• December 21, 2014

The Right Start-Up Package for Beginning Science Professors

"Remember, what you are negotiating is the start-up package, not just the start-up salary. How you start out can make all the difference in how well you do, how successful you will be, so be sure you get the resources you need at the beginning.

-- Assistant professor of chemistry, University of Michigan.

Congratulations, you have just been offered a tenure-track assistant professorship at your first-choice institution. Now, however, your real work begins. You are entering the critical negotiation stage that may, or may not, bring you the resources you need for a successful academic career.

To thrive as a beginning science or engineering professor you are going to need more than a good starting salary. Of course, such a salary is important. Not only does it help provide you with a needed standard of living, it establishes the base line for future raises and reduces the need for you to look for other, career-diverting ways to earn additional income.

Yet many beginning faculty members think it's their job to hit the dean up for an extra $1,000 to $2,000 before accepting an academic offer. Such an approach not only creates resentment, it can make it more difficult for you to get the other things you must have to begin your tenure journey.

As was noted by Eve Riskin, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington:

"Most faculty don't realize they can negotiate their start-up conditions in a way that will help them be more successful, as well as happy. My goal was to make my life easier, not richer. It wasn't the start-up salary, but the start-up resources I really cared about."

Negotiating an academic job offer is about becoming part of an organization and a group of people with which you will have a significant relationship. You want to get the things you need to increase your chances of success, while remembering that you are going to work with these people for years to come.

What else besides salary should you look for in a start-up package? For science and engineering professors, the main things are graduate-student support, summer salary support, laboratory and computer equipment, manageable teaching responsibilities, particularly in the first three years, and a small amount of unrestricted funds that you can use in any appropriate way without prior approval.

Before discussing these resources in more detail, let's make sure that you begin the negotiating process with the right mindset. To do so, you need to see yourself not as an applicant who is still seeking a job offer, but as a person who has received one. Most people never make this critical shift, and it can cost them dearly.

You need to be forthright in your approach and not worry that the school is going to withdraw its offer because of it. How you ask for something is often as important as what you ask for. As Martin Ford, associate dean of the graduate school of education at George Mason University, says, "Always try to use work quality or productivity as the rationale in your negotiations. Align your goals with those of your employer."

Let's first look at the issue of graduate-student support. Sometimes you can negotiate trade-offs that get you what you need while at the same time making a very positive impression. The case of an assistant professor in the mechanical-engineering department at the University of Massachusetts is an example.

In his first round of negotiations the department offered to cover his salary for two summers so he could continue to do research. He countered with a request for salary support for the first summer, but in exchange for the second summer's compensation, he asked for summer support for two graduate students. He was confident that he could generate support on his own, and consequently the department was delighted to make the requested trade-off.

What about laboratory equipment and computer support?

The key, as always, is to try to make it a win-win arrangement for both you and the department. Shon Pulley, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Missouri at Columbia, points to this example: "In explaining to the department why I needed a particular piece of equipment, I also pointed out how other faculty members could benefit from its use and how its acquisition would count as a matching contribution toward additional grant support."

Keep in mind that your idea and the department's idea of what you need may differ simply out of misunderstanding or ignorance. You are in the best position to know your needs, but in trying to meet them, be open to approaches that you might not have thought about. The department may not have the computer you need, but may be willing to work with you on obtaining it as a gift from a local technology company.

Now let's take a look at what is often the trickiest element in the negotiation: your beginning teaching assignment. On one hand you want to make clear that you take your teaching responsibility very seriously, yet in order to do so you need to reduce or simplify such responsibility in your first few years on the job.

Most departments will agree in principle with this goal. But what if the department says it is sympathetic to your request for a reduced teaching commitment in your first year, but is unable to honor it? They say you will be replacing someone who taught a regular number of classes each semester, so that is what you are going to have to do.

Don't give up too easily. You might respond by asking if you can borrow ahead with another faculty member, who would take one of your classes the first semester in exchange for your teaching one of his or her classes later on.

Other ways of simplifying your initial teaching assignment might include:

  • Teaching a course previously taught by someone who is willing to loan you copies of their lecture notes, exams, and homework assignments.

  • Teaching two classes back to back or schedule days without classes so you can block off time to do other work.

  • between a class with 30 students and the same class with 60 students.

There is one more resource you should try to obtain before starting your employment. Ask your department to set up an unrestricted account in your name and to deposit a starting sum, say $5,000 to $10,000, in it.

Such an account allows you to cover relatively small expenses such as travel to conferences, computer and software purchases, book purchases, publication fees, and business lunches. This approach gives you freedom to deal with unanticipated expenses in a timely manner without having to constantly ask your chair for small amounts of money.

The above examples are the key things to keep in mind when negotiating a start-up package. There may be others, depending on a person's particular situation. I'd very much like to hear about interesting, difficult, or unusual situations you have encountered in your own negotiations. Please send your comments to catalyst@chronicle.com

Richard M. Reis is director for academic partnerships at the Stanford University Learning Laboratory, and author of Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, available from IEEE Press or the booksellers below. He is also the moderator of the biweekly Tomorrow's Professor Listserve, which anyone can subscribe to by sending the message [subscribe tomorrows-professor] to Majordomo@lists.stanford.edu

Have a question or a suggestion for Richard Reis? Please send comments to catalyst@chronicle.com

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