Part of Undertaking Difficult Research series.


By Claire Aubin |


This is the first post in a series on undertaking research into particularly sensitive or difficult research topics. The author is the co-founder and co-convenor of the University of Edinburgh’s Emotionally Demanding Histories Group (EDHG), a dedicated network for researchers of difficult historical subjects.

The process of research is almost always difficult. For any PhD student, postdoctoral fellow, or even the most hardened of tenured professors, that is a given. It is often a physically taxing undertaking, marked by days spent shivering in cold archives and sweating in blazing hot archaeological digs, or staring at screens until a migraine takes full effect. It is already a mentally demanding undertaking, but some research topics may stray into the world of emotional taxation.

Although discussions of the ways in which life outside a PhD contributes to researchers’ mental health and wellbeing are becoming increasingly commonplace, there has (until recently) been very little discussion of the ways in which a research topic itself might be to blame for some of the emotional after-effects of PhD work. Reading about or otherwise engaging with violence or trauma of any kind can take its toll on a researcher, and may even result in researchers experiencing symptoms of vicarious trauma. A lack of temporal or physical proximity to the subject of research does not preclude its potential for long-lasting impact on researchers.

So what can be done to combat the enormous toll that this work may take? The first and perhaps most useful recommendation I can offer to my fellow researchers of traumatic topics is this: take a break.

It can be five minutes away from your desk to make a nice cup of tea, two hours set aside to watch a cheesy film, or the decision to head home from the office a bit earlier than usual. It can also be a last-minute week-long trip to Milan and an out-of-office reply explicitly warning colleagues that you will not be responding to emails; I did this recently and would recommend it to anyone similarly careening towards an emotional burnout. The length and format are entirely up to you, but the break absolutely must be taken.

Regardless of how self-evident the need for the occasional time-out may seem, researchers often face internal or external pressure to ‘push through’ any emotional or mental turmoil that they may be feeling through the research process. This pressure is incredibly damaging in both the long- and short-term. It can foster a sense of weakness in researchers who feel that a break might be ‘letting their subjects down,’ or who believe that because what they study did not happen to them directly, any resulting distress is disproportionate or unreasonable. This sort of thinking is toxic to both researchers and their research.

A researcher who is not coping well with the nature of their sensitive topic is likely not producing the kind of careful and considered work that such subjects demand, and will almost certainly find their research unsustainable. Pressing pause on our research allows us the space and time we need in order to process our own emotions before carrying on.

While intentional breaks are necessary to help researchers of all types reset our brains before returning to the task at hand, they are especially crucial to the wellbeing of researchers who might be seriously impacted by the emotional fallout of our work.  Whilst disturbing, sensitive, or otherwise ‘heavy’ topics may instil us with a sense of sacrificial obligation to our subject matter, these research topics will never see the light of day if we wear ourselves so thin that we are unable to bear their weight. Though the urge to resignedly trudge on with work that grinds us down might be a natural one, it should be resisted.

Sometimes the best thing we can do for our work is step away from it.


In addition to her work with EDHG, Claire Aubin is a Contributions Editor at Pubs and Publications and currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Edinburgh. She conducts research on the role of Holocaust perpetrators’ individual agency within post-WWII immigration systems in the United States and United Kingdom. You can find her (very opinionated) twitter here.


Image Flickr, by Dominick Guzzo