At this time of year, graduate students (and faculty, too) scramble to apply for research grants. Grant deadlines fall throughout the year, but often the year-long fellowships that begin in August/September post their call for proposals (CFPs) in October or November, set their deadline for January or February, and notify accepted recipients between March and May. I personally will submit three grants within a three week span in February.
If research is a requirement of our jobs, why do we apply for money to do our jobs? That's a good question, and one that requires a long discussion of the university's relationship to capitalism. Leaving that aside, however, there are three big reasons why graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members (from junior profs to the most senior scholars) all compete for a small number of opportunities:
1. Research is expensive! In the discipline of history, we often need to travel to archives to read our documents. Digitization has greatly reduced the cost of research--you don't have to travel when a collection has been made available online--but digitization has also put pressure on researchers to look at more and more sources. To write a book (or heck, even a good journal article) requires multiple archival visits. Sometimes these archives are in the same city, which is convenient and efficient, and sometimes a project demands that a scholar make costly visits to archives all over the country. The travel itself is expensive, but with housing and food and other incidentals it really adds up. Sometimes you end up with big photocopy bills, too (oops). Grants can reduce or cover the costs of visiting archives.
One other thing that grant money can buy is time. If you're usually paid to teach, a grant can buy you out of that responsibility and give you more time to write or travel. What happens is that the grant pays your salary, and your university then uses the money it usually spends on you to hire a replacement instructor. When scholars are in the writing phase of a project, this grant of protected time is especially valuable.
2. Grants are prestigious! A grant application is a description of the research project that the funds would subsidize. Receiving a grant is thus an endorsement of your research. It's an institution's way of saying, "hey! we think you're doing interesting work! we want you to keep doin' what you're doin'!" You get to write it on your CV and when your university or other scholars see it they think you are very smart and accomplished.
3. Money begets more money. Funding institutions do not like to take risks. If they see that other, similar funders have endorsed your research, you look like a safe bet. The buckshot approach is thus the best method for applying for grants. Researchers send out as many applications as possible and hope that they'll be chosen eventually. Once you've gotten a few, though, the odds improve.
This week, I will talk about the tangibles and intangibles of the grant process: how to find and apply for grants, and how to cope with the angst and waiting they inspire.