If I had the chance to do one thing over again in the whole job search process, I wouldn’t hesitate a minute before making my decision of what to change.
I did a miserable job negotiating my start-up package. Actually, miserable may be too nice a word.
(Let’s pause for a moment and put things in context: I had a baby. A month later the whole family flew across the country for an interview. I rocked the interview and I got all sorts of encouraging signs from the department. They told me that they would call within a few days. Weeks passed. About 7 if I recall, but who’s counting. I didn’t hear anything and when I inquired I got vague answers. No other interviews were forthcoming, except one (sort of) from Non-affirmative action university. Post-doc money was running low. Finally, Mystery U chair calls to offer me the job. He offers a salary, I ask for more. He says that he thinks that will be a problem. I ask for a course reduction my first year. He tells me it’s standard. He offers to cover moving expenses. I’m thrilled.)
So sometime around the second phone call with the chair, the topic of start-up comes up. Now, I’ve read the articles and blog posts saying that you have to be a strong negotiator when you are offered a job, because it’s the only time you have any leverage over them. They’ve decided on you, they want to get you, you have the power. And I’ve read that one reason’s women’s salaries are lower than their male counterparts is that they don’t negotiate well enough when the job is offered. So I was prepared to do some negotiating. But I also really wanted and needed the job.
During my interview, I’d been asked how much I would need for start-up and I gave them a well-reasoned number including a breakdown of major expenses. I was told it was high but not absurd. Also during the interview I was able to glean that there was no way that I could get money to support graduate students as part of my start-up package. The university just wasn’t set up the handle that. Oh, and summer salary was out the question too. So what was left to negotiate was the money required to get a lab set up and running. High but not absurd, right?
Well, in my conversations with the chair, I was told that there was a fixed budget set aside for my start-up. It was about 2/3 of what I needed. I was told that there wasn’t any way to get more money now, because we were approaching the end of the school year (and the fiscal year) and all the money was spoken for. But, never fear, I would be first in line for money next year and could expect to get most, if not all, of the rest of the money I needed to set up my lab. Well, OK, that sounded plausible. I could deal with that. So I verbally accepted the offer.
Then the qualifiers started rolling in. First, it was that my desktop and laptop computers had to come out of my start-up funds. Oh, and a printer. Well there went thousands of dollars. I need good computers because I do a lot of graphics-intensive work. And I needed a couple of expensive software licenses because Mystery U apparently didn’t have a few of the programs that are crucial to my work. So another couple thousand dollars disappeared.
Then the biggest baddest qualifier was announced. It was nearing the end of the fiscal year, right? Well, it turns out that the budget set aside for me had to be SPENT by the end of the fiscal year. As in, every single penny of my start-up money needed to be spent before I ever set another foot on campus. Basically, I had two weeks to spend ~a year’s salary. And I couldn’t leave any in reserve. I argued that I must be able to leave some. I do field work – I wouldn’t know exactly what I needed until I’d spent some time on the ground in Mystery State. And I knew that there would be peripherals to lab and field equipment that due to rushed nature of the purchasing I would miss, but then need. Surely I would be able to leave some money to cover those incidental expenses. Nope. I needed to spend every single cent. But don’t worry, I’d be first in line for next year’s money.
Any guess as to whether next year’s money has made an appearance? The reason the advice-givers tell you to negotiate hard for what you need before you accept an offer is that after that offer is accepted and that contract is signed, you are simply a cog in the machine. Sure they want you to succeed. They want their institution on your publications and they want the overhead from your grants. And sometimes administrators can find creative ways to help you out. But once that contract is signed, you are irrevocably sucked into the bureaucracy and your ability to demand what you need evaporates.
The moral of the story: Get that start-up offer in writing, including the specifics. If you are told that you have 3 years to spend the money, make sure that’s somewhere in your contract. If you are told there will be X amount more at a later date. Get that written down too. It probably wouldn’t hurt to ask for a bit more than you actually need, in case you haggled down a notch or two. But most all, make sure that you have enough time to intelligently spend your start-up. After that pot of money disappears, it’s up to your grant writing abilities forever after. Or until you move on to another university.
*This is a prequel to addressing the reader request to blog about getting my lab set up.