there's something I've been curious about regarding the funding of labs in graduate schools. I imagine it's different in different schools, but there's probably a most common scenario.

How is money managed for a lab? My most naive understanding is that the lab mostly gets money from grants. But what happens when a lab runs out of grant money? I assume the school doesn't want a major lab supporting several students and postdocs just folding, so I'm guessing they lend them money.

For example, the are several common facilities at my school that charge the lab when students use them (electron microscopes, etc). I know we're short on money right now, but I've never heard of anyone not being able to use the facilities. I would definitely make sense to me that the school internally lets a lab rack up debt to them with the expectation that it'll be paid back when they get grants in the future.

But how does it work for peoples' paychecks, and non-school payments? I know our lab also has a p-card. Does that mean we may be racking up debt externally?

  • 1
    "I assume the school doesn't want a major lab supporting several students and postdocs just folding, so I'm guessing they lend them money". Ah, young and idealistic. but so naïve :)
    – Suresh
    Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 22:35
  • @Suresh Well, I'll say that at the very least I've never heard of a lab at this school go under, and funding is still pretty scarce. Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 23:10
  • Funding is a very complex issue, and many of the details you ask about may be specific to your country, field, funding agency, or university. You might have better luck just talking to someone local. Also, you are asking two questions: the general "How does funding work" (which might be too broad for this site), and "what happens when it runs out?" Perhaps you should edit to focus on just one. Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 12:21

1 Answer 1


Bad things happen when a research group runs out of money. If it's a short-term cash flow problem (for instance, having to meet payroll in the aftermath of the US government shutdown of 2013), the university should be able to provide short-term funds to cover the gap. But this can come at a cost:

  • It may not be possible to order necessary supplies.
  • Travel may be restricted.
  • Normal operations (usage of expensive equipment, etc.) may have to be partially or totally curtailed.

However, if it's a long-term, structural problem—for instance, because the group has grown faster than grant funds to support the group—the consequences can be much more dire:

  • New students and postdocs can't be hired.
  • Support for undergraduate students (REU's, and similar programs) get cut.
  • Students may have to take on teaching assignments to receive their stipends.
  • Recently assigned students may be asked to switch into another research group.
  • The consequences you call dire actually seem pretty reasonable to me; to me it's given that you can't hire anyone new if you don't have funds. Likewise with the undergrads, they're viewed as fairly disposable here. Grad students here (even older ones) frequently have to take on TAships to get their stipend. Asking a student to switch groups seems like the worst, though I've never heard that happen for only that reason. We're assured some source of stipend for 5 years, what I'm most curious about is the lab costs like equipment and supplies. Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 23:14

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