Friday, 16 March 2012

Archival Research & Scope

The textual records room at Archives II, College Park, MD--my home-away-from-home for 3 days last week (image from)

On my last day at the Archives, I was really sorry to leave. I had a great time there--which I suppose means I'm doing the right thing with my life. I loved seeing the documents that I'd read about elsewhere, like the very first annual report to Congress from 1948. I loved finally finding the numbers I needed to fill in the gaps on my data tables (even though that sounds painfully nerdy...). The staff were helpful & the other researchers were friendly (my tiny Samsung netbook was a great icebreaker). I came away with 25,000+ words in 63 pages of notes, and a better understanding of what the archives have on the Fulbright Program.

The main thing I got out of this trip was a reminder about the importance of scope. When I left that last day, I thought "Oh, I forgot to look at that...I missed out on that...I wish I had more time!" But then it occurred to me that the National Archives are huge. It's simply not possible to compile a 100% comprehensive study of a 65-year old programme in 3 years of archival research, much less 3 days. I realised that for me, for now, the goal is not to do it all, but to do enough (and to do it well, too, of course). Phil Taylor made me think that the point of the PhD was to become the world's greatest expert on your topic, but the more I interact with people who have PhDs, the more I realise that it's not about being an expert at all. Someday you might become the world's greatest expert on your topic (especially if it's obscure enough. Case in point: my University of Washington Central Asian Studies professor, Dr. Scott Radnitz, a former Fulbrighter to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Brilliant guy, but would he have become an assistant professor by age 30 if he had specialised in Germany or France instead of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan?) but research interests and career aspirations can change, just like they do when you're a kid dreaming of what you want to be when you grow up.

The point of the PhD is not to do an exhaustive, expert-level study--it's to do an original piece of research that merits a PhD. But what, exactly, merits a PhD? I've had a look at some of the successful dissertations in our research room, and it really does vary--there are little concise ones and massive tomes, historical ones and contemporary ones, interview-filled qualitative approaches and number-crunching quantitative approaches. The only general conclusion I could make from them is that most are specialised, just like Dr. Radnitz above. They focus on a single case study, or just one narrow aspect of a larger phenomenon. I'm starting to realise that these successful students didn't specialise just to be obscure and original--they did it because they had to narrow their topic down to fit the scope of a PhD project.

On Wednesday we had an open day, and ICS was filled with prospective students and their parents. Some of the current MA students came into the PhD room to chat with us about their interest in doing a PhD here in the future. One asked me "how do you know if your topic is right for a PhD?" The 2 main bits of advice I gave to him: 1) It has to be something that interests you enough to keep you engaged for 3+ years, and 2) It needs to have the right scope. The scope bit is the part that I'm still working on, a year and a half into it.