It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since I moved to Vacationland to start a faculty position! One sign that time has passed is the dwindling funds in my startup account. When you get a new faculty position, you negotiate for things like start date, teaching, spousal hires, and salary, but you also negotiate for the money that will kickstart your research program. As I approach my third year, I thought I’d take a moment to share some thoughts about how the process went, what I’d do differently next time, and what worked well.
As context, this is my first faculty position, and I’m at a research university at the flagship state school, which is a land and sea grant university. Maine isn’t affluent, but its fiscal conservatism allowed it to ride the recession with a lot less collateral damage than many of our peers. I have a joint appointment with the School of Biology and Ecology and the Climate Change Institute; the latter has a reputation as a research powerhouse on campus. My research involves a lot of lab work, with needs for microscopy, a chemical fume hood, and space for sediment and fossil analysis. Ultimately, I’ve got three rooms, one of which is shared with other researchers but under my supervision.
How it Works
If you’re anything like I was, the idea of putting a startup request together was intimidating. It was unlike anything I’d really done before, and there were so many unknowns. I was really grateful that I’d spent a lot of time invested in my grad lab — as lab manager, I did a lot of ordering and the safety training, so I had a good idea of equipment needed, where it comes from, and how much it costs. If you can get this experience during your grad career or postdoc, it’s worth it. I was not given a dollar range, though I’ve been told that it’s okay to ask what it’s “customary” for new hires to get.
Putting my request together took more time than I’d expected; be prepared to spend a large portion of your week putting your request together, as you may need to research equipment and get quotes from vendors. You may not have a lot of time to do this — I had a week, but I’ve heard of shorter turnarounds. I didn’t have any guidance from my chairs in terms of how much to ask for or what format to put my request in. After consulting with my PhD advisor and several colleagues, I put together an organized, detailed spreadsheet and an accompanying budget justification, where I outlined how and why each item was important to my success. It was detailed and thorough, but also not bogged down in minutiae; you don’t need to list every beaker and flask when “Glassware” will do.
After I submitted my request, which in my case went to the directors of my two units, I waited several days while work happened behind the scenes. My directors basically took over at this point, and negotiated with the Vice President of Research on my behalf. I felt well-represented during this process, and that they did due diligence to bargain in my best interest (remember that they’ve just put a lot of time and resources into your search, and they want it to be successful!). They then came back with a revised list, which included suggestions for things to cut, including a list of things that were already in the lab (e.g., a drying oven and muffle furnace), things the VPR wouldn’t fund (undergraduate salary and publication costs), and things that were inflating the budget (a piece of fancy wish-list equipment that made up half my ask). I had the opportunity to be firm on some things, mostly for field equipment that existed but which I wanted to replace because of its age. They took the revised request back to the VPR, and we had a deal. My official offer letter came shortly after.
Things I’m Glad I Did
1. I asked for help. I contacted colleagues that had recently gotten hired, and asked for their lists. I had good mentoring, so I knew that I should not only submit a spreadsheet with careful sections (e.g., Fieldwork, Office, Chemical Lab), but also a budget justification. By asking people for copies of their requests, I discovered a number of things I wouldn’t have remembered or even known I could ask for, and I had some nice boilerplate language for the justification, too.
2. I aimed big. My initial list requested twice what I was ultimately offered (mostly because of the one piece of equipment that got cut*), but I also asked for some big-ticket items that were dream purchases but not necessarily essential. Your startup is one of the few times you’ll ever have to ask for things, so it’s worth coming up with a dream list. They may say yes! They also may bring you back to earth in negotiations, but you’ll almost certainly end up with more than if you were conservative. Plus, asking for a lot gives you wiggle room to cut back, as opposed to starting with your must-haves and being told to cut something.
3. I gave myself a buffer. There were a couple items that were in the $20,000 range that were dream items that I did get approved, but wouldn’t sink me if I couldn’t get them. I also rounded up on all catalog prices, which were in many cases more than what you actually get (universities get discounts from the list price, and you can often get a new-PI discount on top of this — ask your reps!). This helped my money stretch longer, cover things I didn’t think to put in my request, and covered emergency repairs, travel, or student funding gaps. I’m so, so glad I did this. It’s saved my butt more than once.
4. I included non-lab items. You may be so wrapped up in calling manufacturers for quotes or making mental lists of every tiny bit of equipment you use in your lab that you forget to think of miscellaneous items. You can ask for things like moving costs, office furniture (including a standing desk or dry erase and cork boards), software (including things like Dropbox subscriptions), student office space, a computer, a dedicated TA-ship, publication costs before your grants start to come in, money to visit NSF to talk to program officers, a second visit to look for a house, travel money to go to conferences, money for a professional development training, etc.
5. I explicitly asked if I needed renovations. You may need safety upgrades, a paint job, new floors, better lab benches, or other basic infrastructure. Your space may not have the electrical outlets that fit the plugs for your equipment. Your lab bench may shake too much for your high-powered microscopes. You may find that the floor slopes or a counter isn’t heat resistant, or a hood isn’t coded for the chemical you need. Ask about these things in writing, and make sure you have an answer in writing. You don’t want to spend money dedicated to your first field expedition or a new microscope to go to a new lab bench instead.
6. I spent the money. Most first-time PIs in my field don’t have grants when they walk in the door, and likely won’t for the first 2-4 years. Your startup has to keep your lab going in the interim, generating the data you need to get published and funded and, ultimately, tenured. You may be tempted to be stingy with your funds because they’re limited, but I think it’s better to spend than to save in this case. I don’t regret sending my student to Denmark for a workshop, or buying equipment for another student’s dissertation that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I put my startup together. These are worthwhile investments. Treat the money like you’re building a launchpad, because that’s what it is. A trampoline won’t take you as far as a couple of booster rockets.
Things I Wish I Did
1. Schedule a second visit to check out labs more thoroughly. In my case, I was replacing a retiree who did similar work, so a lot of things like fume hoods, microscopes, and ovens were already there, but were near the end of their usefulness. In the last two years, I’ve ended up needing to replace that drying oven after all (yeah, we had one, but it was 25 years old and Fisher doesn’t make replacement parts anymore). You can put together a better-informed startup request if you have a more intimate knowledge of the space and the age and quality of existing equipment.
2. Negotiate for indirect cost returns. Universities have an overhead rate that’s usually between 40% and 70%. This is to “keep the lights on,” and contribute to the support costs of your grant-funded research. When you write an NSF proposal, you have to tack on that ~50% as an add-on to the amount you ask for in your grant. Some universities will allow you to ask for a percentage of that back, which goes back into your startup or a slush fund. This can be a great way to have a little extra floating around for your rainy day fund. Because it will rain, I promise you. A lot.
3. Get it in writing — all of it. In my case, I had an email with my startup request, but it wasn’t in the contract letter I signed. To be clear, I have had zero problems in the interim, but in retrospect this was a mistake. Never, ever rely on verbal promises — about how much you’ll teach, how much you have to spend, where your office is, what they’ll pay for, whether you need renovations. Things change, people rotate in and out of positions, and people do sometimes get screwed over. It’s never happened to me, but it has happened to my colleagues at other institutions. And in the case of the renovations I did end up needing, I was able to point to an email exchange as a reason why I couldn’t spend my startup on the updates, which was really helpful in getting someone else to pay for them. But emails won’t always work.
If you don’t get the big thing you asked for, it’s not the end of the world. NSF has programs that can help you acquire equipment, like GEO’s Instrumentation and Facilities program and the Major Research Instrumentation program. Many universities also have small in-house competitions for equipment, undergrad research programs that pay for student techs, or laptop programs. It’s worth finding out about these before you put your request together.
As I’ve spent my startup, I’ve mostly stuck to my list, but I’ve deviated here and there. I’ve spent more on travel and less on computers than I predicted, for example. While the VPR may reject certain items (like undergraduate salary), once the money is in your account, it’s basically discretionary, so I’ve hired work study students over the last two years despite not having a specific line item for undergraduates. My department admin tracks my spending and my budget, and I get monthly updates (it’s worth checking these, because mistakes get made — for example, they didn’t know the details of my startup package and some things that my department was supposed to cover, like a certain amount of technician time, were charged to my account by mistake).
My money’s running out, which is a little anxiety-inducing, but I’m ultimately happy with how things went. Be prepared to spend a lot of time and energy spending the money, too, which is another post entirely! I’d love to hear how other folks’ experiences went. Feel free to share your story in the comments.
And finally: congratulations on the job offer! This is a stressful time, but don’t forget to take a moment to enjoy it and celebrate your success.
Categories: Tips & Tricks