Liminal Spaces: Finding research funding when working overseas

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Let’s say you want to publish a monograph, attend a conference, and fund a research project and other activities to build an international academic profile as a scholar working overseas. These are all astute and indeed necessary endeavours if trying to advance in the academic ranks; nonetheless they require a pretty penny. This article will provide some strategic advice about how to find research funding when working overseas from my own perspective of lecturing abroad in the increasingly cash-strapped humanities. This is a field, which, unlike the sciences, is less likely to receive research grants and funding. Recently, the Academy of Arts and Sciences that compiles data for the Humanities Indicators Report in America, noted, “ spending on humanities research is only 0.55% of spending on science and engineering research and development.”[1] In light of this statistic, this article will give some realistic advice about how to approach funding. Firstly how to obtain institutional funding will be discussed; then how to avail of external funding (local and non-local to you) and finally how to survive when you are exempt from funding when working overseas.

Your liminal space scenario:

When working overseas, academics find themselves in somewhat of a liminal space or a place of transition into the unknown. Since two of life’s guarantees are the certainty of risk and change, academics find themselves in liminal spaces when they face these certainties head on. What characterizes these liminal spaces depends upon many factors, however I have identified three of the most common ones beneath.          

  1. Perhaps you have been seconded to an institution abroad temporarily or you are engaged in a short-term job exchange with a colleague from the institution abroad. In this instance, the duration of your contract and the research funding available to you should be discussed at the outset. I have worked with academics in the humanities that are able to avail of home and away funding pots in this scenario. I also know of scientists who have been permitted to take a sabbatical from their post in their home county whilst completing temporary paid research in another country utilizing a temporary business or work or education visa to do so.
  2. Another scenario sees you taking up employment overseas in a semi-permanent or permanent fashion. This scenario would involve a more permanent job fixture involving teaching and research. The academic concerned may relocate to the foreign country for the foreseeable future and seek residence or to obtain nationality there. All of the necessary documentation for residence and employment visas would apply here and the scenario is (in theory) less precarious than 1 or 3.
  3. The final scenario that I am aware of is one of academics that take teaching-heavy lectureships in countries abroad for fixed term contracts for anywhere between 1 and 5 years. These academics shift countries at the end of each contract and so the availability of attaining permanency or a glittering research-only post does not appear so readily to them. Admittedly, I am of the last category and my feet are itching as I write!

Institutional funding

If you were in scenarios 2 and 3 and in an ideal world, I would advise you to fully investigate the research funding available to you before signing any employment contract. Should you be already committed to honour a fixed term or semi-permanent contact and be looking for funding as a foreign employee, the first port of call is to ask your department head for what would be available to you. Some institutions have a per capita staff research allowance while some others have departmental and university-wide research funding pots that are available to staff. If your HOD is unable to shed any light on the matter, the management section responsible for allocating research funding may be able to.  There are likely to be restrictions as per the type of project that will be covered. My advice would be to start small and ask for conference funding to gauge how the process works and what kinds of research and conferences are eligible for funding. Do not go by empty promises and seek paperwork to confirm the figures before you commit to produce for a third party. Most institutions I have worked for have requested I claim back any conferences expenses in retrospect and (touch wood) this has not been a problem. That said, one must be absolutely meticulous with documenting what has been spent and provide receipts, and often evidence that you physically attended and/or presented at the conference. Recently, I have encountered institutions, which are no longer permitting staff to arrange their own conference trips and transport and accommodation. This duty is handed over to an agent and the amount is deducted from a per capita staff research allowance. It is something to be mindful of before scrimping or splurging on a writer’s hermitage or conference in the Bahamas.

Availing of external funding pots, local and non-local to you

As an academic working overseas, you are in a unique and special position in many ways. Your contribution and input could be very different from that which is offered in the country you work in and this could be prized. As a humanities academic however, I frequently found myself in a liminal space being ineligible for both research funding from the country where I was working and funding which emanated from my home country. This was simply due to a lack of eligibility as I was simultaneously considered a foreigner or working in a foreign country. In such cases, worry not. There are research-funding directories online where you may find a scheme for which you are still considered eligible to apply. Terra Viva has an extensive directory of over 800 grants listed both internationally and nationally for research engaging with the environment of developing countries. The Heritage Funding Directory UK, focuses on British and international projects related to the preservation of historic material and buildings. There is a comprehensive list on the Grants Online website for mainly British projects for which the overseas scholar could be eligible. There are also a number of small funding pots from charitable associations such as the Maypole Fund, which acts to protect women from violence. Scan the application details to check your eligibility before applying and apply widely as many small trusts will not be able to support as many applications as they receive. You should not expect even the courtesy of a reply to your enquiry in each instance either. So, be careful as to how many beans you spill about your prospective research in initial correspondence. This is a liminal space of limited fully funded opportunities. That said, is particularly useful when it comes to advertising up to date calls for funded research at British and international institutions. You may update your email settings to receive timely notifications of these by email.

Being exempt from certain pots

If you find yourself completely exempt from each pot that you approach, or in an institution that cannot afford to support you, don’t let this stop you from researching. Some of the most underrated research around is available freely on open access databases or presented freely and charitable events or public fora.  You can approach these ideas. Instigate your own conferences, workshops and public events to start a network of likeminded scholars who can self-publish a refereed journal or even form a kind of academic syndicate in the future. I see the latter is occurring more and more regularly in countries where a compulsory annual publication output has been requested per capita staff from higher education authorities. If a monograph or book production cost is holding you back from producing, in some cases it is possible to arrange to pay in instalments. You may also seek to be commissioned to write textbooks. Ultimately, irrespective of your scenario, all of this hard work will eventually pay off materially and in the form of professional experience that cannot be bought.

[1] Eric Dorman, “American Academy of Arts & Sciences Releases Report on Humanities Research Funding” Harvard University Blog, 7th July 2014,

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