Abel Polese is a researcher, trainer, writer, manager and fundraiser. He is the author of “The SCOPUS Diaries and the (il)logics of Academic Survival: A Short Guide to Design Your Own Strategy and Survive Bibliometrics, Conferences, and Unreal Expectations in Academia”, a reflection on academic life, research careers and the choices and obstacles young scholars face at the beginning of their career. You can find him on Twitter at @Abiquitous and @scopusdiaries.
Finally, the message came. Friends had warned you but you couldn’t help feeling disappointed when the request finally arrived. The dean of your school has asked you (and everyone else) to apply for external funding in the next few months.
You have nowhere to hide – stress and sleepless nights loom ahead. Maybe if you submit a few bids that are not funded, you can claim that you are doing your job. But the ice under your feet will eventually get thin. Is the alternative scenario any better? If you win, it will count to your next promotion (or tenure), but it will also mean more work. Evenings spent writing reports and expenditure claims instead of being with your family or friends.
You ask around. Many colleagues say that this is just the way things are. Others admit that they don’t fancy it but they fancy the risk of losing their job even less.
Unenthusiastically, you start gathering information on where and how to apply. You are already doing many things for free – this is just one more. After all, new academics must endure these things to get stronger. At least, that is what you have been told.
Let’s stop for a second. If you are motivated and want to apply for funding, by all means, go ahead. But if you see it as a box-ticking exercise to please your managers, here are 4+1 reasons why you might push back against this pressure, and why you shouldn’t feel guilty about that.
1) You enjoy teaching and your students enjoy your classes
For most universities, teaching provides the core funding. Funding to your institution largely depends on its attractiveness (how many students enroll) and satisfaction (how many re-enroll). Each student pays tuition fees. Those fees may be topped up through a government subsidy calculated per student. Each module taught has an economic value depending on how many students are enrolled.
If the standard teaching load in your department is two courses per semester, then every staff teaching more than two courses is actually bringing in more money than the average. If you like teaching and have agreed to deliver four modules this semester, your contribution to your university income roughly doubles. If your reputation as a teacher grows, and students re-enroll, in part, because of you, you are an added value to your institution.
The students that re-enroll every year provide a much more regular income than research grants. The fundraising efforts of the grant hunters’ may be more visible than those of the teachers, but that doesn’t actually make them more valuable. Not all good researchers are good teachers. Some even scare students away. Being a good teacher makes a much more sustainable contribution to your university.
2) You regularly provide additional value to your employer
In a traditional view, academics are employed to teach and to write. But universities are complex institutions where staff are asked to engage with a huge range of different activities: public relations and marketing, foresight and planning, internal policy and external advice, administration and community service. For some of these tasks your university will have employed specialists. Others will be performed, regularly or sporadically, by faculty on a semi-voluntary basis.
These are not side tasks, even though they may seem like it at the time. Think of someone with the capacity to design a vision for the university, and work on strategy and long term development plans to bring it to fruition. Think of a researcher who is called upon regularly by the media, and the exposure that provides for the university to potential new students. Think of the value of being in a government commission and providing evidence-based information when policies are debated.
These tasks are not only vital but are as valuable, in their own way, as grant funding. A colleague hosted a high-level conference costing 30,000 euro that was broadcasted so widely that it was estimated to be worth 350,000 euros in terms of publicity. If you are doing some of these things then you are already providing additional value for your university.
3) You are in the wrong place
Some universities use funding targets to “encourage” staff and compare their effectiveness. Each researcher is expected to bring in a minimum amount of external funding, depending on their academic level. The more senior they are, the more they are expected to bring in. A friend told me that his target was six million GBP over a seven-year period. Failure to do bring in this amount might result in a salary cut or even mean redundancy, or that his contract was not renewed.
If you are in one of those exploitative departments that set unrealistic targets, and stress because your job seems always on the line, then perhaps you have chosen the wrong employer. Certainly your employer is sending strange signals. Perhaps you should try and change as soon as possible, if you can.
Moreover, if you are at ease bringing in several millions regularly then perhaps it is time to leave academia and start your own company?
4) You work with colleagues who are very good at fundraising
Being a good grant hunter is an excellent thing. But once a researcher wins grant funding, they generally need a team of reliable persons to help them to do the research. They can certainly bring on some smart PhD students and supervise them, and that will help. However, in most cases they will also need reliable researchers in the team.
Your value could be as one of those reliable researchers that the grant hunter desperately needs. If you are one of those reliable and hardworking researchers, do you really need to look for your own funding? Research teams, by definition, are composed of both team leaders and team members – not everybody needs to be a grant hunter.
4+1) Competitive funding is competitive (how surprising)
The above four reasons have been, more or less, personal. They provide strong personal arguments for why you should push back against unrealistic expectations. This last reason is external – because it isn’t always about you.
A funding scheme with a 10% success rate means that only one out of ten applicants will get the money. Think about it this way: if you apply every year for 10 years you can expect, based on statistics, to get funded only once.
In reality, it doesn’t actually work that way. It is about quality, not quantity or random chance. Research funding agencies generally encode traditional and entrenched expectations of research quality. To get external funding you need to break through the oligopolistic academic fundraising ceiling.
It costs nothing for administrators to inculcate the unrealistic idea that that everyone is expected to get external funding. But competitive funding is called ‘competitive’ because (guess what?) it’s competitive – not everyone will be funded. Administrators believe that putting pressure on everyone will eventually result in more bids, and more bids will result in more success. I don’t think that they have any evidence for this belief at all.
Grant hunting might be fun and bring lots of satisfaction for some. However, you should not engage with it just because “everybody must do it” or because you feel guilty for not trying.
Think about what you are offering or can offer to your employer. Perhaps there are some things you can do for your institution that would liberate you from the moral obligation to do fundraising. With your colleagues (including those that you despise) you make up the organisation and an organization is composed by members with different specializations and functions. All those functions are needed for the organization to operate effectively. But you don’t need to do all of them.
There is one Ronaldo in a football team. His teammates may not be as famous as he is, but their work is crucial to let him “do the Ronaldo”. He can’t do it without them. Don’t let your boss try to make you a Ronaldo if that doesn’t work for you.