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The Black Hole

Negotiating your lab and office space requirements


Patience is power. Patience is not an absence of action; rather it is “timing.” It waits on the right time to act, for the right principles and in the right way – Fulton J. Sheen

Previous articles in this series:

While I have had the opportunity to see some of the good and the bad of the new faculty job search, in the spirit of managing expectations, I present here my negative experience as a warning of what can happen, and where the red flags are.

You’ve got the offer. Now what?
After an initial exciting recruitment process, my negotiations with the university became rocky as we started to hammer out commitments. By early February 2013 we had settled on the content of the department’s commitment to my research program, with outlying line items being laboratory and office space which were expected to be resolved within the month. It was on the basis of these commitments that I made the decision to tentatively accept a faculty position from the university, and turn down other offers. In a bid to obviate misunderstandings, I transcribed all of the department and my commitments to paper and circulated a letter outlining the details of my recruitment offer to the department, who in turn reiterated their excitement to bring me on as faculty. Having established consensus, my wife listed the university’s family medicine program as her first choice for residency, which she subsequently got (and therefore was contractually committed to), and I settled into finalizing my negotiations with the university regarding lab and office space for a June 1st start date that was unanimously agreed upon.

Over the next five months there occurred minimal communication from the department in response to my initiating discussion, and what little there was consisted of assurances that the process was moving forward.  When by May it became clear that we would not be meeting our June 1st start date, we subsequently moved my start date to July 1st. Following further pressure from my end to resolve the still-outstanding issues in the contract, we finally began discussing work space in early June. In the interim my wife had leased and furnished a condo for us in the city, we had ended our lease in Boston, and I had made travel arrangements to arrive at the city for the start of July. While I was not privy to internal negotiations taking place within the university itself (which may have been extensive),  I was assured by everyone I asked that this inefficiency in processing new hires is endemic to all academic departments (which is mostly true) and that I should not be concerned. Nevertheless, the expiration of my U.S. work visa at the end of the year, uncertainty regarding the contract itself, and the time apart from my wife who had moved to the city in May all compounded to make this an incredibly stressful period.

Visit the institution and see lab and office space
It is hard to say if our eventual progress on setting up lab/office space was a result of my continued pressure on the department, or whether things had been proceeding slowly through the administrative beaurocracy that has become the standard in most academic institutions. But after multiple failed starts I ultimately identified the contacts responsible for managing space for the department, and we finally began making headway on these line items in early June.

New investigators need to visit their lab space in person ahead of signing their contract and ensure that it is sufficient to meet their needs, accounting for projected workflow through lab “stations,” bays and desks, and expectations that the lab will likely grow dramatically over the first five years (and possibly thereafter) and how you will expand. Bench space should be available for every student/trainee to conduct “wet work” (lab experiments), and desk space should be identified for “dry work” such as writing papers and grants, following up with e-mails and administrative responsibilities (eg. ordering). Oftentimes labs will require particularly sensitive equipment such as microscopes, flow cytometers, etc. that require specialized space and this should be identified ahead of time, and renovations necessary to accommodate this equipment should be arranged.

Sometimes the final lab space earmarked for a new hire will not be available/ready on the appropriate timeline and in this case, it is necessary to ensure that the temporary lab space will be suitable, and that the department will cover moving expenses and insurance, particularly for sensitive equipment that may require special handling. Access to additional equipment such as tissue culture hoods, incubators, fridges/freezers, autoclave, centrifuges etc., should be identified, and distance of these resources from the lab space should be considered, as they will significantly affect workflow. Next, sufficient office space should be near the lab space; windows, or seating space for your students may be important, and peripherals such as a desk, computer, printer, shelving units, cabinet space, whiteboard and table should be discussed. Oftentimes these items need to be purchased separately from your startup funds, and it is important you know this ahead of time to budget. As before, everything you are shown should be documented in writing and commitments should be included in your contract before you sign.

Always have a fallback plan
Because I have always considered it important to create options for oneself in case things do not work out as expected (a personality trait that has already saved me on countless occasions, and one which I would strongly encourage amongst trainees), I submitted a K99/R00 (transitional award grant application from the National Institutes of Health in the United States) in the fall of the previous year, for which I received notice of award in June. This award carried with it a promotion to “Instructor” at Harvard Medical School (which is equivalent to an assistant professor position) and required me to renew my work visa for at least another year. I had disclosed the possibility of my being awarded this grant to the university during the interview process, and explained my situation to them again in June upon notice of the award in an effort to maintain full transparency. This is important and I would encourage all trainees to maintain open an honest dialog with the institutes to which they are being recruited, as well as their home institute throughout the hiring process. I also made a concerted effort to keep my postdoctoral supervisor and my wife in the loop throughout, and this ultimately proved to be a major support system through the difficult negotiations that followed.

You probably have a fair idea of where this story is headed, but I’ll leave the details for my next post. In the interim, we’d love to hear your stories (the good as well as the bad).

For postdoctoral fellows interested in pursuing a faculty appointment in academic research, I strongly encourage the following resource, alongside which this article should be read: Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty (PDF). Burroughs Wellcome Fund / Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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