Is an NSF Grant Just another Fetish?

[This is an invited post by Tony Waters. Waters is a Professor of Sociology at California State University, Chico, and occasionally blogs at  His application for a PhD program in Anthropology was rejected in 1988 because he was unable to put together the appropriate charms needed by the admissions committee at an unnamed western United States university.  In an attempt to please the gods of the tribe he has since offered up his first-born at the altar of an unnamed Anthropology PhD program in the eastern United States.]

I made a somewhat off-hand comment one of Ryan’s posts about graduate education.  I think I warned graduate students about “fetishizing” various types of grant sources like NSF, NIMH, Fulbright, and the various others sources of grad student funding which students compete to get.  This initially got me a deserved sharp rebuke from Ryan.  After all, who was I as a fully tenured, overpaid, and underworked full professor to complain about graduate stipend which (obviously) are few and far between?  Well that question is fair enough—but Ryan has also graciously offered me a chance to elaborate.

First my backstory.  One of the reasons I am not an anthropologist is that in 1988 after eight years working in Thailand and Tanzania mostly with refugees (which is what I wanted to study), I would need at least eight years to become an anthropologist.  In large part, it was explained to me that this was because (obviously) fieldwork is required for a doctorate in anthropology, you might need to try two or three times before success.  But never mind while waiting for the grant to come through you would need to work 2-3 years as a t.a. waiting to strike gold.  It was sonorously explained to me that to do field work, you would need pre-research visits, protocol visits, and finally what was in the early 1990s a $20,000 grant from Fulbright or NSF to buy your plane tickets, fly back to places you have already been, collect the data to do the field work.  The field work would then take another year or two to do the write-up, and so forth.

So I ended up in Sociology, and completed a PhD in 5-6 years, without fieldwork and wrote a dissertation based mainly in the library.  I also heard that I would never get a job unless I:

  • Could get a grant, preferably one via NSF or one of the other federal agents which pay “overhead.”
  • Curried favor with letter writers (i.e. they themselves) who controlled the job market via social networks.
  • Delivered multiple papers at conferences, preferably those organized by their networks.
  • Made a theoretical break-through in your dissertation, which they would sign off on.

Now fast-forward twenty years.  I am sociology professor sitting on hiring committees at a comprehensive MA granting institution, i.e. the type of place where about 80% of the tenure track jobs are in the United States.  The goal in these committees is to hire someone who fits the published job description so that the university’s lawyer will sign off on the search.  Once that criteria is met, here are the most important questions:

  1. Will their PhD be finished and signed off by the time they arrive?  The best way to have this is to be applying with the degree in-hand.  New faculty with an unfinished dissertation typically take longer to finish than they and their dissertation chair promise—better to hire someone which is sure to be finished.  The best dissertation is a done dissertation—don’t worry we aren’t going to read your dissertation, even if your letters indicate that is “ground-breaking.”  All letters say that, and anyway, the point of a dissertation is to be ground breaking, even if they are not.  Dissertations are usually boring to read, and we aren’t going to read yours as part of a job search process—it is too much like reading student papers, of which we have plenty; and besides is much more fun to read.
  2. Can the candidate teach the classes in the job ad, and will the version they offer fit in with our curriculum?  Are there some extra classes that they might be able to teach that are in OUR curriculum?  Notably, we do not really care if you can create a new class based on your dissertation research—we are much more concerned with OUR curriculum being covered, because if the new hire doesn’t teach it, we will teach it via larger class sizes, more preps, etc. We didn’t get to teach our dissertation, and neither will you.  What attracts us is a candidate that can teach what is in the ad (e.g. Anthropology of Africa), but who also can teach something unexpected which is already in our curriculum—e.g. physical anthropology or statistics.
  3. Can the candidate be an active publisher of scholarly work?  The best indicator is that they have already published something on their own that is relatively recent.  It doesn’t even need to be in a refereed journal.  Simply, is there a probability that you will continue to publish and maintain a national profile despite a focus on teaching?  If you have been a lecturer, did you keep publishing, even with a heavy teaching load?  Something published 5 or 6 years ago with your prof doesn’t really impress.  What did you publish on your own? Note: papers co-authored with your big shot prof are not a good substitute for doing something on your own, at least in my view.  Your prof will not be coming to teach/write here, you will.  Single authorship tells us that you will be an independent scholar.  And at least in my mind, publishing at Savage Minds is far, far better than not publishing at all.
  4. Is this person a good departmental citizen?  Will they show up for meetings, even at odd times?  Will they remember to provide information for stupid assessment reports?  Will they cover your class when you are out of town, and get letters of recommendation off for students (and colleagues) in a timely fashion?  Do they answer emails from students?  From colleagues?  Will we be a just a stepping stone to something they really want?  In other words will they leave after a year or two, dumping their classes back in the department’s lap?
  5. Now we finally get down to the fetishes that Ryan asked me to write about, i.e. the grants, conference presentations, fellowships, post-docs, etc. which are so highly valued in the world of the Research I universities.  Notably, none of these things help much with completing items 1-4.  Sometimes they even hinder it.  Too many graduate students spend an extra year or two (or three) at $17,000 dollars a year waiting out the grant cycles that will get them to the field—someday.  This does not help with item 1 in particular—the finished signed off dissertation. Incomplete dissertations are really really costly to the grad student in terms of opportunity costs.

Ok, so how do you write a dissertation if you don’t have a grant? Answer: you just do it. About $5000 will get you set up almost anywhere in the world, and even a graduate student can borrow this much.  Then when you get to your site, go teach English on the side, get a local-hire job with an NGO, or even a job in a mental institution, or a bar. I have an ethical problem with jobs in red-light districts, but apparently not all faculty do. This is called “participant observation” in your dissertation proposal.  Then when you get back after a year or two in the field, write up the dissertation. You don’t need a book, or ground-breaking article in a highly ranked journal.  Rather, you need a dissertation which is done and signed off. When you can, teach something outside your area of specialization at a local community college while you are doing this, and suddenly you are hot stuff on the job market for comprehensive universities which value the done PhD and teaching.  Emphasis is on the dissertation that is done, and the PhD. is in the can.

Now for the heresy—we like people who have teaching experience more than someone who has a NSF or Fulbright.  Really, we do.  Fellowships and grants are fine, but they are not central to finishing the dissertation, or doing something that gets our classes taught well (i.e. items 1, 2, and 4 above).  Nor does it say much about collegiality (item 3).  This means that if a tenure track position is not available, take an insecure lecturership—some of these pay $40,000+ with benefits which sucks, but sucks less than what an equally insecure t.a., or r.a. gets while they are waiting for the NSF to come through. It is even more than the student Fulbright grant, which is about $30,000, and from which you need to pay for transportation, tuition, etc.

See what I mean about the NSF/Fulbright/NIMH fetish?

As for my interest in refugees, I got a job in 1994 working for an agency assisting with the Rwandan/Burundian refugee crisis.  As a “participant observer” I worked hard, took field notes, collected memos, and wrote it up—you can read all about it in Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001) which indeed was completed without any fetish money from the federal government; in fact I made about $36,000 per year in 1994-1996 with family benefits, which was pretty cool at the time, even if there was not much employment security.

None of this of course addresses the broader public policy question of how to fund graduate education.  Graduate school was one of the most insecure and impoverished time in my life—I wouldn’t want to do it over, and I do not think that the insecurity and poverty added to the quality of my work.  Nor does it express my views about the NSF/NIMH/NIJ grant racket in which most of the money ends up going to the already-wealthy in the form of institutional overhead, buy-outs, and summer money for us already well-paid professors—and in which graduate student support is a financial afterthought, which is really the definition of fetish.  In the absence of anything better, I get it that grad students need to play this game sometimes, but I still have a tough time finding time to write my Member of Congress complaining about NSF cuts.  But maybe that is problem for another blog post.

Ryan Anderson is a cultural anthropologist, writer, and photographer. His current research focuses on the politics of development and land in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is also an adamant advocate of Open Access publishing, challenging the current regime of student debt, and rethinking the state of Higher Ed. He is currently living out in the California desert, where he's working on his next move in the chess game that is life. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

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