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Show me the money: A new PI’s guide to putting together a startup request

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 flown by 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 like me, putting a startup request together is panic-inducing. 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 a surprising a lot of time, so be prepared to spend a large portion of your week on putting your request together. 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 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 chairs of my two departments, there’s a waiting game. The chair 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 on my behalf. 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 Geotek 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.

A fume hood is essential for many of us. Make sure yours is in working order, if you're inheriting one!

A fume hood is essential for many of us. Make sure yours is in working order, if you’re inheriting one! Image from PhDComics.com.

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.

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 the one time you have to ask for things, so it’s worth coming up with a dream list; they may say yes! They 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, money to visit NSF to talk to program officers, a trip to look for a house, travel money to go to conferences.

5. I 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. You probably don’t have funding yet, and you likely won’t for your first few 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 two years ago. 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.

Sadly, I did not get my Giant Science-Creating Machine (TM), but I'm glad I asked. Via The Onion.

Sadly, I did not get my Giant Science-Creating Machine (TM), but I’m glad I asked. Via The Onion.

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 old. 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 supposedly 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, for example. While the VPR may reject certain items (like undergraduate salary), once the money is in your account nobody really cares what you spend it on (or so I’m told!), so I’ve hired work study students over the last two years despite not having a line item for undergraduates. My department financial officer takes care of the books, 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 in and of itself! I’d love to hear how other folks’ experiences went. Feel free to share your story in the comments.

Categories: Tips & Tricks

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Jacquelyn Gill

8 replies

  1. About negotiating indirect cost returns, I think flexibility on that varies from place to place. But usually startup is negotiated at the Decanal level (in my experience) and by that point, a lot of the returned indirect has already been shaved off before the Dean sees it. (Then again, I do know of one person at a small liberal arts college who negotiated that he would get 100% of his indirect back, and now pulls in a ton of money, including from private endowments, and that’s had a huge amount of negative unintended effects.)

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  2. Asking big is important! Scotty always inflated his time estimates to Captain Kirk about how long it would take to fix the engines!

    I want one of those Science Machines! So I can do Science.

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  3. Spot on advice. I was terrible at this (luckily, terrible but lucky, accidentally negotiating extra $) at my first job. If at all possible, find out what recent hires in that department (or other depts in the same Faculty/College) got – this helps you not look outlandishly high or low.

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  4. Thanks for this post, it was quite informative! How did you deal with not getting your big item? Was there someone else in the department who had one? Or did you develop a different plan to get it in the future?

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    1. I’m writing a grant for it. I tried to get the VPR to promise to commit to supporting my MRI in the internal competition, but was rejected, but told “it shouldn’t be a problem.” For this equipment, though, I think I’m going to try GEO’s early career researcher instrumentation grant.

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  5. It may be worth considering negotiating to put in language to the effect that the items/allocation promised are a commitment of the institution, not the individual. In my case, the university administration changed in my first year- and some of the new administrators didn’t necessarily feel bound to honor all items in the startup agreement signed by their predecessors. In the end, everything worked out great, but in retrospect it’s one thing I wonder perhaps should have been done differently.

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