I was redoing it.
- Don’t worry about word count, especially when you’re trying to generate the prose. Writing is as much thinking and plotting and planning as it is putting words down on paper. Also, Put words down on paper. It doesn’t matter if they’re not perfect, or not in sentences, or if its stream-of-consciousness. Getting ideas down so that you can come back and think about them again later is important.
- I don’t reference as I go. I insert a footnote, and make a short note of what should go there, but I don’t want to interrupt the writing. This caused me agony near the end when I had to do all the footnotes. So just keep that in mind when you’re writing.
- You will be using Word Processing software. Use this to your full advantage- eg a Master Document so you can work on the chapters separately, but also have stats about the entire document. If you decide that you want to change ‘Custom’ to ‘Convention’ with two weeks to go (Like I did), do so. You have an incredibly powerful tool in terms of shaping and reshaping the communication of your argument, so use it to its full potential. You’ll also be submitting a PDF (most probably), so build in bookmarks and structures and things- use the heading styles so that when somebody is reading your thesis (or even chapters), they can navigate it more easily.
- Once you’ve send a draft to somebody (or multiple somebodies) to read, stop futzing and finessing that draft until all the readers get back to you. Just leave it alone and do something else. (I very, very much struggled with this).
- Stop writing before you’ve exhausted yourself. Creative inertia is a real thing- if you finish writing everything you have in your head, you’ll find it harder to get going the next time because a blank page is an awfully daunting thing. When you can, give yourself something to start with the next day that you already know what you’re going to do, and it’ll make starting the *next* thing easier.
Grad school is a contradiction. One the one hand, it is incredibly isolating because you’ll be literally the only person working on your topic/question and it can be hard to find somebody to talk through things with. On the other hand, it can also be incredibly social. I strongly, strongly urge you to take advantage of opportunities that exist, or create opportunities for seminar series, lectures, events where people can share their ideas, answer some questions, and then talk shop. If you’re lucky enough to be within a decent commute of London, for example, go to the Institute for Historical Research. They have brilliant seminars. I strongly, strongly suggest going to a seminar series regularly, and also attending lectures that aren’t directly connected to your thesis. They will often inspire you to look at things in new ways, and you’ll make great academic contacts. Go to book launches, and lunchtime talks, and any event that you can and have time for, and it will greatly enrich your academic experience.
This is by no means paradigm-shifting advice. But they are some of the most important academic-process lessons and things that I’ve picked up during my PhD experience so far. I hope that they are useful. In January, we will be starting a series of blogs, where guest authors from many different fields and disciplines will be discussing aspects of academic process. If you are interested in contributing a post to that series, please feel free to get in touch via Twitter or to email me. at firstname.lastname@example.org