Friday, January 09, 2009


Ask the Administrator: The Book or the Grant?

A new correspondent in a humanistic discipline writes:

I'm now three semesters into a permanent position at a lower-mid-range research institution with aspirations to become something better. Said institution has no strength in my specialty, but gives me an absurdly low teaching load (2-1), generously supports research travel, and is even located in a nice town. One can always find something to kvetch about, but I'm basically delighted.

That said, I'm curious about hear your take on my present emotions filling out a grant application. The powers that be are very anxious for faculty to apply for large, government-funded research grants (say $80,000), because they bring money into the university. There's a full time staff member whose only responsibility is to help faculty fill out the applications. My department has some dead wood in it, and as the bright young thing with a shiny "recently on the job market" publication record, I'm under a lot of pressure to fill out an application.

Well, I have a lot of trouble thinking of something to spend this kind of money on! My research is not collaborative, and anyway requires knowledge of languages that aren't widely spoken in my institution: I can't really hire research assistants. I don't want to buy out my teaching: I worked hard to this job, take an interest in pedagogy, and, if anything, would like to teach a bit more. I can think of some pluses to winning a grant, of course. I'd enjoy the prestige, it would help my promotion prospects, I could hire a grad student to grade my first year papers, and I could buy plane tickets for summer research trips (though this could also be done through less-competitive university travel grants). Yet there are opportunity costs to filling out the grant: new paperwork conventions to master, electronic forms to fill out, and the applications, I'm told, are only successful 5% of the time. All in all, I think I would rather be finishing my book.

What's your take on this? Am I being a lazy faculty member, grumbling about pulling his weight for the team, or am I a greenhorn sucker with no backbone who should learn to stand up for his own research priorities?

(In a subsequent email, he noted that his is a humanistic discipline.)

My first thought is, this is a good problem to have. I know people who would kill to have this problem.

Having said that, though, your reference to opportunity cost is spot-on. Time spent on halfhearted grant applications is time not spent doing other things, like finishing your book. So there is a choice to be made.

Given that you're in a humanistic discipline, successful large-scale grantsmanship is relatively rare. Yes, it would impress everybody if you were to pull in some major cash, but the reason it would impress them is that it rarely happens, especially in the early years of a career. It would be great, but it isn't necessary or expected.

(In the social sciences, I've noticed a distinct trend among granting agencies to favor quantitative approaches over qualitative ones. Over the decades, this has led to a catastrophic distortion of scholarship in untold ways. But that's somebody else's fight. And I'm told that in the natural sciences, books count for almost nothing and grantsmanship is far more important. Context matters.)

A book, on the other hand, is probably both necessary and expected. Teaching loads as light as yours almost always come with publication requirements, whether formal or informal, and you ignore those at your peril. Taking care of first things first – doing the necessary before the nice-to-have – will give you the freedom later to take those 5% shots. Missing the longshot now could put you in a badly disadvantaged position at your job, and there's no need for that.

Better, a book under your belt will likely make you a stronger candidate for whatever grants you do eventually pursue, if any. The rich tend to get richer, so getting your hand stamped as a Recognized Scholar can only help. First things first.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – how would you read this one?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I think you are wise to reflect on what you truly value and what you most enjoy doing, and follow that "vision". Reflect, set goals, prioritize, work (repeat, as needed), and so forth.

Why not work to identify a way to connecct the 2 endeavors? I really do not know, but what is the "average" return on the type of book you're writing? Sounds like one of the reasons you may seek to do either is to set yourself up in a better place (long-term) financially (?)

I work at a community college, and on my own time wrote and received a million-dollar grant for the college. It took about 60 hours of my time. I did, however, write myself into the grant as a "key personnel" person, 10% overload for 5 years.
Another thing to consider is whether or not submitting a grant (even an unfunded one)as part of the tenure review paperwork will help you. At my institution, it would. Also, I would see if there is another way to get something out of having a grant - even if it only scores political points, it might be worth it if they are with the right person.
If the correspondent were laboring under a 4/4 teaching load, I'd say apply for the funding, as buying out your time might be the only way you'll ever get the book finished. But given your dreamy teaching load, I'd say Dean Dad's advice is right on: finish the book first, which will make you more competitive for research grants later on, not to mention probably guaranteeing your tenure.
Not sure if this would fit into the type of research you do, but would various humanities center (Ransom, Stanford, Rice, many others) fellowships work? Those would likely take you away from campus -- perhaps not a plus in the eyes of the college.

Alternatively, you could make the argument that publishing your book now makes you more competitive for other humanities fellowships (Guggenheim, Mellon) in the future.
I think DD is right - book, then grant. Not to be unduly cycnical, but it sounds as if the primary rationale for pursuing the grant lies not in its inherent scholarly value but in the fact that it would bring the institution money. I'm all for helping out the institution, but before you do that you need to take care of yourself, and make sure that you are indeed in a position to go for the grant.
Put in a grant to pay for a conference or graduate student training meeting in your field. Depending on what you pay for it can easily reach $80K$ AND support your book.

The key thing is to get a couple of big shots to sign on to come and talk. After that it's horse trading with you getting speaking engagements from those you invite (well the expectation is there). Your school will love it, because it buys you and them instant visibility. It can help you make the contacts you need to get your book published and reviewed
I concur with DD's advice. A 80K grant is chump change in my world (R1, professional school)--and most junior faculty would be advised against seeking this. Furthermore, some faculty at P&T have been punished for getting small grants that do buy out of their teaching, but are stingy on administrative cost sharing.

The cost sharing is what you need to check out. Some grants allow up to 50% of the monies to go for university over head (lights, computer access, etc). That means your 80K grant is only 40K. University administrators (Deans, Provosts, etc) LOVE these kinds of grants since they help subsidize the school.

Then, there are your own administrative costs in running a grant. If it's from the feds, you're going to be generating scads of reports that demand a idiosyncratic writing style and format.

Write the killer book and be sure it's published with a fabulous academic press. Be sure you have a well-respected academic publisher. Lower tier just won't cut it. While you're not going to make any money of this venture (directly), a published tome with a major academic press would be a major + in my world, far more than a 80K grant.
I like Eli's suggestion. Like Calugg, I live in a world where $80K usually isn't worth pursuing: it's enough to require a fair amount of effort to get, but not enough to do anything with once you've got it.

A conference, now....the institution gets to make money off you, it enhances institutional and personal prestige, you'll gain good contacts and add a line to your tenure dossier, and with any luck a good scholarly product (conference proceedings, for example) will come out of it. Definitely a smart move.
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