Lab space. This seems to be one of the most contentious topics out there in academia these days, both among current faculty and in negotiations for faculty positions. It’s also described as one of the hidden sources of inequality in academia, with women potentially having less square footage than men. Space is the issue that led MIT to perform a study on the status of women faculty in science, after a female tenured faculty member started questioning the amount of space she was allocated relative to her tenured and untenured male colleagues. It’s also one of the hardest to evaluate, since the need for physical space varies tremendously among and within disciplines, depending on the type of research.
A few weeks, we asked readers to respond to some questions about lab space and many of you did. We were less focused on square footage and more interested in the process of obtaining space and whether respondents were relatively happy with their allocated lab space.
tl;dr: “Negotiate down to the smallest detail for important things. But also remember that even after the best offer letter, there is a very good chance things might not work out as planned … so, have a backup plan. If space is critical for your work, make sure you have another lab, a collaborator’s or mentor’s lab or even lab of a another faculty in your university that you can use at least to do some of your work.”
Basic statistics about the respondents
- 146 responses total: 86% from women, 13% from men, and 1% who identified as neutral
- 40% of respondents were early tenure-track (yrs 1-3), 23% late tenure-track (>3 yrs), 14% associate, 3% full, 15% were non-tenure track (e.g., lecturer), and 4% were other (grad student, postdoc).
- Similar to our readership, most (76%) of responses were from people in the US. 24% were from folks outside the US (e.g., Canada, UK, Europe, Singapore, India)
- 79% of respondents are at PhD granting institutions, 9% Master’s, 10% ug only, 2% other (e.g., research institute)
- 79% of respondents were from public universities, 21% were from private. This one is interesting…I didn’t explicitly break down the responses by public vs private, but I wonder whether the space issues are less at a private university.
- 81% of respondents need physical space other than desks for students. This ranged from wet lab space (e.g., molecular labs), dirty labs (sample processing), machine shops, greenhouses, patient interview/human subjects space, field gear storage space, meeting/discussion space, computing facilities.
- For 61% of people, space was part of the negotiation for their jobs.
These numbers point to a gap- 81% of respondents needed space, but only 61% negotiated for it! From the comments on this and later questions, some people didn’t negotiate because the lab space they were initially offered was adequate and some folks were told they could not negotiate.
- 18% were very satisfied with the outcome, 35% satisfied, 28% neutral, 13% dissatisfied, 6% very dissatisfied
- 43% did not receive guaranteed space in the offer letter, 32% had standard boilerplate about lab space but no specific rooms identified, and 25% received specific guarantees of space in their offer letter. For example, multiple respondents had them “write down specific lab number, sq foot and even the nature of the work place and what needs to happen in that space to prevent contamination”
Setting up the lab space
Once folks arrived on campus, 42% of respondents had no issues with their space when they arrived (whew!), 44% of people had minor issues with their space, but 14% had many issues. In the worst cases (based on the comments), issues with space were not settled until the third year after arrival (which is also the case for Dr.Ms.Scientist).
Many folks found there was a disconnect between the space they were shown during interviews and what was available when they arrived. In some cases, space that was shown during interviews was taken by the time the new faculty arrived, or faculty arrived to find out that what they had been told was “standardized” lab space was actually quite negotiable, or it was shared with others, which they were unaware of.
“Then I got here and discovered none of the places I was shown when I interviewed were actually available”
“The lab looked nothing like the floor plans (as in, there were no counters or cabinets left!) and I had to renegotiate to get what everyone thought I was getting.”
“Turns out that my idea of a lab bench and the chairs idea of a lab bench were two very different things”
As a result, quite a few of the commenters were “satisfied with the result of the negotiations, [but] dissatisfied with what happened when space was actually allocated”
Even if lab space was different than expectations from the interview and negotiations, this often wasn’t an issue. 9% of respondents got better lab space than they were offered, and 83% have the same or equivalent space to what was written into their offer letter. However, 7% of people have worse space than what was written into their offer letter.
To highlight some good news: “Since my negotiations, I have added an additional lab and renovated another one to replace the first. I have about 4 times as much space as when I started and it is of higher quality, overall.”
A difficult path to get a good result: “After years of negotiations, and trying every possible angle, I finally tried to leave the school (got an offer somewhere else) and then, only then, the administration folks paid attention and get me the kind of research space I need to do my work.”
And the 7%:
“I have a 3m x 5m space. I think I am being generous.”
“I have no space – I’ll call that worse.”
And the overall outcome is that 67% of folks had adequate or more than adequate space for their research, 28% are experiencing some constraints, but 5% have space that is completely inadequate for their research needs.
The biggest obstacle is the lack of space at institutional levels: infrastructure growth hasn’t caught up with faculty growth, many universities have old buildings which means renovations are costly (e.g., asbestos in the walls) and power needs are insufficient. It’s summed up nicely by this comment:
“Limited overall space in a zero-sum game.”
There were also some less obvious obstacles. Quite a few respondents commented on the non-transparent distribution of space, which resulted in unclear changes in space allocation or a lack of security depending on who was in charge at a given moment.
“Constantly changing senior administrators, unclear guidelines and policies for doling out space, not enough space.”
Many folks also commented on the lack of “understanding by admin people that academic staff need space – they think we are just furniture to be moved around and fitted in to tight corners”. I have had the same experience- like many respondents, my lab does a mix of “wet” lab work, “dry” lab work, and computational work, yet space appears to be viewed as all-or-nothing at my uni; you are either a molecular biologist or a computational biologist. Many administrators don’t understand that we may not want computational folks sitting at their computers right next to the lab bench, for safety and other reasons. And comments from computational folks indicated a big lack of understanding- just because your research is ‘computational’ does not mean you don’t need physical space other than an office.
The most best and common advocates in space negotiations were the department chair/head (except in those cases when they were an obstacle), but multiple people noted that there are often limits to what the chair can do about a given situation. After the chair/head, the most common advocate is ourselves (“Hah! Advocate?”). Note: cultivate good relationships with the facilities people (speaking from personal experience, and also borne out by survey answers).
The survey also highlighted that many people don’t anticipate lab growth when they negotiate their initial position. Many folks felt their allocated space was “barely adequate right now” and they were unsure what would happen when their lab grew. And the overt and covert institutional pressure to minimize lab space can be tremendous; I only had one person in the lab for the year after I arrived, and I recall comments from various folks (mostly administrators, some faculty) walking through my lab that my space was “underutilized”. Of course it was! I hadn’t had adequate time to recruit new grads, undergrads, postdocs, etc. But consequently, I felt like I had to constantly fight to retain or justify my space in that first year. My advice: try to visit the university a second time, after you get the offer, and focus on space during this visit.
But the view from tenured faculty was mostly positive: 69% of senior faculty have been able to manage their space so it adapts to changing needs, though this number surely says nothing about the amount of time they spent securing their changing space.
Another common theme in the responses was the difficulties that arise with shared space. Shared space arises in a few ways- you may have your own allocated space within a larger shared suite or you may share everything: equipment, benches, etc. My own lab is (will be) a mix of dedicated and shared resources. And this can be a boon- sharing resources allows faculty gain access to specialized equipment, benefit from shared expertise, etc. However, it can also be difficult, especially for junior faculty just arriving. For example, quite a few new faculty found that people from other labs in their shared suite had spread into their promised space by the time they arrived and it wasn’t easy to claim the space they were promised. At times this was a result of the natural spreading that happens when there is empty space next door, but other times there were power dynamics at play, with senior faculty viewing the shared space as “theirs” and not willing to give it up.
And then there are the spaces beyond lab space: “I am a PostDoc sitting in a 9 Person office. The building is just insanely misplanned. Some of the PhD students share a huge office with 30-40 people.” (note: not my comment, but this is very similar to the situation at my university as well)
- Try to get specifics in your offer letter, but also be prepared for your space to be different than promised. And be prepared to spend a huge amount of time on space: designing it or finding furniture that will fit into the existing space, renegotiating it when you arrive, adapting it as your needs change.
- Make sure you know who is responsible for renovations and get this in writing.
“You need to know exactly which space you will have (specific room numbers, square footage) before you sign. Get specifics on any renovations or urgent issues in the space that need to be addressed, and who will pay for this.”
“Try to get the department to pay for renovations outside of your startup fund, as they can balloon quickly beyond the initial quotes.”
- Negotiate for room to grow. Think about your ideal lab size and plan for that.
- Shared space. Make sure you “clarify who controls shared space. While it’s a reasonable thing, it can also be difficult to negotiate decisions about shared space and equipment.” And this: “Be sure you know the responsibilities associated w shared lab spaces, such as who is safety coordinator for whole room (even if someone else’s equipment might be in there).”
- And finally, these quotes are my favorite, and also similar to what I would tell a new faculty member, because they reflect the goal (negotiate the best possible solution) but also acknowledge that reality is often different and that means you need to be flexible.
“Try to negotiate the best space possible but I’m not sure it really matters anyway” because the situation will often be different when you arrive.
Space is an issue because it’s important to our research. It’s the physical location where work gets done and can facilitate or hinder research progress. It also can influence the culture- if your lab is chopped up between locations, then you and your students don’t interact often with one another and miss out on opportunities to form a shared intellectual community. Ultimately, “if you don’t see yourself being successful with your current offer, then you’re setting yourself up for failure or at least a struggle. You aren’t being pushy, you’re just being realistic about your lab’s needs.” You need to “determine what your absolute baseline need is, what you would be happy with, and your pie in the sky desire. Ask for the most and be willing to walk away if it is below your baseline.”
Ultimately, I wish everyone could have a “unicorn experience”: “totally smooth and with no problems at all to date.” Maybe we’ll get there some day, in that shiny future where we aren’t space- or resource-limited.