Career Center

By the time John J. Curtin, PhD, was ready to set up his own lab, he was an old hand. During graduate school, his mentor turned to him for help setting up his lab when he expanded into a new space, then hired him to set up another new lab when he switched universities.

"I set up my own lab very much the way I set up his," says Curtin, now director of the Addiction Research Lab and associate psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Most new researchers aren't so lucky. And how to set up a lab isn't something that grad school curricula typically cover, say Curtin and other researchers.

"I had to learn by asking around when I showed up," says Jeffrey M. Zacks, PhD, who directs the Dynamic Cognition Lab and is associate professor of psychology and radiology at Washington University in St. Louis. But you're better off if you start preparing even before you start your job, say Zacks and others. They urge beginning scientists to carefully research their equipment needs, be assertive during negotiations with would-be employers and invest in whatever they need to set themselves up for productive careers.

Zacks, Curtin and other early career psychologists offer more specific advice:

  • Determine your needs. Ask your mentor and other researchers in your field for the equipment lists they used to establish their own labs, says Curtin. Or, start assembling your own list by paying close attention to the day-to-day functioning of labs you work in during grad school or as a postdoc, advises Melissa J. Glenn, PhD, director of the neuroscience lab and an assistant psychology professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. By noting the cost and vendors of supplies, she says, you'll be ready to put together a detailed budget to use when negotiating with would-be employers. Keep in mind that the psychology department or other departments at the schools you're interviewing with may already have some of the equipment you need, she adds.

  • Negotiate a start-up package. "A generation ago, if you got a computer and a desk, you were sitting pretty," says Zacks, who co-wrote a chapter on setting up labs in "The Compleat Academic: A Career Guide" (APA, 2003). These days, he says, most colleges and universities offer new faculty start-up packages that might include funds for equipment and lab renovations, access to fMRI scanners or animal facilities, paid research staff and other resources. Packages vary by institution and even within departments depending on researchers' needs, he says. "Some people say to ask for the moon," says Glenn, although this was advice she didn't follow. "I felt really uncomfortable with the idea of asking for things I didn't need." But do be assertive when it comes to negotiating, she recommends. She was able to negotiate a package that included a pricey microscopy system by explaining it was a long-term investment that would expose students to state-of-the-art equipment.

  • Don't skip the details. Negotiations can be especially tricky in medical settings, says Kevin A. Hommel, PhD, director of a treatment adherence research lab at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. That's because start-up packages aren't always the norm, and space is extremely limited. "You might have to come in with a grant," he explains. Be sure to dig into the details and get things in writing, he recommends. If a position requires you to spend half your time seeing patients, for example, note in the contract exactly how many billable hours you'll be expected to spend with patients. In any setting, find out how long the start-up package lasts, if there are restrictions on the funds and what happens to money you don't use. Also, ask what's available in terms of technical support, such as on-campus computer programmers, support staff and grant preparation assistance.

  • Get a head start. If possible, establish your lab the summer before your job officially begins so you can start the year ready to research, says Curtin. If you can negotiate a summer salary—which Curtin says is fairly easy to do as part of your start-up package negotiations—so much the better. Even if you can't be there, order your equipment as soon as possible. "It can take two months for stuff to arrive after you order it," says Curtin. "That's very frustrating when you're excited to get started."

  • Don't hoard your funds. Early career researchers are sometimes tempted to hold off on buying equipment or hiring staff for fear that they'll use up their money too soon, says Zacks. "That's not smart strategy," he emphasizes. "Failing to be as research-productive as you can only hurts your ability to get that first or second grant." Instead, use your start-up package to invest in whatever you need to launch your research program.

  • Gather a great group. Choosing the right lab personnel—even volunteers—can be a challenge, says Hommel, noting that enthusiasm doesn't always translate into good work. When choosing a research assistant, he supplemented his own judgment by asking other faculty members to interview candidates as well. Because the ability to work well with others is so important, he now insists that anyone hoping to work in his lab do group interviews with lab members. Retention is also important, says Glenn. To keep the students working in her lab, she encourages them to "take ownership of some of the research" rather than merely take on lists of tasks. "That way they feel like researchers in a lab rather than just workers," she says. "I want them to feel they're making a meaningful contribution to the field."

  • Establish good habits. Taking the time to set things up properly in your first year will serve you well in the future, says Curtin. Set up a central server rather than letting personnel work off their own computers, and you'll find you may save a lot of time in the long run. And develop a lab manual—whether it's a computer file, Web site or wiki system—with answers to questions that come up repeatedly. "The next time a student or staff member comes with a question," says Curtin, "you just point them to the manual."

By Rebecca A. Clay


Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.