By: Krysten Blackstone |

I have recently returned from my first major PhD research trip.  It was long (a 6-week teaser, of a 6-month research fellowship) and it was far from my base in Edinburgh (literally an ocean away).  The trip was relatively last minute as well, as I started only two months after I was awarded the fellowship.  As I was getting ready to leave, I struggled to think of ways to properly prepare for the trip and was mildly overwhelmed at the prospect.  Below are a few tips to combat nerves, and notes on good practices while conducting your research so you can make the most of your trip.


  • Learn the basics – Try to gauge how things run before you go. What are you allowed and not allowed to bring into the space?   What are the general opening hours? Do different collections have separate opening hours? These may seem obvious, but it is not uncommon for places to have nonstandard rules and regulations.


  • Learn the resources – Try to make a working list of resources you want to examine before you leave.  If you have a preliminary list you can make the most of your time there.  This also guarantees that you sound knowledgeable when you arrive, and saves you from wasting your own, and the librarian’s, time.


  • Learn the contacts – Introducing yourself to the staff by email before you arrive can only help.  Explaining your research and asking any questions you may have, or for guidance, will give them time to prepare for your trip, and potentially come up with new sources for you to look at.



The Trip

The room where it happens.  The Fred W. Smith National Library reading room, where history literally has its eyes on you.

  • Commit – There is a serious temptation when on research leave to spend time being a tourist.  It is understandable, especially if you go to a new area, however, do your best to save that for the weekend.  If possible, commit to working the full day.  I tried to adhere to a 9-5 schedule, with a set lunch, every day.


  • Flexibility – Although preparing lists of sources, and schedules for work before you arrive is helpful, it is important not to feel the need to stick to them too closely.  Research will always take you in unpredictable directions, that is part of what makes it such a weird and wonderful thing.  Because of this, don’t be afraid to deviate from your plan.  If you find a new lead, follow it.


  • Write –  Every week I wrote small paragraphs of notes to myself, which explained what I did that week, what sources I found, and outlined a vague plan for the following week.  Dong this kept me on track.  Even if I deviated from my plan, it meant that I had at least good sense of direction for the next week.  It also allowed me to reflect.  I will admit, I’m not big on reflection exercises, however, I found a weekly notes on my findings, my thoughts on them, and how they fit into my wider project, was the most useful thing I did the entire time I was away.

Pick up a pen, start writing.

  • Record – Be painstakingly careful of the records you take while on research.  Write down exactly where you found every source – and every possible catalogue detail the institution has for it.  I made multiple excel spreadsheets so I can easily search and find the sources at a later date. I also listed the full citations at the top of every page of notes. Additionally, consider this the obligatory comment on how you should back up your information somewhere other than your computer hard drive, just incase.


  • People – You will never go on a research trip where you are completely alone.  At the bare minimum there will be research staff around you.   In my situation, there were a handful of other researchers and the full staff of the institution.  Getting to know the people you work around is important for a few reasons.  The first benefit is the networking connections you will make – research trips get you out of your comfort zone, and around people you may not have met otherwise, that have a similar interest base to you. Cynical career-minded reasons aside, it also makes research trips much easier.   These trips have the tendency to be isolating, but they don’t have to be.  While research is your main purpose, there is nothing to stop you from being social.


  • Representation – An important thing to remember while away on such trips, is that ultimately you, represent not only yourself, but also your home institution. This may be an obvious point, but conducting yourself in a way that reflects well on you, and your alma matter is crucial.


The Final and Most Sacred of Commandments

If you only take one thing from this post, let it be this:  Librarians and archivists are your greatest asset. Every action has it’s equal opposite reaction, so be nothing but lovely and gracious to them.  They possess the knowledge to make your research sail smoothly, or be as difficult as possible. Remember this, and they will serve you well.


I travelled the wide wide world and came back to this: George Washington’s Mount Vernon, where I borrowed George’s own vine and fig tree, for a moment alone in the shade.

Shameless Plug: Here Comes the General

I must confess, in terms of resources, staff and amenities, I have been exceptionally privileged.  If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to be a fellow at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon take it with enthusiasm.


Krysten Blackstone is a first year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, a Pubs and Publications Committee Member and a James C. Rees fellow at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.  You can find her on twitter.

Image 1:Wikimedia Commons, Image 2: Krysten Blackstone, Image 3: Pixabay, Image 4: Krysten Blackstone.