The Trickle-Down Effects of Limited Research Funding

This is the time of year that thousands of PhD student hopefuls get invited to visit and interview at programs they have applied to for this fall. At my institution, interviewees have a chance to meet with multiple faculty members in the research area(s) they are interested in, as well as a chance to talk with current students about their experiences in the program. This is an invaluable time for potential new students to assess whether our program is right for them and for us to determine whether they fit here. It is an incredibly stressful process for the interviewees, which is compounded by conversations about research funding.

Ask any researcher or principal investigator (PI) about funding – how to get it, how long it lasts, how much it covers, etc. – and you will consistently hear about how not enough research funding is available and how difficult it is to be awarded a grant. It is more difficult than ever to find tenure-track positions, become a PI, and establish your own research lab, mainly because of limited research funding. In addition, those who are fortunate enough to start their own lab face a seemingly endless cycle of gathering data, publishing, applying for new grants, and repeating the process year after year. The struggles of procuring funding in academic research is not a secret. However, I do not think that people speak enough about how funding shortages affect new PhD students.

A common practice in PhD programs across the country is for students to spend most of their first year rotating in a few different labs in order to try out various research projects, work with potential doctoral advisers/PIs, and determine whether they can see themselves working in a particular lab for 4+ years. In my program, students have 3 chances to work with a PI for 8-10 weeks, after which, they must choose who to work with for the rest of their doctoral career. My institution boasts 300+ faculty in more areas of biomedical research than I can name, whom we are able to choose from for rotations.

When choosing a rotation lab, we are encouraged to have a conversation with that lab’s PI about whether or not they have funding for a PhD student. In my experience, PIs are very clear about whether they believe they have enough funding to take on a PhD student. Unfortunately, I have found that not every PI knows how much a PhD student really costs. In my program, each student’s yearly tuition is under $5,000, medical insurance is about $8,000, and our annual stipend is $32,000, totaling about $45,000 per student, per year, that the PI is responsible to pay. For those unfamiliar with researcher salaries, that is approximately the cost of a postdoctoral fellow. The productivity of a graduate student versus a postdoctoral fellow can be debated, but PhD students would be in a lab for 4+ years, whereas postdocs can be a financial commitment of only 1-2 years.

When faced with the full assessment of the financial burden of a PhD student, faculty can become understandably reticent about whether they are ready and able to make that kind of financial commitment. Regrettably, students may not have this detailed a discussion about finances with their rotation PIs until later in their rotation when they have expressed interest in joining that lab. This heartbreaking news is then followed by that student scrambling to find another PI to rotate with who has the ideal combination of interesting research, desired mentorship style, optimal lab environment, has funding for a PhD student, and hasn’t yet committed to another student.

I can say from first hand experience that all of this happening can feel like the world is crumbling around you, but you still have to wake up in the morning, go to the lab you want but know you can’t join, finish your rotation project, keep going to class, and fulfill every other responsibility you have, while trying to find a new lab which fits the aforementioned criteria. It is no wonder that PhD students commonly face mental health problems.

In most instances, the PI is not to blame for this problem. There are miscommunications, gaps in knowledge, last-minute changes in finance allocations, and, as ever, a general lack of research funding. To their credit, my institution’s administrators understand that financial commitments of 4+ years can be tricky and do everything they can to assure that a student will not be forced out of a lab/project after 2-3 years due to a PI’s lack of research funds. Additionally, my program offers internal fellowships to partially or fully cover the student’s costs, but those are very competitive and can only be applied for 2-3 years into a doctoral project.

Undergraduate seniors and incoming PhD students can apply for external fellowships from federal organizations like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, as well as a few private organizations like the Hertz Fellowship. These fellowships cover part to all of a student’s tuition/fees and offer a stipend that is typically more than what the PhD institution offers, but only fund 1-10% of applicants (depending on the fellowship program) and can require students to plan a research project months in advance of them choosing a lab/project/adviser.

Other popular external fellowships, such as those offered by the National Institutes of Health, are monetarily valuable, but require the student to have chosen and started working on a doctoral project, meaning they cannot be applied for until months after the student has joined a lab. Essentially, a PhD student can only secure funding for themselves when they are either extremely forward-planning or after a PI has already agreed to cover their costs. But again, these external programs have, at best, a 10-15% acceptance rate, leaving thousands of students across the country to be funded exclusively by their PIs.

While limited funding for PhD students is a multi-faceted problem, including issues like increased tuition prices and necessary increases in stipend to provide a living wage, I do not know of any other way fix this problem without specifically allocating more federal funds for graduate students in the forms of fellowships and more accessible research project grants.


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