If a professor receives $200,000 as the PI (not co-PI) from the NSF, how many PhD students can he/she take as Research Assistant (with yearly salary of $18,000)? I am asking about the most usual cases. How much money does he/she need to handover to the department? How does this budget usually work? Does the professor also need to pay the tuition of the funded PhD students? Or does the department pay it? Very interested to know.

  • I'm very curious to know where in the US a grad student in the sciences gets only $18,000. For comparison, grad students who win the NSF fellowship directly can't be paid less than $34,000. At the typical hours worked by grad students, especially in say biology, $18,000 is something like half minimum wage in most places.
    – user4512
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 3:49
  • @ChrisWhite Among the offers I received (almost all TA-funded positions though, not RA), $18k was on the low side but not an outlier. Especially from schools located in small college towns with low costs of living.
    – Roger Fan
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 4:11
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    @ChrisWhite the example you gave is an outlier. Almost all graduate students are paid less than the NSF GRFP rate. $18k is too low though. Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 4:26
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    I am sorry to say that we pay our graduate student TAs less than $18K, and in effect significantly less for those whom we cannot (due to lack of funds) provide a full tuition waiver. Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 5:15
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    It is very common for engineering research assistants to get a yearly salary of around $18-20k. Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 16:00

1 Answer 1


Ficticious but reasonably realistic example; YMMV, sometimes significantly:


  • Stipend: $9,000/semester
  • Tuition: $7,000/semester @ 50% off
  • Health insurance: $1,000/semester
  • F&A overhead: $5,400/semester @ 60%


  • Stipend: $9,000
  • Tuition: $0
  • Health insurance: $1,000
  • F&A overhead: $5,400 @ 60%

Total: $60,200 per student*year. In the example above F&A overhead is 60% of stipend only, with no overhead on tuition or health insurance. Tuition is 50% off because it's an overhead-bearing grant.

So your $200,000 would be 1 student over 3 years plus some leftover for PI Summer salary, travel, misc. expenses, etc.

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    This is in line with what we estimate at my university, though the balance between bins is a bit different.
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 20:29
  • Your answer does not actually use the asker's suggested salary. You might want to revise. Your numbers may be more realistic. Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 4:26
  • @AnonymousPhysicist: I agree; I used $18,000 for Fall+Spring because it is more realistic. Will change accordingly. Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 4:42
  • Thank you for the cost breakdown. Is it solely the professor's responsibility to pay for the tuition? Like in my school the the letter of tuition waivers come from the graduate school. Is it the professor's fund which goes to the grad school through the department? Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 16:08
  • If you are a graduate research assistant, I'd say yes, however other universities (e.g., public universities, grad schools with a large endowment, etc.) could operate differently. You could always ask your adviser and point to this discussion. Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 17:40

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