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For example, can they use grant money to have a dual monitor setup or ergonomic office appliances (chair/keyboard) to increase productivity? Or do they just have to buy these items themselves?

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    This depends greatly on the source of the grant money. Most federal research grants would not pay for these items; these would be considered part of the infrastructure to be provided by the university (e.g. out of the 50-75% overhead the university charges along with the direct costs of the grant). – Corvus Mar 15 '15 at 0:53
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    Also, ask your supervisor. He may be willing to pay for it if it is reasonable. – Davidmh Mar 15 '15 at 1:28
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    Sometimes the university must supply those. At my institution, there are people that go in an 'evaluate' your office space to see if they meet the current standards of workplace. It is under human resources as having something that might give you back pain is counter productive. – Chris C Mar 15 '15 at 3:26
  • @ChrisC That's true, but typically only for very basic things and with a clear medical indication. I can't imagine the ergo staff to, for instance, argue for a Dual-Monitor setup, or that you need a faster laptop. – xLeitix Mar 15 '15 at 9:42
  • @xLeitix: Clear medical indication ... sometimes, merely stating that one has experienced pain in the back seems to be sufficient to receive a height-adjustable desk instead of a (much cheaper) standard one. – O. R. Mapper Mar 15 '15 at 11:39
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As the comments already say, this is to a large extent dependent on the terms of the grant. Most grants have a lump sum (the "overhead") which they directly pay to the university to cover office supply, equipment, etc., so that they actual grant cannot be used for these items. However, there are certainly grants that are more flexible in their terms.

Generally, your best bet when it comes to productivity-increasing office supply would be your advisor. (S)he will usually have a hardware budget that he may use for things like a dual-screen setup for students or a fancy keyboard, and (s)he has a strong interest in you being productive. One should also keep in mind that even objectively overpriced single items of equipment (e.g., those vastly overpriced Apple mice) are just a small dot in the lab hardware budget, so many advisors really are quite happy to dole out for them if they think it will make the student more happy (even if they are personally not seeing the point at all).

One specific comments regarding the dual-monitor setup: most labs have an abundance of abandoned screens from previous lab members sitting in some equipment storage. If you don't insist on getting a new screen, nobody will take issue when you ask to get one of the old screen as a secondary display.

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  • Only from an implicit "overhead"? The (not too many, admittedly) grants that I have seen clearly partitioned the money into expenses for travels, expenses for staff cost, expenses for subcontracts, and expenses for lab equipment, where money from the latter item would routinely be used at least for the dual monitor setup part of the OP's requests (with leeway to shift up to 15% or so between those items without the need to request permission from the funding agency). – O. R. Mapper Mar 15 '15 at 10:22
  • @O.R.Mapper That's why I said "most" :) sure there are grants that have an explicit budget item for equipment, but (I think) most don't. Generally, the overhead is the budget item that needs to cover everything for which there isn't another explicit budget item. – xLeitix Mar 15 '15 at 10:36
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    @O.R.Mapper, NSF and similar grants in the US have the line items that you describe, but they also have the "indirect costs" category that is typically computed at ~50% of the overall grant budget less purchases on equipment and other capital. Equipment purchased under these grants on the equipment line (like a microscope or reagents) typically must be used 100% for the purpose of the grant and nothing else, whereas your university may spend the indirect costs/overhead on almost anything: utilities, admin salaries, libraries, etc. – Bill Barth Mar 15 '15 at 13:21
  • @BillBarth: Interesting. The German grants I came in touch with always included a statement like "Any of the equipment acquired must be used for the project being funded and will remain in the possession of the recipient of the funding (i.e. the department) after the end of the project." (with the implicit understanding that practically, as long as project goals are met, the equipment can be used for whatever the department wants to use it, already during the runtime of the project). Unspecified additional costs were never part of such grants, though. – O. R. Mapper Mar 15 '15 at 13:30
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    @O.R.Mapper "Unspecified additional costs were never part of such grants, though." That would surprise me. In Austria and Switzerland, all grants have a certain "overhead" part, as do European grants. However, this part can be rather opaque for the individual researcher, as this goes directly to the university as a lump sum and does not need to be accounted for. – xLeitix Mar 15 '15 at 14:20

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