Budget matters

This post by proflikesubstance raises an interesting question: should PhD students, and I think we can extend this question to include postdocs, have insight into their labs budget?

I would say yes, however, there are people who have their reservations.

Some say no because they do not want to reveal who is earning how much. Which is pretty silly: for a lot of positions, it is easy to look up how much people should make approximately. Additionally, increased knowledge allows people to make better decisions. Would a professor’s salary be enough to keep an expensive hobby or to support a family? For Germany, you simply google TVL-13 for PhD students/postdocs (depending on the funding agency, PhD students get 50% or 65% of a postdoc salary) or TVL-15 for your professor to get some idea how much they make. Or simply click here to get the relevant info. In most cases, it is doable to retrieve this info regardless of whether your PI wants to share it with you. Others say no because they think it is none of their students business, but merely distracts them from more urgent matters. And surely, I agree, their main concern should be their experiments, their thesis, their work and not money.

However, I say yes to sharing info. People may think twice before ordering things once they know expensive products are, or when they know how tight the budget is. People will be less likely to complain, once they realise how much effort a PI is putting into writing of a grant and how many grants you need to keep a lab running. They also have a right to know when the budget is getting so tight, that their jobs may be at risk, to be able to have a plan B. Or maybe you decide to buy your own laptop once you realise the money’s running very low and there’s no way your boss can get you one. I also think people have to learn how much they should apply for when writing grant applications, to know how much personnel costs, also considering benefits. How are they supposed to learn to manage a lab of their own someday when they’ve never seen the numbers relevant for a lab?

One possible solution for those no-sayers, who do not want to reveal the entire lab’s budget, may be to explain at least how the budget looks like for certain projects. A friend of mine knows how much money is available for his project and gets a certain amount for his project every year, that he can spend however he likes. In his first year, he went to a conference in Chicago. During his second year, he realised that it may be better invested in experiments and ran some additional microarrays. Later on, he realised his project’s money is pretty tight and started saving up, to allow himself some extra months to finish his thesis. Like this, he learns to estimate what he can buy from his money and what is needed for his project, even without knowing the entire lab’s budget.

Contrarily, our neighbour lab has extreme rules concerning ordering. Every single order needs to be signed by the boss. Even water. Imagine what happens when the boss gets ill or is on holidays… His whole lab slows down, typically they manage to borrow some essential stuff from other labs, but still it isn’t running efficiently at all. If you had now given some smaller budgets to your people that a senior person has access too even during your absence, they could keep the lab running with that money. My current boss is less strict, but still we need to consult him for orders more expensive than, say, €150. Just imagine how often one of us drops by to discuss minor things and how these small things may disrupt time scheduled for thinking and writing. Why not give people some more freedom and a small budget of their own? Hopefully they’ll think twice about what to buy with “their” money, while taking some minor decisions away from the busy boss. Everybody happy?


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