I see that many professors spend all of their time applying for grants, minus a little bit of time to interact with the graduate students on their grants and a little bit of time to fulfill their teaching obligations. They are of course doing a great service to their graduate students, who perhaps otherwise would not be able to do research, but it doesn't seem very enjoyable to be in such a position.

I've spoken with many researchers at national laboratories who say they chose to go that route so that they could be mostly freed from the grant game (of course some of them still have to write grant proposals).

I enjoy doing research, but my real passion is in teaching, so my goal has always been to be a university professor. However, I am not fond of the idea of "hustling for money" (as one researcher at a national lab put it). I personally would much rather spend most of my time preparing strong lectures. (I would consider high school but the topics I would like to teach only are offered in universities.)

So, my question: can one survive in university academia without grants, perhaps at the cost of not having graduate students? Is it enough to be an effective teacher, with a strong albeit grantless research portfolio?

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    This depends heavily on your field - how expensive is your research? Feb 1, 2015 at 14:56
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    Where I teach, there is a workload model (not academic rank) called "teaching intensive." One chooses the teaching intensive model with consent of chair and dean. Teaching intensive faculty are expected to teach four courses/semester, spend 15% of time on service, i.e. committee meetings, and 5% on research, which need not be funded. So, it is possible, but one has to find the right place.
    – Bob Brown
    Feb 1, 2015 at 15:05
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    Oh, very good question. There are no real costs associated with my research (which is generally in the field of statistical/scientific computing): all I need is a computer, pencil and paper, and coffee. I have collaborated with several researchers who run very expensive experiments (people who give me their data to analyze), so perhaps that is why I have been exposed so heavily to the grant game. Feb 1, 2015 at 15:07
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    What do you mean by "university academia"? Do you specifically mean research universities? There are a lot of teaching-focused universities, liberal arts colleges, etc., where teaching is a higher priority than research and funding expectations are correspondingly lower. Jobs at such places outnumber those at major research universities, so this is the typical career path in academia. Feb 1, 2015 at 15:21
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    One issue is that there's a sizeable group of universities that have not been especially research-focused in the past but would like to change that. There, one might run into pressures one would not expect given the university's history. (This can also vary at the departmental level.) But I believe this is still only a small fraction of academia. Feb 1, 2015 at 16:05

3 Answers 3


There are certainly some situations in the US where you can be a tenured professor, do some unsupported research, and never bring in grants. However, the expectation that you will bring in research grants is fairly wide spread, and having at least some grant funding is necessary to obtain tenure at a surprisingly large number of institutions (not just the "Research I" nationally ranked universities.)

Research funding varies dramatically between disciplines. In the following I'll restrict my attention to mathematics since you mentioned that was your area. I'm including statistics since in many cases statisticians get jobs in mathematics departments at these kinds of institutions.

The exceptions boil down to universities in which research is not a high priority and teaching is more important. These institutions are typically "Regional Comprehensive Universities" often with names of the form "directional state university." For example, in New Mexico we have "Eastern New Mexico University", "Western New Mexico University", "New Mexico Highlands University", and "Northern New Mexico College"

Teaching loads at such institutions are typically high (3-3 or 4-4, plus lots of advising) and graduate programs are small or non-existent. Undergraduate science and engineering degree programs are also small. Many of these universities don't offer any degrees in engineering. Much of the enrollment in math and statistics courses is in freshman level service courses like college algebra and intro to statistics.

In order to get hired into a tenure track position at such an institution you'll need a PhD and some teaching experience (many candidates for such positions will have worked in "visiting assistant professor" positions for a few years.) There will typically be some expectation that you will publish research during your time as an assistant professor, and you may be encouraged to apply for research grants, but very few faculty at such institutions actually have grant funding from the NSF or other federal agencies.

In mathematics, the number of tenure track positions has been in decline in recent years. The competition for these kinds of positions has become extreme, with institutions reporting hundreds of applications for each position.

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    As a comment on your last sentence, readers should note this doesn't necessarily imply that supply of job candidates is outpacing demand by a factor of hundreds. In the last several years, math departments in the US have largely adopted mathjobs.org, a central employment clearinghouse, and as a result it is pretty easy for each candidate to submit dozens or even hundreds of applications. So the total number of applications has increased dramatically, but the change in number of candidates and/or positions may not be so dramatic. Feb 1, 2015 at 17:03
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    (I know you know this, but other readers may not.) Feb 1, 2015 at 17:06
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    Nate's absolutely correct. However, looking over the 150+ applicants for a tenure track position at my institution, I see many well qualified applicants who've spent years in VAP positions without landing a tenure track position. It's pretty rough out there. Feb 1, 2015 at 17:09

You say in your comment that "[t]here are no real costs associated with my research," which is a huge misunderstanding about the costs of research. The vast majority of research budgets (in the US, based on my experience) are salaries for the researchers. While NSF limits professors to 2 months of salary across all grants from NSF without special permission, many graduate students and postdocs are funded mostly or entirely off grants won by those professors. If you want to have a grad student work with you on your research, you need to fund their salary and tuition, as well as their fringe benefits and the university's overhead charge (which keeps the lights on and pays for admin staff, etc), and at most universities this money comes from external funding. I guess that students who TA can also do unfunded research with a professor as they work towards their PhD, but this seems unfair to them unless the other requirements (classes, quals, etc) from their department are minimal.

Most universities in the US cover 9 months of salary for professors, so if you want to be paid that other 25%, you need to bring in external funds or teach classes during the summer semester/quarter.

How much of this you choose to do will depend on how ambitious you are. If you want tenure and raises, you will almost certainly be required to win some grants. Though, once you have tenure, you can basically stop winning grants and support no students, though your colleagues will probably stop giving you raises at that point as well.

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    Another point worth mentioning is that grants are very helpful for funding travel to conferences for you and your graduate students. Institutional funding for such travel is often non-existent. Feb 2, 2015 at 16:18
  • True, though in comparison to salaries, this is not typically a large portion of what a grant funds.
    – Bill Barth
    Feb 2, 2015 at 16:19
  • Yes, but in the other direction, if you don't have grant funding, then the lack of travel funds can be the singlest biggest thing that stops you from doing research (particularly assuming that your graduate students are working as TA's.) Feb 2, 2015 at 22:54
  • @BrianBorchers, I find that surprising. There's still so much research that can be done without presenting at conferences.
    – Bill Barth
    Feb 3, 2015 at 2:08
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    I'm just saying that networking is really tough for faculty who don't have grant money and don't have institutional support to travel to meetings. Time (at least summers and breaks between semesters) is reasonably available even to someone teaching a high (3-3 or 4-4 load) Many mathematicians need little more than a desktop computer to do their research so equipment isn't much of an issue either. Feb 3, 2015 at 2:24

In many US institutions, including R1, there are professors whose primary role is teaching (plus some services, but no research). These are called Lecturers or Teaching Professors, depending on the institution. Another possibility is teaching at a community college.

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