Starting up a brand-new lab is a dream to many early-career researchers, but to make the most of it, they must be wise with their money.
We’ve covered setting up your own lab before, but there’s an awful lot more for you to consider when you begin your tenureship. Here’s some more of the story.
Equipment isn’t the only thing you need to think about when you finally get your (hopefully big) bag of cash. Staff and PhD recruitment is important, as is considering whether you need a closed or an open lab. How should you arrange everything? Does anyone else in the department need to share equipment? Should you stay traditional or move everything online? What else should you consider?
“There’s no point in paying for all of the new equipment if you don’t have enough hands available to use it,” says Rafael TM De Rosales, a lecturer in imaging chemistry at King’s College London. Too much focus on the equipment – be it computers, chemicals or carefully calibrated chronometers – and not enough on the people who’ll be using it, means you could find yourself in a brand new, decked out lab with little research output. Your most important hire will be the first one – your first postdoc needs to be skilled and enthusiastic enough to both carry out the research and teach your future hires what they need to know.
You’ll be under a lot of pressure to recruit quickly, but try to take as much time as required to find the right fit for you. To find good staff, you’re going to have to trawl through a lot of bad applications. Some institutions have dedicated staff to help with recruitment, so check with your head of department. Start posting adverts online; remember you’re advertising yourself as well, so your posts need to be as good as you hope the applicants will be. If you already know an interested and capable candidate – perhaps from a previous lab or through your own networking – contact them directly and if you’re lucky you could save yourself some time.
Do you want an open lab, where resources are shared with other groups, or do you want a more private space? This depends mostly on the department you’re working with. An open lab can be a great collaborative space, where those working on similar problems can help each other.
In less collaborative departments a closed lab space may be a much better way to work. You’ll avoid uncomfortable shoulder-bumping with another group, which is all the more important if you’re working with reagents that carry a significant health and safety risk.
Whatever space you go for, design your lab in as space-efficient a way as possible. Try writing out workflows of experiments you expect to be doing a lot of, and use these to group equipment together (this will also help to prioritise your equipment list, and remind you of anything you’ve forgotten).
Online or offline
Moving all of your work to an online space using a tool such as Labguru can be a great way to foster collaboration and increased communication between your lab members, and a time-saving device for you to look over their work easily. But, it can be more expensive because every lab member will need a laptop or tablet when in the lab. There’s also an increased financial risk; what would normally be a spillage on easily-replaceable paper is now a spillage on a moderate investment.
The financial risk might pale in comparison, however, at the risk of losing all of your research data if there’s a fire or computer failure in the lab. In the end, it depends on what you’re comfortable with and on your field – if you’re researching theoretical physics, for example, the only spillage risk is from the morning coffee, and the fires will be likely be very, very small.
Turning an empty room into the hub where you’ll build your scientific legacy is a challenge, and one you should be excited for – but don’t get ahead of yourself. Making sure to spend the money available to you wisely and slowly will help an awful lot in the long run.
Now you’re set up and ready to go, you need to start justifying your appointment. Next week, John Tregoning, senior lecturer in medicine at Imperial College, London, writes on how to add value to your institution.
The art of setting up a lab, on the Nature Careers.
Advice for scientists setting up a lab, by Addgene.
Going paperless: The digital lab from Nature.
Check out the other posts in the faculty series: