It has been pointed out to me recently that the only way people have of knowing that I’m still alive is the odd picture of my cat getting uploaded to Facebook or Instagram. I have somewhat dropped off the radar, and rather predictably I’ve been absolutely terrible at keeping in touch with people. I am fortunate to have friends and family in many countries, and I’ve been no better at keeping in touch with those I live two minutes away from than I have with you lovely people the other side of the world! I have had lots of emails asking how things are going – thank you, you sweet, caring people. This blog post is a little update – it comes four months after I started work on my postgraduate research, and contains a brief explanation as to why I appear to have gone AWOL. Here are some things that I have learned or experienced over the past few months.
- I absolutely love what I do
Firstly, and probably most importantly, I discovered as soon as I started full-time historical research that I just love it. It’s what I want to do forever, and though the PhD is my end goal, it certainly (hopefully…) won’t be the end of research for me. I love detective work and problem solving, and I hope that the thrill of asking questions and then searching books and files for the answers never gets old. I wake up in the middle of the night with sudden epiphanies, or have huge realizations on the train, and struggle to refrain from behaving like a nutty professor-style loon. It really is very fulfilling, and in the field of women’s history it can also be quite rewarding. It’s a privilege – and one that I hope I never take for granted.
2. Isaac is a boss photographer-helper-research-assistant (and the M25 sucks)
The bulk of my primary source material is held by the National Archives at Kew. Seeing as this archive is a total pain in the bottom to get to by train, my dear, wonderful husband accompanies me in the car, at the crack of dawn on Saturdays. It’s actually lovely to have someone to get excited with when I find things that solve all my problems in the files. He’s pretty good with a camera and we photograph hundreds of pages in a day, which I then spend weeks combing through in the research room on campus. It’s nice to have the company – having to be silent all day in the reading rooms at the archives sends me a little loopy, so it’s nice to have lunch together there. Whilst I unleash my suppressed jibber jabber and bottled up excitement and he listens patiently, I am reminded of how blessed I am to have such a supportive husband. The M25 on a Saturday night is, however, enough to induce uncontrollable rage in even the most patient, tolerant person. Those two adjectives are the very last words in the universe that anyone who knows me would use to describe me. Hence… rage.
3. I need to learn how to make oatmeal without exploding it
Sometimes I get so carried away with my research that I literally forget to eat. I’ve almost fainted a couple of times at the end of a long day, and when I do remember to eat it’s usually something I can shove in the research room microwave (Ellen and I are thinking of campaigning for a toaster so we can shake up our options a bit). My usual go-to is oatmeal, but unfortunately, despite my attempts to get it right, this usually happens:
4. It’s SUPER important to take breaks
A good and wise friend of mine told me before I started this that the only way I’d survive it is to take regular and proper breaks. She’s nearing the end of her PhD, so I believe her. It’s pretty difficult to switch off – I dream at night about books and files, and poor Isaac even had a dream about the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force the other night, presumably due to the fact that I rabbit on about it all the time. Every now and again Isaac and I abscond to the hills, where there is no phone signal or email access, to rest and recuperate. It’s very full on – I pull twelve hour days in the research room most of the time, and I do get tired. The breaks are necessary and helpful. We decided to try ice skating too, which is fun (especially if you enjoy falling over in public). That’s me below, pondering how tiny I am in comparison to the world.
5. It’s essential to have support
I wasn’t prepared for how solitary postgraduate research can be, though we were all warned at the induction. I am an introvert and I do enjoy my own company, but after hours and hours at my desk I’m pretty sure I talk Isaac’s ear off when I get home. I am grateful for Fox, Ellen and Hayley – we chivy each other along when the going gets tough, and our Costa breaks are always welcome and helpful! It’s good to talk shop with people who understand the ups and downs of this kind of work – work which inevitably becomes life for most of us – and it makes it a little less overwhelming sometimes. It can sometimes feel like you are locked in your own little world, and I find that when I do get the chance to spend time with people socially, it’s hard to talk about things other than research, as it’s such a big part of my life now! (So if you’ve been bored by me lately, apologies…)
6. I drink way more tea than is probably safe for a human being
I boil the kettle more than any other person in the research room. I have seen the confused expressions of the other researchers, who are presumably wondering why I don’t leak tea out of my ears when I drink several cups back to back at multiple points during the day. I thought I’d be clever and get a giant mug so I wouldn’t have to get up so often. THAT BACKFIRED. I knocked it over once (a week after having to get a new laptop because my cat chucked a glass of water all over the old one with his giant rear end) and froze with panic. Luckily Ellen leapt into action and dealt with the desk-flood like a boss. I am forever in her debt, and the giant mug only gets half-filled now.
7. Researchers do strange things sometimes
Maybe it’s because we spend so much time in our own little worlds. There’s a few of us in the research room, but we don’t interact that much. We’re in the zone. The result is that we don’t always understand each other’s behaviour. For example, I am unsure why there have been three large, whole onions in the fridge for four months. I am also confused about why random objects go missing and turn up in weird places. My sponge (which I use to clean my giant flood-causing mug) disappeared and I found it in the microwave. My snowman coaster got lifted and turned up on the couch. Also strange is the sad attempt at Christmas decorations. I got so excited back in September when I first started work on campus because I saw a box on the shelf that said ‘Research Room Christmas Decorations’. When I came in and saw the contents of the box on display, I felt like weeping. It literally looked like an accident in a Christmas factory. Which then suffered through a hurricane. Ellen and I decided that we weren’t going to stand for it, so we went shopping and turned our desk into a majestic land of Christmas (chaos and) wonder.
So all in all, it’s going really well. So far. I love it, and wouldn’t want to do anything else right now! It’s hard work, but we manage to have fun along the way, and it’s the kind of work that doesn’t feel burdensome because it’s what I love to do. Thank you to those of you who always ask how I’m doing – I’m pretty sure I am blessed to know some of the kindest people in the world. I’m particularly grateful to Ellen, Fox and Hayley – it’s so nice how we constantly encourage each other. Also to Rich and Amba, for being great friends, and to Julie for doing my ironing (God bless you, you marvelous woman). Our whole ALC family have made this year one of the best yet. And of course, I’m grateful to Isaac, for making it possible for me to follow a dream I’ve had for a long time.
Four months in and all is well. Merry Christmas everyone, and I hope your 2018 is brilliant.