I heard that many researchers spend a lot of their time (maybe even a half) writing the grants. I understand the researchers that need to purchase some equipment or fund their PhD students, although does not the department fund PhD students anyway?

But what about pure mathematicians and researchers who need a pencil and paper, a personal computer. Do these apply for grants, what for?

  • 27
    does not the department fund PhD students anyway? — Every department is different, but to close approximation: NO.
    – JeffE
    Oct 5, 2013 at 15:46
  • 6
    @JeffE: The poster appears to be a mathematician; math departments do follow a rather different funding paradigm than most other STEM disciplines.
    – aeismail
    Oct 5, 2013 at 17:51
  • @aeismail: Fair point, but the answer may still be no. Some math departments (including the one where my wife got her PhD) admit more PhD students than they can support with TAships.
    – JeffE
    Oct 5, 2013 at 17:57
  • 2
    Also in many math departments the TAship only lasts during the 2 terms, the supervisor needs to cover the summer research period.
    – Nick S
    Oct 5, 2013 at 23:23

3 Answers 3


I am a theoretical computer scientists in a top-10 US computer science department. To first order approximation, the only reason I apply for grants is to fund PhD students.

  • My research does not require PhD students, but it's part of my job as a university professor to advise them, I enjoy working with them, and I am considerably more productive when I work with them.

  • Students in my department that are not funded by research grants or fellowships are funded instead by teaching assistantships. Being a TA requires a significant time investment, decreasing the time that these students can devote to research. Being a TA can be incredibly valuable experience, especially for prospective academics, but the first-order criterion for judging the success of PhDs in computer science is the quality of their research output.

  • My department competes with peer departments — and I compete with researchers in those departments — to attract strong PhD students. If we/I want to attract strong students, we have to make credible promises of future funding to do research, because that's what our peer departments do. Prospective PhD students understand the previous point.

  • I work in a public university in a state with rather significant budget problems. TAs are paid from state money, which is limited. Thus, my department can only support a limited number of TAs. So if I want the department to admit more than a small number of students into my research area, I have to demonstrate that we can fund a majority of those students through grants.

  • Students need funding to travel to conferences to present their research results, because they need to build a reputation in the research community. I could pay for my own travel out of pocket if I really had to, but most PhD students don't have that luxury.

There are a few second-order concerns as well.

  • The day-to-day functioning of my department requires a steady stream of incoming research grants. Grant overhead pays for a lot of basic infrastructure in my department, including the salaries of all the staff our business office, half of the salaries of most other administrative staff, support for non-instructional non-research computing resources like our graduate admissions database. Grant overhead is also the source of startup packages for new faculty (for which we are again competing with our peers).

  • The only equipment I need is "pencil and paper"—or more accurately, a laptop with a stable LaTeX distribution and a drawing program, and basic internet access. NSF no longer allows research funds to be used for general-purpose computing equipment, so I can't include that in my grant budgets anyway. But my university returns a small fraction of overhead directly to PIs, and I can use that to buy new laptops, to pay for additional travel (by me, my students, or visitors), or even to help fund RAships.

  • Tenure and promotion decisions, and to a smaller extent raises, do depend in part on professors' proven ability to attract funding, especially in a department (and college) like mine where most faculty are extremely successful.

  • Oh right, I almost forgot. I can pay myself an extra month or two of salary over the summer from my grants. The university pays me for only 9 months of each year (although that pay is spread over 12 months), so each month of summer salary is actually more than 10% of my annual pay.

  • All these insights are even more helpful when your school is actually one of my I-will-apply-for schools. :) Thanks! Oct 6, 2013 at 1:58
  • So you can't use grant money for basic equipment, but you can give it to the university, who immediately gives it back, and then you can use it for basic equipment? Sweet.
    – gerrit
    Oct 7, 2013 at 8:53
  • 5
    @gerrit It's not as tricky as it sounds. The NSF (and NIH) don't like some equipment, especially computers, being purchased with direct funds - they view things like that as part of the infrastructure they're paying indirect funds for. Along with, you know, admin staff, keeping the lights on, etc. The university giving it back to you is just saying "Rather than us buying more file folders, why don't you spend some of your indirect on what you actually need".
    – Fomite
    Oct 8, 2013 at 16:05

Speaking as a pure mathematician, there are still plenty of reasons to apply for grants:

  • grants contain supplementary salary, the appeal of which should be obvious. It also includes travel funding, so one can travel to conferences one otherwise couldn't get funded. (Also, the funding for conferences comes from grants).
  • generally the funding for graduate students is tied to teaching and comes from a fixed pot. So having grant funding allows one's students to concentrate on research more.
  • there's an aspect of "keeping score." It's generally hard for say a university administrator to judge the quality of a research program, so a grant is an outside stamp of quality. If one might be interested in getting a different job, it's especially important.
  • pure mathematicians actually don't spend a huge amount of time applying for grants; they maybe average one every two years or so. NSF grants last 3 years, with a few extra applications for conference or big group grants thrown in.

Generally speaking, the competitiveness for research money is a way to "ensure" that there is scrutiny of projects so that well founded studies get funded and less so may not. Like all systems there are flaws but the general principle is to extract the best proposals as seen by peers).

The funding for researchers through their departments varies substantially between systems and even between universities within any system. Some departments may fund PhD students, some may rely on external funding. Researchers need to go to conferences and publish papers (which may involve costs) so even if you only need paper and a pencil for the research itself, there are other activities that must be covered and the examples I gave are probably not covered by department finances. For most experimental research, costs for equipment, labs or field visits can be substantial.

In my system, partly due to credit crunch and a general interest in cutting costs everywhere, more and more must be covered, even office costs for performing the research and office costs for PhD students.

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