NSF Archaeology grant success and the University of Arizona

How is the University of Arizona so successful landing NSF archaeology funding?Last week, Doug Rocks-MacQueen posted an article on his blog Doug’s Archaeology titled “Top Organizations Receiving NSF Archaeology Funds.” I was surprised to see my current grad school at the top of the list by a long shot. The University of Arizona dominated the list of National Science Foundation (NSF) archaeology grant recipients in every category illustrated on that blog post and, adjusting for inflation, had brought in almost $37.5 million in NSF archaeology grants. (Check out the blog post series if you want to see how Doug came up with those calculations).

I was initially surprised by those numbers, but after thinking about this subject and mulling it over with some fellow grad students, I realized that made a lot of sense because grant writing is part of the departmental culture here at Arizona.

Here’s what I posted as a comment to this blog post:


“As a current University of Arizona anthropology PhD student, I can tell you that applying for grants is definitely in the department culture here. Most of our grad class projects are completing mock Wenner-Gren or NSF proposals. We edit the mock drafts for a grade and professors encourage us to heed the comments, revise, and submit for the real deal. A couple of us have grantwriting schedules and regularly apply for anything and everything under the sun. Those NSF stats are impressive, but they leave out the significant amount of other grants UAZ students and profs bring in.

The department doesn’t force anyone to apply for grants, but they make it widely known when a student or prof lands a research grant– congratulating them in the hall and even stopping by their office just to say “well done”. The department is pretty competitive compared to where I did my MA, so there is a feeling like, as a student, you need to be applying for grants. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I personally feel like there’s also a whole unmentioned social capital involved with getting funding for yourself that brings a modicum of prestige amongst your peers.

The faculty members regularly rake in a huge amount of $ in grants. Hearing that some faculty landed some huge ($1+mil–$100k+) grant in the department newsletter seems to happen every other month. There are some heavy hitters here too, including John Olsen– #7 of your top 20 performers from last week’s post. Since I’ve been here, I know at least 3-4 of my cohort landed $5,000–10,000+ in grants during their first semester as grad students. Grant writing is an extracurricular sport around here.

Three things stand out about UArizona:

1) There is a lot of support for grant writing in all fields. Anthro is particularly successful, but other departments also bring in $. This is essential for the university because it automatically rakes 24% off the top of all those huge grants. The Anthro department has a couple of former NSF judges that will help strengthen your proposal if you give them at least a couple weeks in advance. Also, many of the professors are very, very experienced at successfully landing NSF grants and they’re always willing to help students with their proposals. Finally, we are always encouraged to resubmit if we don’t get funded the first time. We are always told that your chances of landing a grant increase dramatically the second and third times you submit.

2) Money begets more money. Once you break the code on how to land a grant, you will undoubtedly be more successful in the future. If you become a heavy-hitter like the top 20 performers, you’re grant almost passes the NSF review unscrutinized.

3) We use a range of grants to fund and provision research. It’s not enough to land one grant. They teach us that you need to land grants to buy supplies (computers, cameras, digital recorders, ect. [One veteran grad student told me you should, “Always budget for a new laptop even if you have to donate it to the descendant community.”]), pay yourself and your research assistants, and cover your travel. Some grants, like many NSF grants, cover all those bases. Most of the time you’ll need to cobble together a bunch of different smaller grants to cover all of your needs. And, you need to be a decent accountant to make sure each expenditure is covered under the appropriate grant. Sound complicated? Well, there’s a stack of brand new laptops sitting in one of the anthro labs still in their boxes. I don’t even think anyone’s even used them before. They’re the legacy of some successful grant application.”

Cultivating a Grant-Seeking Culture

As I mentioned, UArizona instills in its students a desire to go after grants like no other university I’ve attended. It’s not just in anthropology. For instance, UArizona receives more money for space exploration than any other U.S. college. Ever heard of the Phoenix Mars Mission? That’s headquartered here. UArizona also started a, “… new Defense and Security Research Institute that aims to expand the University’s strengths in those areas while helping the UA to reach its goal of doubling research expenditures from $600 million to $1.2 billion by 2023.” Archaeology NSF funding will be a drop in the bucket when compared tot this new “collaboration.”

I’ve only been in the UArizona’s Anthropology PhD program for a few months and it’s become very clear that the department looks very favorably upon students that are willing to go after their own funding sources. Our class projects are typically creating the pieces of a grant proposal, except for in the CRM class where the main class project is putting together the pieces of a request for proposals (RFP). Basically, most of the classes I’ve taken use grant writing as a major portion of your grade. Our proposals are critiqued by the professor or our peers, which is hugely important for learning how to think like a grant reviewer. It also gives you a chance to get used to feedback even if the comments aren’t positive.

The other thing that adds to the grant-seeking culture is the way positive enforcement is used to further the idea that we should be applying for grants. We are often congratulated for getting a grant and “wins” are broadcast in the weekly departmental newsletter. It’s not like the profs give us a Hoosiers-style pep talk and the class embarks on an accompanying slow clap for landing a grant, but a “good game” from your professors and cohort is always encouraging.

Finally, the success at getting NSF grants seems to have its own critical mass where UArizona profs and grad students seem to be more adept at landing grants (NOTE: This is just me talking out of my ass. I have no idea if the NSF goes ga-ga whenever they see a UArizona application, but I do know that it’s easier to land a grant once you’ve figured out how the process works and what the agency expects). Perhaps it’s the practice we have in class and the fact that the university may give preference for professors with a track record of successful grant applications. It would be interesting to see how many UArizona profs successfully landed an NSF or Wenner-Gren as grad students. I’m guessing that percentage is high.

Does NSF success translate into CRM contracting success?

On a side note, I wondered if successfully landing an NSF grant had any real-world applications in cultural resource management. Does applying for and landing an NSF archaeology make one any better at landing CRM contracts? I’ve never landed an NSF or single-handedly won a CRM grant, so I asked the esteemed and experienced members of the Archaeology Careerist’s Network if NSF success translated into CRM contracting success. Thus far, the consensus is that applying for grants and preparing an RFP are two totally different animals. Several group memebers remarked that there are some key differences:

  1. Grants are asking for money to do your project. In an RFP, you are demonstrating that you have the capacity to accomplish someone else’s project.
  2. There is no real obligation to fulfill the requirements of a grant; whereas, if you breach the contract for a CRM project, you can get sued and lose your business.
  3. The stakes are entirely different. A $50,000 NSF or Wenner-Gren dissertation improvement grant is child’s play when compared to a CRM contract for a project of a similar scope. Oftentimes, a company will spend $50k writing RFPs before they even score a single contract.
  4. Theory and research questions are a high priority in NSF and similar grants while cost and a proven track record is the primary consideration for a CRM contract.

There are probably other differences that the group members haven’t stated yet, but I would like to say grant writing does prepare grad students for preparing and contributing to RFPs in some basic ways:

  1. You get used to proposing projects that have parameters. The stipulations in a CRM RFP are different than those in a grant application, but you still have to find a way for your research to fit within established boundaries.
  2. You get used to being rejected. This is important because I feel there isn’t enough criticism in the university setting. Being rejected sucks, but any aspiring PI needs to get used to it. The sooner the better.
  3. You get practice writing for money. No matter if it’s an RFP or a NSF grant, I feel like it’s important to experience the thrill of writing a document that is literally worth money. The thrill of getting a grant that will allow you to pursue your research interests as a grad student is probably just like the thrill of landing a fat CRM contract that will allow you to pay your bills for the next few months.

In closing, I’d like to say these are just my sentiments on why UArizona is so successful at landing NSF funding for archaeology. The anthropology department here definitely has a unique culture that is highly conducive to creating successful archaeologists. I would love to hear about the grant writing culture at other universities. Please email me or write a comment below.


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