Why bother with a research journal?

The short answer is: A research journal helped me form raw ideas about my research into coherent findings, and it helped me to solve analytic and logistical problems without requiring input from any other human being. It reduced my anxiety and bolstered self-confidence.

When I say research journal, I’m not talking about a notebook, research log, or day planner. These things are important and worth keeping, too. I have a notebook for jotting things down during meetings and making to-do lists. I take citation/indexing notes in the archive (in Word documents). I use my Google Calendar to keep track of where I’m going each day. But my research journal has a separate function.

The research journal basically externalizes my internal dialogue about what I am seeing in my sources, how I am spending my time, and how I feel about the process. As time has passed, its scope has gone beyond just the archive to include goals, writing projects, and professional development.

Over a year ago, when I finished exams, I was a little overwhelmed by the research work ahead of me. I sought advice from a colleague who had already finished her dissertation, and she suggested that I keep a personal journal about my research. At first, I was skeptical. While I had journaled in high school and college, I’d lost the habit since then. But I decided to take the advice, bought a bright yellow notebook, and started writing. I chose to write by hand to help me focus more.

In the months since, I’ve filled three and half of those notebooks with entries written in many cafés, libraries, and airports around North America. The content and tone of the journal have changed over time. My first entries were dedicated to reassuring myself that I was going to be capable of carrying out my research. Once I got to the archives, most entries began with a litany of complaints about being tired and having a sore neck. I wrote about what I was finding in the archives: a story I liked, a trend that I was noticing, or a new hypothesis that was coming to mind. Some of these ideas have never gone anywhere, but most of the things I’ve written or said aloud about my dissertation ultimately have roots in the journal.

I also wrote about what I thought I should do next or how I should approach a body of sources that different than what I was expecting. Often, I felt a little anxious when tackling these topics, but writing my way through them yielded a plan and with it, a sense of purpose and calm.

Now that I am writing chapters and preparing for another round of fellowship applications, my journal is helping me think through ideas about the chapter structure (sometimes it is easier to think about structure in an unstructured way as opposed to the grid format I blogged about a few months ago). My journal also serves now as a low-stakes place to pitch and retool my big arguments.

To be honest, I don’t read back through my journals very much. So far, the act of writing seems more useful than the written product. But it is good to know that they are there in case I need them.

The Dissertation Planning Map: Moving from Research to Writing

In December, having finished six months of archival research, I decided it was time to get ready to write my dissertation. I was about to leave for Mexico City, and I set a goal for myself: in addition to researching while in Mexico, I wanted to have one chapter drafted and a solid plan for the others by the time I came back to the United States.

I had a chapter outline in my dissertation proposal, but of course, ideas change and develop as the research progresses. So I decided to make a new outline, not for my committee, but for myself. I had two objectives for this outline: it had to help me prioritize my archival research, and it had to help me figure out which chapter I should write first.

It ended up as a big chart that I am calling the Dissertation Planning Map. You can download a blank one here, but basically, it looks like this:


This chart traces out not just the chapter structure of the dissertation but also the work accomplished and still to be done to actually write each chapter. Each row is basically a chapter outline that includes the title, time period covered, research questions, provisional argument/thesis, the chapter’s relation to the dissertation as a whole, the sources to use (whether collected or not), and the secondary literature the chapter will draw from and engage with.

I spent a few weeks coming back to the chart periodically and trying to fill in all of the boxes. Sometimes I focused on a single chapter (row) or took a category, like sources already collected, and filled out the boxes for one column. I didn’t worry about how clever or well-substantiated the arguments were since no one else was going to look at it. I knew that it was provisional, and I forced myself to write something in every box.

As I filled in the boxes, I continued to adjust the chapters and actually came up with a new way to organize several chapters that I had been struggling to untangle. Something about the grid helped me figure out a part of my project that I had not been able to sort out from simply narrating the structure in the dissertation proposal.

From the sources columns, it became very clear that my top research priority in Mexico needed to be gathering sources from the beginning and end of my chronological period—I discovered that I had many, many sources for the period 1920-1950 and not so many before or after.

I also realized that it was the second chapter that would be the best place to start writing because I felt the most confidence in its “provisional argument” and already had most of the sources I would need to write it.

With this preparation done, I arrived in Mexico City knowing what archival materials I wanted to look for first, and after getting settled, a few weeks ago I took the step of opening a blank Word document and putting “Chapter 2” at the top of the page, and I started writing.

After just a few hours of work, I realized that the provisional argument from the chart needed to be modified, but it helped to have somewhere to start. As I continue to write, I also find that knowing what the other chapters will discuss allows me to focus on the current chapter’s argument: when looking at a particular event or source, I know what I do not need to say now in chapter 2 because it belongs in chapter 1 or 3.

Recently, I revisited the planning map after letting it sit for two months. Because I had done some archival research in Mexico by that point, I moved some sources from the “Still Needed” to the “Already Collected” column. I adjusted some chapter arguments. I plan to come back to the map every few months to think through structural issues and record my progress with the research.

In my own planning map as well as the blank one I am sharing, I put some extra rows to fill out later on for conference papers and journal articles. These could be versions of the current chapters or other spin-off topics that do not fit into the dissertation’s structure.

The planning map has helped me keep the big picture in mind as I am combining research and writing. Now I tag sources I find in the archive with the chapter I think they’ll be most useful for. It has made it much easier to give the elevator pitch about my project. Knowing that the project is still malleable, too, takes some of the pressure off: in April, I’ll go back to the chart again, and there will be another chance to make it work better.

Let me know if you like the idea, or if you have other ways to plan that worked well as you wrote your own dissertation.

Setting Reasonable Goals: Planning Short Research Trips, part III

This post, the last in a series of posts about planning short archival research trips, deals with setting realistic goals. The previous posts were about scheduling trips and traveling well. I have also written about archive photography technology and archive survival tips.

Of course, the ultimate goal of any short research trip is to get access to the documents needed for the project, and to capture that information in the most convenient format available: digital photography, photocopies, or transcription. Collecting is the objective for any trip, but I am convinced that I need to make personal, well-considered, intermediate-level goals to reach that broader target.

Before and throughout my series of short research trips, I did not actually make specific goals for what I wanted to accomplish. But I did have some implicit expectations for myself, and looking back I am able to say what they were. I did not always find myself able to meet them, and I felt guilty and disappointed because of that.

This is what I thought I should be doing during my research trips, but I realize now that these expectations were not realistic.

  1. I will be working productively in the archive every day it is open during the entire time period it is open.
  2. I will write a daily reflection or digest on what I saw that day, just after leaving the archive.
  3. I will capture everything I could possibly need from the archive for my dissertation.

Here is how I would reframe my goals.

  1. Over the course of a week, I will plan to be in the archive approximately 80% of the time it is open.
  2. While I am in the archive, I will make a helpful index of what I am photographing. At least once a week, I will spend at least one hour writing about my impressions of what I have seen.
  3. Before my trip to an archive is finished, in addition to the material I collect, I will have detailed knowledge of exactly what that archive has that is relevant for my topic.

These goals also reflect what I was actually able to accomplish. They represent what I think is truly reasonable and necessary for me to achieve the overall aim of an efficient, economical, and fruitful trip.

Why 80% of the time? I am giving myself permission to work fewer hours than the archive is open. Roughly, 80% means that over the course of the week, I may take a whole day off from the archive if I want, or I can work shorter days all week long, or take two mornings/afternoons off.

Having a weekly archive-time target means that I can exercise some flexibility in deciding what I do each day without feeling like I am slacking off if the archive is open and I’m not there. If I end up working more than 80% over the course of the week, that’s fine!

For the note-taking and reflection side of things, my new goal is based upon this realization: I did not find the daily summary helpful because it required me to put in an intense burst of thinking and articulating at the time of the day when I was least interested in doing this (right after leaving the archive).

Now, I am more conscientious while I am actually in the archive to add information to my index every time I finish looking at a folder. The index is a guide of where to find things (file names, citation information) with very skeletal remarks about the contents of the folder, and occasional comments only as deep as, say, “really interesting!!!” Making this index in the archive slows down the rate of processing material, but it will certainly speed up the work of locating evidence when I am writing the dissertation.

For more substantial reflection, I choose a time and place to write that is better for me than the late afternoon after spending all day staring at documents. Sometimes my writing time is on the weekends. I might also use a weekday morning to write a bit and arrive at the archive an hour or two after it opens.

In addition to a weekly reflection, I also take advantage of other opportunities to synthesize what I have been seeing, like preparing for an upcoming meeting with my advisor, writing a grant application, or drafting an abstract for a conference. This work sometimes happens after the research trip ends.

Finally, my last goal reflects the fact that it is not realistic to expect to look at everything I could possibly use unless the archive turns out to be a dead end. What is possible though is to manage my time so that even I do not see everything in detail, I become very familiar with what is available and where to find it even if I do not go through it. This way, if it turns out later that I need something else from the archive, I can either get it myself very quickly or hire a research assistant to obtain the material.

As I prepare for my upcoming research stint in Mexico, I am working on new goals and strategies for a much longer trip. What is not changing, though, is my conviction that maximizing the potential of a research trip is not the result of obeying rigid, self-imposed rules. Goals that build in flexibility seem to work much better for both my productivity and happiness.

Planning Short Research Trips, part II: Housing and Travel Savvy

This post is about where to stay and how to travel well on short research trips. To read my thoughts on how to plan the timing of research trips, read this. I talk more specifically about “surviving the archive” here. For ideas on how to photograph efficiently in the archive, try this post.

In the past six months, I have taken several different trips to archives far from my home in New York City. These trips have ranged in length from less than a week to seven weeks.

For me, finding housing for short trips was a two part process.

First, I had to decide what I was looking for. Initially, a low price was only major factor. As I took more trips, I realized what else was important to me. I wanted a short commute to the archive. I wanted a kitchen to cook in. I preferred to have a room in someone’s apartment or home rather than to be completely alone. I readjusted my priorities as I went and learned more about my housing preferences.

Next, I had to actually find places that would match what I was looking for. I used several strategies. Twice, I stayed with a friend or a friend of a friend for a short-term sublet, and these were arranged by announcing my plans via email or social media. For other trips, I used Airbnb. I also stayed with my family for research in the Bay Area.

I suspect that any arrangement made informally through friends and family will be cheaper than Airbnb, so I would always start by asking people I know for ideas. But in some cases, this went absolutely nowhere after repeated pleas on Facebook, and that’s when Airbnb came in handy.

Advance warning: perfect housing does not exist. However, I found that staying somewhere with an easy commute to the archive turned out to be the thing I cared about the most. Learning that early on helped me plan for good set ups in later trips.

In fact, monitoring what worked for me turned out to be a good general strategy for traveling and staying happy. I like to keep mental notes on whatever seems to make me feel more at ease. When I hit upon a trick that worked, I would repeat it.

Instead of general travel advice, which I am not sure can be responsibly given as we all need different things to be happy, here are some of the things I do. Maybe they will spark ideas about what could work for you.

  • I always travel with one medium sized suitcase that I check, and one backpack because as I realized, that way I don’t have to worry about managing too many pieces of luggage or finding space in the overhead bins.
  • I bring a small French press with me wherever I go so I can always make coffee the way I like it.
  • I pack using organizers that make it much easier to live out of a suitcase when no dresser is available.
  • I visit the grocery store on the first or second day in the new place, and I always buy the same ingredients for the same, easy to prepare dishes.
  • I leave for my trips on Mondays so that I have a full weekend to spend at home before I go.

What works for you? Feel free to share ideas here.

The next post will cover establishing realistic goals for short research trips.

Planning Short Archival Research Trips, part I

This post is the first in a short series about how to plan for short archival research trips. My last post was on what to do while in the archive, but now I will focus on the many logistical elements that researchers must plan out in order to actually get to the archive!

While some dissertation projects might not require visits to multiple cities, I suspect that most do, and virtually anyone working on transnational history will need to move around quite a bit.

These are some aspects that I found unexpectedly difficult about shorter trips.

  1. Knowing where to start.
  2. Calculating how long to stay.
  3. Finding appropriate lodging.
  4. Becoming a budget travel pro.
  5. Setting reasonable goals for the trip.

I’ll be talking about these challenges in the next few blog posts, and I’ll share some ways to make the process easier.

This first post will cover the first two challenges. The others will be covered in subsequent posts, so check back soon.

After I defended my dissertation proposal and finished my exams, it was time time to begin the research. My proposal listed many cities and archives, but there was no clear analytic or methodological reason to start at any given place. I decided to start close to my home in New York, then travel to relatively nearby Washington, DC, then head farther afield to Texas, and finally go to California. The reason was not methodological, but personal: I wanted to spend the summer mostly at home in New York.

Incidentally, this was a good way to organize research trips for another reason. By starting close to home, I gave myself a chance to make mistakes or learn some crucial information in a relatively low-pressure setting: archives that are relatively easy to travel to are also easy to go back to. This is not the case with far away archives where there is pressure to make each day count and return trips are prohibitively expensive.

Once the order of trips is established, the next challenge is to estimate how much time is needed at each research site. Of course, carefully reviewing finding aids, emailing or calling archivists, and checking the availability of online materials are important first steps. Reading something about the history of the institution where the archive is located can also yield important clues.

But determining how much time to spend in a given city, or in a given archive, really gets easier after actually beginning the research. In my case, things I learned at the first few archives, like roughly how university publications are formatted, or how collections of personal papers are usually organized, or when institutions began to keep data on foreign students, helped me estimate how much time I would need in the next research sites.

However, nothing can guarantee an accurate calculation of how much time is needed. After my trip to Texas, where I spent four weeks and covered exactly what I needed to cover without any dead time, I headed to Los Angeles expecting to have a similar experience. In fact, I finished in half the time I had allotted.

Deciding what to do with extra time was stressful. Staying put would mean time lost, but going elsewhere would be expensive and hard to arrange at the last moment.

In my case, I was able to change my housing reservation in Los Angeles and book new plane tickets to travel to the California Bay Area, and I did some research there I had not expected to be able to include.

The new plans were formed very quickly because they were not actually new. They were plans I had already made but set aside. In my earliest research planning, I cast a wide net, and the “dream itinerary” described in my dissertation proposal included many more research sites than I have the time or funds to complete. But when I finished in Los Angeles very early and very far from home, I had other plans ready to implement, and I could take advantage of the extra time.

As someone who likes to make plans months (and years) in advance, I still think it is worth planning short research trips expecting to make changes, or delaying commitments to housing, plane tickets, and dates for longer than I would otherwise.

Each archive taught me something about what I might find at the others and how hard it might be to find it, and waiting to make plans gave me a chance to learn more from the first archives to make better plans for the next ones.

The next post will cover points 3 and 4 about what to look for in housing and how to travel optimally as a researcher on a budget.

Surviving the archive: 3 things I have learned so far

This summer, I did research in a few different archives in the New York and Washington, DC metro areas. As fall approaches and I get ready for my next phase of research in the US Southwest, I thought I would take stock here not of my findings, but of the archival process.

As you may have guessed from my last post on archive tech, I am determined to make archival research as painless and efficient as possible.

Why painless? In fact, what we do in the archive, aided by modern technology, is actually very taxing on the back, neck, and shoulders. We may be taking dozens of downward-facing pictures and typing thousands of words while transcribing documents, all while sitting in uncomfortable chairs for hours on end.

I strive for efficiency in the archive because I am working in archives far from my home in New York City. Every day I am out of town is expensive, so while I am on research trips, I want to see and captures as many documents as I can.

I have found that these three strategies have helped me find a balance between comfort and efficiency.

  1. Photograph documents selectively and in manageable batches, punctuated by time sitting and reading.
  2. Take frequent breaks.
  3. Admit that archival work is hard and allow for that fact when planning research trips.

I take pictures in short sessions after reviewing an entire folder. As I look through the documents in a folder, I offset the ones I want to photograph (you can also use bookmarks, but I prefer offsetting). This approach also does not seem to bother archivists and does not require you to remove any documents from the folder.

The white page is placed slightly higher in the folder so that when I go back to take pictures, I can easily see which documents I have selected.
One page is placed slightly higher in the folder so that when I go back to take pictures, I can easily see that I have selected and want to photograph that documents.

After I have read through the whole folder, I set up Scanbot and take pictures of the documents I have chosen. Sometimes I decide not to photograph something I selected earlier–I realize it is a draft and I need only the final version, or it simply doesn’t seem important anymore after reviewing the whole folder.

When available, a tripod helps a lot: it is faster, more comfortable, and results in better pictures.

National Archives II in College Park, Maryland has smartphone tripods to lend to researchers, and they are fantastic.

These ideas may seem rather obvious, but I began my research simply photographing documents as I read them. I would end up standing up for long periods of time, with my camera in hand, and reading through documents while still standing. This hurts!

By contrast, my new strategy minimizes the time that I spend standing up and looking down. I do all of the reading and choosing while seated. I take fewer photographs overall since I give myself a second chance to winnow. Another benefit of this strategy is that I alternate between sitting and standing as I first read through and then stand to photograph various folders.

But I also try to get up from the desk quite frequently: ideally, at least once every hour and a half. Before, trying to go as quickly as possible, I would give myself a single break during the archive work day–lunch.

I have found that I am more comfortable and can keep my energy up during the day if I get up more often than that. Sometimes all I do is get a drink of water. Other times I go have a coffee or snack.

Sure, I lose a few minutes when I could have potentially photographed documents. But what I have realized this summer is that I can’t actually just sit, read, and photograph documents for an 8-hour workday with a only brief lunchtime “refueling.”

Working in the archive is hard. Beyond the physically difficult aspects, it demands real mental work, too. The decisions I make about which documents to photograph and which ones to skip are also decisions about what matters in my research project. The archival process forces me to continually reevaluate the research questions I want to answer and the kinds of evidence I will use to do so. This is good, but it is not easy.

And while I know some scholars relish the solitude of the archive, I am an extroverted person who loves to read and research but also to share ideas with others. There are fewer opportunities for social interaction in the archive. For me, archival research takes more grit than I need to get through a day on my home campus.

Knowing this, I plan trips accordingly, looking for ways to make my time when I am not in the archive a little easier. So far, this has meant choosing places to stay that let me avoid a long commute to the archive, or finding lodging in a fun location where I can take walks through beautiful neighborhoods or try new food.

Next week, I head to Texas to do research at UT Austin. I plan to continue using these strategies, but I am sure I will develop new ones, too. Please share your tips in the comments section below!