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August 01, 2012

The dizzying highs and sickening lows of the research trip – by Tom

Now, it may be a reflection of my status as a PhD spring chicken (N.B. not a real status, or, come to that, a real chicken), but I still get really rather excited about research trips. And I don’t mean, ‘Ooh, I think I’ll have another slice of toast’ excited, I mean the ‘Oh my God I can’t sleep!’ kind of excited. I just lay there for hours quietly whispering to myself, ‘I’m going to London tomorrow, to look at some documents, and some of them are QUITE OLD!’. Eventually my housemate comes in and calmly, possibly even politely, asks me to cease and desist, but I can’t help it: I just cannot shake that Research-Trip-Eve feeling. It’s a bit like I’m six again, except this time the presents are not under a tree but in a locked room, and wrapped not in festive paper but in manila folders.

This feeling cannot last. I mean, the documents I am off to see aren’t magic beans, and they certainly are not going to write my thesis for me. They are just pieces of paper.

It all starts off quite well. I sit on the train, giggling to myself. I successfully make it from station to library, and I walk through the barriers with an uncharacteristically suave flick of my reader’s card. The documents I had planned on studying are all there, and even the awkward manner of the archivist cannot hold me back. I take a seat with studied ease, and begin to leaf through the papers.

Two hours later, I have my head in my hands. I had been expecting great gushes of inspiration and insight, a plethora of nifty little tit-bits, maybe a humorous quote to kick off a conference paper or preface a chapter. I had been expecting, in essence, to find exactly what I had been hoping to find. But these documents, well, they’re just mundane reflections of the mundane lives of some people who were doing mundane jobs fifty years ago. I try and exercise the critical faculties that have got me this far…but no. I am up a creek of dust and dullness, and my only paddle is an outdated laptop.

I need a miracle. I need a revelation. I need a coffee. Only one of these things is on sale for £1.50 in the café downstairs.

This is a situation very particular to historians, but I know for a fact that its equivalent exists in every discipline. Every PhD student has results which they would like to find, and every PhD student will at some point be disappointed. My personal disappointment takes the form of a piece of paper, but if you’ve ever found that p=0.99, or that you are nowhere near five sigma, or that not a single one of your interviewees even hints at their employment of trans-gender narratives of embodiment whilst out grocery-shopping, then you will know what I mean.

One very long coffee break later, I return to my discreet pile of folders. It has since dawned on me that I have five hours until my train leaves, and I am wondering how I am going to kill five hours in London. Ignoring the documents which ruined my morning, I wearily open up another box. I sigh deeply, and the archivist looks at me as if I am going to cry. ‘Jeez’, I think, ‘even the awkward archivist is pitying me.’

But then something magical happens. A stray sentence reminds me of an idea, now long forgotten, I had a few months ago. Could it be? Was I … onto something?

The next two hours passes in a blur. I devour the next few folders, and wash them down with some personal correspondence. My veins fill with caffeine, my brain fills with ideas. None of the stuff written in these files is what I was expecting…but that’s quite exciting now. I half want to grab the elderly gentleman next to me, and whisper breathlessly, ‘Look! Look at that! That shouldn’t be there! It defies everything I’ve ever read on the subject! Isn’t it strangely tantalising?’, but then I reason that this might cause the poor man to kneel over and fill out his last ever document supply slip. So I keep it to myself. It feels a little bit, just a little bit, like Christmas.

If there’s a moral to all this, I am not entirely sure what it is. It seems a little like all I write about in this blog is how the PhD experience can smash you down right before lifting you up, and you just have to take on the rollercoaster on your own terms. This is a little bit like that again, I guess.

In the end, the truth is out there. It may not be the truth you expect or want, or even a truth you understand. But it’s nevertheless something that you found, and it’s yours to use as you wish. So, if you can’t sleep before your next research trip, don’t blame me. It’s not my fault you’re about to make a discovery that will revolutionise your whole project.


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