Today I had the fun of explaining the grant cycle to my husband. This made me realize that most people don’t know how academics are (or aren’t) paid and do (and sometime try and fail) to earn a living. Money comes from a variety of different sources. There is the money we earn from teaching. This is generally a nine month base pay, and if you are interested in figuring out what the average faculty member at your local university earns, you can check out this site. (For those who are curious, I am an adjunct professor, which means my pay is in the same bin as “Instructor.”) During the summer, you either teach and earn combat pay (which in some cases is less than regular pay), do paid research (which means you have a grant/fellowship/other means), or don’t get paid and do what you want (which is the category I fall into).
One of the unfortunate problems with this system is many grants are due in the fall and when one is starting in a new position, they may not have the ability to surf their university’s adminisphere to grant submission to success (which is also a category I fall into). So… 1 year later I am spending my summer seeking money for the next year. Having cut my teeth in the academic community, I was prepared for this, stowed money away, and planned to spend my summer working my normal too-many-hour week so that next year I’ll have some sort of a summer income (maybe).
And this is where the whole grant cycle comes into play. In 1999 (the last year for which I could find data) only about 20% of astronomy grants were funded (reference. Soooo, my goal is try and get multiple grants for multiple different ideas submitted in the next grant cycle, and to have a plan in case all the grants are funded (but really, when does that happen?) Mixed in with salary is travel money, equipment money, and money for every other item an academic could need. For instance – I have a project ready for publication, but I don’t have the funding to pay page charges (yes, authors have to pay page charges – see this paper on why and this example of charges. So, I’m basically writing my brains out so I can build a career.
Now, with small grants, subcontracts, and other small pots of money, it is possible to get fairly rapid turn around. This means that on the order of 2 months after the grant starts getting processed money may appear. For larger, NSF Grants for large programs, they tell you to not expect anything for 6 months. This was what I got to break to my husband. Knowing I won’t have time to write grants once the semester starts I’m currently writing things for submission dates that range as far into the future as November. If I get one of those grants, I might see money starting next May. In an instant gratification world, the academic has to be a master of delayed gratification. My husband on the other hand likes to use “buy it now” on eBay. His eyes came out of his head a remarkable distance when he learned how far in the future all my writing my show some rewards.
So, in my line of “blog and podcast and hope that someday someone notices” and in my line of “write grants and hope that someone believes in my ideas” I seem to always live 12 months to 5 years in the future.
So as I sit here writing my brains out at 11pm at night, I have to ask, what do I hope this will turn into? Where will my life be in 5 years? I want to keep doing variable star research and teaching. But… There are a lot of other things I want to do. When Neil de Grasse Tyson can’t find the time to do all the TV shows and radio shows he’s doing today, I’d like to pick up some of the TV shows too. I have this crazy dream of narrating planetarium shows. I want to write books. I want to give talks to crazy astronomy tourists on cruise ships like Phil Plait does with Skeptics. I guess I want to be a talking head who somehow earns enough money to pay my bills.
I just need to figure out how to get there. In graduate school, they don’t teach you how to be a public communicator of Astronomy. But this is the future I’ve chosen and I’ll figure it out.