Do you spend your own money on your research?

Do you spend your own money on your research?

I’ve done so occasionally. There was a time when my university decided that certain common household items which I also use in my lab couldn’t be purchased with grant money. So I just paid for them myself. And when my grant is overspent, I sometimes won’t claim reimbursement, or will only claim partial reimbursement, for my annual trip to the ESA meeting. I rationalize this on the grounds that I always combine the trip with a vacation to visit family, making it difficult to separate flight segments into those that are reimbursable and those that aren’t. Plus I have so much fun at ESA it almost feels like a vacation anyway. 🙂 And I’ve occasionally spent small amounts of personal funds on other professional expenses, for various reasons.

I actually don’t mind doing this at all. My attitude is that it’s no different than deciding to spend money on anything else I might want to spend money on. I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can afford to spend some of my own money on my research, without having to give up paying the mortgage or the utility bills or anything like that. And of course, I’m only supplementing my grant a little bit with personal funds. If I didn’t have a grant, I wouldn’t be prepared to cover anything like the entire cost of my current research program (about $30,000/year) from personal funds.

I recall that years ago there was a news article in Science or Nature about scientists who were independently wealthy and so self-funded their research programs. This makes them throwbacks. Science hasn’t always been a profession. Professional science, funded by governments, grew out of the largely self-funded pursuits of gentleman amateurs, many of them wealthy. Darwin is a famous example, but far from the only one.

So, do you ever spend your own money on your research? How much do you spend? How often? Why?

28 thoughts on “Do you spend your own money on your research?

  1. Hi Jeremy,

    It’s a pleasure going through your posts.

    I am a young postdoc, having finished my PhD two years ago. My PhD was in evolutionary biology. I wanted to get a feel of community ecology. I must have applied for postdoc to at least 100 people, but it was difficult to switch fields. So, I worked for last one year on a project devised, conducted and financed on my own. It has been difficult as I used all the savings from my PhD scholarship on it, but it has been highly rewarding in terms of leading a project, acquiring skills to attract and keep students and volunteers who will work for free, learning new field-based skills, and learning how to find innovative cheap techniques without compromising on science. I must have spent around 100,000 units of currency on my project. Our currencies are different, but it is still a lot of money (to give you an estimate, it took care of my accommodation, food and field experiments for one year). I spent the money coz I wanted to carry out a project on my own, on a subject I wanted to work in. I didn’t want to get discouraged by employers (and I don’t blame them, since they look for skill and not for passion while hiring postdocs). Monetarily, it’s been expensive. Experience-wise, it’s been priceless!

    Keep writing.

  2. “Do you ever spend your own money on your research?”

    All the time.

    ” How much do you spend? How often?”

    Tens of dollars here and there, probably almost every month.


    I don’t currently have any grants right now. But honestly, even if I did have grant money, the amount of freaking grief I save for nickel and dime purchases is worth it. Because spending a dollar at a my institution is a recipe for an instant headache. It is a horrible, terrible, long, error-prone procedure. It stands in stark contrast to spending my own money, which usually amounts to about a minute of filling in my credit card details.

    Sadly, the situation works against my university, since the torturous procedure for spending grant money makes me less inclined to seek out grant money.

  3. As a ‘practicing’ scientist I spend alot of money on ‘research’. This might not be as much (physical amounts) compared to professionals but it is most likely (as I do not earn any money) a similar proportion of my livable money to those spending in a professional position. The main reason: to get by within my ‘field’ and to have a ‘better CV’ than a competitor for potential research positions. Almost consider it as an ‘investment’. However, maybe I should have not disclosed any of this and simply said: I do not progress within my field as I do not have the funds. As soon as institutions realise that people use their own money, they may be inclined not to give out money… Unfortunately for me, I chose a field which I personally enjoy so money on fieldtrips, conferences etc. is never money wasted.

  4. Yes, usually (1) when things I need right away for the lab from the hardware/hobby store are unavailable at school, (2) when getting dept or grant to pay for something takes weeks due to slowness in purchasing, (3) when a student needs something for their research project and the due date for research proposals is months away, and (4) taking students out to nice restaurant when at a conference breaks the per diem. They need that experience.

    I try to set a max expenditure of $100 – otherwise we have to wait for dept or grant support. I hate waiting though.

    • Just to show how blind I am to the economics of this – I also work for free a lot of the time (summers mostly). Starting out in my yen re track job at a primarily I undergrad institution, I regularly worked weekends on research, grants and lecture writing. Most summers are spent working on grants/research for free. Its great fun but financially foolish. 😥

  5. Yes, I do spend private money for research for similar reasons as you do. This can be several hundreds of € per year, so quite significant sums at times. When without a fund I may pay conference registration fees, accomodation and transport but I also have paid flights to get to field sites or small household items necessary for an experiment where I can’t be bothered to claim it back given the tedious forms you need to fill in. In addition I have housed and provided for departmental guests at our home.
    I guess all this is rather normal and I usually don’t mind it at all. I can’t remember who it was but somebody recently wrote researchers get partially paid in “cool”. Nobody is in it for the money.

  6. Many grad students end up in situations where they end up depositing tens of thousands of dollars into research accounts to finish their own projects. Often committee members or PI’s demand extra analysis that there is no budget for. When you are 4 years deep into a PhD and 5-10k is between you and your degree, its easy to see how the decision is made.

    I know others who get prestigious fellowships (NSF Graduate Fellowship, DOE, etc.) and then drop the difference between their salary before the fellowship and their salary after into spending accounts for their research. I’ve even heard of people taking out loans to fund their PhD projects. I’ve definitely dropped several thousand on these things, though I don’t come close to some of the stories I’ve heard. Its also a small price when compared to the debt other students in post-graduate education come out with. A super competitive job market paired with low research funding across the board may be leading to extreme PhD strategies to get ahead of everyone else.

    • This describes my dissertation experience. The great thing about coming into a program with no predefined project is the experience you get building something from the ground up. The not so great thing is the lack of funding. When I was awarded an NSF graduate research fellowship, I celebrated by buying a spotting scope, then proceeded to sink $6k a year (20% of the award) over the duration the award into my research. It’s all a matter of perspective. If you view the fellowship as a tool to promote academic success, spending money on your research is a no brainer. If you view the stipend as a salary, maybe not so much. I will also note that I have a wife who was unbelievably sympathetic to the plight of the unfunded grad student, which made things easier.

  7. When I was in graduate school my advisor didn’t go to conferences and believed that his students should be financially independent from him and his work as much as possible. He covered our stipend, tuition, and gave us 2,000 a year to spend on research. But if we ever needed more the answer was always no. The research supplied fund was great, but invariably was never enough to pay for all the consumables, supplies, etc to get through the summer.

    This created great incentives to get creative and scrounge for every nickel and dime in departmental, university, and conference money for travel and research. I got better at getting money over time, but I’m sure I had to pay for travel to at least 5 international conferences completely on my own dime. I also always had to cover expenses to travel to my field sites (in my own car) and probably spent a few hundred bucks each season on other items I needed. Of course I deducted all those as professional expenses on my taxes but it still sucked ponying up for conference travel.

    Now I’m in a swanky post-doc where everything is completely covered. I don’t mind spending my own money to get the job done, but its sure nice not having to!

      • Many journals, especially the non-profit ones, will waive page charges, especially if you are a graduate student without a grant. This is not always made abundantly clear up front, but I just wanted to let people reading this know that if you genuinely don’t have grant money to pay page charges you should always ask the journal editor about the waiver policy before ponying up money.

  8. Wow, this is depressing. If the academic culture allows — encourages, even — personal money to be spent for professional purposes, then that puts up a considerable barrier to people of lower economic backgrounds, who cannot afford to be “competitive” due to lack of personal financing power.

    • Margaret – In my experience with my friends growing up and colleagues now, it seem most people that go into academia (in the U.S.) come from a solidly middle class background and had a pretty leisurely childhood (parents basically professionals or white collar workers of some kind). Friends that grew up lower middle class who were smart and motivated tended into move into professions that make more money (M.D., Finance, Law). So yes this culture is a barrier but I don’t think academia is much incentive to college students from lower SES background. I have zero idea if this worldview that I’ve developed has any objective evidence. Interestingly, most of my friends now who grew up really wealthy (family money) tend to be do-gooders (they are on lots of boards of various sorts or are environmentally/politically active) but don’t make much money (my sample is heavily biased since the children of uber wealthy that are adding to this wealth wouldn’t live where I live but in NYC or wherever). One positive spin on all this is that it makes movement between economic classes in the US pretty dynamic (except for the very poor, which probably is not very dynamic).

      My own hypothesis for why academics are largely sampled from middle/upper middle classes is that we’ve lived a fairly comfortable life and one of the perks of a comfortable life is that we can pursue selfish interests rather than make money (see all the “we’re not in it for the money” comments above). And academia is a really selfish interest. Especially most of the stuff we do in evolution (and maybe less so in ecology but I suspect many following this blog are into the theory) that has very, very little chance of making an economic impact on the world.

      So, yeh, many academics not only have sacrificed more lucrative careers but actually spend their own money on their career. At least 2 of the faculty in my very small biology department put a significant amount of their earned income into their research. Neither have kids. I cannot afford that (I have three kids). I do think administrations exploit this (why shouldn’t they?). I was about to write that I don’t spend money on my research but, the reality is I do, although that money is in the form of free time – I do my research in the summer without any support (my research is mostly computational now so I don’t need $$ for consumables, field expenses etc.). In a sense, we all spend our personal money if we think about our salary v. our potential salary had we chosen another profession to ply our skills (so this is an opportunity cost or opportunity debt).

      On working for zero pay during the summer: I was sitting in a bar with a good friend who is a very successful financial manager at a very conservative firm and was telling him that I was working all summer on my research gratis and he looked at me like I was the biggest chump in the world. That look still haunts me today. I immediately experimented with the summer largely off thing for a couple of years (I live in an outdoor recreational friendly area!) but ultimately I’m happier doing the research. I specifically chose to work where I work because I wanted better balance between non-academic and academic pleasures. Finding that balance has been tough. I think I have, but it has taken me about 12 years. (and obviously I good pursue federal grants but that would greatly tip the non-academic/academic pleasure balance thing).

      • “we can pursue selfish interests rather than make money”

        I find this a rather bizarre take on things. Making money is not selfish? Pursuing values (whether personal or altruistic) rather than making money is selfish?

        I generally get where you’re coming from, but I think it does a disservice to academia in general, and the clients of academia (i.e. students who come from a wide range of backgrounds) in particular to have policies that actively reduce diversity.

      • “we can pursue selfish interests rather than make money”

        Maybe I listened to too much NPR this morning, which had a story on the 100th anniversary of the “Theory of the Leisure Class”. Historically (and still commonly), people didn’t have the luxury of pursuing a career that was attractive to them. They just worked. That was the sense of the statement.

        Or more formally, from a classical economics perspective (human decision making is rational), a career in academia is not rational and is, instead, motivated by selfish desires. It is not rational because I decrease my earnings. It is selfish because I act on my desires. Maybe selfish isn’t the right word.

        On the whole, I would say the obstacles to low SES students to pursue grad school in the sciences are much, much less than Med school, law school, or an MBA program. Those you pay for but one gets paid (and tuition waived) in a Ph.D. program. However, in many science Ph.D. programs (and as a postdoc, and as a young faculty, and often as an old faculty) one works very, very long hours for little financial reward and comparatively little status in the community (neighborhood, town). I suspect that’s just not very attractive to someone who grew up with little money and/or status.

      • So here’s the thing: What about the folks from lower SES who *do* want to pursue academia? They are already at a disadvantage because they come from a lower SES, probably couldn’t afford to go to as prestigious a school as the rich kids, and once they were there they faced pressure to do something that would be more lucrative. The few that make it on to graduate school, at least in my experience, are already taking out loans to cover the living expenses that their paltry stipend doesn’t cover.

        So if they don’t have grant support, their PI can’t cover it, and the student can’t afford to pay for something, they can’t do it. Be it a conference or networking experience, an extra couple of hours on some fancy equipment, or reagents. That means their paper won’t get published, they don’t get a line on their CV, and they won’t get future jobs.

    • Maybe this should be separated into two questions.

      1. Do trainees (grad students and post docs) ever spend their own money on their research?
      2. Do full-time employed professionals (professors and such) ever spend their own money on their research?

      In terms of barriers, I’m much more worried about the answer to the first question being “Yes”. By the time people are established professionals, the differences in personal income should be somewhat minimized.

      • The answer to 1 is overwhelmingly “yes” at my institution, while the answer to 2 seems to be overwhelmingly “no.” Students aren’t good at getting grants yet, while the professors have their jobs precisely because they are good at getting grants.

  9. The previous posts make me feel like a cheapskate! I don’t (and would not) spend any personal funds on research. And I would certainly never ask my students to spend their own personal funds. That’s just evil.

    • I generally agree and follow the same practice (although I will shell out $2 for a roll of tape or whatever that it is just not worth the hassle to get reimbursed). And I especially agree about the students and also agree with Margaret’s comments about how this makes the playing field favor economically privileged graduate students.

      However, I have been lucky enough to have grant money my entire career so far. With this becoming increasingly uncertain and luck-based I predict I will have a time in the not distant future without grant money. And I don’t know what I (or my students) would do then.

      • Brian alludes to an important point – many students don’t need to spend their own money because of PI grants. I would argue that the economic inequality associated with lab funding levels has a far more substantial influence on the products graduate students produce (and thus, how competitive they are). I had friends working off of million dollar grants that their advisor was awarded long before they joined the lab, whereas I scratched and scraped for every dollar. Is that an acceptable form of economic inequality? Within this context, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that students who spend their own money on research are tilting the playing field. I would suggest that it’s an inherently uneven playing field and that students are doing what they can in this respect to improve their long-term prospects.

  10. I daresay it’s almost the norm for grad students on fellowships to teach a semester or two and then use those stipends exclusively for research and travel expenses. I certainly do this.

    • Be careful. I’m sure this doesn’t apply in your case, but a lot of those fellowships (including NSF, most departmental and university fellowships I’ve seen) have as a condition of acceptance an expectation that you will “fully devote yourself” to research. TAing definitely violates these terms and you could lose a fellowship. I know when I had an NSF postdoc and I wanted to teach a semester to build credentials, I had to negotiate with the program officer and go part time on the fellowship. If its what you have to do to make ends meet/have research funds I see nothing morally wrong with it, but please check out the terms of your fellowship carefully before pursuing this route.

      • Yep. Control over supplementary employment (or ‘moonlighting’ as I like to call it) is left to the discretion of the university in the case of the NSF predoc, but other fellowships come with different stipulations. In the NSF case, some departments (not mine) will even sweeten the deal by refunding all unused cost-of-education allowance, which can be a large sum at many public schools. There was a brief time at my university where anyone on full-time fellowships was prohibited from teaching, but either subsequent griping or a lack of TA’s made them rescind this policy.

  11. I’m a current PhD student and I often do spend money on my research. I do field work and when I’m buying equipment for my technicians I often pay for my own gear so that I can keep it afterwards, there are also odd things that can’t be bought on grant money that I pay for. I don’t mind it and I’m grateful to have my grant to pay for the big things (vehicles, technicians and fuel).

  12. Good discussion. I don’t have much to add.

    Re: the concern that people spending their own money on their research puts those with less money to spend at a disadvantage, I’d note that that’s just one source of inequality among scientists and trainees, and not a big one in the grand scheme of things. For instance, some people have big grants, some have small grants, some none. Some people are born native English speakers, some aren’t. Etc. etc. Scientists and students around the world are unequal in lots of ways, not all of them financial. This kind of leads to a larger point, that inequality of all forms begins before birth. There’s a massive economic and philosophical literature on how inequality of outcomes in one generation, or early in life, leads to inequality of opportunity in the next generation, or later in life. That’s a huge issue that’s not specific to science and is far bigger than science.

  13. I’m self-kickstarting my indie science transition from academia. But just for the summer, and then I’ll be seeking sustainable funding pillars, egs crowdfunding, venture philanthropy and patronage.

    With the rise of what I’m calling “mission-driven indie scientists,” I think more professionally trained scientists will self-fund either from savings or by taking on debt, like any entrepreneur. And there’s also the option of supplementing external funding streams with fee-for-service experimentation that complements my basic research interests.

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