Ritual is everywhere in the natural world. From braving flight over expansive, stormy seas, to the tenuous, exhausting work of rearing chicks, to squabbling for social rank on the wintering grounds, birds tread and hop and fly recognizable annual patterns.
And so do field biology graduate students.
Our most obvious ritual is the field season. Our study subjects follow an annual pattern and so must we: the ornithologists out May through August, give-or-take; my labmates the high-elevation chipmunk researchers waiting impatiently in June for the snow on Tioga Pass to melt; those studying South American fauna gone in our winter for the Southern Hemisphere summer. Only the tropical biologists are unpredictable.
But I’ve become more aware, recently, of another ritual. November holds the due dates for the two primary sources of money for most field biologist graduate students, two National Science Foundation programs. (Some teeny, tiny percentage of your tax dollars funds science! Vote on Tuesday!) One program, for early grad students, is a fellowship: money for tuition and keeping the student alive. The other program, for advanced students, is research funding. Both are highly competitive.
Each year labs are filled with students applying to one of these programs. By late September lab meetings are flooded with two-page Research Proposals from the early students and eight-page Project Descriptions from the advanced students. Students who have received either of these grants are treated like spiritual guides, their formatting mimicked, their phrasing scrutinized. Those who have been rejected share the feedback they received and try to parse which comments are real and which the result of the reviewer having reading thirty such proposals in a row and having headache from all of it. Everyone obsesses over “what NSF likes” as if they are nervous teenagers hoping to ask NSF to the prom.
I’ve been through this three times–four if you count this year–but only this year has the repetition really struck me. We do this every year. Not each one of us–I applied for the fellowship program several years ago and was fortunate enough to receive it, so I have not had to step back into the fray until this year, when I am eligible for the research funding program–but as a community, we write or read these proposals every year.
Reading the proposals can be exhilarating. It’s exciting to hear about the work your colleagues want to do, for once phrased not in the humble tones of coffee break but in the this-is-groundbreaking,-please-fund-me tenor of these proposals. It often is groundbreaking.
But writing the proposals can be a hard slog. The program I am applying to now makes use of the NSF system for all grant proposals, which is kind of exciting–I get to use the grown-up grant interface now!–but is mostly, well… governmental. Conflict of interest forms. Letters of collaboration using only the approved phrasing. Budget guidelines with phrases like “…must be entered as zero person-hours…” A list fourteen bullet points long of minor errors that will get your proposal rejected without review.
Fortunately, this is a ritual, which means others have done it before. So when I get lost in the tangle of technical language (and I’d like to remind you here that I read scientific papers as an integral part of my job, so it’s not like I get scared off by technical language!) my colleagues who did this last year come to my rescue, as their colleagues once did for them. And the lore is passed on, and the ritual continues.
And hopefully a few more of us get funding.