So far this year I have applied for thirteen different fellowships or grants. It’s pretty much par for the course in today’s academia to apply for as much as you possibly can and hope you get lucky somewhere, but it’s still a torturous slog.
I was thinking about this recently in the context of the final “Blogging Archaeology” question, which asks where people want their blogs to go. In many ways, I find funding applications to be the polar opposite of blogging. When you apply for funding you spend most of your time trying to write for an audience who, on a visceral level, are extremely disinterested in what you have to say. When you blog, you invest far less time writing for an audience who will VOLUNTARILY read what you write.
In contrast, funding applications involve either:
(a) Trying to convince people who know nothing about your field that what you do is important, painting a broad-strokes picture of the impact of your research that likely has little to do with why it is actually important to you;
(b) Trying to convince people who are experts in your field that what you do is important, painting a minutely-detailed picture of the disciplinary ramifications of your research that likely has little to do with why it is actually important to you.
The back-and-forth between “broad-strokes importance” and “discipline-specific justification” is exhausting. For example, this month I’ve had a draft returned to me with the advice to avoid terms like “targeted sampling strategy”, in case the people who read the application are humanities scholars. An informal review of a different proposal was handed back with the caveat that I should remove a number of citations published over two decades ago, because one potential reviewer “doesn’t like the author that much”. Faculty reviewers of still other proposals have underscored that I need to be explicit about my sampling strategy and statistical framework. These waves of conflicting advice (“Make this important to non-anthropologists.”; “How is this relevant to anthropology?”; “Don’t use explicit terminology like bioarchaeology, it will confuse reviewers.”; “Be as explicit as possible about the techniques you will use to answer your question.”) have begun to make my academic life feel exceedingly Kafka-esque.
Blogging, in contrast, is delightfully simple. Is there a bioarchaeological topic I find interesting? Is there a siding trick for the tibia that I think warrants sharing? Do I want to discuss my thoughts on brain evolution in domesticates? Then I can.
And that’s why I enjoy the medium so much. Contrary to popular opinion, graduate school is not an idyllic, lackadaisical getaway where people lounge on manicured lawns and discuss their feelings about Foucault. The first few years are taken up with coursework, which is followed by preliminary exams, both of which entail tremendous energy investment in order to live up to the expectations of faculty. At this point in their careers, grad students are often employed as instructors, which is also extremely time-consuming. Even if students are mildly engaged, TA-style teaching is always an uphill battle. You’re effectively trying to convince twenty-plus 19-22 year old adults to sit around in a circle and discuss a reading that only three of them have completed. Predictable problems ensue.
Once you get past the first few years, you become obsessed, Roy Neary-level obsessed, with obtaining funding. Without grant money you can’t conduct your research, and without fellowship money you can’t write your dissertation. So securing a source of funding, and hedging your bets by applying to multiple funding sources, consumes nearly all of your time. I’m not sure what happens next. I believe that you are actually expected to produce a dissertation at some point, but I’ll keep you posted.
Despite the “sad otter” tone, this wasn’t meant to be a woe-is-me rant about the pitfalls of academic life for graduate students. Coursework is essential for developing a broader understanding of anthropology, even if you’re never likely to use your knowledge of dipthongs or Malinowski’s diaries in an professional context. Teaching experience is also key for learning how to disseminate knowledge. Knowing how to effectively communicate information to non-specialists (in the case of undergrads, often aggressively disinterested non-specialists) is a useful skill in any profession. And, if you’re going to be an academic, you have to know how to write grants.
However, what I’ve realized lately is that with all of this grant-writing and section-planning and career-strategizing, very little of my time is left over for bioarchaeology itself. And since bioarchaeology is the reason I came to graduate school in the first place, I have to keep that curiosity and excitement alive in the face of multiple other far more stressful pursuits. So, to answer this month’s blogging archaeology question, I’d like to continue writing about things that interest me, for an audience that also finds them interesting. Until I get to teach my own osteology course or bioarchaeology seminar, blogging provides a way for me to interact with people who find things like paleopathology and osteology as fascinating as I do. So to that end, I hope that this time next year the blog is still serving the same purpose as it has served for this past year.
And also that someone has given me tens of thousands of dollars to conduct my dissertation research and write up my results.
As a final salute to any other graduate students who are currently swimming in a sea of budget justifications, here’s one more visual metaphor. I am Basil Fawlty, and funding applications are this tiny British car.
Image Credits: Unhappy feline found here.