Why hard money is better than soft money – what are they anyway?

You might think that hard money is more difficult to get than soft money. But anyway, isn’t money just money? What are these terms in academia? Actually, it is quite simple. The terms are usually used for funding of salaries. A hard money position is typically funded by the institution indefinitely. A soft money position is dependent on repeated grant writing to stay funded. A soft money position is likely to disappear if the grants that fund it end and are not replaced.

Professors at universities, whether tenure track or not, tend to be funded with hard money. Technicians, postdocs, and research scientists are more likely to be on soft money. Medical schools are a bit different. There faculty are generally expected to bring in some of their salary, making those positions at least partly dependent on soft money. If times are tough, or a discipline goes out of fashion, funding could get challenging. Since administrative positions in medical schools are more based on hard money, this situation can drive great researchers into more administration.


Extremely eminent Oxford University professor, Stu West, trying and failing to get stung by a fire ant at Texas A & M University.

Another bit of jargon is when you refer to a position as a line. Generally a hard money position is a line, meaning the position will continue even if the person currently holding it leaves. Sometimes departments have unfilled lines. This means they have nominal agreement from the institution that they should have 3 more people, for example, but they do not have the space or the start up funds to hire them now.

Some people have endowed professorships. This means someone, the person that has named the hard money line, has given enough money to generate most of the funding for a line and some money for research. Universities vary a lot as to how many endowed chairs they have. Some don’t really pay much of the salary and others pay a lot from the donor’s funds. Either way, it is an honor to have one and always comes with some research funding, usually beginning at about $10,000. My endowed chair is named for Charles Rebstock who made his money in whiskey and gave a lot of money to biology at Wash U just before prohibition kicked in. I would love to have one of those glass bottles with his name on it. I do have a nice card he sent to his bank from a wonderful student.

These days a lot of the people that teach undergrads are on hard money lines, but do not have tenure. They usually have titles like Instructor or Professor of the Practice. They are evaluated on their teaching and usually not on their research. Some of our best teachers have these titles. They may be doing their own research in their field or also in pedagogy, the science of teaching. They are more likely to be innovative and experimental and to put time into understanding how teaching works.  There are fewer of these people generally at liberal arts colleges compared to research universities. I’m still struggling with a piece on the different kinds of colleges and universities, but at its most basic, a liberal arts college does not offer the Ph.D. degree.

Hmm, start up is another thing worth defining. I should write a whole glossary, but not today. Start up is money the university gives a faculty member to get their lab and research going. In the sciences at top universities this can amount to as much as a million dollars, or even more. I’ve written about how to get a great start up package, here. This money is for salaries for postdocs, technicians, or grad students (soft money), and for equipment. Lab renovation is usually separate.

Sometimes we don’t even recognize jargon until someone asks. Yet it takes a certain level of comfort to even ask, perhaps perpetuating the problem of academic mystery. It is hard not to use jargon, so ask if you don’t understand what someone is talking about, or even if you think you do, but are not sure.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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