Given that funding rates are notoriously low, often in the single digits, what happens when a professor is unable to fund his or her own students? Given that TA positions are also limited, they may not always be able to get their students to be funded as a TA.

I am guessing that most of the time a professor only ever takes on a student if they think there is a good chance they can obtain sufficient funding to see them through. However, I am guessing the edge case of running out of funds has happened before.

2 Answers 2


If there is no money, then there is no money. What happens quite often is that some of her or his colleagues help out by hiring deserving students instead till extra funding has been found. This has the advantage that it diminished the risk everybody faces because of uncertain funding, but it requires quite a bit of trust and good will in the department. So the worst case scenario, that the professor has no money and nobody wants to help her or him out, can definitely happen.

This also depends on the contract you have. In my case I got a 5 year contract to do my dissertation and some teaching. In that case, my position was safe: if somehow the professor's funding somehow failed the university had to come up with the difference, since the contract was not between the professor's lab and me, but between the university and me. This is in line with @IanSudbery s comment that, however much professors think of "their" lab as her or his private kingdom, it is only part of the university and not a separate entitiy. The fact that the university is finally responsible for paying the wages meant that the university required my professor to have guarantees for the funding for those five years before agreeing on the contract.

  • I find it interesting that you hear of companies going bankrupt all the time. Yet I have never heard of professor's lab going bankrupt. And the chances of 'making it' as a professor is comparable to being a CEO funding a company. Apr 3, 2019 at 11:28
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    'Going bankdrupt' implies that your liabilities exceed your assets to such an extent that it is, for practical purposes, impossible that you will ever be able to make good on these liabilities. Labs cannot 'go bankrupt' in this sense because legally they are not responsible for liabilities, the university is. Labs run out of money all the time, and profs are often forced by their institutions to lay off any employees that they are contractually allowed to, but lab funds can only go to zero, they can't go below that. I know of labs so poor they can't buy paper for their printers. Apr 3, 2019 at 11:46
  • @IanSudbery wow, aren't there university/department-funded printers?
    – Allure
    Apr 3, 2019 at 12:20
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    @user2562609 That's part of the charm of the job as professor - you have freedom and responsibility comparable to a CEO, but the job security of a public employee.
    – silvado
    Apr 3, 2019 at 16:20
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    @silvado Not quite - A CEO can borrow money to invest in an idea they think will be successful, a prof can't do that, in the end the department holds the purse strings (even if its "your" grant), and will rarely let you spend money that you can't say where it is coming from. And outside the US, its entirely possible to loose your job for not being able to fund any research if it happens often, or for a long period. Apr 3, 2019 at 17:05

Normally a professor should not hire students/postdocs at all if the funding is not secured (the admin persons will not let him anyway most likely).

In the labs I know positions are only advertised once a grant was obtained.

The only problem that could happen is that there might be funding for e.g. 2 years left from some big grant that was originally planned for something else and the professor decides to hire a student for those 2 years based on the left-over funding and the PhD takes 3-4 years minimum. In this case he might make a bet with himself that he will be able to get the remaining funding within those 2 years. Therefore it is always a wise decision for a prospective PhD student to ask if the full funding for all years is secure before starting a position.

  • Sometimes students get a position as a student with little or no funding, but it is expected that they get offers for short term (one semester) TA or RA positions which will help them fund themselves. I suspect that that is the system that OP is referring to. In that case a lab running out of funds would cause problems for PhD students. Apr 3, 2019 at 13:41

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