Is an NSF Grant Just Another Cult Fetish?

I made a somewhat off-hand comment one of Ryan’s posts about graduate education on Savage Minds.Org some time ago.  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 told I need at least eight more 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” to my university.

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 now, 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.

[This is an invited post by Tony Waters that appeared in in January 2014. 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.]


Boldly go Towards Collaboration

Nicholas A Christakis’ story in the NY Times is serious food for thought.

Christakis starts “Let’s Shake Up the Social Sciences” with the following:

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, when I was a graduate student, there were departments of natural science that no longer exist today. Departments of anatomy, histology, biochemistry and physiology have disappeared, replaced by innovative departments of stem-cell biology, systems biology, neurobiology and molecular biophysics. Taking a page from Darwin, the natural sciences are evolving with the times. The perfection of cloning techniques gave rise to stem-cell biology; advances in computer science contributed to systems biology. Whole new fields of inquiry, as well as university departments and majors, owe their existence to fresh discoveries and novel tools. read on here

This article could worry anthropologists in training or in practice but it could just as easily excite us.  Some would rather wait for handouts and complain about the current state of affairs but not me.

I say the time is upon us to get cracking and make our own destiny!!  Some fear that the future of anthropology is outside of anthropology. If so, I’m sure that the unique skill set that the anthropological perspective brings to problems will not disappear. On my campus, I have worked in my schools of business and education quite comfortably. Off campus, I have also taught qualitative methods to members of my local police department and to psychology doctoral students. I’m still the exotic “other” from anthropology but I get the job done. I have also worked on big multidisciplinary research projects with colleagues from Economics, Sociology and Political Science and Public Administration.  Yes the world is changing but that is what the world does. I could complain about it or adapt.

When I’m lacking inspiration, I go to Jason Antrosio’s Living Anthropologically blog to remember why I got into anthropology in the first place.

Undergrad Seminar: Time Management

Here we are in the 2nd half of the academic year. If the 1st half got off to a rocky start, maybe this is a good time to talk about time management. Not the “The 7 habits of that smugly overambitious go-getter” variety. This is aimed more at the “How can I squeeze school into my hectic schedule of procrastination and binge drinking” style. In other words, for the rest of us. This is not to ignore what I think is the real value of the university experience: the freedom to explore, to question, to learn what you never expected. If you go though school without some kind of an “Ah ha” moment, then you have to ask if you really took advantage of the opportunity. Time management is making sure you have the ability to explore those Ah Ha moments.

What does time management mean? It is simply developing a strategy that helps you set reachable and realistic goals that treats school as something akin to a job. School is not the same as a job, I know that. In the US, heading off to college represents all kinds of milestones and transitions towards adulthood including making a lot of really stupid mistakes. Since stupid mistakes are part of life, you may as well factor this in and manage the parts you can. But if you can put yourself into the mindset that school IS your fulltime job, it might help with things like procrastination (my all time largest problem in school). That part-time job you have in the library, or as a teaching assistant or else-where are something you have to do to make ends meet, but school is your fulltime job. (This is referring to fulltime students. Part time students are often already fighting a massive time management battle).

In addition to getting those “Ah Ha” moments that we all love, there are some very basic tangible goals you want to hit: Graduate in 4 years, 5 at the outside with the GPA, experiences, training and recommendations you need to take you next step, no matter what that may be. School is about more than the GPA and getting out, but school is also expensive and your GPA at the end matters, so it is in your best interest to keep that in the back of your mind.

First rule: Incompletes are bad debt. Very Bad Debt. No matter what else you take away from here, learn that taking an Incomplete at the end of a class should be seen as a last option. You would be amazed at how often someone’s college career gets derailed due to piling up incompletes. No, your instructor will not take pity on you because its 5 days to graduation and that one incomplete is in your way. When you have an incomplete, you have very little room to negotiate. You don’t even have the option to take a lower grade if the instructor decides you have to finish that paper or project to complete the course. Never take an incomplete? Well, that’s strategy isn’t it? It’s much better than an F or D or maybe a C, but if it is a class outside your major and you really don’t want to spend more time on it, would you rather have the B or the bad debt of an incomplete that can become an F? I once knew someone that took an incomplete to get an A+ instead of an A, maybe I am a slacker, but that is insane given how much riskier the Incomplete is. Also instructors talk, if people find out you are taking several incompletes, they are going to stop giving you that option. Remember that taking the Incomplete is not your choice, it is your instructors. They have no obligation to give you one because its it bad debt for them as well! They have to give you a grade, chase you down before it becomes an F and listen to your excuse because you keep putting off that paper or project you owe them. If you are piling up incompletes, you may need to lay out a semester just to get them off the plate. Having an incomplete is mentally the same as carrying over that (or those) class(es) into your next course load.

Oh hell, you already have an incomplete? Weren’t you just reading all that… ok, ok, fine. I’ll calm down. Either you have screwed up badly or some legitimate misfortune befell you at the last part of the semester. All we can do now is move forward. That incomplete is a big pile of rotting food in your kitchen and you have GOT to clean that up before it gets into the rest of the food and really stinks up the whole house. To start with, there is no easy solution that will not increase you workload unless you have some miracle deal with the instructor. You cannot “borrow time” from your existing work load. If you take that attitude you are looking at a domino effect of incompletes. Is it starting to sink in why this Incomplete of yours is a big friggin deal?

There is only one way out of this: give up your free time to finish the job. That it, the only solution.

You can’t take the time from the work you already have to do, like the 500 pages of reading you were assigned over the weekend that you weren’t going to do anyway. I KNOW how hard this is, I am a terrible procrastinator and we are the worse kind of people to have incompletes because the deadline is often vaguely out there, but not quite real. The longer you take, the better the final product is expected to be! Maybe this is one of those “screw it, I will do a little worse work and take a B for the paper” moments on this particular project. But you have to turn in something or risk getting a failing grade. I am not going to even say you are going to feel better getting it off your plate. Having to finish this Incomplete is going to put you behind on your other work that you will have to double up on to prevent it from going incomplete. By the way, if we are talking about a 10 page double spaced paper please don’t write and tell me. I will run screaming from the room. This blog entry is nearly four pages double spaced using Arial 10 point font. 10 pages is really not that big a deal.

Make a plan, set a drop dead date and make your idea realistic: What is the minimum you have to do to get the grade you want. My apologies to my faculty friends, but this is triage and the crass reality of it. Your goal is not to win the undergraduate award for writing, it’s to get the incomplete off you plate. Scale back as much as you can: do you really need 40 sources or will 10 do? Is the instructor looking for regurgitation of their pet ideas or original thought on your part? Being that challenging student during the class is great. But now it’s an incomplete, a pain in the ass and not the time to get clever. Have you got a draft? Great, drop it off at the professors office. You might not get comments, but it shows a good faith effort on your part towards meeting your commitment. If they do comment, you might lucky and they say “hey, if you just add a paragraph about X, we are good to go.” And please dear Lord, don’t drop off an idea they already rejected and this is that same dumbass, irrelevant, unrealistic idea that you stubbornly hung on to and got you that incomplete in the first place. LET IT GO. I have watched people do that very thing. I don’t know what insanity overtakes them, but for the love of Pete, knock that crap off.
Do that incomplete: Do it this weekend, do it over two weekends if you have to. Unless that paper is huge, two hard weekends can cover it.

How to Get Deported for Christmas


     File this one under…I don’t know what.  My story begins with the desire to get cheap airplane tickets to visit our family in Germany this winter.  Simple: Leave at an uncomfortable hour, fly Christmas Eve, save $200 per ticket, and still arrive at Grandma’s in time for Christmas breakfast.  Anyway, we arrived at the Sacramento airport, produced tickets, passports, and so forth, and off we were to Chicago.  In Chicago, out came the boarding pass, our passports were scanned again, and last flight was off to Frankfurt am Main.  We arrived at Frankfurt, and off we go to German immigration, and…no passport.  My wife and I looked at each other.  I thought she had my passport, and she thought I had it.  Back to Lufthansa, and a hurried request to search my seat area.  We couldn’t go back on the plane, but they called the cleaning crew, which said the passport wasn’t there.  But that was o.k., Lufthansa assured me, and I could just take it up with German immigration.  The man at Lufthansa assured me that  this happens all the time—even daily.

German immigration called Lufthansa again, and the airline  lackadaisically responded that they could not find my passport.  The immigration officer asked for my national identity card, and I offered them my California driver’s license, credit cards, and every other government issued picture i.d. I had. The immigration officer complained that the Americans never did have proper identity documents like every other country in Europe.  I shrugged—what else could I do? Now German immigration started to get real concerned, and asked me to go to the airport’s police station  There they found the supervisor who came out and explained that there were only three options left which were for me to:

a) Volunteer to deport via Lufthansa, or

b)  Have a police case and then be forcibly deported, or

c)  I could call the US Embassy, and in the highly unlikely event that the Embassy were there and cared, they could issue me travel papers and I could pass through customs.  As an addendum, the German immigration officer noted that the US Embassy was the most unhelpful in Germany, and unlikely to be of any help to me at all, so I should be ready to get back on the next plane out.

Trying to be helpful, the police officer who was enforcing the “deportation” order pointed out that I was lucky that this was not happening in some “African country.”  Having had a lot of experience with African Immigration officers (none of whom ever deported me), I started to think about why I thought that was not true.  But then I just shut up, and decided to save all that for a later blog.

Anyway, to get to the point.  I was at the point in deportation proceedings when you realize you are in real trouble with the law, get cotton mouth, and visions of that Tom Hanks movie “The Terminal” in which a man-with-no-country spends months in the airport of New York start to appear in you head.  Feebly, I asked for option c), since somewhere I had heard that the US Embassy had managed to persuade German Immigration to let the CIA pass through Frankfurt on their way to being “renditioned” to third countries unknown.  Any consular official who persuade German Immigration to let a terrorist through, could surely spring a careless hapless tourist out of the Frankfurt airport’s immigration office on Christmas Day!  So German immigration called the Frankfurt Consulate  of the United States who, as the German officers predicted were not present.  Indeed, there was only a German language recording indicating that they were closed for Christmas Day (that Friday) and the following weekend, and would re-open only on the following Monday.  Finally I did get the “emergency duty officer” at the US Embassy in Berlin on the police station’s phone.  I asked him what he could do, and he too had a decision tree, which went something like this:

a)  First he asked me for my birthdate.  He also did not want to see my driver’s license, or any other i.d.  He told me that I had not entered Germany because I was not past immigration (duh!), and that is up to Germany anyway, because they are a sovereign country and they do not have to admit and can deport me if they want,

b)  He added that for the Americans to do anything, I would have to go to the Frankfurt Embassy, and since Christmas was (obviously) a holiday I would have to wait three days until the following Monday. And since Germany was a sovereign country, which I hadn’t even entered, this was therefore not his problem, they could deport me for not having any documents, even though the US Embassy was the only entity in Germany who could provide those documents, and

c)  Germany was a sovereign country and basically my carelessness was not the US Embassy’s emergency, and anyway, he really didn’t know who I was, or for that matter much care.

So now I am down to a choice between “voluntary” or “involuntary” deportation.  Helpfully, the German Immigration offered to strong arm Lufthansa into getting me on the next plane back to the United States.  Another officer pointed out that I could show up in America, and get a new passport lickety-split, and then get back to Germany (I guess they have never applied for a US passport—there is nothing lickety split about that!)

Suddenly I knew that I was not going to make it to grandma’s for Christmas breakfast, or lunch, and probably not even New Year’s.  I offered to live inside the security zone at the Frankfurt Airport until Monday (more visions of the “The Terminal”) but the Germans thought that that was a bad idea too—if I was going to live in an airport, it was going to be an American one.

My wife, who had loyally (and “voluntarily”) waited with me behind the locked door at the police station started to imagine how we would spend the “Christmas Holiday” in different planes and continents.  Half way through this conversation, our friendly police officer appeared behind the bullet proof glass.  He gave a big thumbs up sign: My passport had been found by Lufthansa!  The only problem was that it was taken to the Lufthansa lost and found which was outside the security perimeter where I couldn’t go because—I didn’t have a passport.  But not to worry, a patrolling police officer would pick it up and bring it to us.  In the meantime, we could go get a cup of coffee.

The passport did turn up about an hour later.  The patrolling police officer who brought it came in with a big “Ho Ho Ho” and we had another great conversation about the nature of immigration law, and why it was dangerous for Germans to go to Africa.  But again that is for another blog.

For every story there is a moral, I suppose, and the most obvious one for this blog is:

a)  Always keep track of your passport.  Don’t lose it on a plane. 

And here are some more morals:

b)  The US Embassy in Germany doesn’t work on Christmas or weekends, and unless you are a kidnapped terrorist from Italy, don’t expect much help from them on any day.

c)  German immigration officer can be really nice, but they also follow the rules.

d)  If you are in trouble on a border somewhere, try Africa. Like I said, those stories are for another blog.

Undergrad Seminar: How long should this paper be?

Every student wants to know “How long should this paper be?” I think that’s a pretty reasonable question, but for some reason instructors sometimes treat this question like one of the deadly sins. Ironically, when your instructor is asked to present a paper, they are given the answer to that very question at the beginning!  Conferences state how long the abstract should be, how long the sessions are, how many participants and often how long they personally have to speak. Unfortunately, the smart-ass answer some people like to give to this reasonable student question is “when you feel it’s done.”  Indeed, may all those instructors be plagued with 50 page papers for the rest of their days. Again, this is a moment of strategy on the part of you the student. What you are really asking is “Based on the relative importance of this class to me when weighed against my core interests, the amount of effort required for my other classes, the GPA I hope to maintain across all my classes this year; what am I being judged on for my grade so I can compare that into my course load and understand when I want or have to put in more effort vs. minimal effort for the desired result.”  No one ones to hear about minimum effort, granted. Personally, I don’t want to hear about your minimal effort I only want results. If you are a bloody genius that can whip out a brilliant paper in two hours, hey more power to you. Undergrads take a lot of classes because they HAVE to, not out of interest and want to save their real effort for the classes that they have the most interest in. I am not going to ding you for that, but don’t be so dumb as to brag about it because the class is just that easy, unless you really just want more challenging work. Most instructors enjoy bright interested and gifted students, asking to be challenged will rarely go badly for you.

Part of your strategy is understanding that your instructor is also concerned with time management strategies. Every assignment given to a class means X number of papers to read and grade, questions to answer and whining students to deal with. This is on top of the need to publish, serve on committees and worse if the professor is coming up for tenure review. If a teacher has four full classes a semester and assigns nothing but papers to each class. Call it 4 classes X 30 students each X 4 papers per student X 10 pages each, that comes to 4,800 pages of work that have to be read and graded each semester. and that number is on the conservative side.

Knowing your instructor and their expectations is a big part making strategic choices. If you don’t know the needs of the client, then you really are shooting in the dark. Make it simple, GO TALK TO THEM. This is what office hours are for. Unsure if you are headed in the right direction on a paper? Why on earth wait until you turn it in to see if you guessed right? Go to them with an outline of the idea and your approach to the paper. When they offer “suggestions” as to a better approach, or more reasonable topic (more on reasonable topics later), take the suggestion without complaint or excuse. If they think it’s a bad idea, don’t take it personally. Move on to a different idea. Don’t expect your Prof to indulge your interest in science-fiction or fantasy literature in a class on medieval literature. If you really love renaissance festivals and spend all year long making your costume for it, they may not be interested in letting you claim that as a “class project.” Your idea may simply lack sufficient credibility for academic work. MOVE ON. More time is wasted by students stubbornly hanging on to some idea that their Prof as already said is simply a load of dingo’s kidneys. MOVE ON.