Reflections on My Last Research Trip

I delayed in starting this post for a while, because honestly, I didn’t really know what I wanted to say. I still don’t, but why delay longer? I’m at a bit of a loss because I recently went on what will probably be my last research trip as an academic. It won’t be my last time in a library or archive — I’ll still be doing research here and there for writing projects, videos, blogs, and my own pleasure. But as far as doing research for a long-term research project that will become a significant publication, this was probably the last one. I’m coming to terms with that realization, and I’m not entirely sure how to feel about it. 

So this post will be a little more on the sappy side. Sorry guys. 

I started thinking about this trip last winter. That’s about the time I applied for the grant to do this research (as academic grants go, I’m sure many of you know all about waiting months to hear back and then another few months to have time for the trip). This was slightly before I started having significant doubts about pursuing academia, so I still considered academia my future. In fact, this was going to be the first research trip for the elusive “second project” that becomes your main focus when you finally finish your dissertation. I’d talked with a friend about presenting a paper on the topic, did some preliminary research, and located the important archive for the project. Fortunately for me, this archive offered a research grant to use its collections, so I applied right away. Meantime I kept reading and planning this exciting new topic. My friend and I finalized our panel and got it accepted. All was on track.

Then, in the ensuing months, I mentally checked out of academia. The job market was dismal and I really wanted nothing to do with the adjunct/VAP/postdoc spiral that so many early career academics are ending up in. I’ve already told that story, so no need to reiterate here. But in the middle of all that, I hear back that I got the research grant for my second project. 

This didn’t come with the usual excitement that always accompanied a successful grant application. Honestly, my first thought was, “Damn it, now I have to do this.” It felt like a task. I was in the middle of a major career transition, trying to make new contacts, get new work experience, and do all the things that one has to do to enter new fields. That did NOT leave room for a research project that I would never do anything with. But I was in a double bind, because I’d agreed to do a conference paper using this research. So basically, I had to use the grant and take the research trip, and then write a paper from that trip. So after procrastinating a bit, I finally went in the beginning of September.

From a technical standpoint, the trip was fine. The archive staff were all helpful and friendly, and all the materials came out promptly. I didn’t find any smoking guns in the archive that really excited me, but there was still enough material to hold my interest. The grant money covered the whole trip and then some, so I didn’t have to scrimp like I usually do on research trips. There were plenty of good places to eat, including some good craft beer bars. I got to hangout with a friend who had moved to that area a few months before. Basically it was all you’d want from a research trip.

But I just couldn’t get over the feeling of futility for what I was doing. I found the project so interesting but it was almost certain I wouldn’t do anything with it, other than post snippets of it here. What was the point? So in all likelihood, I’ll whip together a quick 20-minute paper and give a conference talk from this research, and then put it to bed.

I’ve read other articles about mourning the research projects that will never be done when you leave academia. But the thing is, I’m not mourning. I feel good. The reason I didn’t feel like going on this research trip was because I’m doing other things with my life. For all intents and purposes, I’ve completed my transformation out of academia. I still have some dissertation work to finalize, but I’ve set up my non-academic future over the last few months. It’ll involve some hustling and pinching for a little while, but I’ll be on the right track.

So I’d say it’s more of a bittersweet feeling than a feeling of mourning. I’ll miss doing research like this. I’ll miss losing myself for hours in an archive among dusty documents without worrying about the outside world. I’ll miss the feeling of finding that missing link that brings this research question together. But I also won’t miss not having an actual career or steady income. I look forward to more stability in my life. I look forward to not spending months worrying if I got a grant or if Reader #2 will tear my article (and soul) to shreds. That’s a life I really won’t miss. I’m glad I did it, but I’m not sad to be leaving it. 

To be honest I’m not sure exactly what the point of this post is. I don’t have a lesson or brilliant insight to wrap it all up. I think I feel more of an obligation to share the story because I know other academics are in the same position I am. I wanted them to know they aren’t alone. It’s normal to check out of the research projects you’re working on when you decide to leave academic life. From firsthand experience, I know it’s extremely hard to get excited in a big research project when your heart just isn’t in it. It’s okay to be sad about those projects you’ll never do. But at the same time it’s okay to feel happy that you’re doing other things now. Academia was once your life; now it’s not. 

For me personally, I’m trying to look forward and not backward. 

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