How to maximize your start-up package as a new assistant professor

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Photo by Kevin Dooley

For postdoctoral researchers wanting to pursue academic research, the first real and dream job after doing years of bench work is an academic position at a university as an assistant professor. The position may be at a scientific research institution with minimal teaching or at a teaching-centric institution. Either way, maximizing the offer is important to get a leg-up through the early years. Especially in a research institution where the start-up funding determines how much research one can do in the early years, it is important to stretch the money (and/or negotiate for more). Below are a few tips to help navigate the process:

  • Wait for an offer: It is important to wait to negotiate until you receive an official written offer. Until you know exactly what the position offers, keep your thoughts to yourself. Only after getting an offer and carefully reading through all the details and obtaining data on similar past offers can you can make an informed decision.
  •  Salary: One of the main things that is negotiable at most institutions is your salary. In some institutions, especially government-funded, there is an upper limit that is dependent on the amount paid to other assistant or full professors. In other institutions, there is no upper limit and it is important to know which case applies to you. Salaries at state and government institutions are public records, keep that in mind. You also need to know how long you will be awarded this salary before you need additional research grants to pay your salary. This will help determine how much time you have before you require additional funding. A lot of this can be discussed with the department chair or with senior professors who are on the faculty recruitment team. If you are teaching, make sure you know how much of your salary comes from teaching classes. If you have to teach during the summer months, or if you decide not to teach so that you can do research, make sure that you negotiate the terms accordingly. Ask the right questions and investigate available data before you negotiate your salary. You don’t want to appear greedy, but at the same time you don’t want to accept something lower than would allow you to succeed.
  • Research Funding: The start-up package determines how long you can do research before you need to secure additional funds from funding agencies. Every institution has a set number of years that your funding is completely covered and this cannot be changed much. But one can negotiate the items that the money will pay for. For instance, if there are core facilities at the institution that need to be paid for, you can negotiate for waiver of facility usage fees for a few months. This will save some money that can be used toward reagent costs. You can also negotiate to obtain additional help writing scientific grants. Administrative or clerical support is also expensive and you can request to share these costs with another assistant professor or negotiate to use the existing department staff for no extra cost.
  • Equipment and lab space: Lab space is expensive (it includes utilities, maintenance, cleaning, and administration). Negotiate for lab space by knowing how much you want and by trying to get the right location. If you can get lab space next to other labs that will help you grow and learn in the early years it is very beneficial. Be ready to share equipment. Shared equipment space is usually separate from the allocated laboratory space and, if you require more laboratory space than initially offered, sharing allows you to have additional space. It also saves money since you don’t have to buy new equipment. Some universities have surplus space where they store old, discarded equipment/furniture/other office, or lab supplies that can still be used. Negotiate to get some new equipment that you require in your start-up package. In addition to equipment, you can also ask for computers and essential software. If the department can pay for these expenses it will save you more money for your research.
  • Student/postdoc funding: As part of your start-up package you can request that the department pay for a technician for a few years. Personnel costs are recurring and quite expensive and sometimes the department will pay for an experienced technician for the first few years. An experienced technician or lab manager is more expensive to employ, but they can help build the lab, work with sales representatives to find the best prices on reagents and equipment, and keep the lab working efficiently. Departments also have student and other training grants that can help fund a student or postdoc.
  • Spousal support: If you have a spouse also looking for a position in the academic university, negotiate for his/her position in the same or different department. Get everything in writing to include his/her offer too. Finding a position for your significant other in our current research environment is becoming increasingly difficult. Most universities do not have the additional funding required to pay two starting investigators, but it may be easier if the two people have different interests and can join departments uniquely suited to their individual research focus.

Finally, this is a very exciting time in your academic career. After many years you have a chance to start your own laboratory! Be polite and courteous during your negotiations and have fun starting your new adventure!

About the Author:


Sushama is doing her postdoctoral research in the laboratory of Dr. Hongtao Yu at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas TX. She obtained her PhD from the laboratory of Dr. Gary J Gorbsky at Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF), Oklahoma city, OK. She is interested in understanding the mechanisms that regulate mitotic progression in mammalian cell lines. She can be reached by email at sushama.sivakumar@utsouthwestern.edu.
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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