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I am from Europe, I have a PhD in biology and I'm doing my postdoc in a prestigious US university. I like the lab and I love my job. However, I noticed some important differences compared with EU standards. First and foremost, our boss doesn't want to buy computers or other electronic devices for us because, according to the lab rules, we should either bring our home computer to the lab or buy one with our own money. The lab is pretty wealthy and I'm sure that buying middle-range computers for everyone will not be an issue. I think it is more a matter of principle. You get your own lab space and this is it. How you organize your research is your problem. I know for certain that other labs in our department have the same policy.

I just wanted to ask this community how common this is in the US. I can tell you right away that in Europe this would never happen. It is not my intention to criticize this system. I am simply asking if it is common and if you find these conditions acceptable.

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    Not really an answer, but university IT management systems and processes are not always well-aligned with the practical realities of research. From a pragmatic perspective life may well be (or appear) easier if people use privately-owned devices that can be configured as they wish, and that they can keep when they move on to their next position. (Please ignore the anguished screams coming from your friendly neighbourhood cybersecurity professional...)
    – avid
    Jul 28, 2023 at 7:21
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    Are you officially employed to do work in the lab (as in an actual employer-employee relationship, rather than a contractor)? Is the work done in the lab owned by you or those who employ you? It sounds like you are employed, but there are just so many pitfalls from the employer's point of view with having people use their own devices that it seems necessary to verify one way or another.
    – Makyen
    Jul 28, 2023 at 22:58
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    There is always a budget allocated for employee equipment. In most staff positions it's a standard allocation. On the chance they allow personal machines you are giving up that additional allocation. The equipment usually purchased in advance will be a business model, but not bottom of the barrel. If the purchase is made afterward arrival you will often be asked about it. @avid, by "not aligned" it sounds like you have dealt with bas technical coordinators, I have heard of them skimming budget allocations for other projects, but that is a serious issue.
    – orbatos
    Jul 29, 2023 at 1:43
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    Another issue is that mixing lab-related content & communications on your own personal computer & phone & cloud means that in the event of a lawsuit, prosecution, or audit, your computer & phone & cloud in its entirety could potentially be subpoenaed, without regard for your privacy. Jul 30, 2023 at 1:01

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In my experience, the rule at academic Biology US labs is that everybody brings their own laptop. Having said that, it is my opinion that there are two separate issues.

The first issue/question is if it's fair for an employer to ask an employee to purchase their own work-related equipment. The answer is more complicated that it might seem at first glance. For example, there are tax implications, and the tax rules are not easy to interpret and/or apply. If your employer requires you to use a specific tool as a condition of employment, the employer is usually required to pay for it, or to have you buy it and reimburse you. Some employers use this as a loophole to pay for tax-free perks for employees, for example, computers, cells phones, cars, etc. There have been several high-profile criminal cases in the US press lately that centered around the use of "work-related" equipment as a way to avoid taxes. A computer is hard to classify as either business or personal, since it can easily be used for both. But my point is not to argue one way or the other, but that it's not an easy line to draw and that the university policy might have less to do with principle than to avoid complicated tax situations. Another issue is keeping confidential data on employee-owned computers, but that issue is not simple either and universities deal with it in many ways, e.g., having data management rules that apply to both personal and university-owned computers, requiring whole-disk encryption, or that student data be kept at university-owner servers and not as local copies.

The second issue is if this a big deal a reasonable request, or a fight worth having. At least for the biologists I know, computer choice is very personal. People are either Mac or Windows, and a minority (myself included) are Linux-only diehards. Some people just use their machines for email, others are doing computationally-intensive tasks on them, the type of task that falls between what a mid-range computer can do and what you'd send to a cluster. And universities vary in their policies. In some places, every breathing person gets a computer on day 1 regardless of the actual job. For example, I once worked in a lab where a field technician, a person who never had to sit at a desk, got a computer assigned. She just set it up in the lab for everybody to use. But at that same place graduate students were never given a computer, even if the PI wanted to buy it with research money, the university objected citing tax issues, internal policies, NSF, etc. etc. At another place I worked, you could get a computer, but these were always the crappiest models available. At yet another place I worked, I was assigned a bare-bones laptop, which after 4 years of OS updates it became too slow to use. So I requested a replacement, and they gave me a used computer, identical to the one I had. So I went back and demanded a NEW computer, and they gave me a new (as in the box) 4-year old computer. Only at MIT did I get a brand new computer to my specs, but that was MIT.

So what I urge to do is look at the overall compensation. For example, what are really big issues in the USA are health care costs, childcare costs, the cost of rent in coastal cities, etc. Consider your overall pay package. If the health insurance is good, the salary is reasonable, the lab environment good, the local rents are affordable, etc., then spending $900 on a laptop every couple of years is not a big deal. BTW, I quit my job at MIT, because the overall compensation was too low, so I moved to a much better job, and just buy my own computers.

I used to get worked up about this being "unfair" of having to buy my own laptops for the benefit of my employer, but in light of the issues listed above, I have no problems spending my own money on the most important tool I use. This is also common in other workplaces, e.g., most car mechanics have to bring their own hand tools when getting hired at a shop, carpenters bring their own basic carpentry tools when joining a crew, hair stylists usually bring their own scissors, real estate agents buy their own cars, etc. This does not mean that these workers bring all of their equipment to work: mechanics don't have to bring lifts, carpenters don't have to bring Lulls, and stylists don't have to bring the chairs where clients sit, etc. In this same way, a biologist does not have to bring their own PCR cyclers, sequencing machines, or micropipettes, but they do bring their own computers.

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    Definitely agree: I always wanted/bought much better stuff for myself than any lab could afford, so it never was an issue (of course you need to care about that stuff in order to spend your money there and not elsewhere). As a PI in Europe, while the expectancy of the lab to pay for a computer may be there, the budget is not (or at least nowhere near sufficient) even when purchasing the basics - so every computer that I buy for new PhD student/postdoc/staff eats into my reserve funds. I don't know how this is elsewhere - I hope better but fear the worst - so hand me downs it is sometimes.
    – BioBrains
    Jul 28, 2023 at 12:59
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    My experience is more mixed - in my career it's been about 50/50 what the expectation is. For grad students it's a grey area, but in my (computation heavy) area I would expect an employer to provide me a laptop as a postdoct. Jul 28, 2023 at 22:27
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    I feel like the last comment about owning one’s tools might be a bit out of place. In the commercial and federal government sectors in the US, it can range from rare to forbidden to use personal computers instead of company-issued ones, except for very small entities. Phones are more often personal except in the federal government space where generally all staff are forbidden from connecting any non-government owned device to any government system. Jul 29, 2023 at 6:11
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    @ToddWilcox: I second this, in particular as car mechanic hand tools and carpentry tools are rarely used to store possibly confidential information about students, such as e-mail correspondence, grading information, or even certificates of sickness and disabilities, which a postdoc's computer might well do, depending on the exact range of tasks. Jul 29, 2023 at 14:38
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    (With that said, and without denying that it actually works that way, I am indeed a bit surprised that e.g. a car repair shop is basically an empty building that hires employees with their tools, rather than a building with tools that hires employees.) Jul 29, 2023 at 14:39
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At my U.S. R1 math dept, there are pressures to have a machine (desktop or laptop) that is controlled by the IT department... but you'd get the cheapest possible barely-viable version unless you can play some tricks. Most NSF grants do not include any money for computer hardware. Arguably, to require everyone to have access to email (apart from high-end computing), some sort of device "should be" (ahem) provided by the department.

So, right, especially for ("unsupervised") work at home, I just spend my own money (not NSF's nor departmental) to get the computer set-up I want. Fortunately, by this point in my life, that's feasible. :)

Likewise, while years ago paper, pencils, pens, chalk, erasers were provided, the quality has greatly degraded (chalk is impossible to write with, and equally possible to erase), so that I buy my own fancy chalk (Hagoromo...) and large car-washing microfiber sponges to repurpose as "erasers".

So, on one hand, don't be surprised at such unreasonable requirements, ... but, yes, they are unreasonable, and you could try pushing back a little.

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    A friend of mine had a CS postdoc at a university where, in my understanding: - IT insisted that everyone have an IT-provided computer; - IT also insisted that only IT could install software on the computers; - Every desk had one such computer gathering dust under it, and another personally-owned computer on top for getting actual work done. Jul 29, 2023 at 4:04
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I'll note that in the US, it would be extremely unusual if a person starting a post-doc, or even doctoral studies, or maybe even secondary education, didn't have their own laptop already.

It would be different if the lab specified a system that a new employee were required to purchase on their own, but having a system of the user's choice (and at their expense) wouldn't seem unusual. In fact, the opposite would be unusual here.

For international students, especially those coming from a quite different economic system, it might be a strain and a lab would be wise to provide assistance for such students. But it would probably imply lack of choice in the characteristics of the system.

So, to be explicit about your headline question, it is probably unusual to ask a new postdoc to purchase a system because the assumption would be that they already have something suitable.

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    Having a private laptop and being okay with the IT department messing with it, as described in someone else's answer, are two different things, though.
    – Carsten S
    Jul 30, 2023 at 16:10
  • The technological lifespan of a laptop is not that different from the length of a post-doc. So while, a new post-doc might arrive with a functional laptop, it is likely to need replacement within the course of the post-doc.
    – TimRias
    Jul 30, 2023 at 23:08
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Finance person here in the US who has seen the finances for hundreds of PIs before and can shed some light on this "wealthy" comment.

First of all, no PI is required to fund anything, period. They can have $20M in discretionary funding and still not want to spend it on laptops. That is their choice. The reasons to do this can be numerous, and sometimes it can be about setting precedents. It can also be because of someone like myself saying no. I personally refuse to issue postdocs a laptop because they are two-year appointments, and our IT policy depreciates laptops over 4 years. This means we get stuck with said laptop and no one wants to use it. The PI doesn't want to keep track of it. How do I know it won't walk away? Once we know it walks away, we would have to notify IT to remote wipe the PC. How do you think that would go over?

How can I enforce these policies? My personal solution has been to offer a one-time taxable bonus of $1,600 and they buy their own device. Our IT dept is required to lock the device down due to our data security policy. You have to know your own institution's rules to know what is possible. You could then try to approach your PI based on the computing policy, but again, the discretion is with the PI, and no means no. PIs need to plan carefully to spend money over decades to ensure they do not have funding cliffs and have to terminate all their staff. What looks like a lot of money today can dry up within only a few years. Even if your PI seems agreeable, there can be a research administrator telling them this is a bad idea for various reasons that do not directly impact you. Another answer here covered some examples of policies that make some institutions squeamish.

As for sponsored funding, many sponsors explicitly do not fund general use computers. These costs should be picked up by the institution as part of their "facilities and administration" or "indirect" costs. I have only written computers into a budget a few times because they are computation focused and require specific GPUs to accomplish the scope of work. When researchers try to push a computer purchase on me (particularly on sponsored funding), I ask things like, "so you can guarantee you will never check your email, be on social media...?" Suddenly this device is not only to benefit the grant, it is in fact a somewhat personal device. This is why I came up with my solution mentioned above for PIs who want to issue devices.

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    "It can also be because of someone like myself saying no. I personally refuse to [...]" Do I understand correctly that administrators at your institution can, at their own discretion, prevent PIs from spending money on a certain item - even if there are no rules or policies (from the institution or the funding body) that forbid spending the money on this item? Jul 30, 2023 at 14:06
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    I am the approver for spending for a specific group of faculty, and I am responsible for enforcing university policies. I basically tell the PI that they have to enforce the Business Expense Reimbursement and IT policies on data security, and they are not interested in doing that work, ergo, we do not use university funds for property. Most institutions that receive federal funding in the US publish their policies to show compliance with Uniform Guidance. Here's an example: adminguide.stanford.edu/chapters/financial-administration/… Jul 30, 2023 at 16:54
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    Thanks for the clarification! Jul 31, 2023 at 6:51

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