Grant Expiration

Mar 16 2011 Published by under graduate school, grants

This post addresses grant-related questions sent by readers who wonder how to deal with the mismatch in timing that may occur between the life-time of a grant and the time-frame of a grad student supported by a grant. What do you -- as a PI or as a student RA -- do when the mismatch in time is rather large?

If a doctoral student and a 3-year grant start at exactly the same time, and the student finishes their PhD in 4-5 years, things are probably going to work out fine if the grant goes into a no-cost extension for a year or two (it may not have any RA salary left in it, but it can cover some research expenses) and if the student and advisor are efficient about publishing dissertation-related papers so that any publication costs can be charged to the grant.

PIs in doctoral programs that typically take >4-5 years need to get successive grants in order to support a student fully during their grad program.

In a 4-5 year PhD program, if a grant kicks in after a doctoral student has started, chances are even better that one grant will cover the student's research expenses during the entire program of graduate study. And of course it is also possible that a later, related grant might be acquired that can reasonably cover a student's research expenses during their grad school years (and perhaps beyond, if there are continuing expenses relate to the dissertation research).

But what if that doesn't work out? What if the student, for reasons beyond the control of the advisor, takes a really long time to finish their PhD, and the original grant or grants have long expired? Or, in one case described by a reader, what if an advisor suddenly leaves (quits, retires, dies) before a student has completed their research, or leaves just after a student finishes but the student has post-graduation dissertation-related expenses that would normally be covered by their ex-advisor's grant?

Case 1: student time-to-degree >> expiration date of grant(s), through no fault of advisor

Unless the advisor has a slush fund (from indirect cost return, from an award, from residual start-up funds) and is very nice, there may be some expenses that can't and won't be covered: e.g., publication costs, travel to conferences to give presentations related to the dissertation research. This case sounds straightforward, but it may not be if the reasons the student took so long to finish and write their papers were owing to health problems, family situations (including childbirth/adoption), or other factors that have nothing to do with procrastination, writing problems, or a strong desire to remain in graduate school as long as possible. As has been much discussed elsewhere, however, PIs have limited means to provide long-term financial help in these situations.

In this case, students should think ahead and be aware that their advisor might not be able to pay for some research-related expenses after a grant has really and truly expired. PIs should communicate about these issues as well, but students can be proactive about getting the information they need about the lifespan of grants.

Case 2: student starts project after grant has started

Sometimes it can be hard to recruit a student to start on a project at exactly the same time a grant begins. I can typically get someone by Year 2 of a grant and then deal with the mismatch via no-cost extensions, but sometimes even this is not sufficient. It is the PIs responsibility to make sure the student has sufficient resources to do their research in a reasonable time-frame, perhaps by getting a new, related grant to continue the project.

Case 3: the advisor leaves academia (e.g., quits, dies) during or soon after their advisees' years of graduate study

If a PI leaves academia before a grant expires, another colleague can take over the grant so that it can continue to fund ongoing research by students and/or postdocs. It is the department's responsibility to find the best solution that minimizes harm to the personnel involved.

I once had a colleague leave suddenly to take an industry job; we were co-advising a student in his department. I had been PI on the first grant that funded the student, but after that expired, my colleague was PI on the second grant. When he left, his department chair got a professor in that department to take over the grant (there were logistical reasons why I couldn't do it) and co-advising responsibility until the student finished. These things can be worked out.

The department's responsibility may not, however, extend beyond the graduation of a student. If there are lingering expenses for publications etc., a former student or postdoc could contact the department chair to see if there are residual funds, but if not, the outcome is not so different from in case 1 -- when a grant is gone, it's gone -- but in this case there is no chance of additional funding to continue the research.

 

My biggest challenge with this general issue has been finding ways to pay for publications by students (long) after a grant has expired. PIs can't just charge expenses from one project to another, unrelated grant. In fact, we aren't even supposed to use a pencil bought by one grant to scribble a note or equation or brilliant illustration related to another project. Actually, I don't think we are even supposed to buy pencils with grants. In any case, there are restrictions. So, even if a PI seems very well funded, it doesn't mean that s/he could pay for your publication costs if s/he weren't so cheap.

It would be nice if grants never really expired, and continued to pay for all justified research expenses for as long as needed, but so far this doesn't seem to be a realistic option.

 

12 responses so far

  • anon says:

    In my field this is what TA's are for. Also, I'm familiar with a third case: Graduate student starts with no funding for their project, so they start on TA ships, get great preliminary data and then PI uses that data to get a new grant that can pay for the rest of Grad. student's dissertation research.

    • Science Professor says:

      A TA can pay your salary, but not your research expenses.

      Your "third case" is quite common, and is a good way for things to work out.

  • GMP says:

    It is the PIs responsibility to make sure the student has sufficient resources to do their research in a reasonable time-frame, perhaps by getting a new, related grant to continue the project.

    This is true. However, sometimes even the most valiant attempts to secure continued funding may fail or money may be late coming in (such as what we are facing now, with no new budget and hence 80% of last year's allocations and no new grant starts). I think students should be made aware of the extremely competitive and insecure nature of funding, and be ready with a plan B or even C, for instance to teach for a semester or two, switch projects, or finish up early.

  • jen says:

    "In fact, we aren’t even supposed to use a pencil bought by one grant to scribble a note or equation or brilliant illustration related to another project. Actually, I don’t think we are even supposed to buy pencils with grants."

    ROFL. It's funny because it's true (and ridiculous).

  • drugmonkey says:

    Do these students every succeed in getting academic professorships, in your experience SP? or are they essentially screwed?

    • Science Professor says:

      Which students? I think Case 1 students are the ones in the worst situation, but even in this case, I've seen it work out fine in the end (e.g., student took a long time to finish, we all scramble to find money to cover necessary expenses, student gets a good academic job). Case 2 is a manageable problem, and Case 3 students may or may not be OK depending on how proactive and supportive the department is.

  • Jen says:

    My school has an internal "dissertation completion" grant mechanism meant to deal with situations in which funding runs out after most of the experiments have been completed, but before/during writing up the work. The grant provides a one-year stipend to the student, and includes extra money for students to attend one meeting and to help defray the costs of publication. It is open to all PhD students on campus, not just in the hard sciences.

    Students need to be educated about outside funding - some programs/labs do a better job of this than others. In addition to the big ones (NSF, NIH predoc NRSAs, Dept. of Defense), science grad students at my school can apply to any of 4 different internal training grants, and several private foundations. When I was in grad school, my cohort was frustrated by the lack of organized funding information. We compiled a master list of predoc funding opportunites that each of us had come across, and made that available to all of the students in our program. Of the 20 students in my cohort, all but 5 were supported by external or internal training grants/fellowships for at least part of the training period.

  • "If a doctoral student and a 3-year grant start at exactly the same time, and the student finishes their PhD in 4-5 years, things are probably going to work out fine if the grant goes into a no-cost extension for a year or two (it may not have any RA salary left in it, but it can cover some research expenses)"

    Work out fine?!?!?!

    What ivory tower are you living in? You relate this as if it were normal procedure. Normal people can't live 2 years without a salary. Get real!

    • Science Professor says:

      It didn't occur to me that anyone would interpret that statement to mean "work for free for 2 years", but I can see why my wording led to this (mis)understanding. Of course I meant that the salary would be paid by TA or fellowship after the grad RA money was gone, if not by another grant.

  • Fenna says:

    I completely agree with Phillip. How can you expect a highly qualified person to work for free for several years and be a happy? I just wish scientists would not support this culture.

  • anon says:

    This very issue highlights one thing I really like about our system in Australia. PhD students are paid as a tax-free scholarship (the value reflecting that it is tax-free). Te best students get these from the government, which allocates a number to each university based on research performance. In that case the PI just needs funding for research expenses. In every case, it should be offered for 3.5 years (3 years plus 6 month extension) for a 3 year program, and if it is externally funded and something goes wrong, the university should pick up the funding as the student has a scholarship agreement from the university, not the sponsor. Of course not all students finish within 3 or 3.5 years but it is generally a nice system.

  • Anonymous says:

    I think you're being extremely blithe and suggesting that this funding model is easy to manage. Case 1: You say no problem because you can just do a no-cost extension -- but if the student really started in Year 1, then there won't be any $$ to extend after Year 3. Unless you wrote a 4-5 year budget, which in my field doesn't fly. Case 2: "a manageable problem" -- sure, as long as you're successful in getting the next grant. But this is a CRITICAL juncture. If the new grant doesn't come through, you're high and dry. Case 3: I agree this is generally a non-issue. In general, Cases 1 and 2 are the norm. You raised a great topic, but unfortunately you've glossed over the real problems. Our funding model sucks. If the standard grant period were 5 years instead of 3, that would go a LONG way to easing the continual stress level associated with funding. And that way, we'd spend a lot less time reviewing, too!