10 tips to write a history PhD

I’ve recently submitted my PhD thesis, which deals with the international history of the 1970s. Here I share some of the tools and tips which helped to make my work faster, easier and more efficient. Some of them are quite basic, but I didn’t know them when I started, and nobody told me about them – so now I hope that they can be useful for you. If you have more tips, please add them below.

1. Keep a sort of diary of your thesis, tracking the progress that you make and the challenges that you deal with – and most of all, tracking the decisions that you’ve taken. A PhD program takes years: you cannot remember all the operative or substantial decisions you’ve taken about your thesis, and as time goes by you may forget why you chose a certain time frame, what subset of your sources you used to write a certain section of the thesis, where you planned to locate a certain topic, and so on.

2. Keep a chronology file, where you list the dates of all the important events you come across. It is useful as a reference file, since you can’t remember all the dates by heart, and it is good to be able to find them out quickly. It is also useful because browsing the chronology you can spot interesting coincidences or successions of events that you would not notice otherwise.

3. Keep a definitions file, where you list the definitions of all the concepts useful for your work (together with the reference to their source). Again, it is useful as a reference file: it is a sort of small vocabulary collecting all the definitions and concepts which are useful for you. It is useful in order to have quick access to the definition of rather obscure concepts, such as “institutional reflexivity” or “hybrid interregionalism”. It is also useful in order to collect and compare alternative definitions of contested concepts, such as “Europeanization” or “modernization”.

4. Take note of the archival funds and folders where you have found useful material, but take also note of the funds that you’ve consulted without finding anything interesting in them. Otherwise, you would probably forget about them, and you could end up going back to them a second time, wasting time and energy for no reason. Similarly, take note of all the papers/books you’ve read or browsed, even if they were not interesting for your work: you don’t want to waste time with them again a few months later.

5. Whenever possible, scan or take a photo of the interesting documents you find, and turn them into PDFs. I create a PDF for any single document that I find interesting, and I name the file with the inverted date of the document, e.g. 730423 is a document of April 23, 1973. That allows you to sort the sources easily by date, making your work of reconstruction and interpretation a lot easier. Similarly, whenever possible get or create a PDF file for any journal article that you find interesting, and give it an easily searchable and sortable name (I go for “Ludlow 2013”, “Soutou 2000”, and so on).

6. For any single document you have, make sure to specify where you’ve collected it (I make an annotation on the PDF file itself). Unless you link any document to its source, you won’t be able to quote it: it may be the coolest or hottest document ever, but it would be completely unusable. In case you forget to annotate the source or you make a mistake while doing it, make sure that you are able to reconstruct the source by taking notes on the order of collection of your documents or by tracing the serial numbers of the pictures taken by your camera.

7. Organize your documents by topic (initially I organized them by fund/archive, which was pretty pointless). I use folders which correspond more or less to the main sections of each chapter. Of course the structure of your chapters will evolve as you proceed in your research, so you’ll adapt the documents folders accordingly. You should never have more than 100-120 documents for any folder, as they become hardly manageable in this case. Initially I built a sort of database of my sources, but it was quite time-wasting and not extremely useful at the end.

8. I find it quite unbelievable, but there are still people who do not use bibliography management softwares like Zotero or Mendeley – I was not using them myself at the outset, since nobody had ever told me about them at school. If you’ve never used these softwares, start doing it now: you’ll find out the reason by yourself.

9. Don’t trash all your early drafts: it is normal that projects and chapters evolve as time goes by, but you may want to be able to go back to stuff that you’d written months or even years earlier and which will not enter your final draft. This material can still contain interesting ideas, and you can use it in a different way, for instance to write a paper on the side of the thesis.

10. You’re writing the story of something that has already happened decades ago, the destiny of the world does not depend on you: don’t take your work too seriously – smile, relax, enjoy all that is happening around you these days.


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