Are pure mathematicians, e.g., Algebraists, Number Theorists, Geometers, and Topologists, at good U.S. research universities expected to win research grants to fund their work, in order to gain tenure and be promoted?

I see a lot of questions here on Academia SE that talk about the need to win grant-funding, in order to survive in academia, but I'm not sure whether that applies to pure math professors.

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    Grants generally don't pay for math professors' base salary. They usually go toward conferences, travel, student support, and summer salary. I will wait for someone more senior to weigh in on the importance of earning grants to tenure committees.
    – user37208
    Sep 4, 2016 at 23:41
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    In case nobody senior answers: I am an assistant professor in pure math at a good, but not Top 50, research university. I have not been on a tenure committee, but my impression is that here you are expected to have gotten some funding (not necessarily a lot). Certainly it helps you travel to conferences, invite visitors, support students, and other things very helpful to your career. I suspect that someone would get tenure here without any grants if his/her record was otherwise strong enough, but this hasn't happened recently in my department, so I don't actually know.
    – Anonymous
    Sep 5, 2016 at 20:40
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    My impression (both at my school and talking to other people at top 50, but not top 10, schools) is that getting an NSF grant is somewhat more difficult than getting tenure (especially post-sequester). That is if you got an NSF grant the tenure case should be easy, but you could not have an NSF grant and still have a strong case. But I'd also like to hear this confirmed by someone with more experience. I'm guessing anonymous was including smaller non-NSF grants? Sep 6, 2016 at 2:15
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    On the other hand, if someone wasn't seriously and regularly applying for grants, I'd expect that to be a huge tenure issue. Sep 6, 2016 at 2:16
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    @NoahSnyder: Yes, indeed. Most of the people who have recently gone up for tenure here have won NSF grants (in the low six figures), but I know one who has gotten only non-NSF grants, totalling in the mid five figures. All of the people I mentioned have been applying for grants very consistently.
    – Anonymous
    Sep 7, 2016 at 12:08

2 Answers 2


At my large R1 state university in the U.S., it might be impossible to get tenure without having an active grant at the time, even with an otherwise excellent record, since mathematics faculty disinterested (or hostile to whatever the specialty or person in question might be) would use this as grounds for doubting the quality. After all, supposedly, all the best people are funded. Supposedly, endorsement by the NSF (or NSA) is an external, objective test of quality. This is certainly a convenient assumption for arguments in certain directions. EDIT: and since a strong super-majority is needed for a "positive" tenure vote, even irrational ranting can sway otherwise uninformed or disinterested people to scuttle the vote.

Issues of external funding are apparently even more identified with research activity by engineers (and experimental scientists), who often dominate the college-wide tenure (and promotion) committees. That is, it is sometimes apparently unimaginable that a person would be doing research without a grant.

Further, at my university, in other hard-science departments, often large grants are allowed to "buy out" faculty from any teaching at all. This is rare in my math department. EDIT: thus, in the minds of some engineers, "teaching" is stigmatized, since in their own depts it's only the disenfranchised who have to do any of it. And then there're the wildly different paper-count standards for experimental science/engineering versus mathematics.

The literal "funding of research" usually is less critical, apart from the expense of travelling to conferences, and extra summer salary.

  • I wonder if any mathematics department (at universities where the sciences and humanities have different deans) has tried to jump to the College of Humanities (or whatever it is called) in part due to these kinds of tenure decision issues. Sep 7, 2016 at 2:49
  • @AlexanderWoo Well, that brings its own issues: they would wonder why we hadn't written books. Math has a lot of weird idiosyncrasies as a discipline, so we get trouble no matter what the arrangement is. Sep 7, 2016 at 11:55
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    I don't actually disagree with anything specific you've written, but the overall tone of pessimism doesn't ring true for me. I'm not privy to the details of a lot of people's cases, but I don't think I know any specific case in math where a candidate with strong support from the department was shot down by some higher level of administration. Are these just being hushed up, or happening at places where I don't have contacts? Sep 7, 2016 at 11:59
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    @BenWebster, I'm sure it varies from place to place, but by this point I've seen such cases come up on a very regular basis. "Applied" mathematicians seem to get uniformly more positive treatment from the ambient administration (still at the "college" level rather than "university-wide"). In most cases, fortunately, push-back from the math dept has gotten the dean to over-rule a committee's attempted denial of tenure/promotion. But the pattern of events is dismayingly consistent, in my observation over many years. Sep 7, 2016 at 12:52
  • Thanks, as usual, for your incredibly valuable insight, Professor Garrett :)
    – user58865
    Sep 10, 2016 at 22:51

The expectation was clearly there in all three places I've been so far though the extent to which it was crucial varied a lot. From my perspective, it looks like the external funding is most crucial at the top tier places (where most people around just happen to have it, so why not you?) and at the bottom tier places (where the administration just doesn't understand any measurement units but dollars, so to sell somebody without a grant to the dean may be quite a headache) but not so crucial in the middle.

The good part about pure math. is that the grant support is not essential for performing the routine duties (you do not need to finance a lab, or anything else like that), and getting tenure is just a once in the lifetime event, so you do not need to be in a constant jeopardy as far as getting external funding is concerned. The bad part is that it looks like on top of general budget cuts, the NSF is currently also trying to give big chunks of money to few people instead of supporting more researchers (especially the young ones) with smaller amounts, so getting an NSF grant in pure math. gets harder and harder.

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    Bottom tier places with administrations that just care about dollars tend not to hire any pure mathematicians, either because the administration knows pure mathematicians don't bring in much money even if they do get grants, or because the department knows it won't be able to grant them tenure. Sep 7, 2016 at 2:42

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