Starting a New Lab: How to Develop a Budget and Buy Equipment

Starting a New Lab: How to Develop a Budget and Buy Equipment
Kimberly A. Huey, Ph.D.
University of Illinois

Kimberly A. Huey, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, IL. She received her B.S. and M.S. in Exercise Physiology from Seattle Pacific University and the University of Arizona, respectively, and her Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from the University of California, San Diego in 1999. She completed her postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Dr. Kenneth Baldwin at the University of California, Irvine and in 2003 she joined the faculty at the University of Illinois as an Assistant Professor.

In the last Mentoring Forum, you were given important advice on choosing the techniques you plan to implement in your new laboratory, as well as the personnel to perform the experiments. While these choices provided you with many new challenges, you now face the challenge of developing a budget to fund your research dreams and aspirations. Fortunately, as a new faculty member, you will likely have received a start-up package that you negotiated to cover the majority of expenditures associated with the establishment of a successful laboratory. As the name implies, a start-up package should allow you to "hit the ground running" and begin collecting meaningful data to include in subsequent grant submissions. The information you used to negotiate your start-up package will provide the basics of your initial budget. There are 3 major components within a lab budget: 1) personnel (salary, benefits, meeting travel/registration); 2) major equipment, and 3) supplies/consumables.

Personnel Costs

Personnel can constitute a large majority of your budget once you have purchased the major and/or expensive equipment necessary to conduct your research. This is especially true as you move forward in your career and your lab continues to grow in size. However, as a new investigator, your hiring decisions will determine how much of your budget is allocated for personnel. As discussed in the last Mentoring Forum, a new investigator has the opportunity to make the critical hires to begin a successful career, and these hires will likely fall into one of three categories: 1) full or part-time laboratory technicians, 2) post-doctoral fellows, and 3) graduate or undergraduate students. You also likely will have the opportunity to have undergraduates working in your laboratory, but in most cases they will work for the research experience or course credit. Some - but certainly not all - universities will include the salary for a technician in your start-up package. If this is the case, having a competent technician as you begin your research career can be very important in your future successes. First, a technician can work in the lab full time without the demands of teaching or service and may be able to provide technical expertise in an area that is new to you. In addition, a technician can help train graduate and undergraduate students. A good technician will also provide your lab with some continuity, as post-doctoral fellows and graduate students may be in your lab only for a few years. However, a full-time technician can consume a large portion of your initial budget, whereas postdoctoral fellows or graduate students can often be funded from outside sources. A good post-doc can greatly improve your research productivity, as they are usually well-trained and are motivated to be productive so they can be competitive for a faculty position in several years. Similar to a technician, a post-doc can also help you train graduate and undergraduate students. Ideally, you would be able to find a post-doc who has a fellowship from institutes such as NIH or American Heart Association. Depending on the source of the fellowship, it will often cover the salary, benefits, and travel for the post-doc. In a faculty position, you will also be expected to mentor graduate students, and they may comprise the largest portion of your personnel. There are numerous ways to fund graduate students, such as pre-doctoral grants, teaching assistantships, and/or research assistantships. Pre-doctoral grants and/or teaching assistantships would not contribute to your budgetary planning, whereas research assistantships are generally funded by your start-up and/or grants. Ideally, you would like to find post-docs or graduate students that have funding for at least one year, thereby giving you time to obtain grant funding to support them further in your laboratory.

Major Equipment

Before you begin purchasing the major equipment for your laboratory, compile a list of equipment and supplies and divide it into resources that are expensive and resources that are essential to successful research. This will enable you to categorize your budget and thus utilize your funds in the most effective manner. For example, required equipment and supplies could include large/heavy equipment (refrigerators, hoods, lab shakers, centrifuges), microscopy, cell/molecular biology equipment (PCR machines, plate readers), computing and printing, general lab equipment (pipettors, microfuges, vortex), chemicals and reagents, and reference books.

With respect to major equipment, your first step is to learn about core and/or shared facilities within your institution. Most major research universities have core facilities that often include expensive equipment that is generally not within the budget of an individual investigator. For example, some universities have institutes that maintain state-of-the-art imaging equipment, such as electron and atomic force microscopes and functional MRIs. Core or shared facilities would also include equipment that you would not use on a regular basis. Consequently, it is not in your best interest to budget a significant amount of money on such equipment.

After determining the equipment that you definitely need to purchase for your independent laboratory, the first step is to receive quotes from several companies, especially when you do not need to purchase a specific model or brand. Many of the major scientific supply companies offer specialized new lab start-up programs that provide discounts on all types of equipment and lab consumables (e.g., such as Thermo Fisher and VWR; check your other university suppliers for other similar offers). It is also important to develop a good working relationship with the local sales representatives for the companies with which you will be conducting the majority of your business. Second, you should also ask colleagues if they have any spare equipment that they are no longer using and would be willing to donate to your laboratory. Oftentimes, well-funded, senior faculty will be happy to donate older equipment when they update to the newer models. In most cases this equipment works great and can save your budget thousands of dollars. It may also be helpful to develop relationships with investigators with similar research interests/techniques who have established laboratories. In these cases, you may be able to share certain equipment or reagents. Independent of budget issues, it is always important to begin developing collaborations within your department or university.

Another non-traditional source of major equipment is companies that specialize in used laboratory equipment (e.g., eBay). You can "Google" the equipment you are interested in purchasing and often end up with an array of choices. Local appliance or big box stores are excellent sources for purchasing basic appliances, lab furniture, tools, cleaning supplies, carts, etc. While these items can be purchased from lab supply companies, the prices are significantly higher for the same item. Many universities also have arrangements with local appliance dealers to supply basic refrigerators, freezers, and microwaves.

An additional consideration if you purchase new equipment is whether to buy a service contract. A service contract can include many services beyond a general warranty, such as software updates, calibration, certification, preventative maintenance, priority service, and/or additional discounts on upgrades. Service contracts can be costly, and you can either discuss options with colleagues or make your own informed decision. Several reasons why you may chose to purchase a service contract could include reduced hassles if your equipment breaks, faster/priority repairs and a predictable expense in your budget. If a piece of equipment is critical to your work, you use it frequently, and major repairs are very expensive, a service contract may be worthwhile. In terms of budget, you will know exactly what you are going to pay in advance and will not be blindsided with a major "surprise" expense. On the other hand, you may end up paying for services that you never use and therefore paid for "peace of mind," which would extend beyond the typical one year warranty.


Once you have outfitted your new lab with all the appropriate major equipment, the majority of your budget will likely be spend on personnel costs. However, the daily costs of running the lab must also be considered in your laboratory budget. While the daily costs will vary depending on the number of people in your lab, the types of assays you perform, etc., a general rule is that you can plan on spending ~$1,000/month on pipette tips, tubes, glassware, cell culture supplies, gloves, etc. Additional consumable supplies, such as antibodies, enzymes, Elisa kits, and PCR kits, will add to these costs; however, items like antibodies or enzymes--if correctly stored and handled--can last for months to years. After tracking your spending over a representative period of time, you will be able to get a good estimate of how much to budget for supplies and consumables over months or years.

Staying within Budget/Tracking Spending

Following the development of an initial budget to run your laboratory, it is important to track your spending to assure that you are working within the parameters of your budget. This can be accomplished utilizing spreadsheet or database programs, such as Microsoft Excel or Access. A database program, such as Access, can be particularly helpful as you can establish a database of your money sources (start-up, grants, etc), suppliers, and a record of all your purchase orders. This can also save time with regard to purchasing supplies that you buy on a regular basis. For example, you can have a standing purchase order for pipette tips and microfuge tubes that you would just print out and give to the person in charge of ordering when you needed additional supplies. In addition, you could also modify your budget to keep it current as well as track expenditures with programs such as Quicken or Quickbook.


While developing and implementing a budget for your new laboratory may be as fun as balancing your checkbook, it is indispensable to initiating a successful career. Making the most of your start-up budget, in part, can be instrumental in obtaining future grant support. Specifically, budgeting for enough personnel and the necessary equipment is the only way you will be able to generate preliminary data for your subsequent grant applications. Unfortunately, budgeting and accounting strategies are generally not part of your training as a graduate student or post-doc, and thus you must take the initiative to learn from mentors and/or colleagues the best budgeting strategies. Also remember that successful budgeting continues throughout your career, as all granting agencies expect you to present an accurate and well-documented budget for spending the money you obtain from your successful grant applications.

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This is a very practical and thoughtful guide to developing a budget and getting started, and a number of important issues are well covered. One additional comment would be the importance of establishing good working relationships founded on mutual respect with departmental administrative staff as well as key technical staff in other laboratories. These individuals can often be wonderful sources of practical information. They have already figured out how to get things done and how to overcome bureaucratic obstacles, and can really help smooth your way.
Sue Duckles
University of California, Irvine


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