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Getting Started


Getting a faculty position is a grueling process. You make it through the first interview and if they still really like you, they ask you back for a second interview. Then, right toward the end, there's a final trying task: coming up with what sort of funds you need to make the transition to being a primary investigator. In other words, you are negotiating your startup package.

Typically, a startup package lasts three years, though that may vary, and helps support you and your lab while you get your experiments up and running. Not only do these negotiations include your salary, but also lab space and funds to buy equipment and pay technicians for your lab.

"The biggest thing is just to think about what you really want and ask for it," says Vanderbilt University's Marylyn Ritchie. "People cannot read your mind and they often don't offer you things without you asking for them. You've got to ask."

The University of Washington's Michael MacCoss adds that you should stay grounded and not get bogged down in the haggling. "The key thing that I think people forget is that startup funds just are what they say," he says. "Once you start thinking about it just being startup, then you go to the place that is going to allow you to be the most successful."

Ask around

A good first step to figure out what you'll need is to speak with your PhD or postdoc mentor to determine what it costs to run that lab. Both Ritchie and MacCoss consulted their mentors. "If you're a student or a postdoc, you don't usually have a good sense for the costs of running a lab. You use all these things in the lab, but you have no idea how much the mentor paid for them," Ritchie says. "And so finding out the annual costs for your mentor to run their lab is really helpful." That way you have an idea of what it's cost for your recent projects and can extrapolate to what your next ones may cost.

Decide what size lab you want to have as you start out — do you want one or two graduate students? What about postdocs? Or technicians? Then crunch the numbers to see how much money you'll need to support them for your first three years. "Figure out how much it would cost if you want two or three graduate students, two or three postdocs, a tech, and a programmer. What is that dollar amount you would need to support a lab of this size?" Ritchie says. Some institutions cover graduate students and others don't; keep that in mind as you head into negotiations.

Take a look around that lab you've been imagining in your head. What equipment is there? Don't forget to prioritize. What do you absolutely need? For MacCoss, his package included funds for a mass spectrometer and a commitment of funding to go toward a second mass spec. Also, check out what core facilities you would have access to at that institution. Taking advantage of those amenities could save you from buying a machine that you'd only occasionally use. If you're a computational person like Ritchie, how many computers do you need and how much time will you need to reserve on the school's supercomputer?

Don't forget about yourself. Ask around, at the institution and elsewhere, to figure out about how much an assistant professor in your field makes. "Some people are very forthcoming with salaries and other people are very private, so I just asked a lot of people until I found some information ... and made sure that the institution that I was negotiating with was aware of what faculty were offered at other comparable institutions," Ritchie says. She adds that there are other salary surveys out there by association, societies, and magazines; she consulted the American Statistical Association's salary and one that focused on bioinformatics.

Just ask

The negotiation part of the process can depend on the institution and the person you are dealing with, as well as how many offers you have.

For MacCoss, negotiations were straightforward. He only applied for a position at the University of Washington — he had been planning on entering the job fray the following year but couldn't pass up that opportunity. "I knew I was pretty naïve when I said what I thought I needed and the chair just said yes," MacCoss says, adding that he felt he could trust the department chair with whom he was negotiating. "He also came back to me pretty quickly and said, 'Look, we want you to be successful. That's our goal, to make you successful, and you need to let us know if you need something.'"

Ritchie, however, had more of a back-and-forth experience. After submitting what she thought she needed, the school came back with an initial offer letter that contained most of what she asked for or an explanation of why something wasn't included. Then her negotiations began in earnest as she had several offers she could play off one another. If one institution offered her a higher salary or supported graduate students, she let the other institutions know. "Figure out what the best qualities are of the different offers and try to get the institution that you want most to beat or match the other offers," Ritchie says, adding that you may not go to the place that offers you the best startup.

Her mantra is that it doesn't hurt to ask. "If you don't ask, the answer is always 'no.' You just need to ask," she says.

Of course, there's a point where you're not going to get any more and having a mentor who has been through the process before can help you identify when to sit back. A mentor can help you read the language between the lines of your offers, Ritchie says. "Sometimes you're at a roadblock [in negotiations]. Someone who has been through it before can offer advice: 'You might as well stop asking for more — it's time to accept or decline the offer,'" she says.

As for her own startup package at Vanderbilt, Ritchie says she was very happy. "They came through with everything that they offered, and in many ways, even more," she says.

Be comfortable

In the end, you want to be happy and successful where you are. That means that you might not even go to the spot that offered the best startup package. "It's mostly the feeling that you trust the place you're in and that you can envision yourself there for 10, 15 years down the road — way, way after your startup has disappeared. Your success isn't going to be made by that startup," MacCoss says.

Trust, he says, is part of that. "If you don't feel comfortable enough with the person you are negotiating with, that may be a red flag," he says. "I have some other colleagues who have been on the other side of that and they constantly feel that everything needs to be in writing, which is still important. If you ask somebody that you really trust to give you something in writing, they won't hesitate."

"I just tell people, 'Look for a place you can really feel that you'll be successful at,'" MacCoss says.

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