Business Sense: Starting an Academic Lab


One of the most exciting parts of moving to an academic job is the opportunity to build research independence. But that independence comes with new financial needs and responsibilities. First you need start-up funding and lab space. Then you need to figure out how to use your resources effectively--and to keep the revenue flowing. Running an academic laboratory is "equivalent to ... running a small business out of the university,” says Sean Stocker, a professor of physiology at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine in Lexington. Acquiring the resources you need to be successful, and using them well, requires careful budget planning, good negotiation skills, wise spending decisions--and generally good business sense.

Think of setting up your laboratory as a marathon broken into 1-mile chunks.

Making a list and checking it twice

Sean Stocker

Sean Stocker

Courtesy of Sean Stocker

Even before his first job interview 4 years ago, Stocker made a detailed list of the equipment and supplies he thought he would need to build a successful research program. Having that information handy at a job interview looks very good to a potential employer. And it can help you negotiate, observe, ask appropriate questions, and learn what resources--core facilities and other shared equipment--might already be available at the institution. After all, the job interview, Stocker notes, is not a one-way process: “You’re also interviewing them to see if you can develop your own research program at that institution,” he says.

So how do you make such a list? Stocker advises thinking hard about what you want your lab to look like in 5 to 10 years. Think in terms of categories, adds Katharine Huntington, an assistant professor of geology at the University of Washington, Seattle. Your categories might include laboratory equipment, computers and office furniture, personnel costs for the first 2 years (don't forget to budget for benefits), supplies and other recurring laboratory expenses, and travel to conferences and for fieldwork. You’ll need to do some research to find out how much these things cost: Read catalogs, call vendors, and consult experienced academic scientists about the cost of hiring graduate students, technicians, and postdocs.

Kate Huntington

Kate Huntington

Courtesy of Kate Huntington

Huntington consulted faculty members with different levels of experience and asked four friends in different subfields, at different types of institutions, to show her their start-up lists. “It made me think of things to ask for that I wouldn’t have thought of. Part of it is informing yourself on what the norms are, what other people ask for,” she says. Mentors can offer helpful suggestions: Stocker e-mailed his start-up list to his graduate adviser to get feedback. He estimated some of his costs based on expenses in his postdoctoral laboratory.

Although it's a good idea to keep a best-of-all-worlds list, any list you present to a hiring committee needs to take into account the institution type and the resources that are likely to be available, says Scott Fendorf, a professor of environmental earth system science at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. A reasonable start-up package for a mainly undergraduate institution, a state university, and a private university with a large endowment will vary widely. If you insist you need $300,000 at an institution that typically offers $50,000, you're not doing yourself any favors. If you really need that kind of start-up budget to get your work done, you've probably applied to the wrong institution. And if you estimate you need $300,000 but the institution offers $200,000, Fendorf says, you may have to ask yourself if there are creative ways to get by with less.

Rachel Beane

Rachel Beane

Courtesy of Rachel Beane

That creativity is especially important when thinking about start-up costs at a liberal arts college or other institution where research budgets are usually small, says Rachel Beane, an associate professor of geology at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Her laboratory would be incomplete without a petrographic microscope for examining rock samples, she says, but “I wasn’t going to ask for certain equipment to date rocks” or “that required technicians and research support.” Instead, she asked for travel funds and other support that would allow her to work with collaborators at larger institutions.

Of course it's hard to build a start-up list before you are ready to go out on your own--that is, before you have a clear, specific idea of the research questions you intend to pursue and how you intend to pursue them. Yet, you don't have to be completely ready to start interviewing or to begin making your list, Stocker says. Stocker took his first steps toward independence as a postdoc, but when he started interviewing for principal investigator posts, he was still learning, he says. What he learned at the interviews made him a better candidate--with a more complete and definitive start-up list--than he was in the beginning, he says.

Negotiating for what you need

Lynn Wecker

Lynn Wecker

Courtesy of Lynn Wecker

Even though you’ll want to be thinking about your needs and gathering information as you’re interviewing, you’ll want to tread lightly when talking about money. Never bring up money--salary or research support--at a job interview. Wait for a department chair or dean to bring up the topic of start-up funding, experts say. “When I was chair of a department, when we got to the second interview, I would ask the person to put together what their start-up needs were,” says Lynn Wecker, a professor at the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa. “And then when an offer is made, it would be negotiated.” Realistically, you ask for more than what you actually need, she says, with the knowledge that you won’t get everything that you ask for.

Common mistakes in start-up negotiations come in two extremes, Fendorf says. You might be thrilled to be hired, he says, but if you accept your employer's first start-up offer, you are likely to end up with a package that does not meet your needs. Once you have an offer, be reasonable but bold--"honorable and strategic," as one Science Careers writer put it. After you get the offer, Fendorf says, you have to step back and say to yourself, "I’m 90% sure I’ll take it. But before I accept, I’m going to have to go through to make sure that I can be successful there.”

The other mistake is to fixate inflexibly on a dollar amount. Put yourself in the shoes of the person who will be giving you the money, Fendorf suggests. Excessive demands that aren't justified with a compelling rationale or that don't consider the resources likely to be available at a particular institution can be a real turnoff, he says: “Even if you ultimately come to some agreement, you can cause some ill will.” A department chair or dean wants you to succeed, he says, but the money that an institution gives you is money that it can’t spend elsewhere.

Scott Fendorf

Scott Fendorf

Courtesy of Scott Fendorf

So what’s the best approach? Huntington met with an expert in negotiations at the California Institute of Technology, where she was a postdoc, to get advice. First, she learned, know what you really need and what you’re willing to concede. Next, inform yourself about resources available in the department--which you therefore don't have to pay for. If you learn that institution-funded teaching assistantships are readily available in your department, you might give up some student support in favor of a piece of equipment, given that some of your graduate student researchers will be able to earn their stipends by teaching.

Frame the discussion in terms of what you need to be successful, with a clear justification. Even though there were indications that his start-up requests might be high, Stocker says, he got much of what he asked for, in part, because his big-ticket items were equipment and he made a convincing case for why he needed them.

And don't forget about space. You need to know where and how large your laboratory space will be and get that in writing, Fendorf says. If renovations are needed, find out whether those will be included in your start-up expenses or paid for from other sources, Huntington adds. Renovations can be expensive. You’ll also want to negotiate your office space and location so that you're close to your colleagues and your laboratory. “Being close to your colleagues is most important,” Huntington says.

When to spend

A detailed list is a great start, but you have to also consider the time axis: You need to decide what you’ll need when and make it happen then. You also want to know exactly when the money will be available--will it be spread out over 2 years or available all at once--and how much time you have to spend it. Spending deadlines, though, ought not to be an issue because you should be eager to get your lab up and running as soon as possible.

Think of setting up your laboratory as a marathon broken into 1-mile chunks, Fendorf suggests. When Huntington started her lab last year, she organized it into workstations: sample preparation, sample analysis, and general computing. Figure out what you need first, she says; if you can send samples away for analysis, set up your sample-preparation area first. If fieldwork can't wait, purchase the needed equipment early.

Pay close attention to lead times on major purchases and the time it takes to set up equipment; some items may need to be ordered several months, or even a year, before you need them, Huntington says. If your new employer allows it, try to do as much as possible before you arrive on campus, Stocker adds. Although manufacturers will deliver and may help you set up major equipment, the responsibility of that final setup is likely to fall to you, even if you have some staff help, Stocker says. So factor that time into your start-up plans.

Choose your equipment carefully, Fendorf advises, and don't be taken in by bells and whistles. A hot-rod instrument might give a few spectacular readings, but it might also break down more often. You might get more productivity out of a more basic instrument--a “pickup truck,” as Fendorf calls it. You can also think modular, buying a basic system at first that you can add on to later, Wecker says. Look for academic discounts and always try to get a company to demonstrate the instrument and train you in its use.

It's not always necessary to do everything yourself. Huntington hired an undergraduate to help her research equipment and supply prices when she was setting up her laboratory. As your lab grows, you’ll probably delegate supply ordering to a trusted member of your laboratory, maybe a technician, while monitoring monthly statements for errors, checking them against your budget, and making adjustments.

Virginia Miller

Virginia Miller

Courtesy of Virginia Miller

Supplies and other recurring costs can be hard to predict even after talking with mentors and colleagues. Still, you have to estimate your monthly expenses--your “burn rate,” says Jeffrey Bode, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. His monthly expense list included chemicals, consumable supplies, analytical instrument time, and personnel. That’s hard to sort out at the beginning, he says. And even the most careful planning won't eliminate budget-breaking surprises. “Filters are something that totally blindsided me when I first started as a professor,” Fendorf says. Sample preparation for one project required individual filters for 800 samples. At more than $1 each, he quickly burned through $1000 in filters. Don’t forget about animal-care costs, which can be significant, says Stocker.

Saving money makes sense. “For my first 3 years as an assistant professor,” Bode says, “I certainly knew everything that was ever bought and probably had it memorized.” If you can save $5000 or even $10,000 in the early stages of setting up a laboratory, you can use that money to hire a student for a summer, which might make a big difference, he adds. 

But don't pinch your pennies too hard: New discoveries require creative freedom, room for failure, and inevitable waste, says Virginia Miller, a professor of physiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. You don’t want to stifle creativity, she says, “by micromanaging costs and by worrying about the number of pipettes that you’re using.” Don’t hoard your start-up funds, Huntington adds. “Spend it in the ways that will make you successful,” from getting seed data for your next grant proposal to travel to a conference to make valuable connections. Start-up funds are not typically restricted to particular uses, and you might tweak how you choose to spend them as you get started.


Staffing your laboratory brings a variety of management issues. When trying to decide on the appropriate mix of graduate students, postdocs, and technicians, consider the tradeoffs of cost and the role that you’d like those scientists to play in your laboratory, Miller says. Graduate students are often the least expensive personnel, but they may need a lot of training to become productive. Postdocs might come with grant funding but probably won’t stay long. A lab manager or a technician, although more expensive, could provide long-term continuity, quality control, and help with record keeping and expense tracking. If you're at a Predominantly Undergraduate Institution (PUI), take heart: Certain gifted undergraduates can become competent researchers faster than you might think. Still, if you want to maintain a serious research program at a PUI, and if you can afford it, hiring a technician is a very good idea.

Even though the financial responsibility of starting up a lab can seem overwhelming, it’s important to keep your eyes on the ultimate goal: your own brand of science. “I’ve found it enormously rewarding to be starting something of my own,” Huntington says. “Don’t lose sight of the fact that this is all aimed to let you do the science that you want to do.” Bode adds: “Money is a means to an end, and that end should be doing great science.”

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