Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Negotiating for space.

I was talking to some assistant professors recently about lab space, and what I heard really bothered me. I'm hoping the blogosphere can help come up with some rules to live by.

1. It sounds like it's quite common for faculty to be hired without having ever seen their assigned lab space. This, first of all, seems very strange to me. Do they only show it to you if you ask?

2. I've heard many young faculty are hired and arrive into 'temporary' lab space while waiting for a new building to be completed. "Temporary" sounds like it usually means ~ 2 years. Since it's temporary, they have no choice about what space they get and might not have seen it.

3. I've seen many young faculty don't get the space they were promised, but how they handle this can be a bag of worms.

Apparently, asking to be given the number of benches you were promised can tag you as 'pushy'. This is especially bad for women.

Not asking can mean you're at the mercy of whomever you are 'sharing' with, which means you might gain the space eventually, but only if you're lucky and your lab neighbors are decent human beings.

What do you do if they're not?

4. It sounds like these joint/continuous lab spaces (many benches, no walls) are more common than they used to be.

I don't like this arrangement.

I think at least some intermediate or half-walls can be better than no walls.

While I don't mind being completely isolated, because I know there are other ways to meet people, this can be less desirable for equipment sharing and other reasons.

But the idea of (assuming I get any faculty interviews) being offered a couple of benches in the middle of some raucous, enormous shared lab terrifies me.

I wouldn't want to work like that as a grad student or a postdoc, so why would I want to work like that as a PI?

Am I in the minority nowadays? Is this just my inner hermit rebelling against the communal way of life?

I mean, I know there's more emphasis than ever on collegiality and all that, but I'm not convinced we have to design labs like the orphanage in Annie or allow conditions like freshman dorms, in order to, what? Facilitate collaborations? Save money? Steal reagents from each other?

Labels: ,


At 1:14 PM, Blogger Ewan said...

Well... this doesn't match at all my recent experience, so I was inspired to comment at length:

[which details what *was* my experience, this past cycle, with space offers.]

At 1:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went on 6 ass't professor interviews, and for each one I was shown a physical space. You need to see the space.

as far as not getting what is promised. I suppose I can say get it in writing, with both the dean and chair's approval...but what happens if you do that, and they still screw you? I am guessing that means they are actually not that in to you.

At 4:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

depends on the types of experiments you want to do. if you're doing molecular biology and don't need a lot of space at the bench, then maybe it's not as big of an issue. personally, i would be happy just to get a tt job in the first place. but yes, negotiating space should be part of it too.

At 4:11 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Ewan, thanks, looking forward to reading it.

Anon 1:18,

Yeah, that's sort of the point. You can see one space but then when you show up with all your stuff, they tell you it's gone and you'll be somewhere else. Even if you have it in writing, nobody has to honor it, and if you 'make a stink', so to speak, nobody likes you.

Anon 4:05,

I used to feel that way, but I've worked in better and worse lab spaces since then, and now I think if I'm going to do it, there's no point in trying to make do with crumbs.

At 4:24 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Well, Ewan, it didn't take me long to read your post.

Despite what you say, this wasn't a ranty post, I wasn't suggesting or opining, and I didn't say this was the norm. At all.

You said Bizarre to the point of being close to unbelieveable. I wonder why you have to write about it like I'm making it up?

I'm really not making this stuff up, it actually happens. Just because it didn't happen to you doesn't mean it doesn't go on anywhere.

In fact, it sounds like you've been very successful and a little bit lucky to have so many choices that you could pick the one really good one. But you interviewed at 6 places, not 20. You can't say you've been everywhere.

What would you have done if you had only one or two offers, say #1 and #3? This is closer to the situation a lot of my friends have been in, wondering whether, after all this, they're going to be miserable if they take a tt job.

It does make me feel better that you say you don't know anyone who likes the big open labs.

Some people here talk about it like this wonderful thing that all the 'good' places do. We have older buildings without it, but most of the newer buildings have this large multi-bench layout.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

While interviewing for my new position, I was shown all of the lab space in the building and then told to negotiate for what I thought I would need. I asked for and was granted what I thought was reasonable and have it in writing but I haven't actually seen the actual space as things and people are being shuffled around to accommodate me. Going to see the actual space before I officially start is just not possible as I'm currently 2,500 miles away.

I don't think this is an unusual situation at all.

As far as not accepting a position because you don't see the space before negotiations ... for me that would have meant giving up my dream job so that was never an option. Now if you're a rockstar scientist maybe ...

At 5:57 PM, Anonymous Karl said...

This sounds familiar. My undergrad advisor got "temp" lab space that was a slick new lab in a new building. His permanent space was allocated to him after a emeritus prof left, and was in a run down building and much less suitable for our work. A new assistant prof was then given our old "temporary" space.... Pattern?

This was a little'ol hodink Tech U. in the middle of nowhere. Now I'm 2000 miles away in big ol states school by the sea, and space is at a premium. My advisor started with 2 grad students and 2 analytical systems, and shared a lab with just enough space for his stuff with another research scientists group.

As both operations grew, things got pretty cramped, and we started to have problems with "borrowing". Multithousand dollar mission critical hardware should not be borrow-able. Period. To accommodate our needs, we kept getting corners and nooks in other labs. Eventually we occupied, if i remember correctly, the original 1/2 lab, the back side of one bench in the lab 1 story down, a lab in another building a quarter mile away, a handicapped shower stall, the closet in another lab, part of a truck loading bay, an entire ice core storage freezer (turned off, we're not into ice cores) and part of a tractor trailer. Finding things was fun some days.

We just moved into new space after a heated war headed by the dean against another, more tenured, less-well funded, studented, and published department. We now have a lab with a locking door, but we now have to share a strangely allocated (and taped on the floor) chunk of space with a researcher in a building where we still have the detached lab.

I pointed out that all our instruments, in both labs, make an incredible amount of noise, and that it might be best to put all the noisy stuff in one lab, and give the other space to the other researcher, but we apparently need to maintain the current arrangement in the name of "collaboration".

At least I can find a freaking wrench when I need it now.

Share data. Not lab space. Or hardware. Or students. Or needles.

At 6:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're not making it up -- that happens all the time. Get everything in writing. Everything. You still don't have any recourse if the powers decide (irrationally) to screw you, but getting everything in writing will often suffice to show you mean business and aren't going to be walked on without making enough of a fuss to make it not worthwhile.

Another significant consideration is that the Chair can promise you the moon and stars, but only the Dean has the authority to give them to you. The Chair can tell you whatever (s)he wants, but written offers from the Chair generally need to be approved by the Dean, so if you get it in writing, you know the Dean is on board with the package.

At 7:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

in addition to the stealing of reagents, equipment, etc. that's possible, we've also run into the issue of how the lack of walls allows one huge lab space the same amount of flammable liquids as a smaller lab -- it's the walls, not the floorspace that determines these things. so we have to store our flammables on a remote floor and make an appointment to get them. ever need to open a new bottle of ethanol after 5pm? too bad if that's us....

At 7:23 PM, Blogger Kate said...

I already know I'm going to have to fight for what I was promised... and that's even though I have a thoughtful chair.

I don't like the endless benches model -- it makes science feel like factory work.

At 7:34 PM, Blogger microbiologist xx said...

During my stay in graduate school, my department has hired a few new faculty and each time the new hires received the space that they were promised.
However, it does seem like my department's chair has to fight the graduate school for every piece of space that we get. In fact a new building for the graduate school was recently finished at my institution and no one has moved into it because everyone is still fighting over who gets what space.

This should get particularly interesting when our department hires new faculty, all of which are slated to have labs in the new building.

It is disconcerting, to say the least.

At 8:14 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

O.M.G. Shared lab space? Ugh, we have enough problems with shared equipment. I love collaborations....collaborations of the MIND...but when it comes to bench space? No, thanks. I'd rather tape off my area and be called a control freak. Of course, this is more acceptable in grad school than in the political stickiness of Assistant Profland.

As for temporary space, The Boss was placed into temporary space, with the promise of more, better space once some remodeling occurred. You know how long that took? Nearly four years. Temporary space is bad. At best you have less than desirable space. At worst you are completely shut down during the remodel.

At 8:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few more data point for you:
--I did five interviews last year and saw space for all of them.
--Now I'm in a multi-bench space and I love it--until my lab fills up, I get to talk with, share equipment and ideas with my neighbors. I would much rather be in this type of space, but I really like my colleagues as people, and their research is complimentary to mine, so maybe it's a lucky situation.
--I didn't get one item on my start-up that was promised verbally, I discussed it with my chair, and was given it in writing, without any struggle.
--I am a woman.
--I'm at a top-20 private university blessed with plenty of resources, and plenty of good will for young faculty (and that is why I'm here!)

At 8:39 PM, Blogger Becca said...

I like shiny new labs, and around here that often means "big and open". I'd personally want a little "nook" of my own to work in, but having some stuff out in the open doesn't strike me as awful.

At 1:47 AM, Blogger JaneB said...

You asked 'why' - I think that this is because it makes it so much easier to respond flexibly to changes in the funding situation (increasingly common, sadly, even in biomed) which means that DrX's group is going to shrink by 6 people and Dr Y's group has just got a new project that will bring in 4 bodies, oh, and this cohort of PhD students seems to have an unusual proportion of enthusiasts for method B so will likely need to join the labs of Dr Z and DrW... it is SO much easier to reallocate benches, shrinking and growing territory in an openplan space, than to pry groups out of rooms which are now too big for them in order to swap them with other groups...

I'm not saying this is good, I'm just saying this is what is probably going on in terms of this trend.

In terms of negotiating/not being labelled difficult, I think it's key to be absolutely clear what you need. NOT 'that space you showed me' but 'xm of bench space for equipment, xhours a week guaranteed access to fume cupboard with y specification which must be in four day blocks, easy access to -10 degrees storage space not shared with any other organism for containment reasons, a promise that when a post-doc/PhD student is added to my group they are entitled to an additional xm of bench space with...'. You can justify all those things in relation to what they are hiring you to acheive in a way that won't come across as 'but you promised!(pout)'.

Personal preference is an issue. But so are the politics of your new colleagues and the financial and physical constraints of your new institution. New faculty getting new stuff are automatically putting the odd back up because there are never enough resources - it's always important to remember that your centrifuge is at the cost of someone else's microscope attachment, and that whilst you deserve great facilities, so does everyone else.

Personal preferences about working space come well below actually being able to do the job. Shared resources is an issue - I work in an old building so labs are split over multiple adapted small rooms, used by several different groups. We have locked chemical cupboards for 'health and safety' reasons but they handily give groups control over their own materials... the only people with keys to them all are the technicians, who are shared across all faculty, and since they tend to suffer if one area is out of something (if only from the repeated requests for more!) they tend to be pretty good at not 'borrowing' unreasonably.

At 2:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah these things happen sometimes.

Space can be an issue at many places and you can start negotiating and they can be: Sorry nothing we can do now, we'll get you more space but this is it now... What do you do then? Turn down the fantastic TT job?

In that case I think your best bet is to trust that the dept actually wants you to succeed and will try their best to get you what you need. You're concerned about not being liked if you try to push for it later... What?? Really? I think you're much more likely to be not liked for having the attitude that they're all untrustworthy, trying to screw you... That might happen sometimes but usually they want you to succeed and they want to get you what you need.

Call me naive but I took the offer without everything being set in stone and trusted my department. Within a few months the chair negotiated a higher salary for me (on her own initiative) and also arranged a new, larger space.

All this worrying about not being liked if you speak up, especially as a woman, is not productive. Everyone knows you have to look out for yourself. If a few people think I'm a bitch, fine... Mostly it's not a problem.

At 5:31 AM, Anonymous a physicist said...

My experience was positive (got great space in a new building).

I have several friends with negative experiences.

Case 1: Was promised space, didn't get it for several years. Did both theory and experiment, so he kept busy, but the lack of ability to do the experiments he had planned probably relates to why he didn't get tenure. I also think the same negative politics that kept him from getting the space was still present when he came up for tenure.

Case 2: Young experimentalist had to share space for a couple years; had maybe 300 square feet (which is almost zero). Still, was able to do some nice experiments, now has lab space in a new building, and is easily getting tenure.

Case 3: A close friend went to Caltech, was given an office without furniture for several months. I mean, come on -- are we supposed to get in writing in our offer letters that they'll provide furniture in a timely fashion?

So I agree with the point of the original post: often space issues are fine, but sometimes they're really messed up, and I don't think the onus should be on the incoming faculty member to have to solve all this single-handedly.

At 9:29 AM, Blogger Maxwell's Demoness said...

If space (and especially types of space like cold rooms and growth chambers) is important for your research, this is something you really have to be careful about- especially if you are going into a dept that is undergoing renovations/additions.

This is anecdotal, of course, but I feel really badly for a recent (3 yrs) hire to our dept. He was promised-in writing- lab space and 3 fancy growth chambers (absolutely essential to his work). Due to construction issues, it was over a year and a half after he started before he got the necessary chambers and could start his experiments. The growth chambers have had a number of problems that have forced him to re-start long-term experiments multiple times; including a massive flooding incident that flooded our lab too. He still doesn't have any graduate students or post-docs because he didn't want to waste their time until things are actually functioning, so he makes due with a horde of undergrads he directly supervises. Fortunately since the terms were in writing, he has gotten an extension for the tenure process, but he is really worried about that next grant...

At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're wasting your time worrying about something that hasn't happened yet. This illustrates that you probably won't be any happier as a faculty member than as a postdoc, since you are complaining about issues that faculty members face, before you've even reached that point.

At 4:08 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Wow, this turned out to be a hot topic!

I don't see lab space as a 'personal preference'. Although the people who sit next to me and seem to want to work in a cave, because they're always covering the windows (hello! windows are GOOD!), might disagree.

To me, the layout of a lab and availability of equipment to everyone at all hours is 100% necessary for efficient productivity, and should be a perfectly reasonable request.

Techs the only ones with keys? That's NOT a solution. Techs work 9-4 with a 1-hour lunch in most labs at my university, and there are few things I resent more than not being able to get what I need from someone who gets paid more than me to work half as much, when I'm there doing non-optional work on a weekend.

I mean, come on. That's NOT ok.

I agree that big labs can have that horrible factory feel, and can be incredibly noisy.

I guess I just think that lab rats get paid so little, and work such long hours, that it should be a top priority to have a pleasant working environment where stupid avoidable things are avoided.

That means not setting them up to be a mess from the very beginning.

These stories about chemicals on other floors because of safety concerns sound all too believable to me. That's exactly the sort of shit my university would do. (Of course we would probably just hide chemicals in our lab and then only put them back when we were being inspected.)

Maybe we need labs with movable walls? Not cubicles, mind you, but something more modern and aesthetically pleasing? Surely someone has invented this?

Factory layouts suck, but renovations take too long and lead to 'temporary space' nightmare scenarios.

At 5:31 AM, Blogger Hermitage said...

I've been in collaborative labs and they SUCK. Because if something breaks, gets dirty, gets stolen, etc there's collective hand waving and singing of Shaggy's 'It Wasn't Me'

And if you come after the culprit it's likely they'll just coat your stuff in EtBr or HCl or some other nasty chemical and scamper away laughing. Not Cool.

At 6:45 AM, Blogger Odyssey said...

I'm going to disagree with the "factory layouts suck" view. Three years ago my entire department (biochemistry, ~20 faculty) moved from a dilapidated old building where we all had our own labs with lockable doors into a shiny new building with the open lab layout. Many of the faculty were unhappy about this. Three years later? We all love it. There has been very little in the way of "unauthorized sharing", certainly no more than in the old building. In fact we've discovered we can save a lot of money by sharing equipment that really wasn't accessible in the locked-lab building. (There are some rooms with lockable doors for the more expensive, delicate and "unshareable" equipment.) Quite a few new collaborations have sprung up, most spurred by grad students talking to each other in the lab. Perhaps more importantly, there's a general "high energy" feeling in our open labs. At any given moment someone, somewhere has something truly exciting cooking.

To make this work the department spent quite some time figuring out which labs to put next to each other. I doubt that just dumping people together at random would work. Putting labs with compatible "personalities" together does. So for open lab layouts, it's as important to find out where your space will be as it is to find out how much you'll get.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


That sound great, and very unusual.

In fact, you make it sound like the seating arrangements at a wedding reception. I wonder how many people discussed this arrangement and how long it took to come up with? Some really admirable effort, I guess.

I also wonder if everyone (postdocs, grad students included) in your communal area all feel like you do, that it's just the best thing ever? Is it possible that they don't?

My guess is that this only works so well if most of the people in your department have either been there long enough that everyone's foibles are well known to all, and/or the younger folks are too terrified/submissive to make waves should they ever have a gripe about anything.

In the more established situations like these, what do you do if a lab head dies or leaves? Shuffle everybody around to get the right arrangement? No. More likely you'll stick the new person in their old spot, regardless of whether it's the perfect personality fit or not (and who can tell, with a brand-new lab, you never know).

And what are the policies if/when things go missing or get broken? Maybe you have a better solution for the most common complaint everyone else raised?

Still, give it 3 more years and then tell me how you like it. I'm curious to hear if it stays just so amazing, or if it will degrade (as most do).

At 2:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another recent hire weighing in with her experiences.

I had 6 interviews, 2 offers. Both offers showed me the exact space I'd have (I had my choice of two vacant labs in a *brand new* building at the place I turned down, sigh), two of the others showed me the exact lab that would undergo radical remodeling for whomever was hired (taking time...), and the remaining two did not know where the new hire was going to go other than "in this building." It would not have been an issue for me at either of the nebulous places because I assume actual spaces would have been presented to me if we'd come to negotiations, and the reputation of both of those schools are so excellent (top 10) that I probably would have joined the faculty of either under any circumstances.

At the R1 I am joining in fall of 2009, my new department was the only one on the campus to secure, in writing, what lab space was to be given to their new hire. There were at least 5 other assistant profs hired this year, and none of them know exactly where they will be! So it's not just top 10 schools that can afford to pull the nebulous card...

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Ewan said...


[Hitting the smaller issue first: if my options had ben #1 and #3, it would have come down - as it did anyway - to which was a better location fit for my wife and a better quality of life; in that case likely either #3 or repeat the process next year, as #1 was not viable. But space - while nice - is not the biggest factor in any case.]

I agree that I only went to a limited number of places, although it seems that the other commenters from recent successful hires reveal a very similar experience. I actually checked, afterward, with my grad school cohort: that's 3 others at R1s, 2 at first-rate SLACs, 1 at second-rank SLAC, 1 at small teaching college, and 1 on the market this year but not accepting; all the jobs were within the past 3 years.

**NOT ONE** of the folks accepted a position without explicit promises on space, in writing, and the universal reaction was one of disbelief that anyone would consider such. I think the bottom line is that if your only option is to go to a place where they behave so badly that this is being pulled even before you accept or arrive, don't go: it's that simple. {I do not except the very distant positions. Several of my interviews were >1000 miles, one on a different continent - but why would that make any difference? I can't imagine taking a job sight-unseen absent levels of desperation I have not encountered, I guess.}


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home