I'm from the humanities, where research grants etc. are scarce. Also, training to deal with research grants and external funding is nearly non-existent in my field.

I'm curious as to how graduate students in more external money-heavy areas like engineering or medicine (or maybe even computer science?) learn how to manage a lab.

I saw Managing lab funds , How does laboratory funding and money management work in grad school?, and a few other posts but it still feels opaque to me how people become adept at managing research money at scale — and yet this is a really central part of the job in many fields (but as I said above — not common in mine).

Presumably a lot of that money has allocation rules, accounting rules, and can be audited to insure compliance too.

  • Are there courses in graduate school?
  • is it learned informally from being a postdoc?
  • or does everyone take a funding management compliance course at their university?

Other questions indicate that people do have knowledge of this: Is it usually allowed to use grant money for voluntary contributions? but it’s hard to believe no one has an explanation of how they got this knowledge.

  • 1
    I've never been trained to manage grant funding, but I learned quite early the technique that has solved all my problems in this area: Ask the administrative staff who have been trained and who keep up with all the changes in the rules. These used to be staff members in my department; recently, such duties have been centralized at the college level. There's also an office at the university level, but I've never had to interact directly there. Aug 3, 2020 at 18:02
  • As one of the people who answered the question about donations - I am a professional auditor and I work in university administration. I studied for 6 years, then worked an additional 10 specifically to understand what you can and can't do with money. Aug 4, 2020 at 2:57

3 Answers 3


As with many parts of becomes a group leader and teacher, this is just something you are expected to be able to do. I was never given any training, it was just expected that I was clever enough to work it out!

"allocation rules, accounting rules, and can be audited to insure compliance too" is usually handled by central admin who are professional accountants and administrators.

  • 3
    Yes, this. Accounting is an iterative process where you get angry emails or calls from the accounting department if you do something wrong. After a while, you have enough experience to get it right most of the time. Until they change the rules again.
    – user9482
    Aug 3, 2020 at 9:00

My experience may be anecdotal, but in my personal experience it is all learned informally during grad school and postdoc training. Many folks who eventually go on to become faculty win smaller grants (or even travel grants) during their postdoc time that give them a small amount of money to be in charge of.

In China, where I'm most familiar with the money management process, this can be "baked in" to the early faculty years as many of the "young faculty" grants (analogous to NSF CAREER, etc.) are less structured in terms of separating the grant into different buckets like labor, equipment, etc. This makes management easier because you just spend the money on what you need rather that what you thought you needed when you won the grant. And it gives you a bit of a longer leash when you are learning what are the real costs of running your laboratory. This way your later budgets for more structured/stringent grants are more accurate.

It's also the case that money is never enough in any field, so "management" is as @solarmike suggested, keeping the costs under control enough to squeeze extra time out of the grant until the next one walks in the door!


By far the hardest part of managing funding is getting money in the first place. In order to get a meaningfully sized grant, you need to produce a fairly detailed budget, with good justifications for every kind of expenditure. However, once you have gotten good enough at preparing the budgets to land a grant, it is largely (and to some extent rightly) assumed that you know how to manage actual real-world expenditures. There will always be an employee responsible for grant accounting, who can tell you how much money you have in each account and how long you have to spend it, but unless you try to spend money on something that is obviously not allowed, they won’t have much to say about what you do with the funds.

Research universities always have training for faculty in how to win grants, put on by the dedicated office that handles these grants. Often, this office will can provide a great deal of assistance to faculty members as they are actually writing grants. How useful those services are in practice can be highly variable. At my institution, the grants staff seems to be pretty knowledgeable about how to prepare proposals in the biomedical fields (especially for clinical work at our medical school), but they have a lot less useful advice for faculty in the physical sciences and most engineering fields.

However, there is also a learning process at earlier stages in one’s career. As a graduate student, working on an experiment, one develops an awareness of what things cost. The students use supplies that need to be reordered; use of outside facilities has to be paid for; travel is expensive. However, there is typically little formal instruction in these questions between a graduate student and more senior people.

Later on, working as a post-doc in a research lab frequently carries responsibilities that require being aware of the lab budget. As a colleague said to me, in no uncertain terms, “The post-doc is the lab manager.” A post-doc will often be responsible for basic lab inventory (ordering routine items from suppliers), arranging repairs, etc. To do this job, the post-doc needs to be made aware of the budget, even if major decisions are made by a PI (and even small expenditures probably have to get the PI’s signature).

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