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New PhD Student, what should I expect my advisor to pay for?


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I joined a lab this fall and things have been going well, but I have hit one snag that has been more awkward than I had anticipated. How do I know what types of things I should pay for myself, and what I should expect my advisor to pay for? 

Some examples:

There is a conference coming up that my advisor wants me to attend even though I will not be presenting anything. Am I expected to find my own funding for the registration fee and hotel costs, or is he since he wants me to go? What if I can't find my own funding?

For research, I will be using a lot of supplies. Both supplies that are commonly stocked in the lab and supplies that will need to be ordered especially for my project. Is it generally expected that I only need to find funding for supplies unique to my project? Or will I be expected to find funding for both? Neither? 

If my advisor finds grants he wants me to apply for but they require that applicants are members of the society (and thus a membership fee) am I supposed to pay this or him?

I know this is a conversation I should just have with him, but I would like to know if there is a general consensus, or just other people's experiences, so I can have a little bit of an idea of what to expect. 


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Some of this is a conversation you'll need to have with your advisor.

In general, I'd expect them to pay for supplies related to research costs, especially lab supplies. You may need to supply some of your own general goods (paper, notebooks, pens) or they may supply some for you. You can probably ask other lab members what the norm is. If your advisor doesnt have funding for your research and expects you to fund it, I'd consider this a warning sign and look at other groups.

For the conference, it depends. You need to talk to them about it.

For society memberships, I'd say it's generally something that you personally would pay for, as very few grants can cover these types of memberships.

As a general rule, your PI will cover things that are on grants- projects, travel, etc. For most STEM fields, especially lab fields, they should cover the majority of your research related expenditures.

In some cases, you may be looking for other funding to supplement that, or give yourself some more ownership of the project, but you should not be paying research costs out of pocket.

The only exceptions to this I've seen are computers/software/office supplies, and things vary more there.

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As Eigen said, it varies with each group but here's a sense of how things are in my field:

Ultimately, the rule of thumb in my field is that if the advisor has a grant that would allow them for pay for it, they would pay for it. However, that said, if you are able to apply for a non needs-based funding, you are expected to do so, even if you have internal funding

The conference you mention would generally be fully funded by advisor in my field. You might be expected/encouraged to find external funding (and in fact, my department funds the first $400 for conference travel for first year students only, with the idea that you might not have something to present yet so this will help cover the costs).

Society memberships: As Eigen said, this is tricky as few grants allow it. Currently, my advisor pays my membership through their startup grant. Startup grants are magical (but limited time) things that basically allow purchase of pretty much anything. (Well in reality, they just come with a heck of a lot fewer restrictions since at my school, it's all internal or donor money). So things that are normally very tricky under federal grants, such as buying computers and paying for memberships, are covered by my advisor's startup grant. My project is funded by a federal grant so for all other things, we charge to that grant. 

Lab supplies: Can't comment since my field does not have these!

Office supplies: In some labs/groups where I've worked in the past, these are paid for by the group but then my lab notebook stays with the group after I move on. The norm in my field is for us to buy our own notebooks and keep them when we move. However, my department also stocks a supply closet with lots of basic notebooks, pens, whiteboard markers, staples, other supplies etc. that any of us can use if we want. It's all on the honour system (we don't sign for the items or anything). Most students choose to buy their own notebooks and pens because we tend to be particular about particular items. Definitely agree that these vary more.

Another note on startup grants: Since my field does not have expensive labs that need to be set up with a new professor arrives, the startup grants go a long way. Usually the new prof will buy new computers for all of their students & postdocs (as permanent equipment is very tricky under federal grants) and also use it to pay grad students while they take the first few years to start winning grants that will cover students. At my school, these startup grants are explicitly meant to "level the playing field" and make new professors more attractive because generally, students would be less inclined to work in a group with no funding!

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