Post Academic

Challenges for Beginning Scholars: Breaking Into the Fellowship Cycle

Posted in Ask an Academic,Surviving Grad School by doctoreclair on April 13, 2010
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We’re “post academic,” but what about people who are actually academic? Well, Dr. E. Clair is the first poster to share his front-line academic perspective. He also has a sweet tooth, hence the image.

In the July 2008 Harper’s Index, I came across a statistic that stopped me in my tracks:

Ratio in 1980 of the number of NIH grants given scientists under age 30 to the number given over age 70:  17:1

Ratio in 2006:  1:13

Is it possible that senior scientists are so much at the cutting edge of their disciplines that thirteen septuagenarians deserve grant funding for every one in his or her twenties? Thirty years ago, the NIH certainly didn’t think so, when things were at the opposite extreme.

It turns out that these numbers aren’t anomalous, and have been a subject of intense debate in scientific circles in recent years. While in 1980 “researchers between the ages of 31 and 33 received nearly 10% of all grants, by 2006 they accounted for approximately 1%.” And a chart in an article with the provocative title “Are There Too Many PhDs?” would suggest that the age distribution of NIH fellowships has climbed steadily upward over the past thirty years.

These numbers got me to wonder about whether something similar is happening in the humanities, though I haven’t been able to find any studies that would confirm my suspicion. Are senior scholars gobbling up all of the fellowships? It sounds counter-intuitive: American culture is obsessed with youthfulness. Yet an ideal of youthfulness doesn’t necessarily translate into supporting the young, and in a culture where “ageism” is much more likely to be used to describe discrimination against the old than discrimination against the young, a pattern of underfunding academic researchers at the beginning of their careers might easily pass under the radar.

More after the jump! Those older profs are gonna take all the eclairs! Image by Tamorlan, posted to Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

It seems to have a natural explanation: Experienced scholars have proven themselves. Fellowship-granting institutions want to list some big names in their annual reports. Winning fellowships gives you time to win more fellowships. One observer The Scholarly Kitchen observes something similar in scientific publishing: it’s “the Matthew Effect, named after a Biblical passage… Basically, it’s the ‘rich get richer’ premise that once you start winning, you keep accruing benefits.” The blogger goes on to report that “This is a well-studied phenomenon for citations. Once an article gets cited, it keeps getting cited. Once an article gets overlooked, it can disappear forever.”

Natural though it might seem, however, a preference for well-known scholars reflects cultural priorities. What makes this clear is how much things have changed over the last few decades: senior administration has grown exponentially while new PhDs, even those with extremely impressive publications, are stuck in a professional bottleneck. While promise was once everything, “experience” now seems much more important. In tougher times, academia defensively retracts into a more conservative place. If it were simply about seniority, things might be more transparent, and new scholars might be well advised to rest content and wait their turn. But the fetishization of experience now transcends seniority. I remember reading a retired professor’s complaint in a PMLA letter that there were no fellowships for research by emeriti. Maybe this person had never gotten a fellowship. So it might be more accurate to say that there’s a fetishization of wealth: that those people who have already received research money and leave time (the most precious resource in academia) are more valued and therefore get more of it.

Proposals have come out of the science world that scholars in the humanities would be well advised to consider. A magazine of the life sciences proposed that NIH grants be limited to five per principal investigator. Since humanities foundations are more decentralized, a similar proposal would almost certainly not be workable. Change might require some kind of cultural shift in what’s left of academia.

One Response to 'Challenges for Beginning Scholars: Breaking Into the Fellowship Cycle'

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  1. Arnold Pan said,

    Great to have you aboard, Dr. E. Clair! What about a related phenomenon, where it seems that the same grad students/recent PhDs seem to get the plum fellowships/postdocs/publishing opportunities? I know a little from my own experience, because I myself did benefit from more and better fellowships during grad school–although there were always people who got even more and better! It reproduces the system you are talking at a smaller level.

    I’ve also noticed cases where some folks get one great postdoc and somehow get another, even as they hold onto a top-level tenure-track position. In one situation, someone held a TT position, then “upgraded” to a more desirable one–without ever even teaching at the 1st job! I know this sounds like sour grapes, but this rich-get-richer approach perpetuated by schools who want the hottest candidates and sometimes exploited by these candidates roadblocks a lot of folks who are already facing long odds in a bad job market. It really sets up a culture like the one you’re describing.

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