Joelin Quigley-Berg | This post was originally published September 5, 2012

helga weber creative commonsIt is a well-known fact that your finished PhD thesis often share little resemblance with your original PhD proposal. Despite this, however, I often seem to suffer a minor freak-out every time my research does not go quite to plan. I am currently digging for data at an archive in the south of England and I thought I would share with you all some of the things I have learned about the unpredictability of the research process.

1. It will take much longer than you thought…

I had a plan. Penned in to my diary there were three and a half weeks dedicated solely to digging through archival material. I had sent in all relevant request forms, filled in and signed various documents and booked visiting dates. Or so I thought. After four days spent at the archives in June I went back home expecting to return the following week. However, it turned out a communication error had occurred and the dates for my return visit were booked up by someone else. I was invited to return at their earliest convenience… So, TWO MONTHS later, here I am.

2. It will cost more money than you thought…

But it is not just the re-booking of visiting dates that has messed with my time-schedule. It seems I go through the material at a quicker rate than it is delivered to me (the material comes to me in big crates and have to be shipped back to the archive store when I am finished with them). Or, actually, I go through the material at the rate I had PLANNED, but the material is not delivered at the rate I was expecting. This biding of time that I seem to be doing waiting for archive material brings me to a different issue: MONEY. I live two and a half hours away from where the archives are located, so the expenses for my travels quickly piled up and now my budget has completely gone out the window. Although I was prepared to spend money on my little research outings, it is incredibly frustrating to do so when no actual research comes out of it.

3. It will be less organised than you thought…

Another thing I have noticed doing archive research is that the archive itself is not very well organised… I have learned now that this is quite a common issue, and even heard of students offering to organise a whole archive in return for unrestricted archive access. I don’t know how many boxes I have had delivered only to find that it contains nothing of value to me. And the only thing the archive would have had to do for me to realise this was to mark these boxes with just ONE WORD indicating its content. I had imagined all these documents neatly filed and categorised, waiting for me to come and collect and analyse them. Instead I am sitting in an ocean of seemingly random bits of paper, trying to figure out what is what and what goes where.

4. It will be more overwhelming than you thought…

And so to another common issue with data collection: there’s. just. too. much. stuff. About a year ago I was seriously worried about not finding any data at all; that I would end up in a horrible situation with only a few tidbits of interesting stuff to analyse and subsequently fail miserably as a PhD student/researcher/academic. Now, a year later, I am instead worried about how MUCH data I have and how it just seem to keep growing. It is really difficult to know what is going to be invaluable information and what is not, so it is easy to just take a copy everything (I’m definitely guilty of doing this). The downside of that is, of course, that you end up with a shedload of material that you then have to go through with a sieve at a later date. But better safe than sorry, I guess.

5. It will be more frustrating than you thought… 

Material gets lost. Apparently it is not uncommon that an archive have misplaced or lost various files (always the most exciting stuff!) that you are interested in looking at. A friend of mine visited an archive where the material she was looking at disappeared from one day to the next. One day she was happily going through it, the next it was lost! It¿¿s a difficult thing to do, but sometimes you just have to accept that there may be gaps in your data that you will have no control over. Lost archival material is not commonly known to re-appear…

6. It will be more exhilarating than you thought…

When I do find some really interesting stuff forgotten somewhere in a dusty folder though… that is magic. My heart races and I get really excited. I sit there, in a quiet, dusty library, flicking through old documents with a giant smile on my face thinking: This is actually going to work!  That¿¿s a good feeling. I never thought I would get so excited about old, dusty pieces of paper.

I guess the lesson learned here, which I think is applicable to a lot of research, is that you can never plan exactly when everything is going to happen or how long it is going to take. Doing research is an organic process; it takes time, it changes and grows in different directions, and, yes, you may end up paying the price (literally and figuratively) for your thesis¿¿ little de-tours. I guess the trick is to find a balance between being in control of the research process, but at the same time letting it evolve, learning to enjoy the unpredictable journey that is postgrad research.

Photo: Helga Weber/Creative Commons