The Money Needed to Not Need Money

Welcome to daily blogging in November! In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, there’s an old blogging tradition known as NaBloPoMo, national blog posting month.

I will start with a question from Profdirector, originally posted here:

Navel-gazing subject: what amount of yearly money could your research survive on? I.e. what annual budget would allow you to stop writing grants and just do science?

This is a question with a very subfield-dependent answer. I do theory and computation, so my grants generally cover some travel, minimal supplies (including computer upgrades every few years), but the vast majority of expenses are personnel salaries. As long as I could somehow pay my people, I’d be pretty much set. Most experimentalists cannot say this. Also, my nine-month salary is paid on hard money (university operating budget). Soft-money scientists can’t really envision not raising grants.

My ideal group would be one postdoc and four PhD students (actually, one research scientist and six PhD students, but let’s not be greedy for the purpose of this exercise). Given the current fringe benefits, overhead, and graduate-student tuition at my institution, that means that just for the salary for one postdoc and four grad students funded as RAs, I currently have to raise roughly $95k+4*$65k=$355k per year. That’s three concurrent NSF grants or similar, and I am not paying myself any summer salary, or have any money for travel. (Going to a research scientist and six PhD students would raise it to about $550k per year, which is about 4.6 concurrently funded NSF grants or similar.)

No endowed professorships I know provide this level of support. It’s usually in the low tens of thousands per year. Those discretionary funds do help bridge funding gaps and help pay for travel and such, but aren’t a long-term solution because they’re small and they don’t last that long (usually five-year increments), even thought the professorship title is forever.

If I were to go to completely bare bones, with no external money whatsoever, I think I could go down to 2-3 grad students on TA-ships and me with no summer salary ever, and that would probably enable me to do more science that I am actually interested in rather than optimizing for fundability. I could do more challenging long-term stuff, rather than always being under deadlines and having to produce at a steady rate because reports are due and I’m always planning for new and renewal grants.


With no research money, I couldn’t recruit the students I’d like to recruit. It would be very, very hard given we as a school guarantee funding to PhD students.

I would be required to teach more, and with more teaching, the research time and available headspace and energy all get reduced.

The loss of standing” in the department would probably be quite demoralizing (in my department and college, money is king; if you’re well funded, you’re OK; if you run out of money, you are considered a has-been and peers do look down on you; I wish it weren’t so, but it totally is), as would be the inability to recruit people.

I don’t actually hate writing grants. Writing grants is a creative process that forces you to distill your ideas and think in advance about what you want to do and what issues you will likely face. It’s the necessity of raising grants to be able to do virtually anything, the enormity of time that has to be spent to be successful, and everything grinding to a halt if you are not successful that make the grant game so stressful.

So being without grant money is really not an option. People have funding highs and lows, but everyone’s aware that writing and submitting are a must. Those who don’t take to the grant game hard and early tend not to get tenure in my and similar fields. This criterion for tenure and promotion has only been getting more prominent over time.

However, if I could somehow magically be awarded a small grant that would support my group forever, where I’d be able to bring on a new student every so often and supplement with TAs, I’d say $100k per year would be awesome. It would give me the ability to get people on and off TAs, recruit new students, etc. So if some STEM benefactor wants to throw some funding my way over the remaining 20 years of so of my career, I will not turn up my nose at that gift.

For experimentalists, the funds are actually much greater, depending on the type of lab, user fees at shared facilities, etc. However, there are, at least in my field, many more opportunities for long-term funding from DoD available to experimentalists than they are to me.

Academic blogosphere, what do you say? How much hypothetically would you need (from some hypothetical patron of scholars) to stop writing grants and just do science? 


  1. “No endowed professorships I know provide this level of support. It’s usually in the low tens of thousands per year.”

    An endowed chair usually comes from a $1M donation, and the required payout is usually 5%, so $50k/year. That is indeed substantially less than what you identified as the minimum to support your group.

    I was much more modest in my needs and would have been happy with funding for 2 PhD students and a new computer every few years, but even one grad student costs about $66k a year here with tuition, fees, and health insurance. That is likely to go up after the grad students strike (later this month).

  2. The $66k/student was just direct costs. For grant-funded work, add another $27k (54% of everything except tuition and fees). So a $100k/year grant would cover 1 student plus some paper publication charges. A gift might not have the 54% overhead charge, if it were set up correctly.

    I eventually gave up on grant writing and switched my scholarship to writing a textbook (and not in a field that I had done research in).

  3. Wow, $66k/year direct cost for a student is a lot. Your fringe benefits rate or tuition must be through the roof. Re endowments, I don’t think any of the chairs here pay out $50k/yr. It’s in the 20s or 30s.

  4. I was assuming 9 months at 50% time, 9 months tuition, 12 months graduate health insurance, and 3 months summer at 100% time, which is what most of our grad students get. I assumed the GSR 8 level (which is what our department uses) of $6161.75/100% month, $14178 tuition, and $5775 for 12 months’ health insurance, which totals $66.7k. I may have missed a direct charge (oh—and foreign students cost an extra $15.1k until they are admitted to candidacy, and out-of-state students cost that extra $15.1k for their first year, after which they can claim residency).

  5. Ok, yeah, your 100% rate is somewhat higher than ours, which makes sense given the high cost of living, plus you pay 100% over the summer (we pay 50% throughout). We have roughly 20% rate for fringe benefits (health insurance) and about the same overhead rate as you do. However, all our RAs have the same tuition regardless of residency status; it’s a little lower than yours but not much and it’s not overheaded.

  6. We have no overhead on tuition either—but everything else gets indirect costs. I may have underestimated the cost of benefits, because the only one I could find a price for on the web was the health insurance, and there may be other benefits. The stipend is expected to go up (probably by 10%) if the grad students strike this month—at least the grad students expect it to go up and faculty applying for grants have been advised to consider the possibility in their budgeting.

  7. I think that endowed chairs where I’m at come with $12.5k/yr for three years – as an additional data point (Northeast state R1).
    I’m curious about your ideal group of 6+1 (versus 4+1). I had seven at one point for a year and I felt like I was losing it (and that was with some senior PhD students/postdocs who didn’t need a lot of oversight). What kind of lab structure has worked for you? Do your students get a lot of help from each other and/or work in areas with similar methods? I am pretty involved in my students’ work and that’s the way I like it but I also feel like navigating student support without burning myself out is a long term process. (Apparently this is more of a comment than a question…)

  8. pyrope, I totally get that. I am very involved in the students’ work, too. I’ve had up to 10 at one point, more than 10 when undergrads are included, and that was definitely too many. Things are really much easier when there’s at least one other senior person; I’ve had a postdoc in the group for several years and promoting them to research scientist now. They’ve been invaluable, both in making technical strides and in helping push grad students along. I’d say four students it too few in terms of expected paper production, because then I either don’t have a pipeline (if they skew senior) or they’re not producing (if they skew junior). With 6, I can have maybe two new ones who are basically just taking classes and not producing much yet, with four more senior ones (year 3+) who are actually getting publishable results. It does take a lot of time to meet with everyone, but it’s easier if there’s more than one person per project so they don’t all have to come to me with every minor detail. In terms of techniques, I do theory and computation, and each person basically has their own main project (or two) and might be a secondary or tertiary collaborator on a related project. I encourage them to interface with each other according to how well they gel and what their main projects are. There are some folks who get inspired by dabbling into others’ projects, and we have group meetings with frequent updates so everyone at least sort-of knows what everyone else is doing. I also often meet with smaller topically aligned subgroups rather than necessarily with each student individually. It really depends on the project and the personalities involved. I know when I write it out like this, it seems amorphous and nebulous, but I think it works well because I switch between various modes and meeting frequencies depending on the types of projects and personalities involved, if that makes sense.

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