arning to create and maintain a laboratory budget can be difficult for a new lab manager. Here are some tips to help you stretch your budget to its limits while maintaining the productivity of your lab.
Maintaining your lab’s budget is fundamental to having a successful career. While this can cause a lot of stress and anxiety in the beginning, you will eventually learn the best practices as you gain experience. To help you get started, here are 15 tips for planning and sticking to your lab’s budget.
1. Negotiate your startup package.
If you’re a PhD who will be managing your own lab, one of the first things you’ll need to do is negotiate your startup package. Hopefully you will have an idea of what your minimum requirements are so that you are prepared to ask for what you need. You will negotiate everything from office and lab space, moving expenses and equipment for your lab to support staff and travel costs. The amount of your startup package will vary greatly based on your field of study and whether you are working for a public or private institution. Regardless of what you negotiate, make sure you get it in writing.
2. Go through your lab’s planned experiments.
You will need to know everything your lab plans on using for your research—including personnel, equipment and supplies before drafting a budget. Map out what experiments your lab will be running and everything that you anticipate will be required for them. Once you know what you will need, you can start looking for ways to save.
3. Consult colleagues at your institution.
One of your most valuable resources are your colleagues. Ask them about what things they forgot to ask for or budget for when they were starting out. You can also ask them for example budgets to help you get an idea of what costs you might be forgetting about. You can even consult your colleagues about what equipment is shared at your institution and whether they would be willing to share equipment they don’t use every day. Perhaps you have a common need for certain instruments and can take advantage of each other’s tools. Don’t be afraid to ask around for ideas.
4. Take advantage of core facilities.
Before you purchase any major equipment, find out what core facilities exist at your university. If there is some equipment you won’t need on a regular basis, using these shared tools is a great way to save thousands of dollars. Some universities even have contracts with outside labs that allow you to use their equipment as well.
5. Hire qualified people.
If you’re responsible for hiring and salary is not negotiable, scout out the most qualified people to maximize your budget in terms of value. Having a good support staff of postdocs, graduate research assistants, undergraduate students and a lab technician can make a huge difference in the work your lab produces and the grants your lab obtains. Having a team you can trust and rely on can make a big difference.
6. Save on equipment.
When it comes to buying the equipment needed for your research, you have a lot of options. Make sure to shop around and get quotes from different companies. Another way to save money is to consider buying used instruments. Ask around and find out if there is an old equipment room at your institution with tools that are no longer used. Some may need minor fixes but could save your lab thousands of dollars if you only have to pay for a repair. Some colleagues may even have old equipment laying around that they no longer need or use that they would be willing to let you have.
7. Protect your equipment.
There a few options for protecting your equipment. Many companies will offer you the option of purchasing a service contract when you buy something from them. Think about how often you will be using each instrument when you make a decision about whether or not to get the service contract—if it is something you plan on using every day, it may be beneficial. You also have the option of using protective covers or shields. These can prevent damage to expensive items in your lab and are a good investment, especially if you’ve purchased new equipment.
Another way to protect your equipment is to keep instructions nearby or in a centralized location so your team is educated and things are less likely to be broken by improper use. Make sure these instructions are easy to understand and follow.
8. Buy consumables in bulk.
According to a survey conducted by Lab Manager Magazine, a majority of labs spend over 60% of their budget on consumables. These include pipette tips, gloves, and reagents. It can also include more costly items such as antibodies or growth factors. When you purchase these items in bulk, you will get a better deal. Even if a company does not advertise bulk prices, call and ask. Shop around for these items as well; although they’re less costly than equipment, you will use these items daily so a small savings can save a lot of money in the long run.
9. Request samples.
An easy way to save money in your lab is by requesting samples. Not only are you getting free product this way, but you’re also ensuring that you do not waste money by purchasing materials that are not what your lab actually needs. When you’re ordering supplies, ask the sales representative for samples, and most places will gladly let you try out their products, even products they don’t advertise having samples for.
10. Budget for contractors.
When planning out who you will have working with you in your lab, think about whether you plan to hire permanent employees or contractors. Depending on the length of your need for a particular person’s skill set, you may or may not need them on a regular basis. Hiring contractors to perform certain tasks when you reach a specific part of your research can save you money by not paying for time when you don’t actually need them.
11. Use free software.
There are a variety of laboratory management software programs available—some free and some paid. These programs allow you to manage your lab’s inventory as well as manage order requests from members of your lab. Other ways you can save on software is by using a free electronic laboratory notebook for collaboration amongst your team.
12. Track spending.
Tracking your lab’s outgoing money is essential to maintaining the budget. You should have a record of where every dime you spend is going so that you know where to make cuts if necessary. There are a variety of ways to track your spending. Try using Excel or Google Sheets to organize the money you spend into categories—make a new sheet for each month. You can also download a free app such as Mint, which allows you to track spending through your phone and online banking. Try out both methods and see which works best for your lab.
13. Don’t forget conference and publication expenses.
When mapping out your budget, it is easy to forget about expenses associated with attending conferences and publishing. Depending on where you plan to publish, costs can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Additionally, attending conferences can cost hundreds of dollars from your budget when you factor in travel expenses. Forgetting to account for these costs could leave you emptyhanded or force you to find other places to cut the budget—it’s much easier to factor these costs into your spending plan at the beginning.
14. Perform quarterly reviews.
Anytime you are working with a budget, it is important to see where you stand every so often. If you plan to use your startup funds for only the first year, then you should have a least 75% of your money left after 3 months. However, if you need it to last for two years, you want to have 75% of the money left over after 6 months. It is important to note that you won’t actually have three quarters of your package left at this time, especially if you had to purchase a lot of equipment. Any one-time costs like this should be subtracted from the startup fund amount before dividing the total and determining the maximum amount of money you should be spending quarterly.
15. Start looking for grants early.
One of the best things you can do for your lab is start looking for grants immediately. Eventually, your startup funds are going to run out, so you will need to have grant money to rely on to keep your lab running. Start finding grants to apply for and submitting applications now.
Starting with these 15 steps to maintaining your lab’s budget will help you to successfully manage your first lab. While there will be times that your budget doesn’t go as planned or you won’t be able to purchase everything you’d like, following these guidelines is a great place to start. If you run into any areas when you need advice on the next step to take, remember your colleagues are available and will have some insight to share with you from their experiences.
Noorden, R. V. (2013). Open access: The true cost of science publishing. Nature, 495(7442), 426-429. doi:10.1038/495426a
Witonsky, Jonathan. (2011). Laboratory spending trends. Lab Manager Magazine. http://www.labmanager.com/uncategorized/2011/11/laboratory-spending-trends#.V5fHkPkrLIU
GoldBio Staff Writer
Rebecca is a medical student at the University of Missouri.
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