On Hard and Soft Money

As the academic job hunting season goes into effect many will be applying to a variety of different types of departments. In statistics, there is a pretty big separation between statistics departments, which tend to be in arts & sciences colleges, and biostatistics departments, which tend to be in medical or public health institutions. A key difference between these two types of departments is the funding model.

Statistics department faculty tend to be on 9- or 10-month salaries with funding primarily coming from teaching classes (research funding can be obtained for the summer months). Biostatistics departments faculty tend to have 12-month salaries with a large chunk of funding coming from research grants. Statistics departments are sometimes called “hard money” departments (i.e. tuition money is “hard”) while biostatistics departments are “soft money”. Grant money is considered “soft” because it has a tendency to go away a bit more easily. As long as students want to attend a university, there will always be tuition.

The biostatistics department at Johns Hopkins is a soft money department. We tend to get the bulk of our salaries from research project grants. Statisticians can play two roles on research grants: as a co-investigator/collaborator and as a principal investigator (PI). I guess that’s true of anyone, but statisticians are very commonly part of research projects as co-investigators because pretty much every research project these days will need statistical advice or methodological development. Researchers often have trouble getting their grants funded if they don’t have a statistician on board. So there’s often plenty of funding to go around for statisticians. But the real problem is getting enough time to do the research you want to do. If you’re spending all your time doing other people’s work, then sure you’re getting paid, but you’re not getting things done that will advance your career.

In a soft money department, I can think of two ways to go. The first is to write your own grants with you as the PI. That way you can guarantee funding for yourself to do the things you find interesting (assuming your grant is funded!). The other approach is to collaborate on a project where the work you need to do is work you would have done anyway. That can be a happy coincidence because then you don’t have to deal with the administrative burden of running a research project. But this approach relies a bit on luck and on the research environment at your institution.

Many job candidates tell me that they are worried about working in a soft money department because if they can’t get their grants funded then they will be in some sort of trouble. In hard money departments, at least the majority of their salary is guaranteed by the teaching they do. This is true to some extent, but I contend that they are worrying about the wrong thing, mainly money.

What job candidates should really be worried about is whether the department will support them in their career. Candidates should be looking for departments that mentor their junior faculty and create an environment in which it will be easy to succeed. If you’re in a department that routinely hangs their junior faculty out to dry, you can have all the hard money you want and you’ll still be unhappy. A soft money department that supports their junior faculty will make sure the right structure is in place for faculty to succeed. 

Here are some things to look out for in any department, but perhaps more so in a soft money department:

  • Is there administrative support staff to help with writing grants i.e. for drafting budgets, assembling biosketches, and other paperwork?
  • Are their senior faculty around who have successfully written grants and would be willing to read your grants and give you feedback?
  • Is the environment there sufficient for you to do the things you want to do? For example, are their excellent collaborators for you to work with? Powerful computing support? All these things will help you get an edge over people who don’t have easy access to these resources.

Besides having a good idea, the environment can play a key role in writing a good grant. For starters, if all your collaborators are in the same building as you, it makes it a lot easier to coordinate meetings to discuss ideas and to do the preparation. If you’re trying to work with 4 different people in 4 different institutions (maybe in different timezones), things just get a little harder and maybe you don’t get the feedback you need.

Similarly, if you have a strong computing infrastructure in place, then you can test it out beforehand and see what its capabilities are. If you need to purchase the same infrastructure for yourself as part of a grant, then you won’t know what it can do until you get and set it up. In our department, we are constantly buying new systems for our computing center and there are always glitches in the beginning with new equipment and new software. If you can avoid having to do this, it makes the grant a lot easier to write.

Lastly, I’ll just say that if you’re in the position of applying for tenure-track academic jobs, you’re probably not lazy. So you’re going to do your work no matter where you go. You just need to find a place where you can get things done. 

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