The Suffering Endured While Ordering for an Academic Lab

Until you reach professor level, if you work in a university-based lab, you’re going to be forced to deal with the process of ordering. That may seem simple enough. After all, we all buy things every day of our lives. It’s a straightforward process, right? Merely figure out what you need, find someone who sells it for a price you (i.e., your lab) can afford, and complete the transaction of money for goods. Alas, that would be an incorrect assumption.


This brings me to reason that I detest ordering at a university.

Surprisingly, it has little to do with my personal aversion to talking to people on the phone. It’s the paperwork, expectation of the product’s performance, and the stress of knowing you are invariably spending taxpayer money that is supplied by a government grant. I feel enormous anxiety when I purchase anything above a few hundred dollars. The reason? That’s money I can’t waste as the same pot pays my wages. Drain the pot and my position evaporates as quickly as the money does.


The Ordering Steps in Academia

The process can be infuriating. Here is an example of how a typical purchasing process may go:

The task: Buy a new hot plate for the lab, with a budget of $800-1000.
The steps you need to take are:

  1. Review all the models available from approved vendors in that range.
  2. Analyze the specifications.
  3. Consider the size (footprint) of the hot plate and figure out where it will go in the crowded bench space.
  4. Haggle with the vendors to get the best price.
  5. Get a quote(s).
  6. Endure a three-day battle to get the vendor to include shipping costs or state on the quote that shipping is free.
  7. Send the corrected quote(s) to the boss (normally your PI), who will now lower the budget to $600.
  8. Redo steps 1- 7
  9. Send the corrected quote(s) to the boss (normally your PI), who will finally approve.
  10. The PI will often forget (despite frequent email requests) to tell you which account to place the order on. Now, you wait for that information.
  11. Send the quote and the account info to the purchasing department.
  12. Receive the PO number, put it into an official form, and send that to the company. Luckily, these days, you can do this via email, so phone calls can be avoided.
  13. Sit back and wait for the hot plate to arrive.
  14. Set up the hot plate.
  15. Listen to complaints from fellow lab members that it wasn’t the model they wanted.
  16. Potentially, then read an email from your PI stating you wasted funds on an instrument that is unsuitable.
  17. Return the item.
  18. Buy the more expensive model with the functionality you originally suggested.

    As you can see, ordering for a lab is a painful, inefficient, and laborious task. These 18 steps only outline the process for something small and relatively cheap.

    Surely, you can only imagine the suffering experienced when you’re asked to purchase something expensive, like a brand new $50,000 instrument.


The More Expensive, the Greater the Justification

Naturally, with greater expense comes greater paperwork. You, surprisingly, still have control over which vendor and model you buy. However, you must justify what you are purchasing and why. For federal funds, this process applies to anything over $3,000. Justification cannot be as simple as, “it’s cheaper to buy from them.” That would make far too much sense. Instead, you must write some elaborate explanation including technical details as to why instrument A is better than instrument B. The advantage of this though is that whoever is reading this comparison in purchasing is unlikely to fully understand the technical details you have put forward. I swear, based on some arguments I have made, no one reads them. Not once have these justification forms been sent back to me for clarification.

The paperwork seems to then go into a deep dark vortex within the university. Somehow everyone from the Dean of the department to the head of purchasing, and, finally, a lawyer needs to sign off on this purchase. You’d think obtaining a few signatures would take a week, maybe two to acquire. Don’t be ridiculous; adjust your expectations to months. During this time, your PI with get impatient and bombard you with order update requests. As a result, you will send weekly follow up emails to purchasing near the end. Which, naturally, makes your relationship with purchasing stronger.


Delivery and Thereafter

You would be forgiven for believing that once the vendor for your shiny new instrument received their PO, things would start to go smoothly. Unfortunately, the three-month (or longer) wait for the money to be released was the calm before the storm. Now, you must deal with delivery.

Large deliveries to a university department can be an exhausting process. Make sure that your quote includes white glove delivery and installation. This ensures the vendor is responsible for getting the instrument to you in working order. Otherwise, you may find yourself using a palate jack to get the instrument into your lab and facing a long stressful setting up process. No matter how the instrument arrives, you can be assured that during your employment, you are responsible for it. Maintenance, securing new service contracts, any troubleshooting whatsoever – it will all land on your shoulders. This is generally irrespective of whether you use the instrument yourself. You are now the resident expert whether that is an appropriate designation or not. It is envisaged that you know what every knob, setting, tube, fluid, laser, etc., does. Be prepared for being berated if you don’t. You are expected to train users in its operation. Their failures are yours too.

This is the final downside to buying something expensive: the expectation. Generally, the more expensive something is, the more data your PI is going to expect from it. After all, this purchase has been a huge investment of funds and time, so it had better produce data that elevates the research. Regardless of how realistic the PI’s expectations are, you will be responsible for the instrument not magically producing a Nature or Science paper.


Final Thoughts

Ordering for a lab is a thankless task that your PI does not consider work. Even when you save a few thousand by haggling, or negotiate some perks like free kits, or a cheaper maintenance package, there is little outward gratitude.

My recommendation: Delegate if you can.

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