How not to negotiate your start-up funds*

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.

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Corollary : never believe a damn thing an administrator of an academic institution tells you. They're real good at making promises, because they're real good at marketing and optimism and making things sound rosy. They suck out loud at following up on promises, they suck at honesty, and they suck at actually supporting their faculty in what they're attempting to do. In general.

Whether or not the chair of your department counts as an "administrator" depends a lot on where you are.

I'm no longer at Vanderbilt, but we had an assistant Dean telling direct lies to the astronomy candidates who interviewed last year. The sad thing is, the Dean himself probably didn't know it was a lie, either because he was clueless and had been misled by the rest of the administration, or because he believed his own bullshit rationalization for the statement he made.

I've been telling some of my students to plan on negotiating for things like office furniture, phone lines, parking passes, and stamps as part of start up. Truly negotiate for EVERYTHING you think you need to run a lab for 2-4 years. I tell them that because I also learned the hard way what admin expects to come out of start up. (think chairs, tables, and phones).

By hypatia cade (not verified) on 12 Dec 2007 #permalink

Oh my goodness, that is so frustrating, and maddening!

I suspect I would have done the same thing... wanting the job, and trusting the chair's word that all the money would be forthcoming, if not right away then eventually. It is just madness to have to spend it all in such a short time, and then not have anymore! For heaven's sakes, I've waited longer to get a quote!

I *HOPE* you manage to get the rest. Good luck, and thanks for the warning!

Wow. I can't even imagine how frustrated you must feel. I probably would have done the same thing as you and gotten in the same predicament. So, what are you doing to get the stuff you need for your lab?

Somewhere, there should be a list of things that people should ask about when getting an offer for a faculty position. I mean, how are we supposed to figure these things out? If you're junior faculty, it's not like you've ever done this before!

That IS pretty frustrating. I'm in the middle of negotiating facilities and it is going incredibly slowly. The one thing I'm glad of is that I'm holding out for what I need, and making it clear that I'm really only going for what I need (which is exactly what it sounds like you did too). The spending ahead thing is totally shitty -- I can't believe they didn't think that one through a bit more. But now I know to look out for it.

Re: the earlier comment about negotiating for everything -- on the one hand I think that's right, in that in my initial start up I did mention chairs, a desk, a computer for my office, etc very explicitly, but I have also heard counter advice that says you will be gossiped about among your colleagues if you are perceived to be the type of colleague who negotiates down to the power cords. So I think there may be a happy medium there.

Incidentally, when I was hired at Vanderbilt in 2001, the chair told me that standard procedure was for me to accept the job and then go into startup negotiations. I went along with it. Fortunately for me, I came out with what I believe was quite a reasonable startup package... so I didn't get screwed by this. But that was a pretty ridiculous position for the chair and/or University to take. (Honestly, I'm not sure where the position came from, as at the time Vanderbilt had been through several years of rapid turnover in the Dean's office.)

Never fall for that one. I didn't get bitten by it, but it would have served me right if I had....

As an addendum -- sometimes the department chair will very much be on your side and an ally in startup negotiations, and sometimes he or she won't. I have no clue how to figure out which it is without hindsight. In my case, I think the Chair when I was hired was an ally.

I was offered a job at the Fred Hutch in Seattle some years ago and at the same time had an offer from a biotech company in the same town. Salaries were actually pretty close, but when I came up to visit Seattle to look for housing the biotech set me up with a good real estate agent who helped us get an apartment for the short term and a house in the long run. The Hutch had no such program, you were on your own to find a house in a town I knew nothing about. Guess which job I took?

By Chromosome 23 (not verified) on 12 Dec 2007 #permalink

First, having details in writing is no guarantee that they will materialize. Second, could you have stipulated that your appointment would begin after the start of their fiscal year and thus your funding would also start as new money?

Two points:

(1) That sucks. My experience was the exact opposite. If you go over to DrugMonkey, you can read about it.

(2) "But once that contract is signed, you are irrevocably sucked into the bureaucracy and your ability to demand what you need evaporates."

This is probably true right now, but as you develop your research program, start to bring in external research funds, publish excellent papers, you begin to gain leverage. This is because as your career flourishes, you create a risk that you will leave for somewhere more supportive. Since Mystery U has already taken a risk and invested in you, they would hate to see that investment fail to materialize.

The question is, at what point would you have walked away from the position on the basis of insufficient support? If there was no such line, then your negotiating position was hopeless.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 12 Dec 2007 #permalink

Great comments everyone.

could you have stipulated that your appointment would begin after the start of their fiscal year and thus your funding would also start as new money?

My contract did start after the new fiscal year. It's beyond bizarre.

The question is, at what point would you have walked away from the position on the basis of insufficient support? If there was no such line, then your negotiating position was hopeless.

I interviewed for a job where I was told the start up was $4000 offered at the END of the first year. Had I been offered that job, I would have walked away. But here, not so much, and maybe I made that too apparent. But still, the university should want me to succeed, not be paralyzed by lack of essential equipment and supplies.

Part 2 coming later today (I hope.)

It seems to me it would be a good idea for there to be some exchange place set up online for scientists who have to use or lose their budget money to quickly to trade the wrong things for the right things.

By Samantha Vimes (not verified) on 13 Dec 2007 #permalink

"start up was $4000"

As far as I can tell, you are a biological scientist. Typical start-ups in the biosciences at research universities for tenure-track faculty are currently around $1,000,000 (in situations where faculty salary comes out of the start-up) down to around $600,000 (if no faculty salary comes out of the start-up).

How the hell is someone supposed too get an externally funded research program off the ground with $4000? Maybe I'm not understanding your position, or the nature of your research.

$4000 is nothing less than insulting for any start up offer, even a field scientist looking at modest NSF, DOI, EPA, other foundation/nonprofit funding versus the giant biomedical pools of cash. The major research institutions do put $1M on the table for promising asst profs who bring NIH K/R funding or the extraordinary promise of K/R funding within the first year. They are investing in you and expecting significant return on that investment in the form of indirects, IP, and PR. And the clock is most definitely ticking as you hustle to contribute to the portfolio.

My suggestion for a sniff test is to compare what the institution/dean/chair/etc. claim to receive annually in sponsored research with how much the NIH, NSF, or your most relevant federal sponsor actually awards this University/school/dept (check award data online). If the gap is huge, similar daylight could exist between what they are offering to lure you in and what you will likely receive - unless the start-up is realistic to begin with. Start up packages derived from a solid documented research base will be more trustworthy (such as PhysioProf's at Major Research U) than those from an effervescent "dean's fund" etc. such as Drugmonkey describes.

And, looking back over the comments, I too know assoc & even full profs (all women, now that I think of it ... hmmm) at some mid-big Universities who must pay for desks, chairs, phones, copier usage, postage, etc. out of start up, out of grant indirects, out of grant directs - wherever they can get the $ but not from their dept.

At her interview a friend of mine was shown her future lab - complete with lab benches. When she showed up - no benches. That had to come out of her very minimal start-up money.

Here we see another difference between science and humanites. I negotiated for an Apple computer (my field is visual arts) in addition to my p.c. (I would have taken instead of) I got it, but was seen as very hard core - negotiating for desired equipment!

By Academic Vixen (not verified) on 14 Dec 2007 #permalink

This is so depressing; I'm so sorry, Sciencewoman.

For the rest of you who have not yet gotten to the point of negotiating for startup: Do NOT attempt this without asking for all sorts of advice and input from a variety of sources, as to what you should be asking for. Don't just rely on your advisor, either. Talk to people who've recently gone through the process; talk to other faculty at your university. Get it ALL in writing. Then, when something doesn't materialize (as someone above suggested would happen) you can then go to your chair or dean and say "see here where it says in writing you will give me X? So, I need X now. Let's talk about how that is going to happen."

And don't leave negotiating startup to just the faculty positions. When I was hired at K-State I negotiated a startup package as an administrator, which was necessary as I was expected to lead creation of a new program. I got everything in writing; it was three pages long. The only thing I didn't get that I asked for was more salary, but that was okay, as the original offer was pretty good. It's good to have a few things you are okay with not getting, along with all the stuff you really need, so you can give something up in the negotiations and they feel like they won a few points by not giving you everything you asked for.

It's important to negotiate this way not just for the material things you need to succeed, but because negotiating also gives them the impression that you are not a pushover and are someone to be reckoned with.

Sciencwoman, I'm really angry they didn't let you hold any of that money over to the next year. There are ways to do that, no matter what they say, it can be done when it needs to be done.

This is why having a network and using it is so important - people you can go to with questions about stuff like this when it is happening to you.

Senior women faculty ought to be taking notes here - what can you do to protect and help new hires? There is inside information you can pass on to them that will help them in the negotiating process. I know, sometimes there aren't any senior women in your department...there needs to be an organization on campus that helps women across majors through this process.

Wow. I hadn't seen this post before, but followed the link from a more recent post on the subject.

Thank you very much for posting all this. It's very valuable to those who will face similar situations.