What does ‘fully funded’ PhD project really mean?

Posted on Posted in recruitment, tenure track

I\’ve been thinking a lot lately about the recruitment of PhD students, given it\’s the time of year when prospective graduate students start looking for labs to join during the next academic year. I\’m keenly interested whenever I see an advert, particularly one of those that list the position as \’fully funded\’. This, coupled with my lab\’s financial realities has got me to thinking.. What does \’fully funded\’ really mean***?

When people say a PhD project is fully funded in advert, do u mean the research, salary, both? Seems like there is var. in meaning. #newPI

— Matt MacManes (@PeroMHC) November 16, 2014

  Here are the logical possibilities.

  • 5 years of salary provided from grant +/- fully funded research,
  • Between 1-4 years of salary from grant (the rest from teaching assistantship) +/- fully funded research
  • No salary from grant (have to teach every semester for salary and tuition) +/- fully funded research

Now, be sure that none of these students are actually paying for tuition, and very few of them have other jobs, so in a sense, they are all full funded, its really what they have to do for the salary, and for how long, that varies. Same thing with research – I don\’t think anybody is paying for Illumina sequencing from their savings acct, the research too is largely \’fully funded\’. What varies a lot is how hard people are working for their research dollars. 

My own PhD was of the no salary and no funded research. For my salary, I taught when I had to, was lucky enough to receive a couple of multi-year fellowships. For research, I applied for and received many small grants, got a NSF DDIG, and learned to be very thrifty (e.g. homemade Taq). My reward for this was ultimate freedom (kinda sorta) to choose my own project. I was at Berkeley, and most of my friends in Evolutionary Biology were in similar situations. I didn\’t feel like I had it worse than most (but maybe I did). There were a few labs that paid grad student salary for maybe a year, and research was paid assuming you worked on whatever the PI worked on.. I\’m pretty sure this is the norm for those of us working on the NSF dime outside of the Biomedical Sciences, no?  What my query on twitter, I got a few responses, which were very enlightening.  

@PeroMHC generally I take it to mean salary. That the research is funded is a given, no? — David Schoppik (@schoppik) November 17, 2014

@PeroMHC student (stipend) or postdoc salary, usually for the length of the grant, unless they will work on it for limited time (NIH/DOD)

— Dave Bridges (@dave_bridges) November 16, 2014

@PeroMHC I would assume research as a PhD project. I never assume full salary as a student since many programs require TAing at some point.

— Sciencegurl (@sciencegurlz0) November 16, 2014

It seems like there is a big divide between those of us working in Biomedical Sciences (NIH supported) versus non-Biomed (NSF supported). Those of you supported by the NIH seem to support your students at 100% (both salary and research are covered, no teaching or grant writing) while the NSF-supported researchers do not (simply no budget for this). Students woking for typical NSF-style labs will have to teach, perhaps a significant amount, for salary and to pay tuition. They will often have to find money for research. Is this a fair assessment of the differences?

As a student looking for a position, this might be problematic, no? Fully funded means different things to different people, and this may not be entirely clear. I guess for me, I would be happy to trade support for freedom, though I could see why a student might not.. For me, having to look constantly for funding as a PhD student was good training for the academic realities. I feel like I\’m better equipped to budget and search for $$ because I had to as a grad student. So.. what does this mean for my prospective students? Hard to say.. I\’ll probably try a variety of models.

All this brings us to our central question, what does fully funded actually mean? Can I reasonably say, for instance, that offering a year of salary, guaranteed teaching assistantships, and money for research is fully funded? I\’m guessing that in NSF-labs this is about as good as it gets. In NIH-style labs, student might be able to get a lot more support. So, for students looking at prospective graduate student positions, know that fully funded might mean something different to different PIs. Ask questions, get details!


*** Discussion limited to the US academic system.

  • I think that if i was choosing a lab, and one lab claimed to have a ‘fully funded’ project, my impression would definitely be that i wouldn’t have to obtain my own salary support, i would have protected time to do 100% research and there would be enough money in the lab to support research costs on that project. I guess there is some wiggle room in there, like if you are pretty sure the person will get put on a training grant or something but the word fully seems kind of absolute. As with most things, its probably better to clarify this with the PI, or be direct with the incoming student. More broadly, I wonder how many students take this into account, relative to mentoring history, other lab funding, project interest, location etc.