Surviving the long research trip

Emerging from a long research trip with your sanity intact can be tricky. Anyone who’s traveled knows not only how quickly expenses add up, but also how quickly time flies when you’d desperately like more of it. Other factors associated with travel – like a disrupted personal routine, the potential digestional hazards of “road food,” the high correlation between an affordable hotel and a bad hotel, and delayed access to good coffee – can make the long research trip seem like something to first dread, then endure, and finally recover from.

Research trips are a critical part of grad school, at least if you hope to graduate anytime soon, and an extended research trip can be the best way to get the most bang for that buck you may or may not be getting reimbursed for, but lengthy research trips can be fun too. In fact, having fun is one of the simplest ways to put difficult tasks in perspective, reduce stress, and prevent burnout. Contrary to popular (academic) belief the long research trip need not be a grueling ordeal that you soldier through macho style. Over the years I’ve developed some basic strategies that help me not only survive the long research trip, but live the days in a way that enables me to make the best possible use of precious research time.

Plan ahead. This seems like a no-brainer. Of course you must plan ahead to book your airfare, rental car, hotel, and so on but did you cover all your bases?  Most grad students know better than to show up to an archive without having at least searched the online catalog and communicated their research needs to an archivist or two well in advance. (For more on this see my post A good archivist goes a long way.) But you should also develop the habit of nosing around for potential sources whenever you travel in a professional capacity. I’m not advocating you disrupt a vacation by taking a research detour, rather that you should never go to a conference, attend a seminar, or give a guest lecture without checking for relevant holdings in libraries and archives nearby. Failing to do your homework in advance means missing out on easy opportunities to maximize your research time, stretch those travel dollars, justify your expenses, and reduce your overall stress about the research process.

Give yourself over to the idea and get organized. Yes, you’ll have to work really hard for long hours with on-the-go food, grossly abbreviated lunch breaks, limited sleep, and many demands on your attention but it will only be for a certain amount of time. Mentally frame the experience as an exception to your usual schedule, one that you will make the best of, benefit a great deal from, and thank yourself for later. Then work out a detailed daily schedule that incorporates the ways your travel itinerary and library/archive hours of operation will dictate your routine as well as the ways this schedule may need to flex to adjust to unanticipated events. Try to leave some maneuvering room for unexpected archival discoveries, delays from getting lost in an unfamiliar city, opportunities to network, morning/evening organization of photocopies/digital notes, and so forth. A well-planned schedule is key to effective time management, and recognizing in advance that you’ll need to make room for adjustments will help you set reasonable boundaries when you encounter new demands on your time.

Know thyself. Know your personal habits and preferences and don’t be afraid to assert them when you know it’s in your best interest. (This goes for grad school in general too.) You know what you need to perform at your best. Long research trips will stretch you to your max, mentally and sometimes physically as well. Acknowledge this and think about what tactics you’ll need to use to keep yourself in peak research mode. If it’s a quiet, calm evening at the end of an exhausting, busy day so be it. Occasional exceptions must be made, of course, when you recognize a unique opportunity to extend your professional network or examine an uncatalogued collection, for example, but be sure any exception is exceptional and not just a cave to someone else’s idea of a great post-research evening. Know when to put your needs first, and carefully communicate your decisions to any invitation-extenders, travel companions, or roommates.

Consider the wonders of a microwave and mini-fridge. Again, you have to know yourself here to decide if this is for you. I am personally in the habit of eating a good bit of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains every day. I feel “off” when I can’t. Same for exercise. Although my research trips usually end in me not being able to maintain anything close to my normal workout routine a microwave and mini-fridge go a long way toward helping me eat more of what I’m used to, which makes me feel good and in turn reduces some of the stress of travel. It also cuts down on expenses associated with eating out. Yes, you’ll spend on average an extra ten bucks per night to get a hotel room equipped with these wonder appliances, but you’ll save at least that much each day in restaurant tabs.

Do something new. Going somewhere new or doing something new is one of the primary ways I like to treat myself and take a breather while on a long research trip. Sundays are a good day for this since most research libraries and archives are closed on Sundays. If you’re on an extended research trip, chances are you’ll be out of town at least one Sunday and a brief excursion is generally a far better use of your time than just sleeping in or watching t.v. in your hotel room all day. Sometimes I plan something extra to do in advance; other times I wait until I’m in the area to find out what the locals recommend. I rarely miss an opportunity to integrate some personal travel and fun into my research trips, and I always emerge refreshed, refocused, and better for it. You can do more than merely survive your research trips. You can and should find ways to enjoy them too.

Forward in all directions, or, Life after comps

Life doesn’t slow down after comps. Sorry to disappoint you if you aren’t there yet and anticipated otherwise. But there’s much to look forward to. Comps is a major hurdle to overcome and it will be a huge relief to get it over with. One can only take so much hazing after all, and it’s good to return to a healthy lifestyle after all that sitting and sleep deprivation that we know is terrible for your long-term well-being as a member of the genus Homo. And life after comps comes with greater freedom and flexibility.

Advancing to your comps means no more classes – ever. Unless you finally get the courage to sign up for that ballroom dancing class you’ve always wanted to take. (Good luck finding a partner for that by the way.) Passing your comps means you’ll probably never have to take an exam again, you’ll be that much closer to being done (hooray!), and you’ll be on more equal footing with your academic mentors. Life after comps means you’re much closer to being done (wait – yipes!), you can concentrate on your work, and you can look forward to getting on with the rest of your life. Maybe you can even hope to return to a balanced, more well-rounded lifestyle where you don’t have to self-violate federal labor laws on a regular basis. Or maybe not. In any case, before you can get to life after comps you have to pass comps, so below I’ve incorporated some of the major lessons I learned from my comps experience into recommendations for approaching comp-dom. Hopefully you find them useful.

Get started on those reading lists. Pronto. The sooner you can get your reading lists together and start knocking out some useful notes, the better. Some departments and members of your examination committee will have pre-existing lists they’ll just hand you, while others much prefer to have you come up with a draft and add to it over time. Everyone is different. Find out your examiners’ preferences and move forward. Don’t wait until the final few months before your exams.

Give up the idea of reading every word of every item on your lists. That’s a fool’s game. Much as you had to adjust your expectations after finding out what grad school is really like, you’ll need to be prepared to let go of some of your idealism about mastering every single argument in every single work you read. You are human and perfectionism in your comp prep will only bog you down. Concentrate your notes on the major arguments, sources used, methodology, contribution(s) to the field, historiography, and criticism. When in doubt about how in-depth you need to go, talk to your advisor.

Go digital. I have plenty of comrades who went the way of hand-written notes organized in binders and made it work for them. But I took all my notes in OpenOffice, saved them to a usb (or two), pasted them as individual documents in Google Drive, and uploaded and tagged them in Zotero. (See my previous post where I discussed all of this in more detail here.) While it turned out I didn’t use my tagging as much as I anticipated, and instead usually searched by the subject categories on my reading lists, being able to search the text of my notes via Google Drive and grab quick footnotes from Zotero was AWESOME. Searchability and importable footnotes proved to be enormous time-saving strategies that provided a much-welcome bit of ease, especially whenever exhaustion set in. So do yourself a favor and begin experimenting with such techniques now.

Budget your prep time so that you have at least three days off before you begin your exams. You really won’t add much to your knowledge bank in these final days anyway and will already have worked so hard that your mind and body will appreciate the downtime. This is particularly true if you have an exam schedule similar to UNL’s: 3 days on, 1 day off, 3 days on, 1 day off, 3 days on, then you’re done with writing but still have a 2-hour oral exam. In addition, be sure you take care of yourself during your exams. When you have a day off commit to really taking time away from all things academic. Sleep in, take a hot shower, eat tons of junk food (mine was cookie dough paired with red wine), and watch junk television (here I recommend the 1990 cult classic Tremors. Make your way through Tremors 2 and 3 at your own peril).

Be confident. If they’re worth their salt as mentors your comp committee would never let you begin exams unless they believed you could pass. So be confident in the prep work you’ve done, focus on what’s in front of you, and forget the rest. You’ll do great. Then you can move on to life after comps: forward in all directions.

*Shout out to Dr. Douglas Seefeldt for the “forward in all directions” phrase. I’m not quite sure where it comes from but I’ll credit him for putting it in my brain.