Dear Molly Cule: Negotiating the Start-up Package

Professor Molly Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at, or visit her on the BPS Blog.

Q:  I’m in the job market for a tenure track faculty position and have been offered a job. How do I go about negotiating a good start-up package?

First off, congratulations!

Now the nitty-gritty details come into play. Knowing how much money you need to get a lab up and running will help you tremendously in negotiating your start-up package. First you need an estimated budget, and that requires some “homework.” Go around your current lab and look at all the things you use during the course of the day. Do this on a couple of different days because you might use different things depending on where you are in your experiments. The expensive stuff is usually easy to list, like microscopes, confocal, lasers—whatever equipment you’ll need to get your own experiments done. It is much easier to forget the small stuff: water bath, pipettors, centrifuge, even tape; or not-so-small stuff like -80 freezers, shared equipment, or biological reagents that you might take for granted because they are always available in your current laboratory. In your new position, you will have to supply everything yourself.

Armed with your list, do some online research to see how much everything will cost. For the bigger items, you’ll probably need price quotes. Companies want your business, so don’t feel shy about asking for a quote even if you have no money yet. Tell them it’s for a start-up budget and they will be happy to help out. Some of the big distributors have “lab start-up lists” that can be useful to look over to remind yourself of what general items you’ll need.

Don’t forget to factor in consumables, as well. It’s nice to have that new thermal cycler, but if you can’t afford to buy the tubes for it, then it isn’t very useful. A good way to estimate the cost of consumables is to find out how much your current lab spends in consumables per month, per person. Add the cost of about one–two years of consumables to your budget. Another thing to keep in mind is whether common facilities or cores are available to you at your new institution. If you plan on using a common facility, they often charge fees so take those into account in your budget. If you will be using something like a mass spec, confocal, laser, etc., that is part of a facility but you’ll need daily access and/or have special needs for it, ask for your own. Yes, these are expensive, but if you need it to succeed, then ask for it. Don’t forget to ask about vivarium costs if you need animals for your research, as vivarium rates can vary widely between institutions, and even departments. The department offering you the position wants you to succeed and they know that success requires equipment and operating money. However, they don’t know what you need unless you tell them.

Will you be stepping into a lab space that’s perfect for your needs or will there be some renovations? If renovations are needed, then determine whether they expect you to pay for the renovations out of your start-up package. If they are paying, great! If you will have to pay for the renovations, then you need to get some estimates. Talk to other people in the department or elsewhere on campus who have had renovations done. Many places will have standing contracts with renovation specialists and by talking to people on campus, you can get a sense for how much they will charge. Try to get it in writing that the renovations will be finished before you get to campus—you don’t want to start your tenure clock ticking before you can use your laboratory. Ask your department chair for help on this one—renovations can be tricky.

The primary expenditure of many well-functioning laboratories is the personnel budget. In addition to your equipment and operating budget, you need to investigate the details of your salary and tenure expectations, salary and tuition for your first few graduate students, and salary for postdocs or research technicians. Couched in these salary details are benefits and overhead for you and your employees. Sometimes this part of negotiations can be very straightforward, other times it can be complicated, but you have to get to the bottom of it. Everything can be negotiated, and it does not hurt to ask for what you need.

Now send off your estimated budget. Every institution will be a little different, but most will come back and either say they can meet your budget or they will ask about certain items and whether you really need them. If they cannot meet all of your needs, they will tell you what they can and cannot provide. Think carefully about how you will answer. Listen to all the items of concern and then ask for time to think about it. Do not sell yourself short. If you can be flexible, great. If youcan’t, say so.

Remember, your success is the department’s success. They want you to join their faculty and they expect that you can become a contributing member of the department– otherwise, they wouldn’t have offered you the job. Good luck and happy negotiating!


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