Communicating about lab finances

As I talked about in yesterday’s post, I’ve been thinking a lot about lab finances lately. For the most part, I’ve done this on my own, staring into what sometimes feels like an abyss of spreadsheets in my office. A lot of the recent spreadsheet crunching has centered around some personnel decisions I need to make soon. After spending a while thinking things through on my own, I decided that this would be a good opportunity to talk through some aspects of lab financial management with my lab members.

Overall, I think I’m somewhere in the middle of the road in terms of discussing finances with my lab. I share grant proposals with lab members, but, because the budgets contain salaries, I don’t feel comfortable sharing that portion with the lab and remove it from the pdf. But I think there’s value in them understanding the general process of how things work, so I wonder if I should find a way to share more information with them. The way that fringe benefits and overhead cause budget numbers to balloon is generally completely shocking to people who hadn’t heard of them in the past. I think my lab members are aware of that, but I suspect the numbers I had in yesterday’s post (most specifically, that a $40,000 salary takes away $82,000 from a grant’s bottom line) would still be surprising. They still always shock me a little when I see them!

As I said, a lot of my current budget crunching relates to personnel decisions I have to make soon. At first, I was running through all the options on my own, but eventually decided that I should talk a little more about it with my lab. I think the increased dialogue has been good, both because it directly affects them now, and because it provides them some more information on what life as a PI is like (which is valuable as they consider that as a possible career path).

Should I discuss more specific numbers with them? My inclination is not to. It doesn’t seem right to me to discuss people’s salaries (which is a huge component of the budget for my lab). I’m sure my reticence is influenced by having been raised with the belief that money is not something that is discussed.* While it’s possible that having my lab members slog through some spreadsheets would provide valuable experience, I tend to think it’s not so valuable as to be worth their time. At the same time, it seems problematic that future PIs receive no training in how to manage budgets.

While I mostly haven’t discussed specific numbers with my lab, I have tried to emphasize that people are expensive. I think this is important in trying to avoid penny wise, pound foolish solutions. For example, if something costs $200 but would save them weeks of work, that’s totally worth it. In my experience, there’s often an inclination to undervalue the cost of one’s time when thinking about possible purchases.

If you’re a PI, how much do you discuss lab finances with lab members? If you’re a student, postdoc, or technician: how much does your PI discuss lab finances with you and the rest of the lab? Do you think that is the right amount, or would more/less be preferable?


* Whether or not that is a good thing is debatable. I remember very clearly, as a grad student, when I heard I had received a postdoctoral fellowship; when another grad student heard this, the first thing she asked was what my salary would be. I was shocked at such a forward question. But when I relayed that to a mentor later, he pointed out that being open about salaries is a good thing, given all the evidence for inequities in pay.

5 thoughts on “Communicating about lab finances

  1. Good topic.

    I discuss my lab’s finances with graduate students a bit. Mostly when we’re planning to send the whole lab to a conference, or planning to hire the summer undergrads and setting summer salaries for the grad students. I want them to know roughly how much I have to spend each year and roughly where most of the money goes.

    I also once sat down with my grad students as a group and we hashed out a lab policy for summer salary and fellowships/scholarships/awards. Basically, if a grad student got a fellowship for $X, would I then drop the student’s summer salary by $X so as to be able to spend the money on other things that would benefit the student or the lab as a whole? Or drop the summer salary by some fraction of X? Or not drop it at all? I think that was very useful for me and the students.

  2. I actually don’t know how the “North American”-system works, but is seems quiet different from the european one (as far what I read, e.g. I never heard “summer salary” before).
    From the PhD-student-perspective from a quiet small group:
    I actually know most of the salaries in our working group and our department, simply because it is fixed for university staff or by the funding organisation (an there you can look it up online) and at least the younger generation is quiet open about it. I never thought that the question (from grad student to grad student) how much the salary is, is forward or rude.
    Our PI is relatively open about the money. So from “my project” I know exactly how much money is left. And otherwise (if I am involved) we sit down and discuss if a purchase is valuable enough or not or how we will deal with that. And there normally numbers are used, like “this would cost XY, we still have XY there, so but we buy this and this, …”. I personally like this style, even if we don’t spend the money on the things I want 😉 I usually know why and why the PI thinks other things are more important.

  3. When I worked as a research faculty guy in bio-medicine, the PI on grants was typically an MD that had little involvement in the day to day research activities, and I usually wrote the grants. So I had access to all of the financial information. I found that useful when interviewing for new gigs, because, as anyone knows- salary negotiation is almost always based upon prior earnings. So when that phase of hiring kicked in, I would report my *entire* salary (which included benefits). That allowed me to advance very quickly, and I more than doubled my actual salary in just 5 years.

    As a PI, I always communicate to folks their *total* salary package (actual salary plus benefits)- and relate to them how I once used that to my advantage. You never want to see good employees go, and I am heartbroken when they leave, but I also want them to achieve their potential. Regardless, I feel full disclosure is best.

  4. Just starting as a new faculty, I find the topic really interesting, and I’ve been thinking about it for a while (without a proper answer as of now). I think that, in an ideal world, full disclosure is the best solution. But there are a couple of aspects that may be necessary to consider:

    * I’m working in a public university (University of Florida) where all salaries are public, and searchable on-line! (although the system does not seem to work at the moment of writing) I don’t know the extent of the search though, does it include all personnel? Does it include extras and bonuses? And I don’t think the knowledge of public salaries is well spread — you can’t assume that everyone knows everything about everyone.

    * What about boundaries? I mean, if you can have a clear policy in your lab that is totally different from the lab next door? This may only raise anger and resentment (potentially on both sides)!

    * Full disclosure should come from a clear and “fair” approach of salaries (the definition of fair being to your discretion, and sense of morale); what if it becomes impossible to follow this fair approach? We’re all trying to give as much as we can, but sometimes it is impossible because of funding constraints, or administrative constraints. Simple example: UF being a state university, if I have an employee directly funded by the state, I don’t have control over yearly raises… What if I raise all employees/students, at the exception of the state positions? Awkward…

    * The potential problem of students co-supervised: what if one student in my group gets a much better (or lower) salary because he’s also affiliated to another department with another policy?

    At first, I imagined that I could have a fixed salary grid (XXX for summer interns, XXX for undergrads, XXX for grads, XXX for postdoc, XXX for technicians, XXX for biologists, etc.), but I see more and more that the university won’t allow me to do that (because of the aforementioned constraints). The idea of a fixed salary would have solved the problem!

    I still think most of these issues can be address by discussing money though — notably all constraints (state, department, funding, etc.) — and showing good faith in giving the best to our employees… But this remains a touchy subject in general, I have to agree on that.


    • Excellent points! One thing I’ve learned from being at two different universities is that what is reported as a salary can differ — for example, for faculty, whether summer salary is included or, as you say, whether bonuses for other employees are included.

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