How to get the best start-up package as a new professor

You got the job! They want you! They will pay you to do what you love. The university is just perfect for you! It is a miracle!

You may feel you would practically pay them to hire you, but actually you need to ask them for even more money, the start-up package. This is the first of many negotiations you will have with the department chair and/or the dean, so you don’t want to screw it up. How can you make this work?

First of all, you need to know what the unwritten rules are, and they will differ among institutions. What follows are general guidelines. You will have to be sure to understand how your institution differs from others. I may be a seasoned professor, but since I moved this year, how to negotiate a start-up package is fresh in my mind.

The point of the start-up package is to help you get started with the great research we were promised in your job talks. We want you to succeed. We want to help you succeed. But we also feel strongly that you will have to fund your own research eventually, beginning as soon as possible. Writing funded grant proposals is part of the job. It hones your scientific thinking and helps with the early drafts of papers that result from the work.

Expect to write your first grant proposal within six months of your arrival. Dave and I actually wrote our first proposal for a deadline nine days after we started at Wash U. But, as we found out, funding is not exactly automatic. So, expect the start-up to cover all your expenses for the first couple of years.

Salary for grad students, post-docs, or technicians are usually legitimate start-up expenses. Try to figure out what is reasonable for your institution. Some places give you the grad student funding out of a different pot, so then try to also ask for a technician or post-doc.

Most of all, start-up is for equipment you need to do your research and do not have. Figure out exactly what equipment you use, or you might reasonably use in the new directions you plan, and ask for it. The more detail the better. Make a spread sheet with items, model numbers, everything. Remember that the catalogue prices are more than what your university will be able to negotiate with the vendors.

Supplies expended in doing that work should be included for those first two years. Try to figure out these costs as carefully as possible.

Don’t forget things like sequencing expenses, vehicle use, and travel. Again, the more specific the better.

As ever, cooperation is good. I found it extremely useful to look at the start-up requests of two friends at different universities that had moved to senior positions recently. They do roughly the same kind of work that I do in terms of equipment and supplies, so this was very useful. One had a beautifully formatted request with great detail.

Don’t be greedy. I did not get as much as one of those friends, yet I was all right with that. I got what I needed.

Argue in terms of things, not dollars. As chair, I could easily ask you if you couldn’t manage with $500 instead of $600. But I could hardly ask you to make do with a P20 pipetteman when you need a P200 also. If you are taking over a lab that already has a lot of stuff you could use, then ask for less. Just be sure the old stuff isn’t too old.

Look carefully at your office and lab space. Does it need renovation? Are there small adjustments that would make it a lot more functional?

Think about sharing. If you are joining a group of people doing similar work, ask them if there is something you could all use that they would like you to ask for in your start-up. Also, if there is something you need some of the time that is expensive, see if someone else has it. Make everyone feel like your arrival is even more of a win-win than we thought.

Besides the chair, try hard to get inside knowledge from recent hires. Be reasonable. If you are the only philosopher in a biology department, do not expect to get the same amount of money as a biochemist might get. An ecologist will need simpler equipment than a cell biologist, but might need things like greenhouse space.

I haven’t mentioned salary yet. I don’t really know how it works at most places. At my former institution, salary wasn’t much negotiated at the assistant professor level. If it is negotiated, try to get a high one. This is what your pay raises in the future will multiply from. I haven’t mentioned summer salary. Try to find out the convention on this. I have strong opinions on summer salary that probably don’t belong here.

Others have wise advice for you also. Here are some links,including an article from The Chronicle which I found on Marissa Baskett’s lab page. There is much more advice there, also. Spencer Hall at Indiana, also has great advice for new faculty members. I always have to check what Female Science Professor thinks. She talks about offices here, and this reminds me, you should be clear what comes out of start-up and what doesn’t. Your office and lab furniture are different from centrifuges and plant trays.

Good luck! Welcome!

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Managing an academic career, New assistant professor. Bookmark the permalink.

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