This is a guest post by Rachel Herrmann, a PhD Candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin. Her twitter is @Raherrmann.
In my second year of graduate school, a professor assigned a section of historian Forrest McDonald’s memoir Recovering the Past, in which McDonald describes traveling around the country and sometimes sleeping in his car while carrying out dissertation research in the 1950s. As someone who was raised in Manhattan, I didn’t learn to drive until I was twenty. I had never owned a car, and I found the idea entirely foreign. I thought to myself, “I will never drive around the country in pursuit of a PhD.”
And then at the ripe old age of 24, I decided to write a dissertation that involved going to almost every U.S. archive known to man. With little more than a few trips to the grocery store made using my roommate’s car, a seven-hour maiden land voyage in which I drove my newly-acquired used car from Oklahoma to Austin, and one semester of driving around town on my own, I found myself embarking on a similar kind of cross-country expedition undertaken by McDonald sixty years prior. Last semester, I had a laptop, a printer, and two suitcases in my trunk, a six-state, four-month agenda—beginning with a 3-day drive to Virginia—and I was terrified. This summer, I drove through the other half of the country to take up a fellowship in California, and so I spent a few days driving from Austin to Los Angeles, and many, many more hours driving in California traffic.
Having undertaken these trips, I’ve learned a few things—about cars, history, and myself.
1.Upon realizing that I would be on the road a year, I got a AAA membership so that if something broke, I could call someone else to fix it for me. I made sure my insurance was up to date, and I put extra printouts in my wallet and glove compartment. I took my car to a good auto shop a week before leaving, had my oil changed, tires rotated and filled with air, and new windshield wipers put on. I told the mechanic I’d be going somewhere cold and needed to make sure my antifreeze would work, and that my spare tire was still in good shape. He patiently walked me through the process of checking my oil, and let me know exactly when I needed to find another mechanic to look over my car when I was on the road. I did not imagine that I would be doing any of these things when I applied to graduate school.
2. Next came the mapping out of my trips, during which I allowed the compulsive planner buried not-so-deeply inside of me to run free. I printed maps for every single city and each university campus I thought I’d be going to, with detailed directions for where to find non-parallel parking, and how to get from the garage to the library or archive. I noted libraries’ opening and closing hours, and tried to ensure that I could visit libraries that were open on days when others were closed. University libraries, for example, tend to be open on Saturdays and sometimes Sundays, whereas some state archives are not. Other historical societies stay open late on one specific day of the week or month, and will let you make advance appointments; knowing these sorts of things helped me plan my trip.
3. Given my newness to driving and my unwillingness to drive while reading a map, a GPS spared me the stress of not knowing where I was going. I had a smartphone, but I was also aware of the fact that my Blackberry would only tell me just how lost I was and how to fix that problem if my car was sitting absolutely still, I gave it approximately ten minutes to figure out where I wanted to go, and it could tell I was in no hurry. I decided that these issues were not ones I wanted to deal with when it was 10 p.m. and I needed to decide which exit to take in the next thirty seconds.
4. Stay Calm. Graduate students can’t really afford speeding tickets, so I had to learn to try to relax while stuck in traffic in the middle of Georgia, or during the fifteen hour drive home for Thanksgiving that I undertook from South Carolina to New York City. It is similarly useless to attempt to get anywhere in Los Angeles within the time span of thirty minutes or less, and also wholly unrealistic to expect anyone in the lanes next to you to signal when they’d like to cut you off.
5. It helps to plan your stops ahead of time, using Google Maps, or a similar application. I stop somewhat more frequently than some people because I have what has been described as a goldfish-sized bladder. These are not the “stops” I’m talking about. I mean that when you stop for food, stop somewhere that makes the food to order, and where you are forced to sit down and stay for half an hour. Try to avoid going to some place where you can pick up your food and get right back to staring at the ever-unchanging road.
At the end of last semester, when I was driving back from Georgia to Texas, via Alabama and I-10, I realized how proud I was of myself for making it through half a year with nary an incident. I hadn’t hit any deer, no one had crashed into me, and I’d never been stranded anywhere because I’d neglected to fill up my gas tank. Perhaps I will never be as hardcore as Forrest McDonald—and not just because I still haven’t had to sleep in my car—but I was amazed at the sense of confidence and independence I felt after getting myself from archive to archive. I felt ready to tackle anything. Even the first chapters of my dissertation.
What is your advice for traveling to do dissertation work?
[Image by Flickr user Gabriel Saldanas and used under Creative Commons License]
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Why pursue creative writing during grad school? Because playing with alternate genres can help your research: bit.ly/1WWvkw0