Decompressing after the Archives

A few weeks ago, I posted some thoughts on navigating the archives based on my still limited (but growing) experience. The feedback I received was wonderful, but now I find myself left in the sometimes bewildering state of post-archival decompression. One month is both a short and yet still extended amount of time to spend working at one archive. The four weeks I spent at the Massachusetts Historical Society could not have gone any better. The staff were all incredibly friendly and helpful, and I found more resources than I ever anticipated from the outset of my trip. Having a full month to work with, I took the time to read through the documents, which allowed me to think through the ways I can make use of them.

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Working in the Reading Room at the MHS.

One thing that continually caught me off-guard, however, was just how draining a full day of research could be. A month of steady research was incredibly fruitful – but the question remains:  what to do now? The easy answer is to go back and look at the sources I acquired and begin to fit them into the dissertation narrative. Some answers are easier said than done.

Research can wear you down, but how does one move forward and keep their eyes on the prize (as my colleagues and I like to tell each other)? While I certainly welcome any advice some might have, here are my thoughts. Of course, everyone has their own methods, but if you find yourself stuck in the quagmire of research and writing, these steps may be of some help.

1.)  Write something – anything – related to your research. Yesterday, when I couldn’t seem to get my head in gear, I sat down and began scribbling notes and sketching out a new outline for a chapter that has been giving me trouble.   For some, freewriting is a productive technique. I have yet to move completely into the realm of writing free of that nagging editor in the back of my head, but it is important to keep writing, even when stuck in a funk.

2.) If writing just isn’t clicking, and it happens, then try reading a book related to your work. Writing a dissertation involves more work than anyone will ever be able to explain to you, and part of that work is mastering the literature that exists on your topic. While you may not get to every single book published in your area, because let’s face it – you have a dissertation to write – it is good to continue to read through those sources. I found myself missing my books while away for a month. Make use of these sources while you have them handy.

3.) When all else fails, pull a Monty Python and do something completely different. If the weather is nice, take a walk. Since it is currently 500° in Texas*, I like to listen to music. Whatever it is that helps you free your brain and shake it loose from any mocking blank pages or disinterest in reading – take twenty or thirty minutes and don’t think about your work. When that time is up, though, be sure to get back to it.

Writing a dissertation is tough. People say it, but it’s hard to know until your are in the thick of it. Still, it is only one part of completing your degree. It took a lot of work just to get to this point – there is no reason to stop now.

It is time for me to follow my own advice. Please leave any further suggestions in the comments below, or send them my way on Twitter (@KristenDBurton). For those on Twitter who would like to reach out to communities of PhDs, PhD students, and scholarly writers, check out these hashtags: #phdchat, #gradschoolproblems, #writingpact, #acwri, #amwriting.


May be an exaggeration.