We have a great discussion at the "Setting Up Your First Laboratory" table at the Mentoring Event at Neuroscience 2013. I wanted to follow up on some of those discussions with a post about my experiences setting up my first laboratory. I would love to hear about your experiences setting up a new lab or about your questions regarding how to set up a new lab.
Setting up your very OWN research lab can be an exciting and anxiety provoking experience. First, take a second to enjoy the moment. Forget how empty the shelves look. Forget how much work you really want to get done and can’t because you don’t have any equipment yet. You have your OWN lab!!! Congratulations!! Perhaps for the very first time you are getting to put together a lab exactly how you want it. You get to call the shots. But, wait, if you are like most people just starting out; you don’t have anyone there other than you. So it is you and your lab and a whole lot of empty shelves. Now what? I was in this situation a few years ago, and I would like to share my experiences with you about what I learned and would love to hear what you all have learned. I work at a mid-sized primarily undergraduate liberal arts college in the South (the College of Charleston). While my surroundings may be a little different than yours, one thing that I have learned is that most people go through similar struggles setting up their lab regardless of location. Things that I have learned: Build good relationships with your colleagues, your chair, your administrative support staff, and the physical plant (housekeeping/janitorial staff). You don’t need to necessarily bake cookies and take in flowers (though I have found that helps). Say hello and smile every opportunity that you can. These small gestures of collegiality help you form a team around you that will support you when you need it most. These people can do a lot to determine your future success. Be kind. Get your protocols written and experiments planned before you start filling your shelves. This is important for several reasons. First, you need to make absolutely sure that you are able to purchase what you need and can complete your experiments based on what you can afford. Second, the process for getting approvals for protocols, especially IACUC and IRB protocols, can be lengthy. Often these committees meet only once a month. Any edits or adjustments to protocols to gain approval can cost you months. Have back-up plans in place and have someone on the committee read your protocol before you submit. Be thrifty and creative. Regardless of how much start-up money you are given, it will never be enough to recreate your fantasy lab. Find out what equipment/resources your institution may be able to provide through common facilities. If there is a piece of equipment you won’t use often, see if you can borrow it from a colleague occasionally. (This is where tip #1 comes in handy.) Find out when cheaper products can be substituted for the expensive ones. Always call the Sales Representative for the best prices. Often companies have new investigator packages to help you set up your lab. Send your list of supplies to the representative for your new institution and get quotes. This likely will save you lots of money. Don’t assume that your institution has negotiated discounts/pricing or that your administrative assistant that will be processing your purchases knows to use the codes for the discounts. Call the representative or make an appointment with them yourselves. I had to spend a large portion of my start-up funds months before I arrived on campus. Be prepared to get going even before you ever see your space. Keep track of your money. Know how much money you have and how much you have spent. This seems like common sense, but it can become complicated very quickly if you don’t factor things like shipping and handling or taxes (yes, some institutions are NOT tax-exempt). This practice of keeping up with your finances will also help you with developing your relationship with your administrative support staff. Start recruiting help early, but don’t take everyone that applies. If you have money to hire a technician, consider when that person likely will have enough to do to support their cost. While it would be nice to have company while unpacking boxes, think about whether you have enough to do to keep someone else busy for 20-40 hours per week. Also consider that this person will be completely dependent on you to mentor and teach them for 20-40 hours per week. Whenever you aren’t there, they likely will be doing very little for the first several weeks. Make sure that you have time to train someone properly before taking them on. If you are considering taking on students, you need to consider a lot of the same issues. Is the student a good fit for your goals? Do they already have some skills or do you need to train them completely from scratch? Do you have time to train them properly? Does their schedule match up enough with yours that you can meet with them regularly? Are they going to be dedicated for the semi-long-term? You don’t want to spend 40+ hours training a student that plans to leave in a month when you are just setting up. Is their personality compatible enough with yours that you can spend 40+ hours per week with this other person for the semi-long-term and be happy? Keep back-up plans in your back pocket. I don’t necessarily mean a job at a local fast food restaurant. Just understand that things are going to happen. Mistakes are going to be made. Students/technicians are going to unexpectedly quit or need to be fired. This is not the end of the world. In fact, these may be the experiences that help you establish your independence as a research a bit more firmly. These are a few things that I have learned. I would love to hear about things that you have learned along the way or things that you are concerned about while trying to set up your new lab.