top of page
  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Discomfort in the comfort zone

Tl;dr: Here we go again. Another take on the uphill slog of being an underpaid, contingent faculty member. (I am acutely aware of the privilege I possess in this role, but that doesn't mean we -- because we are academia, after all -- can't do better to support people who are vital to what makes academia wonderful.)

A Green sea turtle hatchling floats in water in a tank. The tiny turtle is suspended just below the surface of the water, with its head pressed up against the class of the tank.
Even when the water's warm, you can hit a wall (and a ceiling) (Image: ©B.G. Merkle, 2014)

We complain a lot about academia, us academics. And, I will discuss further in this post, there is a lot of good reason for much of this critique. At the same time, my life as an academic is pretty comfortable compared to the hard-scrabble jobs I've worked in the past. While I'm the lowest-paid faculty member in our department, I make more money than anyone in my family ever has. I get to think about amazing things every day, and use what I know to make the world a better place for students, colleagues, and a lot more people. It's pretty remarkable, and I don't know that we spend enough time appreciating the choices we do have as academics.


All this makes it a bit complicated to process emotions when working in this situation feels almost impossible. And it does frequently; that's the other side of the coin.


***

I've spent the past month frantically (truly) preparing a high-dollar, four-institution, collaborative research proposal that had a brutally short-notice deadline (~3.5 weeks).


The entire time, I've been frustrated with myself for even reaching for this proposal.


I knew, when I submitted my letter of intent in mid-March for our university's internal selection process (only 2 proposals/university are allowed for this funding call), that it was already way too late. The timing was too tight to do our ideas justice while still respecting the team's personal-professional boundaries or getting any decent sleep. (And, without high-quality sleep, I turn into a cranky zombie.)


But, we went for it anyway.


And it was absolutely as hard as I anticipated. One person on our team initially projected it might take about 20 hours to prep the proposal. (And this was someone with lots of major grant-writing experience.) But, I track my time like a lawyer, and my final tally for this proposal was 58.48 hours just for myself. We figure two other people spent about 50 hours each, two more spent ~10 each, and one spent ~5. That doesn't include the time that the staff in our research offices put into helping us with our budgets, loading files into the federal grant submission portal, checking final docs for compliance, etc. (maybe another 20 hours total, between all our institutions).


The reality is, it took at least 200 hours to put together a proposal that does justice to our ideas for systems change in scicomm (specifically, to help foster more value of and support for scicomm in academia).


And, we had to cram those 200+ hours into less than one month, while still keeping up on everything else we need to do at home and at work. There are aspects of this proposal that some of the team has been working on together for several years. But, we were proposing a brand-new framework, with several layers of work that we had not "practiced on" before with each other. We have a phenomenal team, and we're proposing something we would dearly love to have the funding to do. If we get the funding to do this project, our work will genuinely improve the way academia thinks about and treats scicomm.


It will also be a major step forward for my work as a scholar, academic, researcher (however you want to put it). I'm essentially a self-taught academic: I don't have any formal degrees or training in the main areas of scholarship I do these days, and I never intended to be an academic at all. But, the work that we are proposing builds on the professional work I did long before coming to the university sector. It would be ahhhhmaaaaaaazing to have the financial capacity to move forward at the scale that I've been pushing for over the past decade.


So many times in the past month, I asked my collaborators if they were sure they wanted to sacrifice the time, attention, and intellectual juice this proposal effort would suck up. And, repeatedly, each person said a resounding yes.


The further we got with refining our ideas into a pitch compelling and sophisticated enough to submit to this federal agency, the more excited we got about the proposed work. But, we were fueling our late nights and long days with at least as much dread as determination. Or, perhaps stubborn pessimism is more apt . It wasn't until the last 24 hours of our push that we allowed ourselves to even imagine what it would truly be like to work on this together. Like, concretely imagine how we'd rally the whole team in one, physical space and build trust and relationships between everyone (because I pulled in people from a lot of disparate dimensions of my work life).


It was a remarkable thing to notice -- that we'd essentially been holding our breath the whole month.


That was perhaps the most exhausting part of it all. Because, I'm still not sure if this marathon was "worth it." I don't harbor that doubt simply because we don't know yet if we will be funded. I mean that, even if we get the funding, I can't say it will be worth it.


Why?


Because, as various collaborators, co-authors, and I have written in every paper, proposal, conference abstract, and social media post on this topic for ten-plus years:


The need for what we are proposing is unfortunately predictable: academia systematically devalues (and even impedes) study and training in scicomm — classifying and denigrating such work as “service” — while rewarding papers and grants that rarely reach policy makers and communities. Increasingly, disillusioned students and faculty/staff leave academia, and even STEM careers, seeking shorter training periods, higher wages, and more tangible ways to contribute to society.

When I say I'm not sure if getting the grant will be worth it, let alone if writing it will be worth it if we don't, I am pondering a lot of factors:

  • A million dollars isn't nearly enough to facilitate the genuine systems change we know is needed. We compromised so much to make the budget fit under that required cap.

  • We're proposing so much work, and I'm the only one that this will be primary scholarship for. Everyone else on the team cares a lot, is committed, and will be doing this as a side project.

  • My job description expects 0.5 papers per year and an attempt at grant funding (internal or external). Getting this big grant would likely not materially change my work conditions in any way...other than making extra work.

  • Even if we get the $1 million we asked for, some folks will poo-poo this grant as a token or service effort, not "true" scholarship. I have to really hold tight to Dr. Beronda Montgomery's advice to work from affirmation, not for it, to sustain what I already do. With this additional work load, that tension is going to be tighter.


So, why am I telling you all this?


Because I firmly -- adamantly, in fact -- believe, as Audre Lorde so eloquently and starkly put it:

 “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” — Audre Lorde

I'm not supposed to be an academic, per the prestige systems and historical gatekeeping that the academy is founded on. And, as a non-tenure-track faculty member, I've never received a dollar of direct support from our institution [1] for the campus-wide and nation-wide programming I run to help science-trained professionals contribute to public trust in and use of science. No start-up. A salary equivalent to temporary staff. A laptop only because there was some pandemic stimulus funding leftover. My mid-term review last year even conveyed the reality that some folks in my department think I should be working primarily in service-to-the-department, not as an equivalent contributor to scholarship and the academy/society. And yet, without any of the typical support afforded faculty, I maintain a level of scholarly productivity over our expected tenure-track threshold, have raised millions in external grants, etc., etc.


Despite all this, I sincerely like my job (not the job that others may think I should be doing). As I wrote last week, my work right now feels like the best professional fit I've ever had. I delight in the myriad ways I can blend together all the things I know how to do. And I do that work without to much anxiety that it isn't recognized, without much concern that it won't be seen as valuable.


Even so, it is also not possible to always, only, and every day, operate as if the expectations of fellow academics (largely conditioned to devalue my work and positions like mine) don't have any influence. Certainly they do. They determine what I get paid, if I keep my contingent job, or if there is any department or university investment in the programs I've established.


So, today, I'm mulling over the many other ways we might have spent those 200 hours in the past month instead. And, I'm resolving to never do this kind of massive, short-notice proposal again. Big, reach-for-the-stars work, sure. But not under these conditions. That's permission I'm giving myself. And then, I'm packing. I'm heading up to Montana to celebrate my grandma's 90th birthday this weekend. While I'm off-air, I encourage everyone who reads this to consider what you can concretely and materially do to make it easier for people to do the good work of connecting academia, connecting science, to the world that is increasingly wary of both.)


 

NOTES

[1] I have received two small, internal grants (through a competitive review process) to support work that I and collaborators have done to scope out the barriers and opportunities people at our institution face when trying to do science+society work. But, those were small, one-year grants and only funded the scoping phase. We never got enough funding to finish the work (beyond internal reports).

Want to read more?

Subscribe to commnatural.com to keep reading this exclusive post.

21 views0 comments

Comments

Couldn’t Load Comments
It looks like there was a technical problem. Try reconnecting or refreshing the page.
bottom of page