As a theorist my chief capital costs are software and computers (for large calculations and simulations). If starting at a new institution I would ask for these in my start up budget (about 20k USD). But in 5 years these items might all be obsolete and incompatible. What do I do then?

I understand that most schools have computer replacement programs every x years but the type of computers I would be asking for in start-up are quite expensive and not your typical campus machine.

I am curious what other theorists have done. Especially interested in those that might be at a primarily undergraduate institution.

  • Are we talking about computers for someone to work on (we got 10 year old machines just with new SSDs and they are good for any office work) or doing calculations/simulations? Is there a HPC facility at your institution?
    – user64845
    Feb 20, 2018 at 22:35
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    Also, I'd recommend a more question-like title. The current title does seem to fit the question, though it doesn't give people checking the list a clear indication of what the specific question is before they click on it.
    – Nat
    Feb 20, 2018 at 22:41
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    There are some academic projects that provide HPC/HTC resources to people from other institutions free of charge - this might be another alternative depending on how intensive your computations are and how often they need to be run.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 20, 2018 at 22:42
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    Also, could you maybe give a ballpark for the cost of hardware itself that you would be looking at? Are we talking a single high-powered workstation or a whole cluster of servers?
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 20, 2018 at 22:45
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    Do people still get their own powerful computers on a research group level basis? It seems like the kind of thing where economy of scale means pooling resources is an excellent idea and let dedicated organisations (non-profit or commercial) employ competent people to maintain and upgrade hardware.
    – gerrit
    Feb 21, 2018 at 11:16

2 Answers 2


I'm not at an undergraduate institution, but I am a theorist in a department that doesn't have many of them.

My summation of my startup costs were "People and computers".

A couple of things to potentially consider:

  • People. Support for a programmer, or a grad student, or undergraduate salary for the summer.
  • Consider negotiating for a recurring or longer term startup package. For example, my startup doesn't expire. I know someone else at another university who negotiated for "A workstation costing $X,XXX, replaced every 5 years".
  • Data costs. If you use data sets, or could conceive of using data sets that cost money, you want to allocate startup to those.
  • Similarly, travel and publication costs.

Another approach is to ask your Chair if the Department needs something, and put that in your startup in exchange for...favors, or unallocated funding, etc.


What do I do then?

I daresay that there's only one thing you can do: start to apply for funding as soon as possible, proposing new projects, so that you can get the money required to upgrade your equipment or expand it.

And for what concerns software, when you first buy it, you might also want to buy a support plan for the updates. Over a time span of 5 years, you can probably save a couple of thousand euros/dollars (well, depends on the software, support plan etc.). Or consider free alternatives.

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    In US at least, it seems rare to find grants for capital equipment.
    – BeauGeste
    Feb 20, 2018 at 22:36
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    @BeauGeste At least at my institution in my department, the way that is handled is that computers are considered part of the 'facility' just like desks, chairs, and entire buildings (I presume this is typical, because this is effectively forced by policies of major funders like the NIH). Those things are definitely still funded by grants, just not directly; it comes from indirect costs. I presume you still have some sort of grant-writing expectation in your field?
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 21, 2018 at 0:35

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