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Dear GrantDoctor,

I am a visiting assistant professor at a medium-sized state university. I would like to continue doing basic research but am at a loss as to where to obtain funding. Are there any funding opportunities for someone in my position?

My appointment is open-ended. I suspect they would permit me to stay as long as I am willing to diligently teach the courses I am assigned (especially the biochemistry lab!).

Thank you!

Sincerely,

Maria P.


Dear Maria,

You are, I fear, in a difficult situation. But if you can solve this problem, you'll be turning a negative into a powerful positive.

Taking a temporary teaching-oriented faculty position can be a good career move. After all, people who fill such positions get teaching experience and demonstrate that they can handle the basics of the job. A reputation as an excellent teacher (along with a few outstanding letters of recommendation) is a definite plus.

But it's a plus that has a big minus attached. It's very difficult to stay active in research when you have no money, no dedicated lab space, borrowed (if any) equipment, and a large teaching load. And strong research potential is important these days even if you aspire to a teaching-oriented faculty position. As crazy as it sounds, many young (tenure-track) scientists with teaching loads as large as six courses per year are still expected to earn research grants and publish. So although a year or more of teaching experience will help you get certain kinds of jobs, the time away from research is likely to hurt your chances at jobs where research is expected and supported.

In 1987 the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation initiated the Dreyfus Scholar/Fellow program for undergraduate institutions, which established what were, in effect, "teaching postdocs" in chemistry, with established mentors at predominantly undergraduate institutions (PUIs). Young scholars who qualify for the program gain teaching experience (typically teaching about half the considerable normal load) while also keeping their hand in research.

The administrators of the Dreyfus program quickly noticed something surprising: Graduates of the program were landing primarily at second-tier PUIs. Very few managed to get jobs at the Swarthmores, Amhersts, and Williamses of the world--top-tier PUIs, where faculty are expected to maintain serious research programs.

It turns out that teaching and doing research is a lousy way to prepare for a career of teaching and doing research. If you want to work at one of the top-tier PUIs--institutions where research is weighed heavily in the tenure decision--you're better off staying in the lab. In the words of Mike Doyle, vice president of Research Corp. (another foundation that promotes and supports research at PUIs), programs like the Dreyfus Scholar/Fellow program are useful mainly if "research is just a hobby, and what you really want to do is teach."

Since you're eager to do research even while occupying a teaching-oriented visiting position, I'm guessing that you are not trying to land a permanent job where research is "merely a hobby" or to dispense with research altogether. If Dreyfus scholars, who have time and resources for doing research while they teach, aren't getting jobs at institutions where research is more than an afterthought, how can you--a (presumably) overworked, resourceless visiting chemist with little clout, possibly succeed where they have failed?

By working hard and smart, that's how.

Are there grants out there for people in your position? The short answer is "No." From the viewpoint of the various funding agencies, you look like a postdoc without a PI. Not only are you temporary; you're not even working as part of a stable research effort. When you leave your current position, any research program you establish will either die immediately or go with you, and there's no guarantee that your institution (to which grants are issued and by which equipment is bought) will let you take your new toys. As a consequence, says Doyle, visitors "are not eligible for research grants from the vast majority of foundations or agencies."

So what can you do? You need to take advantage of your colleagues and your institution's resources. Colleges vary in how seriously they take their mentoring responsibilities to young visiting faculty. Harvey Mudd College, a science-oriented liberal arts college in California, is on the responsible end of the spectrum. Dean of faculty Sheldon Wettack writes via e-mail: "We tend to treat [visiting faculty] as much as possible like tenure-track faculty. They have research and travel support, quite reasonable teaching loads, lab space when needed, and good collegial acceptance in the department they are visiting. But, again, our numbers are small." Although packages vary from one visitor to the next, almost all faculty there get some financial support for doing research. Other colleges, where visitors are more common (hence expensive), might not be as helpful.

Time to get specific: See if your institution has an internal program for supporting research. If it does, ask if you can compete. If it doesn't, or if you can't, try to find out who holds the purse strings. Department chairs and senior administrators often have discretionary funds. A talk with a sympathetic colleague will help you figure out who writes the checks. Schedule a meeting, behave professionally, and beg. Your leverage is likely to be highest when it is time for you to renew your contract, because your department is unlikely to be eager to do another search. Don't threaten to resign; just be cordial and firm. You may not succeed, but as long as you comport yourself well and avoid burning bridges, there's no harm in asking. Indeed, the people you meet with might even approve of your resourcefulness and ambition.

Another good idea is to collaborate with a research-active colleague. If you can swing it, this is probably the best solution, since it kills several birds with one stone: You get lab space, support, access to equipment, and an active research program. If you plan on being there for several years, and if your institution and the funding program will allow it, consider applying for grants as co-PI, with your colleague as PI. You won't be guiding your own research agenda, but that's a small and temporary price to pay for continued productivity. It will keep the holes patched in your publications list.

Finally, hook up with a good, active research lab over the summer. Even at research-active PUIs, summer is when most of the research gets done, since teaching loads are too heavy to allow productivity during the school year. If you can spend your summers productively, you won't be missing much.

Sound challenging? That's the beauty of it. It is challenging, and your future hiring committee will know it. A couple of publications under such adverse circumstances will look very good on your CV, because it will demonstrate that you have a strong commitment to research and that you can get it done under less-than-ideal circumstances. I know one young organic chemist who stayed research-active while visiting a small college by collaborating with the department's sole biochemist. He gained both research and teaching experience, won strong letters in both areas, and went on to a tenure-track appointment at one of the nation's best liberal arts colleges.

Be well.

--The GrantDoctor

Due to the high volume of questions received, The GrantDoctor cannot answer all queries on an individual basis. Look for an answer to your question published in this column soon! Thank you!