I have been working in academic career in several years. I have noticed that almost all professors spend most of their time to write proposals?

And to my surprise, they are not working on research papers. This is reflected by the fact that the number of technical papers with first author (single author) as a senior professor is decreased quite dramatically.

My question is, therefore, is there any hidden (but valid) reason for this?

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    What's wrong with the not-"hidden" answer? That professors spend a lot of time writing proposals so that they will have funding to be able to hire and pay graduate students, postdocs, and other research staff?
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 0:37
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    Before generalizing to all of academia, could you tell us in which discipline or general area you have observed this behaviour? In which country?
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 1:13
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    "I have noticed that almost all professors spend most of their time to write proposals?" If this is your question, then: No. There are many professors who spend a bulk of their time on something else. And for the professors who do actually spend of a lot of time on proposals: They want to get funding and fame; additionally some actually consider this as kind of pre-research (arguably not totally false) and also some do not really write the proposals but have postdocs, funded by previous grants, to do this…
    – Dirk
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 1:19
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    As I said above, you really should recognize that not all academia works like it does in your subject, and even in your subject things may work differently outside of the places you have exeperienced. Put bluntly, your question asks "why does X always happen" and I strongly dispute the claim that it does always happen
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 15:06
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    To take one of your recent comments: "However, most of the idea is originated from the students which I believe is not breakthrough in most cases." This is just simply not true in pure mathematics. It might not be true in medieval linguistics. It might not be true in post-1945 politics. If by "professors" you mean "professors in engineering in North America", please say so.
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 15:15

5 Answers 5


I'm a bit puzzled by the word "hidden," since I don't think the answer is at all hidden -- in fact, I often discuss this with my students. Why spend lots of time writing proposals?

(1) It's expensive to run a lab! At least in the U.S., a graduate student typically costs ~$50k/year, which includes tuition and overhead costs that the student doesn't see. Postdocs are ~$100k/year. Equipment and supplies are not cheap. The sum of all this is a lot of money.

(2) For a variety of reasons, it's hard to get money. The success rates for proposals at NIH or NSF are around 10-20%, meaning that most proposals don't get funded. Certainly more than 20% of proposals are very good -- at least based on my experience on grant review panels. Writing a proposal that's at least very good takes a lot of work. Writing N such proposals so that enough get funded to keep one's lab afloat takes an even larger amount of work.

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    Dear sir, thank you for providing brief reply. As you have mentioned it is very difficult to get funding for different reasons. However, I am just wondering whether is it “morally” right for a professor to spend most of his/her time to write a proposal than research. If the answer is no, why the academic community does not come up with a different way to support a professor (e.g, by looking the CV of professor and the comments obtained from reputable peer reviewed journals). This will help the professor to focus on his/her career which will ultimately help for the world’s development. Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 6:44
  • As a side note I have also a reservation about how proposals are evaluated (see academia.stackexchange.com/users/62682/angry-academia). Appreciate your comment about this as well. Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 6:45
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    @CaptainEmacs -- I agree and disagree that my answer doesn't respond to the question. If one asks why we can't breathe underwater, an answer could be that (i) we lack organs such as gills that can extract oxygen from water, or (ii) a discussion of why we didn't evolve such organs. My answer is like (i), since it is not at all clear from the question that the person was asking for some deeper discussion of why funding and incentive structures are the way that they are. Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 19:12
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    @AngryAcademia Anyhow, at the end of the day, the funding for research typically comes from non-academic sources. This means that academia has absolutely no control over the funding process and cannot change the system, even if we all hate it.
    – Nick S
    Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 19:58
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    @AngryAcademia Are you seriously comparing the time it takes to write a proposal to the time it takes to get a paper accepted (i.e. time in which you are not doing anything yourself)? And please just stop quoting that "10%" thing unless you have some substantial backup for that claim, as it is just plain false for most academics. Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 7:09

I think there are several reasons.

The most important one in my opinion is that as a professor in an experimental field you really don't have a choice. In many fields, grants pay for all the lab personnel, experimental equipment and even the professor's own salary. This means that if a professor has no money, her lab is effectively closed and in some institutions she may be effectively fired (given no salary and no workspace) even if she has tenure. This has dramatic consequences for everyone in the lab, and once the lab is closed it won't help if the professor suddenly get new funding. It is somewhat like a CEO who has to make sure the company doesn't close.

This is a situation you need to avoid at all costs. Since grants are very competitive, you need to submit many grants to minimize the probability of having no grants at some point in time. Additionally, one grant will often not be enough to cover all the expenses.

So most professors in this situation really don't have a choice, they simply have to do it even if they want to spend most of their time on research. In my experience, most professors would clearly prefer to spend all of their time doing science rather than grant-writing and administrative stuff.

A second reason, is that there is that there is a clear correlation between funding and research productivity. For example, if you have more people in your lab then you have more projects and eventually more papers. Also, many high-impact journals like to publish large datasets (personally I think this is because they get a lot of citations) which are basically just a factor of the amount money one has. Additionally, academic institutions in the US take very high fractions of grant money as overhead (can be over 50%), so they strongly encourage their faculty to get grants. These factors all mean that getting grants can have a direct impact on research output, promotion and prestige.

Finally, you need to consider that in many fields the professor's main job is not executing research. A professor needs to teach, participate in committees, obtain funding, manage the lab administration, promote the lab's work, recruit personnel and supervise students. How then can she spend most of her time doing research? Imagine a software company where the CEO not only needs to run the company but also has to manage HR, PR, funding and all administration. Would you expect that CEO to spend most of her time programming? That should clarify why you don't see many professors as first authors (or CEOs as lead programmers).


Since the question asks "why does X always happen?" I feel it is a legitimate view to take, in an answer, to say "X does not always happen".

I am leaving this as an answer because I feel it is important to challenge an assumption that the OP makes and seems to be ignoring in comments to other people's answers. (I have tried to make this point in comments to the main question, see this one for instance.)

I have noticed that almost all professors spend most of their time to write proposals?

In my view this is not true, unless the OP specifies (a) the discipline (b) the university system or geographical region.

And to my surprise, they are not working on research papers.

See my previous comment.

My question is, therefore, is there any hidden (but valid) reason for this?

Various explanations, pertinent to particular disciplines and geographical regions, have been mentioned in other answers. However, let me repeat that if a question asks "why does X always happen?" I feel it is a valid answer to say "X does not always happen".


My comments reflect my personal analysis of the reasons for the OP's observation:

The decision that academics should regularly compete for funding of their research is an idea that seeped in, mostly from the US, into the funding schemes of other countries. Originally, intended as a way to permit funding for projects at a scale that individual universities could not afford, it has expanded into becoming the default way of funding research, in the belief that competition would make for better projects and higher motivated researchers.

As so often, the optimum does not lie in the extremes. From one extreme of academics couched softly on guaranteed money (and thus not required to work at all), it has shifted to much attention being spent on the competitive process.

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    Thanks for sharing comments about my inquiry. I am actually from the Engineering domain in North America. In my career, my experience shows that almost all of them are busy on writing proposals. They are not doing research. I have also discussed with friends with other discipline which they share this idea. Most of the research work is done by their students and postdoc which they basically have limited experience. I believe that professors have in depth knowledge in their research area and they can bring breakthrough contribution to the world if they spend most of their time on research. Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 3:08
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    @AngryAcademia Why do you repeat the same statement over and over? It doesn't add nothing.
    – Greg
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 8:03

Not doing research and not having first-author papers are two very different things. In my lab, my students and postdocs always get first authorship. But that has nothing to do with who does the work -- I think I do definitely participate in the research, and I do most of the writing. It's just that as a full professor, it doesn't matter to me any more whether I'm first or last author: I have tenure, nobody cares where on the author list I am. On the other hand, for my students and postdocs who still need to get positions somewhere, it matters a great deal, and so I want them to be first author. In other words, the question of where someone is on the author list has little to do with how much they actually contributed.

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    -1 Authorship order is very field dependent.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 17:25
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    @StrongBad -- I made no other claim. All I'm saying is that not having first author publications does not imply that someone is not doing any research. That is almost certainly true regardless of field. Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 17:21

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