My friend dmf has suggested several times that I write about my experiences with seeking funding for my dissertation research, and, since I’m currently in the throes of that exact struggle, it seems like an appropriate time to write about it.
A little background. I came into the University of Maryland (UMD) Department of Anthropology as a master’s student with one year of a graduate assistantship (GAship) provided. At the end of that year, I began panicking and trying desperately to find some kind of funding source for the following year. I kicked myself then for not having accepted an offer at the University of Arizona (UA) for two years of GAship. It would have made life that summer a lot less anxious – a summer already filled with financial anxiety as the BLM office that I was working with was having a hard time figuring out how to pay me (and didn’t until my last day there). Fortunately, I was absolved as the grant that my advisor had applied for came through and I was put on as a research assistant (RA) on that project.
Then, that Spring, I applied to PhD programs – three in all: UA, UMD, and the University of Vermont (UVM). UA rejected me outright, and I later was grateful because I realized that I would not be a good fit for the professor I had applied to work with. UMD accepted me, but did not offer funding at first (I was placed on a wait list). UVM was a different story. I had been in communication with a professor there and was hoping to find some source of funding, but things quickly fell through, and at about the same time, I was told by UMD that I would be able to receive funding (one of the other incoming students opted to go elsewhere). So here I have been at UMD for 4 years. I have another 2 years of GA funding – enough potentially to do my research and write my dissertation if my GA assignment is flexible enough and I’m persistent enough with my time. Nevertheless, I have been searching for funding for several reasons: 1) to defray the costs of research which will tax my already taxed GA salary, 2) in case my GA position runs out before the research and writing can be completed, and 3) because one of the things departments look for in hiring new professors is their ability to bring money to the department, so having been awarded a grant or fellowship is a good thing to have on my CV.
Last November, in the midst of a host of personal struggles, I decided rather quickly to apply for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Science to Achieve Results (STAR) fellowship, which would provide me with 3 years of full funding (stipend, tuition, and travel/research expenses). The application was due within a matter of weeks, and there were several scares that set me back – one was having to route the proposal through the University which would have consumed a week of writing but turned out not to be an issue in this case, and the other was the seemingly hard line the request for proposals (RFP) took towards human subjects research. This latter was a major scare and nearly set me off of the proposal entirely. For whatever reason, the EPA decided that year to get rid of the social science subprogram and placed at the top of the RFP a line that essentially said that any research involving interaction with human subjects would not be funded. Needless to say, I panicked and was distraught because there was no conceivable way I could – as an anthropologist – do research without interacting with humans subjects. On the heels of a rumor, I sent some emails and made some phone calls to see if this was the case, and was assured that, as long as my research would be approved by an internal review board (IRB) for human subjects research, my proposal would not be rejected on those grounds. So I went ahead with the proposal. I wrote frantically for the next two weeks, and struggled to assemble all of the extra materials that would be necessary (including a complete record – though not transcripts – of my university course work with semesters, course numbers, final grades, credit hours, etc. going back through undergrad). After submitting, I felt good about my project, and confident in my proposal, though still doubtful about the human subjects issues and skeptical of my chances of actually being approved. And it wasn’t. In early May this year, I received a packet from the EPA saying that my proposal had not received sufficient scores from the reviewers to be recommended for funding. Included were the reviewers comments and scores – I got one “Very Good”, one “Good”, and one “Fair.” The reviewer who marked the proposal as “Very Good” was glowing – s/he was excited about my research and thought it would add significantly to the field. Her only doubts stemmed from my lack of prior publications (a concern mentioned by all three reviewers) and my lack of indicated experience, but s/he took the letters of recommendation as evidence that I could work well with people and would be successful in my project. The reviewer who marked the proposal as “Fair” on the other hand, was much more critical. The proposal and research was not well organized, and there was no indication that I could carry out such a project. The third reviewer who marked the proposal as “Good” was, of course, somewhere between the other two but still confident and interested in the possibilities for the research. In any case, it was back to the drawing board – next step, apply for a National Science Foundation (NSF) dissertation improvement grant!
That’s where I’m at now. The proposal is due August 15, but I have to get it done sooner because 1) this proposal does have to go through the university and most of the staff in our research administration department will be away the first two weeks of August, and 2) the chair of our department has to sign the form and he will be gone starting today until the end of July. This means that I should have at least the budget prepared today so that he can sign off on it, and that the proposal itself will have to be ready by the end of July. But I’ve gotten derailed. Working on the budget, and trying to figure out what to include given all of the restrictions (computers only count if they are used primarily or exclusively for research, lodging and travel are only included if the research is away from the student’s University, etc.), I quickly began to realize that this grant was not made for my kind of research. NSF grants are designed for doctoral students who are doing either a) laboratory research, or b) research abroad or at least far from the university. My research is with the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis – a short drive from College Park – and doesn’t require a lot of equipment. I was trying to figure out what to include on the budget so as not to underfund myself, but also didn’t want to stretch the budget unreasonably. I came up with about $3000 worth of budget, much of which was a stretch. Thinking about this and all of the work that I would have to do to prepare the proposal in the next couple of weeks made it seem less and less worthwhile. Assuming I got the grant – which is doubtful since most first time NSF applications are rejected – I would only get a few thousand dollars to cover some minor expenses with fieldwork. That’s good, for sure, but not worth the effort and chance of rejection, and it would keep me from applying for other federal funding like the EPA STAR.
Here’s what I’ve decided to do. First, I’m abandoning the NSF for now. Second, I’m going to revise and resubmit the EPA STAR proposal in November. I think I have a better chance at getting it this time around since I have the comments from the reviewers and can tailor the proposal to their concerns. Third, I will consider applying for NSF in January so that, if I don’t get the EPA STAR fellowship, I will have something to fall back on. And fourth, I’m going to spend my time now getting through the hoops of the PhD program to advance to candidacy, and then begin right away working on my dissertation research with only my GA funding. That way, even without funding, I can get it done as quickly as possible and hopefully within the two remaining years of my GA funding.
That’s the plan, so now to stop blogging and get back to work!