Traveling internationally for the U.S. humanities grad: planning

Over the past seven years of graduate school, I’ve earned the funding to travel overseas on four occasions–once for my MA and three times for my dissertation.

Research trip #1 was almost diverted by a freak snowstorm that hit London and threw everyone into such a tizzy that Heathrow closed its runway and the London Times printed a front page story about people helping each other cross the treacherous streets in the “spirit of the blitz.”  It was like…six inches of snow, guys.

The day I flew out for research trip #2, VISA cancelled both my debit and credit card in a company wide fraud protection scheme, leaving with me a bare minimum of cash.  My roommate at the time had to mail me my replacement cards, which was a total fiasco I had forcefully forgotten until just now.  That’s worth a post on it’s own.

Anyway, research trip #3 went off alright, aside from the horrid customs officer, but I flew standby and my trip home was diverted for three days due to a runway fire, and I eventually had to fly home through Dublin for an extra $1500.  And I had an apple in my bag, which caused a hullabaloo at O’Hare.

Research trip #4 launched last week.

So far…so good.

In fact, it went off without a hitch.  And although I can’t control snowstorms and VISA cards, part of the reason it went so smoothly was due to other tinier lessons I’ve learned over my past trips–lessons I thought I would share here in the hopes that I save some other fellow researcher some stress.

In no particular order, here you go:

Some things to consider before carrying out a research trip.

1.  Despite what your tipsy uncle said at Thanksgiving last year, you are a professional.  You have, at the very least, a bachelor’s degree.  This is the same piece of paper that your Uncle Bob has, but while he went on and got a job you went on to get your MA/PhD.

May volcanoes open up and swallow you whole for your poor choices!!

Except you didn’t make a poor choice.  You made the right choice for you.  You chose to become a sort of academic apprentice, studying, researching, teaching, attending conferences, and learning the tricks of the trade.  Sure, this work takes place on a campus, but it is work.  And that means you need to act like a professional as you travel, taking seriously your position as an ambassador and academic.

Now, I’m not saying you need to rock a three piece suit, but you should definitely go through the airport looking like someone who knows what they are about.  Primarily, this helps at customs, where officers are instructed to chuck out landing cards for people who look like they might become squatters.  They’re particularly leery of students, which you’ll list as your occupation.  Dressing like you have the means to complete a research trip on your own dime can be key, as can a professional attitude.

2.  Americans are insular in that many of us fail to recognize the fact that we are not universally loved everywhere we go.

It’s true, we’re not.

This means, when you are developing an interest in something beyond you and your comfort zone, which I recommend that you do (or commend you for doing), you need to be aware of how you might be received in your country of study.

You can’t predict the precise climate into which you’re stepping, but you can give yourself a leg up by reading the news–BBC or Al Jazeera are particularly good–and following a couple of blogs that you think give you a good sense of your topic and how it’s playing out in the field.

And you can be polite upon arrival, even if you just had a nine hour flight.

3.  Finally, remember that you started studying this topic because it is important to you.  Remember that you have the opportunity to be in a new place, most likely a place that you love.  So, within reason, you need to spend some time outside of the archive.  Make sure to set aside a bit of funding to see museums, go to a restaurant to experience legit foreign cuisine, take a day to walk through a park.  Your archive won’t be open seven days a week anyway, and you can sit in a room and sort your materials just as easily when you get back.

Brass tacks of preparation

1.  Learn how to get to your archives without GPS.  Even though we live in the age of smartphones, your precious phone might die.  That means that you should print out and study some maps.

2.  Have your housing lined up before you go.  This might seem like a no-brainer, but I have known researchers who arrive with a hotel for the first week and then hope the rest will sort itself out.  If you’re flying to a place with strict customs (like the UK) this is a no-go.  My recommendation is that you use Airbnb to find a home to stay in, and even better, a family to stay with.  There is nothing nicer than coming home after six hours on your feet and finding that your home-stay family has poured a glass of wine for you.  Plus, Airbnb is far cheaper than most hotels, and it gives you time with local people.

3.  Get letters of introduction.  Even if you’re not going to a highly formalized archive that requires an introduction and application for a library card (ohhh…the British), you might need a letter for customs, illustrating that you are who you say you are.  Chiefly, they will want to know that you truly are affiliated with your university, that your chair or advisor knows that you are overseas, that they expect you to return, and that they can vouch for your funding.

In some cases, you might also need to list a contact overseas.  This isn’t as terrifying as it might sound–lots of professors at foreign universities are happy to hear that their topics are making it to the States, and they will agree to have tea with you or show you around their university library.  An email saying as much is often enough, but if you’re concerned about it, just ask for a brief statement on letterhead saying that they plan to make your acquaintance.

4.  Book your plane tickets two months in advance.  If you’re not flying standby, get your tickets two months in advance before the prices get jacked up.  And, speaking from experience here, check the school schedules and do not try to fly when every family in your country is heading out on summer/winter holiday.

5.  Familiarize yourself with your archivesSo many archives are searchable online, these days, which means you need to be searching them.  Write down the index numbers you’ll want to request upon arrival, and, if possible, write to the archivists and request things a few days in advance so you can get started right away, especially if you’re pressed for time.  Also, it’s a great idea to introduce yourself ahead of time to the archivist in charge of the whole rodeo and/or the archivist in charge of your topic.  Let them know what you’re working on, how far into the research you are, and your primary questions.  Tell them what you want and information will fall from the skies.  Be grateful for it, tiny peon.

(More on archive etiquette and the godlike abilities of archivists in a following post on executing the research trip.)

6. Make sure your utilities are coveredThe easiest way to deal with utilities is to sign up for online automatic payments.  But if that’s not an option for you, send checks in early, plan for extensions on due dates, or leave blank checks with someone you trust to check your mail and send things in for you.

7.  Make sure you know how to get from the airport to your housing.  Nothing is worse than being in an airport, fully exhausted, and having no idea how to get to your housing. Most airports have online services where you can book a bus or train ticket ahead of time, but if you’re worried about potential delays, you can also check on how to get these things in the airport.  Either way, if you’re worried about public transit, try to talk to someone who has used the system you’ll be dealing with, or look for online tips.

8. Know thy project.  This one might look a little terrifying if you’re on your first exploratory research trip where you really aren’t sure yet what you’re doing.  In that case you need to know your historiography, theory, research questions, etc. and have a good sense of how to situate the materials you might find.  But if you’re further into the project, then you need to know exactly what pieces are missing and how to plug in the things you’ll find.  This will keep you from spending time on stuff you don’t need or wandering down paths that will waste your time…as tempting as all that is.

9. Make sure you can use the infrastructure. Aside from public transit, you’ll want to build a familiarity with things like postal codes and telephone numbers. My very first time in England I failed to make a phone call correctly and instead of waking up my host, I woke up some very angry Cockney man.  I’m not even kidding.  It was like a terrifying sitcom.

Don’t forgot to pack the following

1.  The right documents!!  Just in case you have a customs officer who is a total hard-ass, I recommend you pack the following in an easily accessible folder:

  • Two proof of address.  Your bank statement works well, because they can see your funding deposit, too.  And a copy of your lease is also a good one because it shows that you have a place to go back to and you won’t just move in to the country for an undetermined amount of time.
  • Printed out confirmation of your return flight ticket–again, you’re not going to become a squatter or get an illegal job
  • Letters of introduction *see above*
  • A formal itinerary detailing where you will be and when.  List all your homestays if you are going to be moving around, complete with addresses, phone numbers, and length of stay.  List all your archives with brief annotations about what you are looking for in each.  And close with your departing flight number and departure time.

2.  Your IDs.  This is another no-brainer, but, again speaking from experience, make sure that they are up to date and look like you.  I flew to England with an extension sticker on my driver’s license, which was still my 21st birthday picture, and they made me lay out all my IDs and explain the progression of my appearance.  I shit you not.  I think they thought I was a spy or something.  And make sure your passport isn’t set to expire near the end of your trip.

3.  Convertors.  Chances are your appliances (phone, hair dryer, lap top, etc.) aren’t going to work where you’re going without voltage convertors.  You can buy these when you land, but it’s easier to just get them ahead of time so you can charge up in the airport if you need to.

4.  Comfortable shoes.  Jokes about Americans in sneakers with fanny packs aside, you’re going to want comfortable shoes.  It might be that you have a walk to your archive (I’m doing two miles coming and going each day, four total) or that you’re on your feet making photographs for hours on end, but you’re going to want them.

5.  A good camera.  Your camera might be on your phone (I use the macro function), or you might have a point and shoot, but either way, don’t forget it.  And make sure that you have plenty of storage for pictures.

(I’ll talk more about picture-taking/organizing in the follow-up post, too.)

6. A tie. Or a nice dress.  You’re going to want to have one good outfit, or outfit you can dress up, just in case you run into that guy who wants you to go to that conference and meet that other guy who will expect you to be wearing something other than Chuck Taylors and a T-shirt.

7. Recipes. This is more of a suggestion than a necessity, but I’ve found it really useful to pack a few well-loved recipes, or bookmark them online, just in case you have a home-stay with access to a kitchen (almost every Airbnb I’ve looked at has this amenity.)  The amount of money you save on restaurants will make the cooking time well worth it, and you’ll be guaranteed proper nutrition to keep you going in the archives…they’re more exhausting than you’d think.

And…don’t do the following

1. Don’t overpack.  You will almost certainly have access to laundry, so pack for a week at most.  This will leave room for photocopies, souvenirs, etc.

2. Do not use a currency exchange or get money from your bank in advance. Huge rip off.  Just go to an ATM once you land, looking for the largest bank branch you can find, as they are less likely to charge high fees or jack up the exchange rate.

3. Don’t be an asshole. You are a guest in the archive.  You are a guest in your home-stay.  Be polite, accommodating, cheerful, open, gracious, and helpful.

*  *  *

Let me know in the comments if you have something to add, if you have any questions, or if you’d like more specific information on any of the above points.  My experience has been with travel to the UK, but I’m happy to hear from other researchers with expertise in other parts of the world.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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