Story behind the Passage
No worries, I am not going to talk about depression today, in case you are thinking that when looking at the book title. Even though, I could to say a lot about this, I refuse to do so. If you want to learn about the full story of depression in the scholarly context, just read Cvetkovich’s book. It says it all.
I actually met Cvetkovich about five years ago. We invited her for a lecture at the graduate center where I was working, together with another U.S. scholar. It was a great event, as far as I remember. Actually, I very much enjoyed using the possibilities that were given to us at this place. We, the postdocs, were not happy all the time. But we were not depressed either. And this book was not the major reason why we invited her. Can I think of the actual topic she spoke about? Hmmm… Forgot.
So, if depression is not the reason why I have chosen this book today, what is it? Well, I looked at grant databases by foundations this morning. There are several ones that are quite well-known, of course, and then you choose the one that suits your needs and your project, and maybe also your general research profile. What I mean: If you are doing work that aims at disrupting capitalism, it is not such a great idea to go to a neoliberal consortium or some business-sponsored fund. I mean, if you want to have some fun pissing people off, you can, of course, do that.
But the thing with the choosing is quite tricky nowadays. That is even an understatement. It is practically impossible to choose quickly due to the lack of overview. And no, I am not exaggerating. With the third-party funding boom, the programs offered by all these diverse funding institutions have exploded to a point where one literally loses sight of the wood for the trees. I mean, I am really a big-picture analyst and quick skimmer of data and text, but this even puts me over the edge. It is little wonder that universities and other research institutions have been hiring people to function as consultants for funding applications.
Just a few years back, maybe two or three, this situation looked a lot more manageable to me. This entire feeling of being overwhelmed by the different opportunities made me realize that something is really wrong with the system when it comes to proposal writing. I mean, we have known that something is wrong with this for a long time but this insight today, when I was seriously looking for options that are feasible, really made me see something that I would not have seen that clearly before I became an entrepreneur: This third-party funding machinery is above all one thing: INEFFICIENT.
And some people might get depressed over it too.
“The forms of productivity demanded by the academic sphere of the professional managerial class can tell us something more general about corporate cultures that demand deliverables and measurable outcomes and that they say you are only as good as what you produce.” I have chosen to look at this very sentence more closely because it exactly speaks to what I want to argue. Unfortunately, I have to disagree a little with Cvetkovich on this one. But this is natural, given my pragmatic position and my affinity towards management tools and getting things done.
I totally understand what Cvetkovich is arguing in general and I know that the burden of “deliverables” and “measurable outcomes” can lead to a pressure that is hard to bear. Still, I want to emphasize the more positive side effects of ‘productivity.’ Actually producing something, e.g., writing an article or a book, can be very rewarding. And, yes, I understand that our folks in the humanities are usually like “the path is the goal…” But, hey, holding a book in your hands that you have written is something tangible to be proud of.
From the graduate students that I coached in the past, those who went to business or some management job after their dissertation, I know that this feeling of actually seeing results after a day at work is something really amazing. And it feels so amazing to them because they lacked this immediate output while working in the academy. So, to make the first part of the argument clear: output or product orientation can also be quite healthy. The problem is, and this gets me to my main point: The third-party funding circus actually trains people to NOT be output-oriented. Want me to explain? Sure!
This issue of “funding first” which I realized this morning made me think of an analogy to the startup world. There, it has also come into fashion to always call for investments before actually thinking of doing business. Of course, for certain high-tech companies, it is necessary to have funding first because you need to hire a large team to work on the technology. But in many cases, this has led to an automatism in the minds of founders who work in fields where they could easily start acquiring their first customers without investors. But, no, they WAIT to get investors on board, and then they celebrate. They actually celebrate investors more than actual clients, it seems. And that is the problem!
From my perspective, what happens is that the founders learn that somebody has to say “yes” to their idea first before they do anything. This is very much in line with what James Altucher says in Choosing Yourself. If you always wait for others to say “yes,” you will hardly ever start doing things, implementing them, getting to results. Here is what Altucher says about this (I discussed Altucher before):
“Rejection — and the fear of rejection — is the biggest impediment we face to choosing ourselves. We can all put together books about all the times we are rejected. We’re rejected by lovers, by friends, by family, by the government, by the corporate world, by investors, partners, employees, publishers, and on and on.” Altucher, Choose Yourself
So, what do scholars have to do with this? To me, it appears as if the same thought mechanism that you find in startups has taken over in academia. It goes like this:
“Oh, this is such a cool idea, I want to turn this into a research project!
I need to apply for funding.
Oh, this is such a pain in the ass, how long it takes to write this stupid proposal. I have not slept more than three hours per night these past weeks.
6 months later:
Oh, noooooooooooooooooooooooooo, I was rejected.
And what happens to the cool research project?
Yes, exactly, this is what I am trying to get at. Of course, there might be projects which can only be done with huge investments and a huge team and many trips abroad to archives and other research institutions. Yes, that happens — sometimes. But honestly, in the humanities, all we really buy with the money we get for research is: TIME. Now, you might say, well, time is the crucial thing. If I am not given the money, I do not have the time and consequently, I cannot realize the project.
Yes and no.
I want to raise awareness of the possibility that this internal thought mechanism — which is quite destructive and demotivating — that someone has to say “yes” to your project BEFORE you do any actual research, is a major reason why you only start doing things AFTER others decide over your project. And I am pretty sure that certain parts of research projects, some papers, to be more precise, could be written without all the funding.
“Yes, but even if I did it without funding — if that were possible — I would not have any third-party funds in my CV!”
Is that what you are thinking now?
Yes, correct! That is the reason why I am saying that the system is actually not output-oriented. Slowly but surely, we have come to value funding more than the actual projects. And that is quite insane because scholars spend so much time writing grant proposals. I just skimmed some studies this morning on this. There is one about Australian scholars, for example. It states that researchers spend between one and three months per year on writing grant proposals and only about 20% of the people submitting grants get the money. In addition, spending more time on writing proposals does not increase the chances of getting funding (Herbert et al. 2013).
So, in sum, there is one message: Researchers spend less time doing actual research because they write proposals that might allow them to do research which hardly ever happens. In business, you call this opportunity cost, i.e., the cost that is generated because you are not pursuing the alternative option. In addition, I would add the psychological component that people start hating research more and more because they get rejected so often and they burn out because of spending all that time for nothing. Consequently: there are less actual research products, not more (I would have to get more data on this, of course, but I doubt that even the quantity of completed projects would allow for an adequate conclusion).
And this latter thought explains why I am disagreeing with Cvetkovich, at least as far as her language is concerned. Yes, the “managerial” and “corporate culture” might be to blame for many things. But a very positive side effect of this culture is that people put results first. And they choose the shortest path to get there. So, since writing grants that end up nowhere does not seem to be the path that gets you to results, I really do encourage researchers to simply consider my alternative suggestion:
JUST RESEARCH and let grant proposals go to hell.
Your research products will make you happy and successful.
And your depression will stay in hell too.
1) Would you ever read “Depression” by Cvetkovich? Why/not?
2) How important is product-/output orientation for you?
3) In case you are currently preparing a grant proposal — which parts of the project could you implement without/even before the decision by the sponsors?