Do research professors generally earn additional money from externally funded projects apart from their university salary? I ask because I'm wondering whether this explains why many professors – who have tenured, relatively well-paying positions – spend so much time applying for and executing these projects.

I am primarily interested in European universities, however, I would also be interested in answers that address whether things generally work the same way for researchers at private companies.


7 Answers 7


At least for the case in the United States:

Professors are generally only paid for 9 months per year by the university. If they have external funding, they can pay themselves for the remaining months -- so having grant funding increases the annual salary by up to 33%.

Second, faculty who repeatedly obtain external funding are clearly doing something right, which translates into promotions that then raise their salaries.

Third, at most universities, faculty salaries are not fixed but grow based on faculty member's annual evaluations. If someone gets a 3% raise every year, then their salary after a few years will be substantially above those who receive 1.5% salary raises every year.

Finally, if you repeatedly get large grants, you become attractive to other universities. They may try to lure you away with a negotiable salary that is higher than your current one, and your current university may try to retain you by raising your salary.

In the end, all of this leads to different faculty being paid differently. For example, full professor salaries in my discipline (mathematics) at typical research universities range between $100k and $150k for 9 months. The ones at the upper end are generally those who are good at receiving grants. But they can then also pay themselves in the summer for the remaining three months, so their salaries are in the range of $200k/year whereas those who do not have summer salary may be stuck closer to $100k/year. Both are of course good salaries in the grand scheme of things, but it is nicer to be at the upper than the lower end of that spread.

  • the last question is unanswered.
    – user366312
    Mar 3, 2022 at 16:00
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    @user366312 This is why we prefer one question at a time. Mar 3, 2022 at 16:55
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    And if you don’t bring in those other 3 months, you’re not likely to last long or ever get a raise or tenure at that university. Also, those grants tend to cover the salaries of the grad students that work on them and their tuition. So, unless you can do you research solo……
    – Bill Barth
    Mar 3, 2022 at 18:21
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    @BillBarth I suspect that in most disciplines, having three months of summer salary is actually the exception. I would venture the guess that in math, for example, the median is one month of summer salary. Mar 3, 2022 at 19:52
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    @BillBarth Both. We don't absolutely require people to have a grant to get tenure, though that certainly raises questions if they don't. But in math, most grants pay at most one month of summer salary. I don't think any of my pure math colleagues have more than one month of summer salary -- it's at least very unusual. Of course, in general, NSF doesn't allow faculty to draw more than two months of summer salary, even if they have grant money coming out of their ears. Mar 3, 2022 at 23:08

Government research grants would not usually offer any monetary bonus to a researcher beyond the funding that goes towards their salary. Research grants commonly cover some or all of the salary costs for the researchers in the grant, including the PI. This can lead to an indirect monetary benefit, insofar as a researcher in possession of grant-funding will find it easier to secure a higher level academic position than one who lacks funding. Typically, when an academic wins a major grant they will apply for promotion and get it, unless they are already at the top level. (To see why this would occur, look at it from the perspective of the university. When a university knows that a substantial amount of salary will be paid by an outside agency, they are more willing to offer a high-level position because they bear less cost in funding it. They also know that other universities will be willing to do the same.)

I'm assuming that the PI in this case is probably already a full professor, so it might be that he is already at the top academic level available. If this is the case then it is unlikely that he gets any monetary benefit from the grants. It is likely that the grants would pay some or all of his salary at the university, which would give him secure employment.

As to the case of researchers in private industry, the situation is not all that much different. The main difference is that there is no set pay scale in most private firms so there might not be a strict upper limit to the salary of the researcher. As with the university, if a researcher can win a grant that contributes money towards their salary, that puts them in a good negotiating position with their employer with respect to their position level and salary (although grant funding is unlikely to transfer with the researcher in a private company).

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    +1, though note that even full professors may have various salary "steps" that they can earn into (and, as you say, winning large grants puts them in a good position to negotiate for advancement to the next step).
    – cag51
    Mar 3, 2022 at 11:39
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    One thing the professor does gain from having multiple grants on the go is a robust research team. Overlapping grants allow continuity while even a short gap between grants can mean losing postdocs just when they're most useful. Plenty of money also means a big research group. Both lead to more output with benefits for the professor's career (and ego).
    – Chris H
    Mar 3, 2022 at 21:24

Do they get an additional salary for each funded project, which could explain this behavior?

As others have explained, salaries are mostly only indirectly based on grants; having grants may allow professors to fund themselves for otherwise unfunded months of the calendar year, to "buy out" teaching responsibilities to spend more time on research, and to argue for promotions.

Even though the job might not be as secure as academic researchers, do industry researchers earn more money in this regard?

Industry researchers are also paid by salaries; they are on average paid much higher salaries than academic researchers but miss out on many of the perks of the academic life. This is fairly basic economics of supply and demand: there is a high supply of people who want academic jobs because they are perceived to be better in many intangible ways, so high salaries are not needed to attract people to those roles.

Every company can choose how they compensate their employees. Just like academics, though, this is most often going to be indirectly through salary.

Why do some research professors take on so many funded projects that it kills their entire spare time?

I haven't yet met an academic researcher who was primarily motivated by money. If people are motivated by money, they're going to find a much easier time fulfilling their goals in the private sector.

Researchers in academia find their work important. When asking for grant funding, they must make a case to the funding agency that their specific work is more valuable than other applicants for those funds. They are not merely raising money towards cancer treatment, or number theory, or quantum physics, they are getting money to try their specific approach to cancer, their specific problem of interest in number theory, their specific theory in quantum physics. The more grants they earn, the more work that can be done towards the very specific topic that they are most personally invested in.

Grants also often go towards paying other people. Academics with a large research group need to maintain their funding to keep paying the people that work for them, and to keep attracting new students to influence the next generation of academics. Doubling grant funding in a lab doesn't mean doubling the time the professor works towards the grant; the more grants a professor has, the smaller the time is that they personally spend on each, but the more opportunity they have to pay others to do the work.

In addition, many academics don't see as much of a distinction between "spare time" and time spent on work: the magic of an academic position is that you have more freedom than a typical worker to work specifically on what you want, to do exactly the work that you would most want to spend your spare time on. I think most people still prefer some balance between pure leisure, time with family and friends, and productive work, but the relative balance towards work can be higher when the work is part of a personal investment rather than merely a means to a paycheck.

There's nothing wrong with working for a paycheck, but I would highly recommend against a career in academia if that's your primary motivator. There are much easier ways to earn an academic-level salary.


...[My PI's wife left him for being a workaholic with poor work-life balance]...

There are workaholics in every profession, not just academia, and not just academics working on government-funded projects. Though, yes, strong competition for finite resources (funding, promotion, etc.) will tend to self-select workaholics (and often amplify the behavior).

Do research professors obtain any monetary benefit by executing government funded projects? ... Why do some research professors take on so many funded projects that it kills their entire spare time? Do they get an additional salary for each funded project, which could explain this behavior?

You seem very keen to try to understand this purely in immediate monetary terms. It is almost as if you are asking "We're all salaried, so why is PI putting in so many hours overtime? Does he get a second paycheck for government-project hours?". You are essentially asking for the rate at which your PI is trading hours-away-from-family for Euros/Dollars to explain their behavior... which is most likely the wrong frame of mind to be understanding your PI's personal motivations.

Your PI presumably views this mostly as a deferred gratification optimization problem. While working "overtime" hours in the present may not show up concretely as a larger payout at the end of the month's paycheck, it likely will lead to securing more/bigger/prestigious funding in the future and will likely influence faster promotion (be that tenure, a prestigious chair, and/or moving on to bigger and better universities) - all of which are likely to lead to larger paychecks earlier in the future based on an accelerated career trajectory. (To say nothing of non-monetary goals like prestige/standing/esteem/etc. or the ability to tackle bigger more-interesting projects with greater amounts of funding.)


Since this is about salary in Euros, my American-centric understanding might not apply. There are several benefits this professor might be enjoying, not all are directly related to their salary.

  1. As others have noted, many faculty contracts are for 9 or 10 months (but may be paid out over 12 months) and grant money can include salary for those summer months.

  2. As others have also noted, bringing in a large amount of research funding will be beneficial in terms of promotion and raises. I expect that you have a very strong negotiating position for a larger annual raise when you are bringing in millions of Euros to the institution.

  3. Some positions are only partly funded by the University (e.g., 50%) and require the researcher to bring in sufficient funds to cover the rest of the appointment to bring it up to full-time.

  4. Some research institutions allow a professor to "buy out" of teaching a course through research funds. So a professor with something like a 2-1 teaching load might be able to buy out a course or more and have a semester where they can be more focused on research.

  5. Research funding can pay for the salaries of research assistants. This can build up the number of graduate students they are working with, usually leading to more research results, leading to more prestige, promotions, etc.

  6. Research grants can include money for equipment, travel, hosting of conferences, etc.

  7. It might be negotiable through the department or university that the research funding can be traded. E.g., this professor's grants funds the research assistants of another professor in exchange for X amount of funds that can be used differently.

To be clear, I do not have direct knowledge of most of these activities, so I am unsure of the specifics, but through my time in graduate school and in academic research I have heard of these situations occurring.

  • 2 is not really the case in the US. It is hard to get any sort of raise beyond a “cost of living adjustment” and maybe an additional 1% for merit without an outside offer. You can’t just say “I deserve 10% more” at most institutions.
    – Dawn
    Mar 3, 2022 at 19:42

Why do some research professors take on so many funded projects that it kills their entire spare time?

‘cuz they like it and this is what they would rather do in their spare time.

Do they get an additional salary for each funded project, which could explain this behavior?

Maybe, or maybe not directly, but there are lots of indirect benefits, such as promotion, performance increments, travel to various conferences and meetings, and possibly the ability to effect lasting changes at various levels.

Even though the job might not be as secure as academic researchers, do industry researchers earn more money in this regard?

Not sure that jobs as academic researchers are all necessarily “secure” (some positions might be soft $$, some might not yet be tenured) but this is difficult to answer in general. Some industry research positions are very well compensated, some academic positions are also very well compensated. Most researchers will have a PhD, and the private sector recognizes it needs to pay for this expertise.


Some universities give the PI a financial incentive to apply for grants, either by giving them the opportunity to put some extra salary in the grant (e.g. with the argument that this buys them out of teaching, but it can still be a net raise), or by giving them a salary raise for the duration of certain (typically prestigious) grants, paid either from the overheads of the grants, or sometimes also from other funds.

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