Tax Day

My father in law, who does my taxes every year, always says that tax day is the adult iteration of opposite day. Whatever was good for you all year suddenly becomes a liability, while your drama and trauma and failure become valuable. At no time in my life has that been more true than during graduate school.

For 364 days each year, I wish that I did not have to think twice about whether or not to buy a $5 sandwich. On April 15, I embrace my low tax bracket and wait for the government to send me a check. From a tax standpoint, graduate school certainly beats working an entry level job!

Conversely, one of the few good things that happens to graduate students--grant funding--is very bad at tax time. A windfall of a few thousand dollars can add several hundred dollars of tax liability, and without careful financial planning you can end up with a very nasty shock in April. It's imperative to save part of your grant checks to cover taxes. 

I'm not delusional. I understand that my tax return effectively subsidizes my labor and empowers my employer to continue paying low wages to graduate students. For one day, though, I conveniently forget this fact. Tax day is a good day!

Why Grants are the Pits

Although getting a grant is a top 10 professional good feeling, the lead-up is really a drag. 

First of all, grants are really competitive. There are more research projects than magic pots of money, and so you are always a loser more often than you are a winner. You also compete against your closest colleagues and mentors. Even the most collegial group of scholars can get bent out of shape when one person appears to be getting a bigger slice of the grant pie. It's also exhausting to put so much effort into applications that you know do not have a good chance of getting funded. 

This competition makes writing grant proposals tedious. It's always important to tailor a proposal to the interests of the granting institution, but there's also a lot of pressure to make your application stand out in the crowd. There's a fine balance that you have to strike between familiar and innovative--you want to propose a project that a funding committee will understand, but that isn't something they have seen 100 times before. It has to appear fresh, but feasible. That's a tall order!

It's hard to stay calm through a process that feels like an exercise in futility, but the good news is that most every scholar hits the jackpot now and then. 

Research Grants: Where to Find Them?

Early in my second year of grad school, the professor teaching my research seminar course assigned us a report on available grants in our field of study. I can no longer recall if there was a minimum number we had to identify, or what the report required as far as a description of these grants, but it was an incredibly useful exercise for learning where to find funding opportunities. Here are some of my tried-and-true sources for finding calls for proposals (CFPs):

1. AHA Today: The blog of the American Historical Association, for me, has replaced the old method of reading the back pages of Perspectives (the AHA's print publication). This blog does not exclusively publish information on research grants but when an exciting funding opportunity arises the AHA usually publicizes it in a short blog post. 

2. H-Net: The best way to describe H-Net is a giant group email (listserv) for humanists and social scientists who study a particular topic. For example, I subscribe to H-Urban and H-Jewish Studies. As a subscriber, I receive occasional email updates about conferences, publications, and grants. There are SO MANY different H-Networks, and thus many different ways to find out about opportunities. 

3. Professional Affiliations: In addition to the AHA, there are many smaller professional organizations dedicated to particular historical subjects. As a member of the Association for Jewish Studies I get access to a Grants Directory that lists all of the CFPs related to Jewish history (note: the directory also includes grants for research in other disciplines). Joining a professional organization usually offers the benefit of accessing aggregated or pre-circulated grants in that field of study. 

4. Google: With the appropriate search terms, it's possible to find grants you may have otherwise missed. Even after a thorough scouring of the sources listed above, it's valuable to do a general search like "civil war history grants" or "funding for oral history projects." It might turn out to be a duplication of effort or redundant, but who knows--it could turn up a more obscure pot of money. 

5. Word of mouth: My advisor has passed on a lot of grants to me over the years, because after 20+ years of scholarship and professing she is on way more email lists than I am. I've also had colleagues pass along opportunities that they thought were a good fit with my research interests. Sometimes those end up being too much of a stretch, but I've applied for several grants that I found that way! It's important to build a strong network, because there aren't enough hours in the day to do research and find all of the various possibilities for how you can fund it. Colleagues help each other out by sharing information. 

Any other good suggestions for where to find research money?

Grants: Why do historians apply for them?

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.