Startup needs for researchers in teaching schools


When I started my current job, most of those who dropped by my office to say “Greetings,” first stopped short with a question: How did you get that monitor? (I have a big monitor. They no longer make them that big. I think it’s really helped me work more efficiently.)

I answered, “I asked for it.” It really was that easy. I gave up my printer for a big monitor. No biggie, I just brought my own printer.

When you start a new faculty position, you have to use the opportunity wisely. You’re over the moon that you actually landed the job, but don’t act too hastily. When you get the phone call, say that you look forward to discussing the offer very soon, don’t say yes. Once you sign on the line (it’s probably not dotted), you’ve lost all of your leverage for anything you want in the future.

Some schools leave things more open to negotiation than others. They’ll tell you straight out if something is fixed and can’t be changed. Often, things are flexible. You need to enter the conversation with the fact of negotiation. See what you’re getting as a starting point for discussion.

Salary is really, really important, because all of your future raises will be based on your starting salary. If you’re at a public institution, then salaries are probably public record. If you can’t find it online, then talk to a librarian at the university. These data matter.

You need to know what kind of ballpark startup you can expect. You should get this from the search committee rather than the Dean. You should find out what recent hires have got, and you should get at least that (depending on your specialty, maybe a lot more). Some schools will have a low five-digit offer and on the higher end some will have low six digit offer – and very wealthy campuses could shave something more. (This range sounds insanely low to faculty at R1 universities. Yup, I agree. Some places actually have startup that comes in four digits.) Sometimes people don’t like to talk with specific numbers. This isn’t the time to be shy. You don’t want to lowball your startup, and you also don’t want to get laughed out of the room for asking for an order of magnitude too high. Hopefully during your interview process you’ve built up enough rapport with your search committee, and your potential new chair should ideally be some help (if not your partner) on this as you go through the Dean.

What are the other things that you should or shouldn’t negotiate for? Here’s a quick review of the biggies, other than salary. Keep in mind that there is no grand wisdom in here, just a set of observations that plenty of others have made.

-Reassigned time from teaching. If it’s a teaching school, they hired you to teach. However, it will take a while for you to get on your feet and start up your lab. The longer you can prolong the reassigned time for you to focus on getting started and submitting grants, the better off you are. You don’t want to be a prima donna and ask for much much more than what others have gotten in the past, of course. You’ll note that I’m using “reassigned time” instead of release time. This is an important distinction in my book. “Release time” sounds like you’re getting out of a responsibility. “Reassigned” correctly indicates that you’re working just as hard on a different kind of assignment. Another thing that you should establish up front is under what circumstances, if any, funds are used for reassigned time in the future. If you bring in grants, can you negotiate for reassigned time even if it isn’t in the budget? Or, if you have to buy it with a grant, what is the rate? Especially at private institutions, the rate at which individual PIs are charged for reassigned time can be bartered. I’ve seen some people get outrageously great deals, only because they asked for them.

-Equipment and supplies. If your research requires a special piece of equipment that’s lacking, like a certain kind of mass spec, microscope, or whatnot, then this is your chance for the school to buy it for you. Keep in mind, though, that having equipment could be a curse rather than a boon. I have to admit that I can’t think of a fancy machine that would let me to things that I’m not already doing. You don’t want to admit this too readily, though, if that’s the main form of your startup. Often, once you get startup, you can spend it how you want. You can ask for cash for a big piece of equipment, but if you get it on the cheap or your needs change, you might be able to spend it in another way.

-Moving expenses. Sure, this is nice. But if you can convince them to shave money off of moving expenses to increase your salary, or reassigned time or something else, that is probably of more use to you.

-Space. If you want a better office or lab, now is the only time it’s going to happen, until someone retires or leaves. Nobody will get kicked out for you (usually), but if there is a variety of possible space then you should make your needs known.

-Staff. Will they guarantee that you have funds to hire a research assistant or tech? Small schools might be able to get you a paid part-time undergrad to work in your lab.

-Travel. To you, money for staff, travel, equipment and supplies all looks the same. But to the resource managers at the university who have to cobble together the funds for you, they aren’t. They need to get your startup from different pools of money with different rules. If you want to get money to travel to conferences, that might need to be specified up front. It also might not be possible, or might allow you to get a larger total amount.

-Duration of startup. Have you seen the Richard Pryor movie Brewster’s Millions? (This shows I am not young.) Pryor’s character has to spend a ton of money – all of it – in a short period of time. Most people who get startup are given a deadline to spend all of their money, and it typically arrives too soon. You’re so busy getting settled into your classes your first year, you can’t set up your lab on time. It’s likely that they’ll be pleased if you want your startup to be distributed over multiple years. That’s flexibility that you’ll appreciate. (I didn’t get the bulk of my startup until after I was tenured, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

There are a lot more details, and nuances about what kind of resources are better than others, but most of this depends on the specific circumstances of your particular needs and those of your institution.

Before your start your negotiation, there is a classic book about negotiation that I strongly recommend reading: Getting to Yes. This book will help you take away the adversarial approach to arguing over resources and instead help you find common ground. It should never be an argument, it should be a collaboration. Read this book before you get an offer.

6 thoughts on “Startup needs for researchers in teaching schools

  1. Great post Terry. This negotiation is one of the most important people will make. I always shake my head when I hear that they were too nervous or embarrassed to ask for what they really wanted/needed.

  2. Thanks for the post.

    I’m still a grad student, so your post on starting a staff position doesn’t necessarily apply to me. Nevertheless, I do think that the ability to negotiate is something we, as ecologists, tend to undervalue. It might be in the form a student leaving the supervisor’s office more despondent than when they entered or a conservation practitioner who fails to convince the stakeholders of the ecological importance of a nesting site.

    I don’t think that we should be overbearing and/or intimidating, but I sometimes feel that ecologists are more timid and apologetic than folks from other fields.

    So my two points (questions?) are this:
    1- How can trainee ecologists/conservation professionals improve their negotiating skills?
    2- How can we indicate to prospective employees that we have these negotiation skills (and that they are a good asset to have)?

  3. My main advice on negotiating startup: yes, know about what number you can expect–but don’t just ask for that amount of money. That doesn’t give you a basis for negotiation. If you ask for $X, and the Dean says, “That’s too much, how about $X-Y?”, you can’t come back and say “No, give me $X” (well, not unless multiple job offers, I guess). That’s not negotiating, that’s just making demands. What you should do is present the Dean with an itemized, priced-out list of all the things you need, which just so happens to add up to the most money you could reasonably expect. Don’t forget seemingly minor stuff like glassware, or consumables like latex gloves, chemicals, etc. Then you say to the Dean “Here’s what I need for my research program to hit the ground running and become the long-term success that we both want it to be.” That then gives you a basis for negotiating (e.g., the Dean comes back and says “Well, we already have that piece of equipment, can you share the one we have?” or “We have a travel grants program to which faculty can apply, and new faculty get preference” or (as at my university) “Every faculty member gets $1500/year to spend on whatever they want, so if you need a computer or printer, or want to travel to a conference, use that money” or whatever).

    If you’re lucky, the department chair or the search committee chair will be bending the Dean’s ear on your behalf behind the scenes, saying “We really want this person, give him/her what he/she wants.”

    Another piece of advice, which just reinforces what Terry said: as a rule of thumb, if it’s attached to a wall, it comes out of a different budget than your startup. So lab and office renovations shouldn’t come out of your startup. Whatever you feel like you need in terms of renos (and yes, as Terry says, this *is* the time to ask!), that’s in addition to your startup request. I think this is pretty much true everywhere. But there’s more variance among universities in terms of where smaller pots of money for specific needs like travel come from.

  4. Faculty and post-doc advisors should actively be having the conversation about how to start a job more often than they do. I think we’re often reluctant to discuss some of these underbelly details, and also this kind of conversation can seem like a put-off to students, who are struggling to pay rent and eat, much less get a better research lab and starting salary. But it is important so that the concept of negotiation doesn’t come out of the blue.

    Like Jeremy says, about how to get the most out of negotiation, it’s about based on meeting shared interests. You don’t negotiate based on what you think is fair or some other position that you’ve adopted, but based on your interests and how they meet the other person’s interests. So, what Jeremy said. You need to say exactly what you need to be successful. I need this equipment, I need this staff, I need that space, if you want me to deliver on the research and student training that you’d like. X resources brings XY results. 3X resources bring 3XY results. (It is probably a more complicated function, with a threshold). As for salary, data is key on what the market rate is for a person with your experience and field. This is harder at a private institution, as the ‘average’ values published lump in law and business professors that make way more than most scientists, and also humanities faculty who often make less. (It’s a function of supply and demand. If you thought a science tenure-track position was hard to land, try history or English.) Also, it’s implied that you should be paid enough so that they can keep you. That means that you need to show that you’re worth keeping, but if they don’t pay you market rate, that means that you might as well be on the market to move on. Wise administrators keep the faculty they want to keep happy. Foolish ones experience attrition of the good ones and keep the ones that don’t have what it takes to move. That’s how good departments fall apart.

    I really, really recommend Getting to Yes. It goes into detail about how to do interest-based negotiation, and how to juggle your interests, with those of the person with whom you’re negotiation, based on your negotiation position. If I was asked more about negotiating skills from someone about to negotiate, I’d say, “read this book and get back to me with academia-specific questions.” Seriously, it’s foolhardy to negotiate for a job that might be the job you keep for the rest of your career, without doing everything you can to negotiate well for your success.

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