British Association for American Studies


Surviving a Long-Distance Research Project

This blog series was produced through a collaboration between the Society for the History of Women in the Americas (SHAW) and US Studies Online. The six posts showcase the diversity of research and differing experiences of scholars who are based in the UK but work on women in the US. The contributors also highlight the challenges facing academics (both those researching transnationally and more generally) as well as the valuable insights that continues to emerge from this cross-disciplinary field. In the second post, Charlie Jeffries shares her experiences of embarking upon a PhD about the US in the UK and gives practical tips for others thinking of doing likewise (Surviving a Long-Distance Research Project).

By the time you are a few months in to your PhD, you have probably amassed a small mental collection of your least favorite tricky questions that people ask you about your work. For me, nestled in amongst ‘But does that really count as history though?’ and ‘Did you know that someone just published a book on that?’ is ‘So why are you studying American history in the UK?’ Giving an answer is fairly straightforward. The experience of doing such research is not always as simple.

I was first asked this question a few years ago, while trying to find a supervisor for my doctoral project on the development of attitudes towards teenage female sexuality in the United States from 1980 to present. Potential supervisors at various British institutions brought it up.  Some seemed happy with my prepared answers, but others were less sure, instead suggesting names of academics in the US that might be interested in taking on the project. I began to feel that I might be going wrong somewhere. Should I have been looking to do the research in the US? Ultimately, part of what made the University of Cambridge and my current supervisor feel like a good fit was that I did not need to explain my reasons for wanting to undertake the project over here; when I launched in to my ready-made defence, he seemed to think my decision was self-evident.

Why did I make this choice?

My motivations were varied, including academic, practical and personal factors. I am a dual citizen, and my family moved from the US to England when I was twelve. Beginning my first degree here in American Studies was a decision made partly because of the interdisciplinary freedom that this subject allowed, and partly because of a desire to intellectually connect with the politics and history of the country I had left as a pre-teen but remained fascinated by. A year abroad studying in Washington, DC was an invaluable part of that degree, and upon return to the UK for my final year I realized that I had some decisions to make about where I was going to pursue graduate research.

I could see the benefits of going to the US. Being a short flight (or long Greyhound journey) of any archive I wanted, working not only with experts in the field but also potentially with the women who were active in the feminist movement at the time of my research, was hugely alluring. However, I was daunted by the length of American graduate programs, which range from 5 to 7 years and typically include two years of master’s research, as opposed to a 3 to 4 year PhD programme in Britain. I felt that I already had enough of an idea about my proposed project to start work on it right away. The intellectual reasoning for my choice has, however, developed over time. I now believe that having some physical distance from the region that I study, and the ability to consult with international scholars with varying levels of personal investment in the subject of my research has afforded me a critical distance that has been hugely beneficial to my work. The relative objectivity that can come with not being physically immersed in the country that you work on is a theme I have heard echoed by other students who work remotely from their region of focus, in particular for those of us who work on contemporary histories.

For the most part, I have been extremely happy with the series of decisions that have led to me doing research on the US from the UK. That is not to say, however, that it doesn’t provide a unique set of challenges. As a less-organized undergraduate, I would discover recent texts from American publishers but not have enough time for an international shipment to arrive before an essay deadline. Where I did order such texts, I found that needing materials from the US contributed an additional financial constraint to my already-stretched budget that did not apply to my friends studying English literature, for example. My undergraduate dissertation, which necessitated ordering many recent university press publications as well as pamphlets and activist literature from smaller radical publishers in the States, was a particularly pricey undertaking in which I spent almost 60 GBP on books. These factors have eased with time and relative maturity. As a graduate student, I have now developed a system for working around these limitations, to the point where they no longer appear as an obstacle to my work. I have learnt to organize my time so that I have other work I can do if I need to wait for a book to arrive from the US. It also helps that as a PhD student, there are some funds available to help with purchasing such materials.

Library of Babel

Library of Babel

Over the course of my studies, I have made sets of friends in both countries, which takes a lot of the stress out of transatlantic research. Peers who work on American history from the UK have been incredibly generous in sharing advice on travel to specific archives and in lending books and journals that are hard to come by over here. It is helpful to be surrounded by other students and academics who have made similar choices regarding the location of their work, as we can empathize with each others’ research challenges and find solutions together. In particular, I have found it helpful to attend conferences and writing workshops for American historians in my department, and those run by the Society for the History of Women in the Americas (SHAW), which has connected me with Americanists around the UK. Friends based in the US, meanwhile, have shared notes from conferences they have attended that I would like to have been at, and promised introductions to people working in my area when I next visit. Without such a supportive international community, this kind of project would be much harder to pursue. Access to the internet and its subsequent social media platforms have enabled these kinds of connections. I am not alone in benefiting from such technological developments; via interactions on Twitter, a friend got some great advice for her master’s thesis on urban planning in London from an academic at Columbia.

Frankfurt School

Frankfurt School

Inevitably, though, there comes a point in any international research where being physically in the country you are studying becomes a necessity, whether that is for an archival trip, to conduct interviews, or attend a conference. Because I work on contemporary history, much of my primary source materials have been available online thus I had never considered what I might be missing in the US. My supervisor encouraged me to look around at various archives, and having done so I was blown away by the wealth of material that would add so much to my project. A research trip became crucial. As a result, this term, I am simultaneously based in the archives of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard and an exchange student at Boston University. During my time in Massachusetts, I plan to consult all required archival materials, attempt to meet with many of the researchers whose work I have consulted, attend relevant lectures, and hopefully organize my next chapter to begin writing when I return home. Again, forward planning and organization are key components of pulling off such a packed visit. The thought of going all that way to find that the materials you want to use aren’t there is not an option, because of course you cannot simply pop back in at a later date. Therefore, making very sure that what I wanted to work with would be available was crucial.

International travel is expensive for most graduate students, and for that reason I had to begin funding applications a year in advance of my travel. The advice I was given by my department was to apply for absolutely everything available to me. This included my funding source the AHRC, my college, and the various awards and exchange programs offered by the faculty. My next step was to look for institutional awards available at the archives I was planning on visiting in the US, of which Harvard’s Schlesinger Library Dissertation Grant was one.

Ultimately, these additional layers of orchestration have taken nothing away from my experience of PhD research or from the integrity of my project. Rather, they have forced me to learn how to plan my time well, enabled me to meet scholars from around the world, and, perhaps most importantly, given me insight into the potential global implications of the research questions that I ask of American history. Gauging reactions to my research on the experience of American teenagers from those in the UK indicate a universalism to some of the themes, and suggest possibilities for future international research.

Tips for Long-Distance Researchers:

1. Find out if it is doable. Before beginning a project on a region or country other than the one you are based in, ask around and try to ascertain whether you will be able to access the materials you need in order to do it justice, or if a visit to the country will be possible.

2. Make contacts there. In addition to the supervision you receive at your home institution, reach out to academics and others working in your area in the region that you are studying. They might be able to suggest or provide useful sources that you wouldn’t have come across at home.

3. Plan ahead. One challenge of doing long-distance research is that you often cannot afford to be spontaneous. You might find that you need to organize materials or travel plans much farther in advance than you are used to.

4. Try to visit. While it isn’t always necessary or even possible depending on where you are researching, if you locate an archive, institution, or other location that might enhance your project with a visit, it is worth putting some time aside in your project for this.

5. Consider comparisons. Sometimes, setting up comparative questions between the country you are researching and the place where you are based can be a useful way of grounding your research and making it relevant to other researchers in your community.