frustration

I alluded to my frustrations in an earlier post. I’ll share one of them with you now.

Like many universities, mine has a research grant program for faculty. We can apply for a few thousand dollars in an application process that is judged by a committee of other faculty from across the disciplines. I’ve applied three times for this grant unsuccessfully. That would be frustrating enough, but here’s how the three applications went down:

  1. First application: I was told that it was very good, particularly the explanation of the relationship of my work to work being done in the field, but that the explanation of my methodology was deemed “too subjective.”
  2. Second application: I was told that it was very good, particularly my revised methodology explanation, but that the weak part was the explanation of the relationship of my work to work being done in the field. However, this explanation was unchanged from the previous attempt, when I was told that it was a strength of the application.
  3. Third application: I was given no reason why my application was rejected, but I was told that there had been a “problem” in the review process.

None of this feedback is given in writing. I don’t know why. Furthermore, I am only allowed three applications for a particular project, so now I can either craft an application for a different project (even though my research for this one is not done), or I can make any future applications look like they are for a different project.

I am not a perfect scholar, and I’m not burning up the publishing track, but whenever I go to national and international conferences, scholars from other institutions express enthusiasm and admiration for my research. At my own institution, however, it sometimes feels as if I’m invisible.

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11 thoughts on “frustration

  1. Man, that sucks. Have others in your department successfully gotten this funding? What kinds of projects typically receive this kind of institutional support? How much competition is there for these grants? This could be something to bring up in either a department or faculty senate sort of context to see whether others have had similar experiences and to see whether there would be support for an attempt to make the process less mystified (and mystifying).
    My institution has a similar program, and I applied for/received one of these grants, but the sense that I got when I applied is that here they look more favorably on applications for projects that are very close to completion (final revisions on a book, for example) and also that few people apply for these grants (summer teaching is more lucrative and you’re not allowed to do both).

  2. It’s also a reasonable topic of conversation for a meeting with your chair. The university doesn’t have an obligation (as such) to support your research, but they should be invested in doing what they can to encourage your scholarship.

  3. In response to Dr. Crazy:
    “Have others in your department successfully gotten this funding?”
    Yes, several of my peers have. Some of them for projects where they just ask for summer salary. (Great projects, by the way.) By contrast, I need money to cover the expense of travelling thousands of miles to visit archives of otherwise unavailable material. I could pay out of my own pockect, but I’d rather not, obviously.
    “What kinds of projects typically receive this kind of institutional support?”
    In my own department, projects very much like mine have received funding. Outside of my department, I don’t know. I don’t think that information is available. I should ask.
    “How much competition is there for these grants?”
    I’m not sure. I should ask.
    Matt writes, “The university doesn’t have an obligation (as such) to support your research, but they should be invested in doing what they can to encourage your scholarship.”
    I absolutely agree that they have no obligation to support my research. My frustration is centered on the lack of information I receive about why I’m being rejected. A rejection can be, ironically, a very useful thing if it’s accompanied by detailed comments about how to make your project better.
    In fact, I did apply for a much bigger grant from a different source last year and received three sets of detailed comments when I was turned down (though encouraged to reapply): the comments have been influential in my continued progress on this project. But when a rejection is accompanied by a one- or two-sentence, vague comment, it’s not at all helpful. It is, in fact, counter-productive because of the emotional turmoil (anger, depression) it has generated in me.
    I now look back and wonder if the time I spent on those three applications would have been better spent on getting articles published.

  4. Didn’t mean to suggest any feeling of entitlement on your part, G.; poor wording. What I meant was that it’s in the school’s interest to keep you happy as a scholar, and it’s not wrong to represent some of your frustration/anger with the process (in an appropriate and professional manner) to persons higher up the food chain.

  5. Oh, I didn’t take your comment as implying that I was feeling entitled, Matt. And you’re right: I should talk to someone “higher up the food chain” about this, instead of brooding on it. I guess because there’s so much emotional baggage associated with this for me, I’ve been reluctant to do so for fear that I would be unable to remain professional about it.

  6. Perhaps a first step would be to talk to a colleague with whom you have a really good rapport but who’s been around a while and would give good advice about how to broach such a subject as a sort of “practice run” before approaching your chair or another VIP that you wouldn’t want to blow up at?
    Also, definitely do try to get all of the information you can about who receives these grants, how decisions regarding awarding them are made, and how competitive this funding is. Another thing is, do they expect you to address some sort of “this is how this affects my teaching/the community/the Dean’s 12-year-old pooch” sort of question? Sometimes these funding things are about pandering to the institutional pet project of the month, too. It may be that they don’t see how your travel will do anything for anybody but you? (This may be cynical but it’s the sort of thing that can come up.)

  7. I have no words of wisdom, just sympathy with the emotional downside of grants etc. And I’ve been realizing too, recently, that the time I’ve spent on those applications *feels* really productive, but probably *would* be better spent on articles (at least in my case – obviously I don’t know about yours!). It’s frustrating how there are always so many possible things that we could/should be doing for professional development and how figuring out which is the best investment of our time can be so difficult.

  8. another thing that can be helpful is to see if you can request copies of successful grant apps — either from the grants office or from successful winners individually (most people are pretty happy to share if you butter them up a bit or ask their advice) — at my U the grants committee is run by social scientists and so humanities faculty have to learn to write in a totally different way so as to get noticed at all…

  9. “Another thing is, do they expect you to address some sort of ‘this is how this affects my teaching/the community/the Dean’s 12-year-old pooch’ sort of question?”
    That’s a good question, and a year ago my answer would have been completely different than it is now: without going into details, I’ll say that we are in a period of leadership uncertainty at all levels (and I do mean all levels), which makes demonstrating the right kind of local exigence difficult.
    “there are always so many possible things that we could/should be doing for professional development…figuring out which is the best investment of our time can be so difficult”
    That’s absolutely true, and I realize that it’s probably true across all professions, but in academia we are not really prepared in grad school for dealing with this issue.
    “see if you can request copies of successful grant apps”
    I believe I have a copy of every successful grant app from my department, and mine is not significantly different from any of them, an assertion with which the head of the campus research support office agreed. It might be helpful to look at applications from other departments, if I can get my hands on them.
    “at my U the grants committee is run by social scientists and so humanities faculty have to learn to write in a totally different way”
    We are in a similar situation here, I think: I’ll be discreet, however, and not go into more detail.

  10. Let me echo everyone else first by saying that this really sucks.

    I’m no longer there, but I was at an institution with a pretty successful (and well administered) internal grant program. A couple of the reasons for its success:

    1. departmental representation on the committee making decisions

    2. applications were restricted to departments/disciplines whose external opportunities were limited

    3. preference was given both to sine qua non apps (those for whom the money made the difference between doing the project or not (like for the travel you describe above)) and to applicants who were pre-tenure

    No, it wasn’t utopia or anything, but it sounds like the process was a lot more transparent and accountable than the one you’ve been through. If you are eventually able to initiate a conversation about this stuff with the PTB, maybe one or more of the above are suggestions that can be made. It’s easy to say “don’t be discouraged” but far harder to do, I know, so I’ll just cross my fingers for you, and hope that it eventually works out…

    cgb

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