I really like doing research, but I've heard that all the fights for funding can be a major headache. So I am wondering, how can I enjoy my work without worrying about grant applications? Are there specific fields or positions that don't require this?

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    Research ≠ academia. Many people in industry do research, at least in some fields. – fkraiem May 22 '15 at 16:38
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    how can I enjoy my work without worrying about grant applications? — The same way you can enjoy your work without worrying about journal/conference submissions. Stop worrying and just do the work to the best of your ability. – JeffE May 22 '15 at 22:07

The need for grant funding depends a lot on the type of research that you do. The more that your research requires laboratory facilities and equipment, graduate student research assistants to run the equipment, or travel for field work than the more that you're going to need grant funding. In the other direction, grant funding is less important if you do more theoretical research by yourself or with collaborators at other institutions.

No matter what type of research you do, you're going to need time to work on the research and some money to travel to conferences and present your research.

One of the few ways in which this can be done is to hold a faculty position at an undergraduate liberal arts college. Some of these positions have reasonably light teaching loads (although typically higher than at research universities) and funds to send faculty to conferences.

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It is definitely possible, because I know people who do. Now it may definitely limit your career options, but there are a number of careers within my corner of academia that don't require writing grant applications. Do however note that nearly all of them involve someone writing grant applications:

  • Lab managers - usually Master's or PhD level folks who aren't interested in running their own lab, but who are good at keeping things going, managing students, etc.
  • Programmers or technicians - specialists who aren't students or faculty, but rather employees.
  • "Staff scientists" - these positions exist in some institutions, often as part of centers or other large grant funded groups, and don't necessarily require you to bring in your own grants.

None of these positions necessarily involve writing grants, though they can involve helping with grants, and if the grant goes away, so does your employment. But these folks also often have their own research agendas as part of either a larger project, or as unfunded side projects.

There's also research positions within industry or the government that may not involve competing for funding, though all of these have other aspects that may be equally as annoying.

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At a research university in the United States, the extent to which you need to write grants depends on what your field is. As a general rule of thumb, if you are in an engineering school, you will be expected to bring in funding. You will need this both because this is how you will pay your graduate students (and yourself during summer months), and because it is used as an evaluation criterion -- at tenure review, your promotion committee will care that you have shown that you can bring in grants. This is also true for physical sciences that have lab expenses.

However, in other fields, like Math and Economics, graduate students are typically funded by the department (sometimes via teaching assignments) rather than faculty grants. In these areas, bringing in grants is much less important, and since expenses are less, there is less need (or expectation) for you to bring in large grants.

Finally, grant writing isn't all bad! It is time consuming (and so annoying when a grant is rejected), but it is useful to be forced, every several years, to think about your research agenda and put your plans down on paper. The act of doing this often clarifies your thinking about where your work should be going.

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  • How about theoretical computer science? – qed May 22 '15 at 22:06
  • Yep -- theoretical computer scientists typically sit inside of computer science departments, for which grants are important -- that's how we pay our graduate students. (There are a few theoretical computer scientists who sit in math departments, in which things are different) – Aaron May 22 '15 at 22:19
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    I think this is a very important point- research expectations often vary between parts of a university (e.g. college of engineering vs. arts and sciences vs. business) as well as between departments. Some fields (like theoretical computer science or applied mathematics) can live within different colleges at different universities. An applied mathematician in the engineering school of a large university might face much more pressure to get external funding then his colleague next door in the college of arts and sciences mathematics department. – Brian Borchers May 23 '15 at 4:22
  • @qed My answer does cover several people I know who are theoretical CS types. – Fomite May 23 '15 at 20:08

The key point is that the money for your job needs to come from somewhere and as such grant finding is a massive deal for the majority of academics. In my experience in the UK and understanding of the general nature of academia you will struggle to be defined as an 'academic' without partaking in the perpetual search for funding. Academics are not simply employees of a university or other institute, finding funding to do their research is an absolutely key part of the job. Even as an undergraduate researcher I had applied for funding for various summer projects, its quickly something that becomes relevant but it sounds like you haven't yet experienced it?

Finding funding is also fundamental in supervisory positions where you employ other academics, it would be your job as a PI/group leader to build the group and apply for funding to do that. Are you just interested in research and not in the wider nature of academia such as supervising other research scientists, coming up with new ideas for research and presenting at conferences? If you are just interested in the practical research aspect you could work in industry or as an employee at a university/institute (via teaching positions, research assistant etc) but you are unlikely to have the same freedom of research ideas or same long term career prospects as a typical academic, for example you would not reach group leader/PI without writing grants but you could reach a lead scientist role in an industry job.

It is also worth considering that the time you would have spent applying for grants would likely be exchanged for time required for teaching or other tasks that earn you the paycheck.

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    I do not think that this is accurate across all fields, nor across all countries. You should thus state precisely the scope of your answer. – Benoît Kloeckner May 22 '15 at 16:30

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