What field is my fictional grad student in, and what has she lost?
January 12, 2018 6:47 AM   Subscribe

I’m writing a fictional story in which the character has lost everything in a fire. Not only her possessions, but her work, which is irreplaceable – just to really put her through the wringer.

In her case, the work is a partially written PhD dissertation. Since I’ve never written anything like a dissertation, I’m trying to imagine what she might have lost in addition to the dissertation itself, which was about halfway drafted on her laptop (saved on an external hard drive, which is also gone). I know this will depend on her field, which I’m still trying to figure out. At first I had the notion of some kind of fieldwork – notebooks filled with handwritten notes, which I guess would make her a cultural anthropologist. But I'm not sure that feels right. In what other fields might one have accumulated irreplaceable documents or artifacts or whatever, as source material for one’s dissertation? The year is 2005, and just assume that she did not back things up in any sophisticated way and that everything is really and truly is gone.
posted by swheatie to Education (35 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If she was an astronomer, she could have lost all of her data (images, spectra, whatever). In 2005, those would have been digital and stored on her computer, too. They probably would have also been brought home from the observatory on CDs/DVDs or magnetic tapes, which could have very conceivably been lost in the fire. If it's a big national observatory, there likely would have been backups, but major private observatories (e.g. Keck) often didn't keep backups on their own in that era.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:55 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

When I arrived at my university to start my PhD, we were warned of the cautionary tale of a (possibly apocryphal) PhD student who had irreplaceable notes on her laptop from over a year of some sort of far-flung foreign fieldwork (Siberia? New Guinea?). Unfortunately her computer crashed and she lost them all. This is similar to the scenario you imagine, and I think it is the most plausible. I would say it's unlikely for your hypothetical doctoral student to have personally accumulated documents or artifacts herself: they're usually very draconian about not removing any of that sort of thing. Notes or chapter drafts would be the most likely.
posted by ClaireBear at 6:57 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]

She did a year of interviews with politicians campaign staff during an election year. Those interviews would be irreplaceable.
posted by SyraCarol at 6:59 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]

As a former grad student in philosophy, it would have been an absolute disaster to lose my collection of books and articles. Books and articles in themselves are replaceable, but my annotations and marginal notes in them aren't. Losing them in a fire would almost amount to never having read them in the first place. I do think, however, that an anthropologist or ethnologist would be struck even harder, because not only are the notes gone, the specific fieldwork they are based on was unique (tied to a given place, time, and group of people) and cannot be repeated like reading a book can, at least in theory.

Also, this prospect literally sends shivers down my spine. Excellent material for a story.
posted by Desertshore at 7:00 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]

Were the laptop and the hard drive in her own house when the fire happened? I ask, because all lab-based sciences would have a lot of data physically stored at the research institute. When I was writing my dissertation, I took home some copies of files for reference, but the originals were all at the lab. I did have a lot of handwritten notes in my lab notesbooks. These were not allowed to leave the institute. Anything I needed to have from there, I would have digitised. Any physical samples never left the lab either.
Fieldwork is more likely to have data that exists outside of the research institute, especially if the fieldwork is remote and there is no digital connection to the lab. It's possible to imagine someone collecting the last bit of field data from camera traps, for example, and having those data only on one laptop or on a drive at home for a short period of time.
Social sciences using surveys to collect data could also work: If she just came back from a survey and just had a large pile of paper that participants filled in, before digitising it, or only had interviews on her recording device.
posted by easternblot at 7:01 AM on January 12

If she is in the humanities, maybe she is in a history or history-adjacent field that requires extensive research work at foreign libraries and archives. These trips can be very expensive. She would have paper photocopies in 2005 as well as her own notes. While not completely irreplaceable they would be incredibly difficult to re-collect.
posted by muddgirl at 7:06 AM on January 12 [9 favorites]

Any kind of experimental work, not yet completed, that creates data sets that need to be thoroughly analysed before conclusions can be made. Psychology, animal behaviour, life-cycles, even plant studies. Amazonian rain-forest type stuff, or even melting glaciers or undersea exploration. Something difficult to repeat.
posted by Enid Lareg at 7:06 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

I'm a scientist today but wasn't in 2005, though I was an adult with technology then. I am not sure that a grad student in 2005 would be FULLY working off a portable laptop. More likely is that she had a computer in her lab/office and had a notebook for lots of other things, and perhaps she would use a laptop for working from other places. This is especially true if she needed a computer for heavy duty analyses depending on her field. In my research lab, we can access data remotely but we're really not supposed to take that stuff home with us, and certainly not if it's the only copy.

I think your idea of her being an anthropologist or in the humanities (philosophy, religious studies) is the closest you'll get, here. She could lose had hard copies of articles and books with irreplaceable notes and synthesis written in the margins.
posted by ancient star at 7:07 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]

This would work for many molecular/cell biology or genetics fields: all her samples were in the same freezer and then the power went out over a summer long weekend (the person who was responsible for responding to the freezer alarm was fired, but that doesn't bring the samples back).
posted by mskyle at 7:10 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

(I guess I might be misunderstanding the question though. Is this a fire at her office or lab?)
posted by ancient star at 7:11 AM on January 12

She also could have photocopies/non-digital photographs of things that can no longer be re-collected at any price. For example, she had photocopies of books from a small Italian town that suffered a fire and the originals are lost; she has photographs of multi-thousand-year-old artifacts in Iraq that were destroyed in the US invasion. Or, for that matter, the originals are still there but getting access via a contact in the area was hard enough when Saddam was in power... but it's 2005, the idea of flying into Baghdad to go check them out again is a sick joke.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:12 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]

Not field-specific, but a grad student at my university could check out (or do interlibrary loans for)
astonishingly expensive books. Our official limit is that they'll forgive the loss of one book worth less than $50 once in one's entire time at the university, and I doubt ILL books come with even that grace. It starts getting scary fast because the library of course wants the specific edition and condition matched in any replacement book one might offer. (However, I am not a librarian: perhaps they secretly would take pity? In any case, it'd be an incredibly stressful experience to be convinced that one owed them a dozen or more unique books and wouldn't be allowed to graduate until that debt had been cleared.)
posted by teremala at 7:16 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

I was going to suggest comparative literature, which means studying literature from different cultures (and usually languages). When I was doing translation work in grad school (not in comp lit, but still), I usually worked with 1) a lot of photocopied texts that I couldn't easily or quickly replace, and 2) a lot of handwritten translation notes that would have been more trouble to transcribe than to use in that format. The final product would have relied on the translation notes, but not reproduced them, and the work was cumulative.

Also, a tip that went semi-viral in my PhD cohort: when we were all hitting a brick wall with our dissertations, it became a Thing to print out the problem chapters, cut them into paragraphs, and lay them out on your floor to see which sections should be moved where, which needed further explanation, etc. I ended up with sheaves of yellow legal pad paper with literally cut and pasted sections of my dissertation spliced between handwritten sections. Also, a lot of my notes for what needed to be revised from my dissertation chair were handwritten on iterative copies of every chapter. If I had lost all of that work, I literally wouldn't have known where to begin, even if I did have digital copies of all the originals.

(Re: the latter, even if the computer and hard drive burned, the character has to have emailed at least sections of the work to her chair/advisor, or even to herself, so she can print it out on campus, or whatever. Losing the full file and all backups is believable. But unless the university's entire IT system was simultaneously hacked and deleted, there will be remnants as email attachments and google drive uploads as a matter of course. You usually aren't even allowed to start working on the full dissertation until some of these pieces have been submitted/approved/commented on. I had a lot of friends who were not allowed to start on new chapters until previous chapters had been approved as mostly finished.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:22 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Anything where a scientist is collecting spectra from a lab-based machine could work. So if the student worked in a lab preparing and testing samples (pharmacy, toxicology, analytical chemistry, physical chemistry, physics, types of bio-psychology, or biochemistry) the process would look something like:

1) Prepare / grow / synthesize (very time consuming!) the samples you need to test. You would have written notes in your lab book about how to do this, but the sample prep might be a multi-year process.
2) Book time on the instrument to run the samples (we used exhausting week-long bookings, and we were expected to make 24-hour a day use of the machine)
3) Run samples and collect the data as graphs of peaks. These were not autosaved in 2005 for any machine that had been in-service for more than a couple of years. So you would save to a temporary folder, then transfer them to your laptop (which was a huge improvement from saving it to floppy disks a couple of years earlier).
4) Then the next student would wipe your data from the machine, because local storage was still an issue. And slowing the machine could impact the timing of your instrument.
5) Losing that laptop would mean no plots of your data, therefore no proof you really saw what you did see (even with your notebooks intact). You can't write it up.

I heard a story of a chemist who had just started to write up her thesis, when there was a lab fire. It burned her notes and her computer. She just walked away at that point.
posted by Sauter Vaguely at 7:24 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Cultural anthropologist would certainly fit: indeed, Edmund Leach, of the major figures of British anthropology, famously lost his original fieldnotes and draft thesis during his service in WWII and had to reconstruct his dissertation on the basis of memory and historical records. But if cultural anthropologist doesn't suit your narrative for other reasons, then perhaps something like a historian who has gathered oral histories on cassette tape? or ethnomusicologist?
posted by drlith at 7:28 AM on January 12

Linguistic fieldwork is another possibility. You could spend a year in a location collecting notebooks full of linguistic data that you couldn't easily replace.

These days, there are still people doing linguistic fieldwork who use notebooks instead of taking digital notes; they work in areas without power, phonetic transcription is faster by hand, etc. In 2005 even more would have done so.

I have notebooks that I was really dumb about - nothing happened to them but I used poor quality paper/pencil and my writing has faded with age. That sucks.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:34 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

ugh, this hurts. I wrote my thesis in 1996, and I had copies of everything on my work computer, backed up on a drive in a different building, and on a disk I took home every night. three different locations. so 2005 isn't early enough for real carelessness.

I don't think anybody whose work is primarily digital would do anything less, so I think you have to go with field notes or marginalia, both of which would be easy to accumulate without keeping pu with digitizing them (although even field notes might be made on a tablet computer)...
posted by acm at 7:34 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

In addition to draft chapters for her dissertation, a cultural anthropology ABD would lose field notes, recordings of ethnographic interviews, definitely photos and maybe videos, things people had given them in the field, things they collected in the field (odd things that may or may not be relevant to her current research), initial prep work like a literature review or annotated bibliography, presentations, everything related to courses she's teaching, possibly a proposal for write-up funding in progress, maybe job applications in progress, and a metric ton of books.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:07 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

A student working in ancient languages or literature might have images or transcriptions of unpublished inscriptions or tablets that, especially if they were located in another country, would be almost impossible to replace without getting another fellowship to return to their location.
posted by praemunire at 8:15 AM on January 12

even field notes might be made on a tablet computer)...

Not in 2005!
posted by praemunire at 8:16 AM on January 12

Thank you, thank you, everyone. Great input and suggestions. The prospect of this actually happening to someone makes me queasy, and I haven't even written a dissertation. i was initially thinking she'd lost a novel in progress, but although that would be nauseatingly awful, she would still have her imagination intact and thus could dust herself off and carry on with another novel. But with academic work, the loss seems so much worse.
posted by swheatie at 8:21 AM on January 12

History would be pretty dreadful--sometimes access requirements for archives change over time. Material that I looked at in 2015 has now been re-classified as inaccessible, and it gives me cold sweats to think of my notes on that material disappearing.
posted by besonders at 8:44 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

A rare, out-of-print, hard to find book. Especially if she “borrowed” it from a mentor without asking while he was out of the office with a heart attack.
posted by bunderful at 9:03 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

I lost 6 months of dissertation fieldwork in a field a lot like cultural anthropology (ethnomusicology) in 2006 -- it was to theft rather than fire, but I think the results would be pretty similar. Worst day of my life, at least up to that point.
Here's what it looked like:
-I was in the field for 12 months, where I was conducting interviews and other forms of participant observation, recording performances, etc. This happened halfway through, so the anguish was not only about what was lost, but about a running clock that would mean I might not ever be able to get as much data before funding ran out.
-My tech setup was a laptop hard drive and an external hard drive. I was in a country where internet access was slow and unreliable, so cloud backup wasn't practical.
-My daily workflow and sources of data to lose were something like this: I had a small pocket notebook where I'd jot down notes unobtrusively where possible in the moment. I'd go home at night and write up my field notes more formally, which I saved as Word files on my laptop and backed up the whole thing every week or so. I also kept a more informal, introspective, mostly-just-for-me journal in which a lot of fieldwork stuff came up, but that wasn't its primary purpose. That journal ended up being the only one of these sources to survive, and helped me more than I expected to reconstruct some of my previous observations.
-The night before a weekend trip for work, my external hard drive went kaput. I figured I'd have to buy a new one when I got back.
-I was looking at a 5-hour bus ride, so I figured I'd make good use of it by transcribing recent field interviews. I had my laptop (containing all my audio files), headphones, and my notebook that had the only hard copy of notes I'd taken during those interviews. I also had a big suitcase with me with microphones, cables, and the other stuff I'd need for this short research trip. In the bus station, a two-man team distracted me for literally two seconds by tapping on my shoulder from behind while the guy in front grabbed my laptop bag and ran.
-The fallout of this was long-term. I lost all record of several really interesting interviews I'd conducted, and when I went back to re-conduct them, the results were lackluster. People were understandably bored by having to rehash the same material again, and were less forthcoming, more terse, and less interesting in their second go-round. There were also recordings of specific musical performances that were especially interesting or meaningful, and were lost irretrievably. I'm confident that my dissertation would have been the richer for being able to draw on these materials. I had to write with what I had, of course, which especially with the memory of what was lost felt frustratingly thin sometimes.
posted by dr. boludo at 9:03 AM on January 12 [11 favorites]

She's an historian, and she tracked down some very old people to interview, one of whom gave her some precious documents that have never been in any archive and no one else knows they exist. Maybe they are handwritten letters between political figures, the content of which will change our interpretation of an important historical event? She was going to make photocopies of them for safekeeping, but she hadn't done it yet, because she wanted to shock everyone with her new interpretation, and she was wary of taking them to be copied lest nosy persons start asking what they are. The documents are very fragile, so she needed to take them to an expert archivist for help with copying, not Kinko's. Or maybe she had made the appointment with the archivist, but it hadn't occurred yet.
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:03 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

I had a friend in grad school (public history) who was doing her dissertation on the impact of road culture on country music. In addition to all the research and readings she had done on road culture, think a couple of hundred pages of articles and books that she'd read and annotated thoroughly, she'd also spent a year at the Country Music Hall of Fame researching the top ten country songs for each month from 1950-2000 and created a database of song titles, artists, chart rank, release date, and keywords to identify every song that had the words "highway", "road", "interstate", or related road culture terms. She had all these pdfs of articles, word documents of notes, and a pretty good sized Access database of songs on a USB jump drive, not to mention a few hundred pages of her first draft of her dissertation. She forgot one day and left it plugged into a public computer at the library where she worked, and it was wiped and reformatted by a student worker who thought it had been left behind.

She actually got special permission to restart her dissertation for our department because everyone understood how devastating it was to lose a year's worth of research.
posted by teleri025 at 9:20 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

My wife is an ethnomusicologist. The things she wants to keep from her grad school days above all are her field recordings, mostly interview with traditional musicians talking about their art. In some cases, these are the last interview given by some of these people, in other done at the start of what became successful careers. She also has recordings of performances of their art as well of course; sometimes these are the same tape.

This was early 2000s. These were cassette and some reel tapes, and, of course paper notes, copies and books. She kept her work on floppy discs and the hard drive of a laptop. She did keep copies, but those could often be in the same house as the originals. A fire could have been devastating.

The other things that are really important to keep copies of record include: notes for lectures and papers given at conferences; notes for additional books or monographs; and lastly course notes for lectures given at the university. She lost the notes/slides for one her courses a few years ago to a hardware failure and that took almost a full summer of evenings to rewrite.
posted by bonehead at 9:34 AM on January 12

As a bit of an aside, but maybe useful, a friend of mine once accidentally lit his apartment on fire (candle in the window plus drapes while out shopping)...almost burned the whole place down. The damage was written off as 'superficial' (I guess because the building structure wasn't damaged) but he lost a bunch of books (oddly enough yes, for research for his phd dissertation), there was a bunch of water damage, and all the walls and ceilings were covered with soot and smoke damage and there was ash everywhere. The smell of smoke lasted for months and was pretty demoralizing for my friend.
I mention all this because it might be useful for you...the constant and ongoing reminder of everything lost might be a good story element to add.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:34 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

When I was writing my undergrad thesis in a social science field, I brought all of the paper surveys I'd collected with me on a holiday break to do data entry, and Greyhound lost the bag they were in. If it hadn't been found I would have been unable to finish the project. In today's world this kind of research might not have been done on paper surveys, but a loss of source material like this that isn't electronically backed up could work?
posted by centrifugal at 11:09 AM on January 12

How about things that literally can't be backed up in the first place? Geology field samples are not objectively valuable (unlike rare documents or archeological items), and if someone had recently returned from a research trip it might be likely they would have them at home.
posted by yohko at 1:23 PM on January 12

She could have done some interviews with Holocaust survivors or people who survived the Great Depression or people who served in World War II. Some of those people could have died since the interview, which would make the transcripts and interview tapes irreplaceable.
posted by colfax at 1:45 PM on January 12

If you want to add some frustration, you could have backup copies be stored in a fireproof safe. Knowing that fireproof safes often fall when the wooden floor they are on fails due to the fire, and then can break at the seams when it hits the concrete floor of the basement below.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 3:29 PM on January 12

Oh wait, I know a real-world example. The Natural History Museum in NYC used to have a bunch of ice cores from Antarctica (gotten there at a ridiculous expense...these were about 6" across and 30+ feet long and hermetically sealed and frozen and transported halfway around the planet). They were cool...they had tiny black lines in them from when the comets came and killed a bunch of dinosaurs. They used to use them to take samples for climate research and etc. Aaaand then there was a blackout and they all melted.
posted by sexyrobot at 9:53 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

My friend got burgled just after she had finished 3 months linguistic fieldwork in a very remote area. They took her laptop and her back up hard drive, and her CDs on which at that time she kept the raw data. She had had a small grant for the research, which had been completely expended, and she was a poor postdoc so not able to afford to go back and do more research.

Since her research was general language description, she was still able to write up a little based on memory, but if it had been phonetics (study of the sound of language) she would have been totally screwed, because she would have needed the actual audio files for her analysis.

I've even heard of linguists who do fieldwork on a tiny language with only a handful of remaining speakers and then the village gets wiped out by landslide or volcano or something, so the research is truly irreplaceable. Or some linguists work with the last remaining speaker of a nearly extinct language. Those speakers are old, and then they die. If it was something like that, and an audio-heavy topic and the audio data was lost, they would be completely f***ed

That said, by the time a PhD student has written half a dissertation, they have probably already done most of their analysis. But I guess that could be on the same laptop and therefore also lost.
posted by lollusc at 3:29 AM on January 13

Well before 2005, grad students were expected to keep backups of their work and would not be excused if originals were lost and inadequate backups were taken.

Of course, smartphones weren't available then, so you couldn't scan physical documents as easily. You would need a flatbed scanner for that. If the student had limited access to a shared scanner, there could be a gap between acquiring the documents and scanning them.

Your best bet is probably something that has some physical property that is lost when the item is digitized. Say, Luciano Berio's music on magnetic tape loses metadata, such as marks made on the tape, as well as the physical experience of cueing the tapes, when the sound is digitized.

Or, something like rocks from the Apollo moon landings. I knew someone who knew someone whose irreplaceable rock samples were almost destroyed because of petty sabotage by lab technicians, who deliberately mis-documented the equipment settings.
posted by tel3path at 11:12 AM on January 14

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