There and back again: Adventures in transnational academic career and grant writing (Aleksandra Swatek)
This is the first in a series of posts where Dr. Swatek will share the work she’s doing with the Scholarly Communication Research Group in Poznań, Poland.
Grant writing is a process that is notoriously difficult: even if you have a team of the best writers working on your grant, the chances of winning are slim. As a member of the Crow team, I have witnessed or participated in a few grant writing processes. This proved to be a very useful experience as I neared the completion of my academic studies at Purdue.
In January 2019, I was getting ready for graduating from the Second Language Studies program that was my home for five years. It was time to face the inevitable transition to Poland, a plan that I had from the very first year of my PhD. As a Fulbright grantee, I knew that my mission was to come back to my country one day, to share what I learned.
Throughout my graduate education, I always closely monitored the Polish higher education news, academic job market, and development of grant schemes that might provide me with employment. In May 2019, with the end of my program in sight, as most of my cohort was going through the gruelling process of academic job market searches in the USA, I was trying to plan for the unknown politics and process of the Polish academia. The most viable path was securing my own funding for academic work. This blog post, which will be the first of a series, describes my process of selecting and applying for the Poland National Science Center Sonatina grant, which is funding my current project.
There are two main funding agencies in Poland for supporting academic research: the National Science Center (NSC) and The Polish National Exchange Agency (PNEA). They offer grant opportunities for early career scholars, with some programs targeting scholars educated abroad. NSC is a well-established institution, founded in 2011, with grant schemes with multiple editions and rules that remain steady from year to year. The PNEA is a new agency, whose grant schemes are constantly being improved and altered to better serve the mission of internationalizing and promoting Polish science abroad. This poses a challenge for anyone who wants to apply, and proved to be an obstacle for me—as I chose one of the grant programs, the rules changed in the edition I was planning to apply, completely altering my plans.
Quite early in the process of analyzing possible opportunities from both agencies, I realized I needed a host institution willing to partner with me. My MA studies in Poland were focused on philology, meaning the small academic network I developed in the past included scholars working in completely different areas. To find the right fit for my current research—in terms of program, people, and environment—I had to reach out to scholars I have not worked with previously.
None of my very limited connections closely followed research on Polish scholars and academic writing in English. This led me to the blog Warsztat Badacza (Researcher’s Craft) written by Dr. Emanuel Kulczycki. The blog often featured summaries of research articles related to academic research evaluation and productivity of scholars from Poland and other European countries. Although his work was not exactly focused on writing research, it helped me understand the structural issues related to academic publishing in the region. I reached out to Dr. Kulczycki in the summer before my graduation, while I was in Poland visiting family in June 2019, and met up with him for coffee. As we talked about our own careers and interests related to academic writing and publishing, it became clear that I would fit well into the Scholarly Communication Research Group at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland.
Initially, I wanted to apply for a grant for returning Polish scholars, but as the program opened in February 2019, the rules changed and I was no longer eligible to apply. Dr. Kulczycki suggested instead the Sonatina grant from the National Science Center. It was February, and the deadline was March 15th. At the same time, I was working on finishing my dissertation. It was a very tight timeline for conceptualizing, drafting, revising, and submitting the proposal.
Grant Writing & Feedback
The grant proposal delineated a project that aligned with my dream research agenda: to examine second-language (L2) writing practices in Poland. Within the larger research agenda, I decided on the most viable and interesting project: the writing practices of early-career scholars in four academic disciplines in social sciences and humanities. While there is a sustained research inquiry into practices of early-career scholars in the United States or China, there has been no research done in the Polish context. Using the knowledge and skills gained in the graduate programs at UMaine and Purdue, I designed a mixed-methods study that will allow me to examine the motivations and skills of early career scholars in terms of their academic writing in English.
In the process of drafting the proposal, I relied on the feedback from Dr. Kulczycki, Dr. Aleksandra Kasztalska (my longtime friend and academic research collaborator, able to read both English and Polish text), Dr. April Ginther (the co-chair of my dissertation and my advisor), and my partner Dr. Robert Ariel (who has a keen eye for academic writing). The final version was also read by Dr. Michelle McMullin, who provided comments from a more rhetoric and composition perspective. With a tight deadline, I knew I was also putting some strain on the circle of people who were giving me feedback.
Sonatina proposals go through two levels of review before they reach the final stage. The first round of reviews was completed by anonymous internal reviewers, who reappeared in the interview stage to ask questions. The second round of reviews came from four anonymous international scholars. The range of depth and scope of the review in that round was disparate, with one of the reviewers providing very short, negative feedback, and another one providing thoughtful, enthusiastic feedback. In the whole process, I was aware how unlikely it was that my project would be reviewed by anyone who studies writing from an applied linguistics perspective, especially one situated in the North American tradition. Reaching a non-expert audience was always on my mind, but seeing how researchers from other fields read and commented on the project was enlightening.
The National Science Center requires pitch-style interviews as the final stage of the process. The most difficult part of this was not knowing who would be part of the interview panel, specifically what disciplines would be represented. This goes back to the most important information for any communication event: knowing your audience. Polish academia is still somewhat foreign to me. Despite growing up in Poland and spending time getting my first MA degree in the country, my familiarity with academics from social sciences and the humanities is scant, especially in a non-teaching context.
Ahead of time, I decided to present my work in English, my academic first language, and to take questions in Polish. In that process, in a very tangible experience, I felt what it means that academic language is not native to anyone, but rather, it is learned and experienced. My Polish presentations are not as confident and fluent as the ones in English, where I have a linguistic repertoire to talk about research in my field.
What proved very useful was when Dr. Kulczycki shared with me his own experiences of interviewing for the Sonata grant and his approach towards the interview. As I prepared for the presentation, which summarized my project and also the key critical feedback from reviewers alongside my responses to the critiques, I felt grateful to have access to this information. There is very little to no information about how the whole experience looks like or what are the approaches for the pitch. Having access to materials from grant winners in other editions was invaluable. However, this can only happen within a trusted network, as these materials are closely guarded, constituting what Swales called “occluded genres” (2004).
When I learned that my grant project was funded, I was overcome with joy. I felt also a deep sense of gratitude that I will have the opportunity to share my knowledge with others, to “give back” to my country in the Fulbright spirit.
At the time my grant project started on April 1st (no joke!), the Coronavirus pandemic had taken a full hold on Polish life. Nobody was prepared for that turn of events. So my plan to move to Poznań from Kraków was delayed until August 1st. As I started the grant project which will last three years, I decided to spend the time on dive into the literature around early-career scholars, the geopolitics of academic writing (especially in the lesser explored contexts), and issues of linguistic variation in corpora of academic publications from different disciplines. As I finish this blog post, I am sitting in my office at Międzychodzka Street in Poznań, and my first month in the institution is nearing end. I am looking forward to what this chapter in my academic work will bring.