Counting the Costs

By Christina Morin

It was with a great sense of eagerness and anticipation that I headed off for Cambridge last Monday for a full week of uninterrupted research. My reading list in hand, I arrived at Cambridge University Library bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, nothing daunted by the airline’s loss of my luggage or the taxi-driver’s surly insistence that the long way around was the only way to go at that hour, or even the resulting exorbitant taxi fare. I’ll admit my enthusiasm was slightly dampened by the consternation with which my request for a certain printed catalogue was met. And, my fervour received a further, harsher blow when I was sent away with the words, “leave it to me”. Luckily, said catalogue had been located by the next morning, and I settled to work with a sigh of relief.

Halfway though the first triple-decker Gothic novel I’d requested, all contentment and delight had vanished in the face of rising panic. If it was taking me this long to read one novel, how was I ever going to read all of the titles on my list? What had seemed like an ambitious but viable goal in the rosy glow of enthusiastic academic zeal now appeared horribly naïve in the cold glare projected by the microfiche reader. By Wednesday, I was resigned to my fate: a future research trip, or several, to complete my reading. How exactly to afford those projected research trips, however, began to prey on my mind. Accordingly, when I got back to Ireland, I began to search for possible funding opportunities with which to make these trips.Such opportunities, however, proved few and far between, at least from a Humanities perspective. I highlighted a few possibilities, including the Royal Irish Academy Mobility Grants, the British Academy Visiting Scholars Scheme, the Heritage Council Grants Programme, and the Worldwide Universities Network scheme, but I came away from the whole experience feeling rather despondent. Many of the available mobility schemes seem focused on established academics, rather than those of us dependent on our own slim means or schemes in which travel costs are rolled up with salaries. The irony, of course, is that without the means to complete necessary research outside of Ireland, younger academics without permanent positions risk never finishing their projects at all. In turn, they place themselves at an immense disadvantage in the ever-hotter competition for permanency in Ireland and abroad. (If anyone can cheer me up with opportunities that I’ve missed, please do!)

The conclusion that this whole situation brought me to was a rather pessimistic one. In an atmosphere in which external research funding is increasingly dependent on forging links with academics and institutions abroad, the funding actually to form those relationships and to utilize the facilities unavailable at home is fundamentally lacking if you’re not in a permanent position. It seems, as with many facets of academic life these days, there’s an essential disconnect between what the talking heads think ideal and what is actually achievable within the remit of available structures. Perhaps I’m being bitter and unfair here, but I’d be interested to hear about the experiences others have had with conducting research abroad. Have you been able to source funding for your trips? Or have you found such research expeditions a costly strain? What can be done to make this research more accessible? Or am I simply being unrealistic in my expectations for a relatively comfortable situation in which to complete my research, whether at home or, as is sometimes necessary, abroad?

To end with a moral, as the Gothic novels I read in Cambridge did, is impossible, I think, but I will offer a kind of exemplary tale. Whilst systematically combing through the aforementioned printed catalogue, I came across what promised to be a miraculous guarantee of future academic acclaim: an heretofore unknown Gothic drama attributable to my favourite Gothic author, Charles Robert Maturin (1780-1824). I suspected it was all too good to be true but awaited my delivery with a considerable amount of excitement, only quickly to realise, for various reasons, that Maturin could never have written it. My dreams of a discovery and attendant article on which to secure my future academic career over, I promptly called my financial advisor to discuss money-management tactics for my next research trip.

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5 Responses to “Counting the Costs”

  1. Patrick Says:

    Excellent post Tina

    You have highlighted an important problem with the current funding system, we are expected to pay for our own research trips and conferences! Part of the problem here is the hybrid status of a postdoc, neither a student, nor a staff member. Travel budgets designed for graduate students are closed off, while those open for staff are closed. And many members of academic staff, let alone research funders are oblivious to this, believing that we as postdocs are some sort of glorified students!

    In no other line of work would such necessary work related
    expenditure be expected to come out of one’s salary. But too often the notion that one’s salary is not a research fund, but our means of paying rent, eating and clothing ourselves, gets forgotten by funding councils. Very few researchers can afford to pay rent or accomodation expenses in 2 countries at any one time, but yet that is what research trips entail.

    As a result I have found picking and choosing research trips and external conferences has become something that is less dependent on academic need but rather financial considerations. And to make matters more annoying when I trek off to an international conference (or even overpriced domestic events!) I regretfully inform the organisers, that no I do not need a receipt for that, while many of co-attendees are claiming a proportion of their costs back from their own institutions. Sometimes this involves finding less salubrious accomodation, taking me further away from the conference designated hotel, and the networking opportunities it might provide. This naturally reduces the usefulness of the conference experience.

    Finding solutions to these issues is however another matter, but I am glad to see it highlighted here.

  2. thelittlereview Says:

    Great post Tina! I’m really glad you’ve highlighted this issue as it’s one I’ve been thinking about myself for a while. As a European historian, I have to go abroad to do all the primary research for my project, and a good proportion of my salary has gone on a series of research trips that I have had to take, simply in order to do my job, since I started my postdoc in 2009. I’ve also looked into various grants and founded that none of them applied to me for different reasons – not being a scientist going abroad to do collaborative research seems to exclude us from a lot of funding as historians/humanities researchers.
    The really ridiculous thing for me is that as a PhD student, I was eligible for various grants at School and College level, but again, as postdocs we seem to fall through the cracks, as we are neither students nor staff. I think this is something that funding bodies and universities really have to think about as it is becoming almost mandatory to do at least one postdoc as part of the academic career path.
    The danger with this is that historians in Ireland will become increasingly insular and eventually less competitive internationally simply because we cannot afford to do enough research abroad, or go to the best international conferences. I know that I won’t be going to any of the big international conferences in my field simply because I can’t afford it, already having to finance my own research trips. When certain universities are claiming to form ‘global minds’ this is clearly poor form. It also makes me question the Irish academic commitment to funding European and international research – at a time when history as a discipline is moving increasingly towards transnational themes, we would want to make sure that historians based in Ireland don’t get left behind just for the sake of what must be spare change to the coffers of the powers that be.

    Niamh

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  4. Tina Says:

    Thanks for your comments, Niamh and Patrick! It really is so frustrating when your number one consideration in terms of choosing the conferences you attend and even the research you complete is the cost. As both of you highlight, there are funds available for postgraduates and for permanent staff, but quite a few of us fall into this intermediate region where we’re simply not eligible for either sort of funding and, unfortunately, there’s very little else available. There doesn’t seem to be a ready or easy solution, but perhaps it’s enough (at least physchologically) to keep the conversation going and hope that it’ll lead to something more concrete!

  5. Peter McCartan Says:

    The extent to which permanent staff have access to these funds differs from place to place. Also remember that very few young (ish) academ8ics are ‘permanent’ staff: I know of several published authors, and quite well known in the profession who are part-time-tutoring-or unemployed. The honest truth is that the majority of history postgrads are facing the dole. The cut-throat competition that this helps stimulate also benfits universities happy to have plenty of people willing to work for relatively little. We are looking at less and less money in future.

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