Self-funding your research program


In the last few months, something has been on my mind. I’ve brought up the topic a few times, with some research scientists who hold tenured faculty positions. It would go along these lines:

I’m thinking of funding all of my research out of my salary. If I imagine a scenario in which…

  • I take a 20% cut in salary
  • I get that money in research support
  • I don’t spend any more time writing grants

… it just makes me happy.

Every time I’ve brought it up, this was the response.

“I’ve been thinking about doing this, too.”

I was pretty much amazed. I thought it was just me. These interlocutors have well-funded operations with some combination of grad students, postdocs, and technicians, and on the face of things, don’t demonstrate the relative level of anxiety about funding that permeates my work on a regular basis.

Why aren’t any of us choosing this new strategy? The main reason is that we’re afraid of what people will think. They’ll think that we’re giving up, that we’re shameful losers, rather than making a sane choice in an effed up funding environment. There’s a reason I’m not naming these folks. It might make them look bad to their peers.

I understand I can only have this choice available from the privileged position of a full professorship with a decent (though well below market) salary, and a spouse who earns a professional wage from a federal agency. In my lab, certain kinds of projects and people would have to be cut, but on the other hand, I would end up being more productive and also way less stressed.

By a taking piece of my salary to pay for my research expenses, I’d be getting a lot less than I currently am with federal grants. If you ask anybody who’s had a 3-year NSF grant, pretty much as soon as you start one award, you’re already under the pressure to get the next one funded. In the budget I allow myself, I could travel wherever to do pretty much whatever I want, and as long as I do stuff that doesn’t involve pricey reagents or equipment or year-round labor, it looks do-able.

The funding situation has gotten so miserable that paying for it myself looks a lot better than writing grants to maintain the flow of external funds.

This next year, I’m taking a similar-sized cut in pay to go on a year-long sabbatical. What if all the fuss about competing for grants is out the window for good? I get to spend that time writing the papers I’ve been waiting to write. That doesn’t even look much like a compromise or something to settle for, it looks more like heaven. I guess I’d have to cook up a new logo for when I give talks.tpmlogo

Another reason this seems so attractive is that spending grant money at my university is so damn painful. The international travel barriers are so bad that I actually chose to not submit a preproposal for a certain project in January because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to run the project effectively (which would have involved three other countries). And this last week, the only person in our post-award office who knows how to handle an NSF grant finally upped and quit, for reasons that are wholly understandable. Seriously, when I think about the prospect of a major grant getting funded, because of conditions on the ground at my institution, it actually causes me more worry than pleasure. If I spelled out exactly how bad everything is, I’m not sure you would believe me. And I don’t think I’m authorized to share the lengthy report of the task force I was on to address the issue.

How serious am I about this? Well, I don’t know. I’m writing this in the midst of a feverish grant-writing-induced haze (exasperated by unexpected family issues that just popped up, challenging both emotionally and in terms of time management.) If these grants don’t come in, well, I might be inclined to hang up my grantwriting hat. Here’s hoping a sabbatical gives me some perspective.

If I recall the tax situation right, as long as research expenses are >5% of my family’s gross income, then it’s deductible. (Of course, I’m the last guy you should see for tax advice.) To date, I’ve really avoided using my own funds for supplies or travel or anything else related to research, in part out of principle. But if I do spend a non-trivial fraction on research, that might take my family into a lower tax bracket. Worse things have happened.

When I was in grad school, my dissertation was entirely independent of everything else that went on, and I was paid off of TAships except for one semester when I had a fellowship. I got a couple hundred bucks or so to go to conferences, but most of the travel expense was on me. We quadrupled up in hotels and managed to do it on the cheap. And I went to meetings every year. When I went to the field, I had various travel and supply expenses, that I mostly paid for with small grants here and there but I some of it just came out of my pocket. I didn’t think of this as a miserable state of affairs, but instead, I didn’t really separate the ‘science’ part of my life from the ‘non-science’ part of my life, and that included finances. I just spent the money on things I needed to spend it on. Travel to a conference, in my mind, wasn’t that fiscally different than traveling home for the holidays to visit family. Both were necessary expenses and neither were subsidized. After I started getting real support from my universities and from bigger grants, for the last 15 years I’ve ditched that idea that my research-related travel should not come from my paycheck. And really, it shouldn’t. But I’m not going to make decisions that affect my happiness wholly on the basis of shoulds that are governed by factors beyond my control.

Is this a pathetically shameful reflection of the current state of affairs in science funding in the US? Why yes, it is. But you don’t go to research with the funding environment you want, you to go research with the funding environment you have. I’ve talked to too many scientists who regret spending their careers chasing grants (successfully and otherwise), and maybe I want to avoid that regret while I still have a few decades left of my career.

Have you entertained this idea? Or given the funding rates, have you been compelled into this? Without external funds, how much travel and expenses are you willing to personally incur? How less will you think of me if I voluntarily give up writing external grants and pay for field research, meetings, conferences, and everything else out of pocket? Here’s one thing I know: my publication rate will go up, so long as I find some other way to keep my teaching load down to something reasonable for getting research done. There’s the rub.

19 thoughts on “Self-funding your research program

  1. At my institution, this arrangement is explicitly permitted during sabbaticals, and for certain salary-supplements like Merit Awards and Chair-service stipends. I’ve seen people do it, but it’s very rare. More generally: a faculty member can (as I understand Canadian tax law, and you shouldn’t take tax advice from me either) make a donation to the university which is specified as funds to be used for that faculty member’s own research. The donation is then tax-deductible (see previous parenthesis!), which makes the arrangement financially equivalent to allocating a piece of salary to research grant instead. I know of only one faculty member who has ever done this, though. The upshot: while I totally understand the logic, in practice such arrangements, when allowed, don’t seem popular.

    This may be in part because the Canadian granting landscape is less crazy than the US one – at least for those of us who are comfortable funding research at NSERC Discovery levels. NSERC has gotten less automatic, but it isn’t insane. So it’s possible to spend a lot less time here writing grants.

  2. I really like this piece Terry. And I will confess to similar thoughts on my mind. I am also increasingly hearing people say the similar notion of “well now that I have tenure (or full Professor)” I’m going to stop the grant rat race. The plain honest truth is that grants are very burdensome (both the getting the award and as you rightly point out the administering the award) and in many fields of ecology not particularly necessary. Once you’re willing to do the work yourself or have a graduate student funded on a TA do it or an undergraduate on independent study, the costs can be a few thousand dollars. Of course the Canadian system has already very effectively recognized this (and as an aside I don’t think my colleagues in Canada have any clue how burdensome the administrative side is as it effectively doesn’t exist in the same form in Canada). But here in the US, the main reason I pursue grants is not so much my peers but my Dean and higher ups. The whole American research university is built on indirects flowing. And bringing in those indirects is increasingly more important than actually publishing research. And as long as I care about being well-thought of by the higher ups, I have to play the game. But the burdens of playing the game, increasingly make me wonder whether it is worth it.

  3. As a non TT researcher (my formal title is Senior Collections Manager), all of my research is self-funded. My main costs are travel and supplies for fieldwork, which can add up to quite a bit each year since I’m a very active field researcher with projects on multiple continents, but I can definitely say that time I would have spent writing grants is spent writing papers. Part of the reason I do this is my position doesn’t explicitly require me to fund a research program through grants, and I don’t have students or postdocs to support. Thus, I think self-funding may be more difficult for a TT or tenured faculty member with a large lab who is expected to bring in grant money and support students/ postdocs, but still may be possible.

  4. Why do it as a salary cut, or donate the money to the university? Don’t you then lose a percentage to overhead?

    I’m first to admit that I don’t know how grant funding plays into a research prof’s salary, so enlighten me.

  5. By the way, do you know your blog requires commenters to log in to wordpress? I have often tried to comment here and given up because I did not have that password handy.

  6. Absolutely. I’ve been subsidizing travel for my whole team since day 1. I keep trying to find ways to launder a foundation account donation to my gift account, from myself. They won’t let me do it! It’s maddening.

    Right there with you.

  7. The one disadvantage I can see to self-funding (that is addressable, I think), is you bypass the peer review system, which as pain-in-the-neck as it can be, does provide good expert feedback a lot of times. Self-funded research might be seen as lower quality because it has skipped the review process.

    But I do understand the appeal of it in the current funding environment; and the peer review is addressable w/ self-funding I think.

  8. @Terry:

    Interesting post. Not a question I’ve ever had to consider myself, being based in Canada, so my thoughts are all secondhand or hypothetical.

    A while back I asked DE readers if they spend their own money on their research:

    Most commenters talked about spending amounts of up to a few thousand $/year as a supplement to their grants, or to pay for things it would be a pain to claim reimbursement for, or etc. Nobody said they were self-funding their entire research program on a long-term basis. But that’s not to say nobody does it or wants to do it, obviously. I suspect that self-funding your entire research program would put you on one end of a continuum; it wouldn’t make you some kind of major outlier.

    If I were in your shoes, a big consideration for me would be whether I could do the science I really wanted to do on the portion of my salary that I was prepared to spend. That’s really just a more extreme version of the question I already have to ask myself, since the research grants I have (or have any prospect of ever getting) are modest in size. I already do “shopkeeper science”, so if I was going to self fund it would just be a matter of becoming even more of a “shopkeeper”. Thinking about it, yes, if I thought it was science worth doing and that I’d enjoy doing, and if I wasn’t in Canada where the NSERC Discovery Grant system makes it easy to maintain a modest lab, I could definitely see self-funding my microcosm work. (Aside: I could do that in large part because the necessary expensive equipment has already been purchased. But depending on the nature of the research, one-off expenses for equipment wouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker for an ecologist with a full-time prof’s salary.)

    The main obstacle for me would be my employer’s expectations of my research. It’s not so much that I’m expected to bring in lots of grants and the associated overhead, though that’s part of it. It’s also that there’d be problems for me on my annual performance reviews if my research program wasn’t sufficiently productive and wasn’t training enough grad students. My current modest research program would become more expensive than I’d be comfortable paying for myself if I had to pay summer salaries for 2-3 grad students and a couple of undergrads every year. So my hypothetical self-funded research program probably wouldn’t have any grad students unless they had major scholarships that totally covered their own salaries.

    Interesting point about the tax implications, hadn’t thought of that, it would definitely need looking into if you were gonna do it.


    Just because you’re self-funding doesn’t mean you’re skipping peer review. At least, not necessarily. You’re skipping peer review of your grants, which might mean you’d want to find some other way to get feedback on your ideas before you decide to pursue them. But you’re still submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals (at least, Terry certainly seems to be planning to). And I’m not aware of any cases in which reviewers for journals have judged work any differently because it wasn’t paid for by a grant that had been peer reviewed (I certainly wouldn’t). In ecology and evolution, I don’t think most reviewers look that closely at the acknowledgments or other places where funding sources are identified.

  9. Testing, testing, testing. Leaving a remark without logging in or providing any information. Does this work? If you see this, then it did.

  10. Sharing my personal anecdote here. When I finished my first year as a doctoral student, I spent one month teaching a couple of extra summer courses to earn enough for covering travel and research expenses at a research station outside of my institution. I didn’t think twice about it. As an international student, I am not eligible for most of the big grants out there anyway so I felt I had to be “resourceful” to fund this project.

    Later, I used the data collected that summer to get a couple of small grants and scholarships that were enough to secure further data collection at the same station. I am writing my dissertation now that is based on these summer projects. I am not saying that this is the ONLY way that it could have happened, far from it, but, at the time my main goal was to get resources to get me there, one way or another and that’s what I did.

    Having said that, I do enjoy working on writing grants but then again I don’t have my own group/lab yet, so spending time on writing is a luxury that many don’t have I guess.

  11. To me, this seems like an extension of the approach of not taking summer salary* in order to pay for more science. That is pretty common in ecology, as far as I know. I’m not taking summer salary this year because that will let me pay my lab folks a bit longer.

    I haven’t had conversations about self-funding research (though I agree that it makes sense), but have had conversations with folks who are considering moving to administrative positions because they don’t want to put up with the funding rat race anymore.

    *if one was lucky enough not to have that cut from the grant budget, and if it didn’t get cut before even submitting the proposal, which it often does in my experience

    **I now have 3 kids climbing on me, so time to close the computer :)

  12. As someone who doesn’t see the academic system of hurdles for early career researchers as a desirable part of my life/career, I’ve been seriously considering the following:

    Step 1: Get a high-paying job in software engineering or data science in a large company that is flex-friendly.

    Step 2: Accumulate a nice-sized bucket of spendable money. (Probably establish a foundation or fund to dump the money into for the tax advantages.)

    Step 3: After establishing myself, negotiate to work half-time. 20 hours per week for half pay.

    Step 4: Spend half my time doing scientific research without any strings attached. No grant-writing, no administration, no service (beyond what I want to do), no lab to manage, no faculty meetings. Spend the other half of my time earning a salary that is on par with a tenured professor’s.

    I have other potential plans in mind, too. This is just one of them. There are some logistic bits to figure out (e.g. I might need to maintain a visiting status somewhere so I have library access), but I think it’s a workable plan.

  13. @Margaret,

    Interesting! Sounds like a workable plan to me. You’d be giving up a lot of your salary for science (50%, on the order of 100K/year if by “tenured prof” you mean “tenured prof at a place like Calgary”). Plus however much money you socked away in your foundation. But if that’s what you wanted to do, it should totally be doable.

    Stuff like arranging visiting status shouldn’t be a big deal, though the policies on that vary from place to place. Here in my dept., we call those positions “adjuncts” and expect a bit more of them than perhaps is typical at other places. We expect a bit of teaching, a research seminar every few years, etc. Basically, a bit of a contribution in return for the research grant eligibility, library access, etc. that the adjunct gets.

  14. Ping! This post inspired mine:

    Currently, I’m picking up some costs of my own research. That’s because I’ve deliberately stepped away from the typical “write grants, get grants, administer grants, repeat” model that is common in many places. I realized that my chances of sustainable research funding were too slim, but that it was still my job to create research projects that I could solve with the resources I had, not the resources I would like to have.

    I’ve tried to be very strategic in what projects I pick (e.g., I collected data online for my pet trade papers). I haven’t stopped writing grants, but I’m more selective what grants I apply for. I’ve stopped carpet bombing funding agencies with submissions every opportunity.

    I don’t know how much of my own cash I’ve spent on research. I probably don’t want to try adding it all up, because the sum total over many years would probably be depressing.

  15. Can’t quite understand why everyone seems so positive about this idea. My initial response is that it’s selling ourselves and our science short, and allowing universities and grant funding agencies to continue under-funding ecological science at the expense of (supposedly) money-spinning research. We are already underpaid, we already subsidise universities and funders by working longer hours than we are contracted to do, and many of us also subsidise research from our own pockets, so taking a 20% salary cut just seems to me a step too far.

    As Brian points out, ecological research can be quite cheap, so why is it not better funded?

  16. Just write a book. I think Ken Miller at Brown might fund himself through a foundation into which he deposits earnings from his several books. I think that’s genius. I gathered that from looking at his CV, but I could be wrong.

    I’ve had this discussion with a couple of other young PhDs and it seems to be something that many of us think about and are open to.

  17. I did quite a lot of this as a grad student. I had a stipend and access to lots of major equipment and did get small grants but covered a lot from my own money. I still do this to some extent but my issue with doing this in a major way would be people, particularly grad students. I need to pay grad students an RA which is more than I could afford and I’m not sure I’d be allowed to do this. I could just accept students with fellowships that’s not what I want to do. There are a lot of great students who won’t get fellowships but should get a chance to do a graduate degree. This is just specific to my context and grad program but it’s what keeps me applying for grants. If it weren’t for that I’d use the equipment I bought with my start-up and first grants and then just keep doing work with those resources.

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