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The Research Trip

by on January 22, 2013

As PhD students we often dream of escape. You may have an office that looks out upon a vast wasteland of grey concrete. Or, like me, you may have a riveting view of a large building site. Perhaps you spend considerable stretches of time looking for Desktop Wallpaper featuring idyllic islands, sandy shores, and blue lagoons? Yup, you need a vacation.

Of course as menial servants in the great quest for knowledge we do not often get to go on quests – leave that to our Knighted Professors, those Coveted Keynote Speakers. We mere Grad Students are tied to our desks, construction work hammering incessantly in the background, so we dream a little less wistfully. We imagine instead a University where everything is already built. Where the library has adequate seating and an extensive American Studies Collection. Could we dare to dream of a significant archive as well? Oh go on…

I am in full planning mode for my first ever research trip. It is a steep learning curve (Visa? Good grief, must I?) but I have, through extensive coffee-breaking and devoted googling, a few tips and pointers for anyone lucky enough to be in the same boat:

What’s Your In? Many universities have Visiting Scholar programmes, or at the very least procedures in place to facilitate your stay. While snorting “don’t you know who I am?” disdainfully at a security guard in your Desert Island Library might make you feel better, it is not going to get you any closer to that manuscript you’ve dreamed of. Contact the relevant department in your host university and ask them if there are procedures in place for Visiting Scholars. You will at least need a library card, but it is worth while asking about study space too. Make a list of the facilities you rely on in your own University (gym access? Health Unit? Glee Club?) and see if they are available where you are heading.

How Long Should You Stay? This varies for everyone. Perhaps you are PhD-the-Kid: the Fastest Researcher in the West. Most likely it takes you some time to get through large amounts of material. Think about what you wish to achieve while you are there – set clear goals and objectives – then factor in the added time you will want to spend exploring your new temporary home. You might not get to escape again for some time; Go on, have an ice-cream.

Decide What You Want To See Before You Arrive. Having a goal will give you something to strive for on your trip, and keep the extra-curricular tourist expeditions in check. But, more importantly, sometimes librarians need time to get their hands on the material you want. Perhaps that archive you are flying half-way across the world to see is in a building across town and the librarian who works there is on a research trip to your own damn university? Don’t be disappointed – request that special material well in advance. I once attempted to squeeze a brief research expedition into an actual vacation only to discover the Letter Archive I begged to see was being published as a Collection a mere handful of months later. That’s one day at the beach I’m never getting back.

Lay Some Groundwork for the Networking you Intend to do There. We can be guilty of forgetting that beyond the world of books there are these two-legged creatures called ‘people’, who are also occasionally full of knowledge. If there is a Special Collection in your host University, chances are there is a Special Professor who helped put it there. That person might be worth meeting! Use the contacts you already have – your society affiliations, your own supervisor, members of your departments and people you have met at conferences – to create an ‘in’. Hopefully someone can provide an introduction, but if not send an email, introduce yourself, and ask to meet anyone and everyone connected to your work. Who knows, you might even apply for a job there some day! Imagine the interview:

“Have you ever been to our Awesome University before?”
”Yes, I lived here for three months last year.”
”And you never came to the Open Lecture Series we host on your thesis topic every Wednesday?”
”I’ll let myself out…”

The Other Stuff. Your new friends in your host department may have some advice on the cost of living in your Dream Destination. There will probably be some advice on the University’s main website for Prospective Students. You may even be asked to prove your wealth before travelling. Do not underestimate how much the trip is likely to cost. Renting modest accommodation may be cheaper than a hotel but you are still travelling and that is pricey. Advice for funding your Research Trip is a post for another day, but do not over-look the necessities of day-to-day living. You take your sheets and towels for granted, but did you know that most apartments in the United States are un-furnished? And that public transport is positively horrendous there? Do some research beforehand so you are not left standing at a bus-stop in the desert waiting for the 10.45 to Campus out of term-time. Burn!

At the end of the day, like so much else, it all boils down to preparation. The more time you spend planning your trip from your drab and dreary office, the more time you will have there to get down to some serious research. And ice-cream breaks. Don’t forget those.

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