How To Negotiate for Academic Lab Space

Space – as in simple square footage, not the stuff beyond the stratosphere – can be a limiting factor in your capacity to conduct research. At most academic institutions, the department chairperson has the final say in how much space each faculty member has. So how can you get a bigger slice of the departmental pie?Advice from Department ChairsHajjar: "

By | August 30, 2004


Space – as in simple square footage, not the stuff beyond the stratosphere – can be a limiting factor in your capacity to conduct research. At most academic institutions, the department chairperson has the final say in how much space each faculty member has. So how can you get a bigger slice of the departmental pie?

Advice from Department Chairs

Hajjar: "The best way to negotiate for space is to show your department chair that program expansion is necessary to advance the field and that you've got the increased peer-reviewed grant to support that program expansion."

Goldberg: "The most cogent argument is, 'I have funding for more people and we could increase our productivity.' We don't do it by money. We look at productivity and scientific quality in terms of publications and student training."

Van Essen: "Present your request in the way [to which] I'm most receptive. What are the personnel and equipment issues that indicate the current space is inadequate? That's what I want to know, with sufficient lead time." To work through what Van Essen calls "a set of shuffles" can take a few months to more than a year.

Henry: "To eke out a little more space, publish a few papers for a year and see what happens. And I guess the corollary to that is: Show the job offer."

The first step is to map out a reasonable request, keeping in mind your dream lab and your rock-bottom requirements, the smallest space you can accept. Having a bottom line also means you need to have an alternative plan. If the answer to the request for more lab space is "no," do you have the option to look elsewhere?

Next, make a convincing argument to the department chair, focusing on funding, productivity, and scientific need. Funding is by far the most effective argument. If you have more grants, not only are you bringing in more dollars, including overhead that pays for facilities, but also you are likely employing more people and producing more work. Productivity can be gauged by publications and number of trainees. And government and foundation funding also demonstrate that your research is highly regarded.

During your meeting, don't forget diplomacy. Acknowledge your chairperson's constraints, which is the finite amount of available space. But don't forget to mention that it's a success for both of you if more space allows you to make greater contributions to your field.


If you are a new faculty member, you should take into account not just what your needs are today, but your needs tomorrow, says David Hajjar, dean of the Weill Graduate School of Medical Sciences at Cornell University. "Whatever you negotiate when you come in, you may have to live with those for the next 10 years."

When negotiating a job offer, pay attention to the institution's and the department's policies on space allocation, as they can vary widely. For example, in the department of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, every faculty member has "a unit of 12 benches," says UCSF chairman Peter Walter. Square footage doesn't enter into the equation, because all the core facilities including cold rooms, tissue culture rooms, and heavy-equipment corridors are shared. It is a system, says Walter, that fosters community and limits research groups to a manageable size. "We don't want empires," he says.

Others are not as egalitarian. Hajjar says labs at Cornell are from 1,000 to 1,500 square feet on average. "That's the key phrase: on average," Hajjar says. "Some investigators here have 800, some have 2,000, but that varies upon the kind of science they do and the kinds of grants they have."


Whether written or unwritten, guidelines help administrators divvy up space fairly. And it helps to have a good administrator. Some may not take on a powerful faculty member for fear of losing them, says Hajjar, and ultimately everyone in the school suffers.

At the University of Western Ontario, "our rule of thumb is 1,000-square feet per faculty member," says James Henry, describing his institution's allowance for medical school departments. The policy means that he, as the chair of physiology and pharmacology, "can simply turn around and apply that in principle." Henry uses written guidelines for space allocation, "to make it very clear, unequivocal and easy to make a decision, and yet leave it open for an appeal process."

More often guidelines are unwritten, says Deborah Goldberg, chair of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Formulas, she says, make her uncomfortable because they're "too bureaucratic."

David Van Essen, chair of anatomy and neurobiology at Washington University in St. Louis, discourages thinking about square footage. He asks faculty members to present their cases in the context of research needs. Overall, don't be "unrealistically optimistic," warns Van Essen. "That's when it's most awkward to work out."


If the answer is "no" and you're not ready to head for greener and more spacious pastures, try to be creative. Consider the advantages of sharing conventional lab space, not just equipment or cold rooms.

Goldberg says she thinks her department could share more facilities because of the seasonal nature of field work. Laboratories are underused when researchers are at their field sites. "Then we have a major sample processing period of a couple of months when we're using every inch of space." A time-share system might be worthwhile, she says, but "it's very hard to retrofit that kind of thing into an old building."

UCSF's Walter took advantage of a recent move to promote cooperation in his department. "We designed the floor layout in order to imprint that kind of [community] behavior. So the labs are open labs," he said. You can't "tell where one lab starts and another lab ends."

Jill U. Adams

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