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Putting down the books: when is research ‘complete’?

By Jess Hope

When I was an undergraduate, I wrote a history essay where my main primary source was an ‘eyewitness account’ of the events I was describing. It was detailed and colourful, full of vivid descriptions, quotes and recollections. It was great fun both to read and to write about.

It was only later that I discovered that this particular ‘eyewitness’ may not have actually, exactly….well, been there.

What followed was a ‘bad historian’ moment: the shame of realising that I hadn’t researched far enough. I’d stopped too soon. To be fair, the person in question had in fact ‘been there’ sporadically, and some of his account had been based on observation, but elsewhere it relied on interview and video; still useful, but not in the way I’d assumed. I’d found something amazing and been carried away without following through along the trails of corroboration and confirmation. It was a tough and very humbling lesson to learn.

Obviously this is an extreme example, and missed the mark of rigour and thoroughness required for academic history. But as anyone who has worked on a large history project will probably know, the fear of missing some essential piece of information in our research is a real one. Our scope is constantly being transformed and refined. We look at some preliminary documents and find that our assumptions were completely off the mark. We book train tickets and visit archives only to find that our sources—the ones we expected to hold all the answers—are not particularly helpful (or even there at all). We scour others’ footnotes (did they really read all that?!), add to our steadily-growing ‘Things To Read’ list and despair. We open recently-published books with trepidation, fearful that another historian has somehow beaten us to our thesis. Or instead (and preferably), a tantalising tangent beckons. A throwaway comment or neglected theme in that book suddenly fills us with a wild hope that we might indeed have something new to say.

These things can feel like missed opportunities at best, and disastrous at worst. We imagine starting all over again or perhaps throwing in the towel and getting a nice office job somewhere. But the fact remains that at some point we need to draw our research to something of a close, and write a dissertation. If you’re completely unable to step away from the books for a moment and write anything down, here are some thoughts:

You are making a small contribution to your field. While the idea of producing a work of such brilliance that it shakes the foundations of all that has come before it is appealing, it is probably not realistic.

Your work will be criticised. Think about a time when you’ve done a book review for a class. You probably knew far less about the subject than the author, but you still found something to note: a question left unanswered, a theme unaddressed, a critical approach left unexamined. This is true regardless of the quality of the work and the seniority of the historian. No piece of historical work is complete. Accept it, and move on!

In many cases, your PhD is a work-in-progress. If your goal is to stay in academia, you will probably make heavy edits to prepare it for publication as a monograph or journal article. You might use it as a starting point for research on one of those fascinating tangents you discovered along the way. It is not your final word on your topic.

You probably know more than you realise. The fact that ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is so much discussed is not a coincidence! You are not the only person who feels like your grasp of your subject is rather unsettlingly tenuous.

So, those worries aside: when should you stop researching? The following might be helpful to keep things manageable:

  • Regularly sketch out a thesis plan. Having a list of possible chapters will help you to get a sense of the ‘fit’ and proportional importance of a certain work to your overall project. This helps you stay focussed but also leaves room for revision for when something genuinely worthwhile comes up.
  • Write early. Getting your ideas down will identify explanatory or descriptive gaps where further research is required.
  • Make notes as you research of potentially-interesting tangents or ‘maybe useful’ sources, and then dedicate an afternoon to exploring them. When that time is up, go back to your main ideas and evaluate carefully whether you need to investigate further.
  • Present works-in-progress, or meet with colleagues to talk about your project, as often as you can. Their questions will help you step back and look at the bigger picture and see what you might be missing.

Feel free to add suggestions in the comments section below!

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