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.

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