My Experiences with the NSF
One of the most significant moments in my early career was being awarded a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (NSF DDRIG). Another was being denied an NSF senior research grant a few years later. Both experiences—the award and the rejection—illustrate the value of NSF’s peer review process and the significance of NSF programs for the work of junior academics like me.
My doctoral dissertation study explored how undocumented Mexican workers in Chicago develop strategies to enhance their stability and well being in light of their immigration status. This project was anthropology “at home” (I am from Chicago) and personal/political to me (I had long been involved in the immigrant rights movement), and these two characteristics made my work problematic for some of my mentors and peers. At one low point, I was advised by the then-director of my graduate program to “get out of anthropology” and “go into activism.” When I submitted a DDRIG proposal to the NSF in the winter of 2006, I was not confident that I would finish graduate school.
The NSF award was significant to me in several respects. First, NSF funding allowed me to carry out my dissertation project. I purchased recording equipment and a laptop computer, and I traveled to Mexico to interview former migrants and family members of undocumented workers. With the help of a supportive dissertation committee, I completed the research and wrote up the results. My project highlighted the agency of undocumented workers and especially attended to the relationships between immigration status and labor. In particular, I showed how undocumented workers cultivate financial and emotional well being by developing social identities as especially hard workers who are worthy of dignity and respect. My book manuscript based on this research went under contract in the spring of 2009.
The other significant benefit of the NSF award had nothing to do with money. Getting an NSF DDRIG validated my project and encouraged me as a student researcher. The award helped to carve out a space for the kind of work that I do in my department, in my discipline, and in my mind. NSF reviewers’ criticisms, suggestions, and encouragement, and ultimately the program director’s decision to fund the project, helped to build my confidence and encouraged me to go forward with my research and pursue a career in anthropology.
I turned to the NSF again a few years later as I developed a follow-up study to my dissertation research. Not surprisingly, my dissertation study participants lamented the constraints that undocumented status placed on their upward mobility and long-term security in the United States. In the months following the completion of my dissertation, I became especially interested in how undocumented people’s lives change when they become legal and, just as important, how their lives stay the same. More broadly, I thought that people’s experiences as newly legal immigrants might tell us something important about citizenship, nationhood, race, and class in the present period. I began to develop a proposal for an ethnographic project that would follow people through the process of immigration status adjustment, and I submitted a senior grant proposal to the NSF in the fall of 2009.
I did not get the grant this time, but I did get something quite valuable: critical, thoughtful, and comprehensive peer reviews. Several NSF reviewers provided feedback on the proposal, and they pushed me to think more clearly about my chosen methodology and the linkages between my methods and the questions that I wanted to address. Reviewers also insisted that I develop a stronger and more relevant discussion of the broader impacts of my proposed work, and they encouraged me to take seriously the potential applied anthropological contributions of the project. The reviews were very critical and very, very helpful.
I tried again. With guidance from Deborah Winslow, the NSF’s Cultural Anthropology Program Director, I submitted a revised proposal. Once again, my proposal was not recommended for funding, and again I received helpful criticism from several peer reviewers. Reviewers of the revised proposal encouraged me to take a more holistic and complex approach to the research and to better prepare for the nuances that ethnography is so well situated to reveal. I revised the proposal again. As a result of reviewers’ suggestions, the third iteration of my proposal was more theoretically sophisticated, methodologically sound, and socially relevant than my first or second drafts had been.
I submitted the proposal a third time and was awarded the grant. Over the course of the ensuing three years, I interviewed more than seventy people, many of them multiple times, about their relationships with the US immigration system, and I conducted participant observation at an immigration legal clinic. I am currently in the midst of data analysis, but already the data promise to make a contribution to social science understandings of the interactions among legal processes, normative ideals of family and citizenship, and sociopolitical actions of immigrants and their family members. Once again, NSF funding was critically important. I was on the job market at the time I was awarded the grant, and the funding helped to pay for travel and time, allowing me both to conduct the research and discuss preliminary analyses at conferences. The prestige associated with an NSF award also helped to strengthen my candidacy for academic positions.
But even more than the funding itself, my research has benefited from the NSF review process. Unlike peer reviews of journal articles, researchers receive feedback on their NSF proposals from leading scholars in their fields at the earliest stages of the research process. This input not only helps to ensure a solid analysis, but also can strengthen all components of the research design, including statement of the research problem, data collection, links to existing scholarship, and data analysis plans. In short, the NSF peer review process helps to make a project as strong as possible before it even gets off the ground. And, because almost all proposals go through the peer review process, proposals get this benefit whether the NSF ultimately funds them or not.
In sum, the NSF Cultural Anthropology program provides a critically valuable service to researchers in our discipline. In my case, an award catalyzed me to pursue research at a time when my confidence was at low ebb. Later, the review process helped me to design a more sound and coherent project that is likely to be of interest to other researchers in my field. Each time that I have worked with the NSF, I have benefited tremendously from the criticism and guidance of reviewers and the program director. And while NSF funding has been instrumental in moving my research forward, the support and feedback have been most invaluable.
Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz is an assistant professor of anthropology at Loyola University Chicago. Her research explores qualitative experiences with undocumented status and the role of immigration categories in reproducing persistent inequality in a “postracial” United States. Please contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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