The Sources Don’t Exist: What to do When your Primary Research Doesn’t Go to Plan
When I started my PhD in January 2015 I had no illusions that it was going to be straightforward – I knew it would be challenging, stressful and downright frustrating, yet also intellectually stimulating, motivating and, above all, worth it. Many PhD students encounter problems during their research; it’s part of the learning curve. Some obstacles are bigger than most – yet this does not make them impossible to overcome.
At the start of a PhD you, and your supervisor(s), agree to create a preliminary time-scale – this is more of an attempt to collect scattered thoughts rather than a concrete timeline. In general it will attempt to set out the next 3–4 years of your academic life, giving details about how your PhD is going to develop, which archives and at what date you will visit them, and so on. There will be certain parts of this timeline that you will more than likely want to adhere to:when to submit the first chapter, when to visit a specific archive, or when to start teaching. It is taken for granted that the timeline will be altered throughout your PhD as you simply cannot see into the future – however, some of these disruptions can prove to be rather cataclysmic.
As detailed in a previous article for HTTP, I am not a fully funded PhD student (woe to me) and therefore visiting certain archives (particularly archives abroad) is rather an arduous task that involves lengthy application forms for funding. It is by no means an insurmountable problem; the funding is there and it is obtainable. In my case, although I managed to get the funding it was not until 18 months into my PhD.
So what was the situation?
From August to September 2016 I went to Düsseldorf. I attended a German language course funded by the German History Society and the DAAD at Heinrich-Heine Universität. At the same time, I received separate funding for archival research trips and travelled to numerous archives in and around the Ruhr area to gather primary sources.
The records do not, repeat DO NOT, exist.
How can this happen?
A question I dithered on for FAR too long. The fact is, they are not there. They do not exist. Information I had received from archivists prior to my visits was misleading, sometimes entirely false, or they had misunderstood the questions I was asking. In addition to this, because of Germany’s extremely strict data protection laws, the one foreseeable way I could get around this blunder was not an option.
So, what did I do?
Well, there was a considerable amount of panic at the beginning as you would imagine. Panic, dread, hysteria, alarm, great confusion – quite frankly these are all synonyms for panic, but that is how much panic there truly was. I was more than halfway through my PhD (according to my carefully constructed ‘plan’) and the important sources I was depending on were apparently a figment of my imagination.
However, all is not lost. Although it did seem like the proverbial end (of my academic career), what it actually turned out to be was the dying embers of an old flame that had run its course and the ignition of something much better. I have been repeatedly told two core principles by other academics during my time as a PhD student:
- Nothing you write for academia is ever wasted – it will always have a use.
- Networking is key.
Although the 25,000 words I had written prior to the date of my archive trip to Germany were essentially scrapped from my thesis, they still have their use and they are currently being transformed into an article. However, it is the second point that is more relevant here. Networking is an essential part of PhD life – not only is it fun, it is also highly beneficial. It was through networking that I met a fellow PhD student studying the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), and as not many UNRRA-researchers exist we became supportive of one another. We regularly keep in touch and notify each other of upcoming publications, conferences, and the like. However, more importantly, her research includes all three western zones of Germany during the post-war era (American, British, and French) whereas my research is located entirely within the British zone of occupation.
How is this helpful, I hear you ask?
Well, after realising the documents I required did not exist (and the alternatives were unobtainable due to data protection laws) I had a teeny-tiny rant at my fellow UNRRA friend about how impossible everything is. She simply suggested I go to the Archives nationales in Paris, France to look at the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) records (the organisation that took over UNRRA in 1947). Although I already knew of these records, I had not sought them out previously as I speak German and Polish (although poorly), and my French is holiday-pidgin-French at best; I can summon the energy to awkwardly ask for a crêpe or directions, however that seems to be my limit. Unbeknownst to me, 99% of the IRO documents stored in Paris are in English. This, in my little world, was a revelation.
My point is, without networking, without meeting my fellow UNRRA-researcher, without ranting at her, this one very simple piece of information would have remained unknown to me. As the file names of the IRO records are all in French, I naturally assumed the content would be too. Although this sounds like a very long chain of events, everything happened rather quickly – it was only when I realised I could use the IRO files that I realised the potential of my thesis, and it was a lot more promising that I had previously thought. Additionally, simply because of these new sources from the Archives nationales (where my French, unfortunately, did not improve, as I always managed to give the archivists a chuckle with my regular spouting of “J’ai demandé plus dossier?”) the other sources I did manage to get from Germany became all the more relevant, and therefore important.
What my advice would be to other PhD students facing similar problems
By all means have a minor breakdown – a lot of the time it is simply unavoidable. However, once you have picked up the pieces and gathered your thoughts, reach out to anyone you may have met through networking events (be it through email, Twitter, Facebook, and so on) and ask for advice. If the archival material is simply not there, or otherwise unavailable, do not quit. I can assure you quitting was my foremost thought when the realisation struck, however I am thankful I did not. Harking back once more to a previous article I wrote for HTTP on keeping a healthy balance during a PhD, do not shy away from events within your field, engage with other academics, reach out to others in the same field as you (even if you haven’t met them at an event!) and network your nay-nays off. The contacts you can make through networking have no monetary value; the information you can receive from those you make contact with is priceless and it can only serve to help you in your PhD journey.
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