Follow up question to How does research funding work in determining academic promotions? since it was too broad.

Take two equally talented researchers, Alice & Bob. Alice has acquired a large amount of funding, while Bob has not. How large is the effect of the grant itself compared to secondary effects in determining who gets promoted, such as the fact that Alice is likely to be more productive thanks to having the funding, for example due to being able to hire more postdocs and PhD students?

In other words, can Bob compensate for not having acquired the funding by working harder (writing just as many research papers, attracting self-funded PhD students, etc)?

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    I think that this really is very department dependent so it’s hard to say. My department places some weight on grants but more on their end results but other weigh decisionsdifferetly
    – Spark
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 13:19
  • Do you have a specific type of institution in mind? I imagine that the answer to your question would be very different at say, a large state university compared to a small liberal arts college.
    – user109454
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 13:36
  • @BenLinowitz No I don't actually. I'm now wonder though, why would the answer be different? Is it because faculty at small liberal arts colleges are less expected to acquire grants, so their key metrics are different?
    – Allure
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 13:45
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    @Allure - Others more senior than I can speak to this with more authority, but I get the impression that some schools rely on revenue from indirect costs much more than others, some bigger schools incorporate ability to attract grant funding in promotion decisions whereas many liberal arts colleges do not, some smaller schools don't have a culture of people applying for research grants (my field is math) because their research programs are more geared to 'low-lying' undergraduate friendly problems, some better funded liberal arts college have internal funds to support faculty travel etc.
    – user109454
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 13:51
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    @Allure - Also, many smaller liberal arts colleges have neither graduate students nor postdocs that need to be partially supported by grants.
    – user109454
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 13:53

3 Answers 3


I think this is largely moot. Alice will only achieve that large amount of funding by being productive. If Bob is sufficiently productive, and in a place where external funding is important, then he will likely attract such funding since he would be foolish not to seek it. In that sense, productivity trumps funding.

But, again, the world of academia is very diverse. Some places external funding is an extremely important factor (maybe THE factor) in getting tenure. Other places not so much. But in research universities you need to be productive and to help others (students) be productive.

And it may be much more important what a lab overall is able to produce, not just the PI.


It does not make sense to look at individual factors like this. A job interview is not a list of targets that one has to be compared with, and if one candidate scores higher on average than the next then they get the job. There is a myriad of factors into play. Some of them are quantifiable, most are not. Some of them are not even written anywhere, or conscious. Some of them depend on who exactly belongs to the committee, their state of mind at the time, and so on. It is extremely rare to be able to say "candidate X got the job over candidate Y because of this factor".

How large is the effect of the grant itself compared to secondary effects in determining who gets promoted, such as the fact that Alice is likely to be more productive thanks to having the funding, for example due to being able to hire more postdocs and PhD students?

What a strange question. The department is not going to hire someone and pay them for decades just so that they can get some overhead from someone's grant for the next few years. Yes, what you call the "side effects" of the grant (most people would call that the grant's purpose) is more important than the grant itself.

In other words, can Bob compensate for not having acquired the funding by writing just as many research papers or attracting self-funded PhD students, etc?

You don't get a job because you wrote as many papers as someone else. Writing a single, extremely influential paper can land you a job when writing ten average papers will get you squat.

Supervising students does not get you a job. Except in some fields that use students as cannon fodder for menial tasks, supervising a student is pretty much a net drain on your productivity. However, never having supervised students can be held against you during a job interview for senior positions; let's say that it's a necessary but not sufficient condition.

But yes, "Bob" (not sure why this hypothetical person has to be named, and gendered differently to boot) can "compensate" less funding by performing better on research. Academia has not yet reached the point where a researcher's main job is to attract funding. We are not startups. Research and teaching are still the goals.

  • Thanks for answer. Re Alice & Bob, they're common placeholder names in the sciences. My understanding for why they're used is because 1) they correspond to the first two letters of the alphabet, and 2) it makes the English easy since one can refer to them as "him" and "her". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_and_Bob
    – Allure
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 13:33
  • That was indeed the most important point of my answer, and I am glad that you decided to focus on that. In any case, something being common is not really a justification for anything.
    – user114273
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 13:41
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    You do not have to be so hostile. I am referring to Alice & Bob because you expressed doubt about it. In the rest of your answer you sound pretty confident.
    – Allure
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 13:42
  • Well, you have not answered why the hypothetical persons have to be named and gendered. I'm a computer scientist, I know about the whole family. It doesn't mean I like it or I should avoid calling it out. And I notice you are still focusing on an extremely narrow, barely relevant part of my answer. Perhaps you do not like it.
    – user114273
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 13:49
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    Two active funding streams are pretty much a gate for tenure in at least one division of my university. Top of the flowchart. Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 13:59

compared to secondary effects in determining who gets promoted

What has not been discussed as yet is the ability to translate and produce with the grant. Some people are more successful with grants than others, however the ability to translate those grants into meaningful and productive scholarship is another set of skills that has not been highlighted as yet. Yes Alice can expand and hence theoretically be more productive than Bob. However, Bob's approach without grants may be more productive with more citations and presentations too.

But yes as mentioned by Scott Seidman in the comments, grant funding is privileged and noted in the tenure process and in some divisions/departments/colleges has a strong influence in promotion.

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