Negotiating your start-up package in non-medical biological sciences

Yeah, I'm a bit early on this since we are currently in application / interview season, but it's something I have been thinking about a decent amount recently. Why? Because there are things I should have asked for that I didn't and a few things that I did ask for, which have saved my ass. Having done a postdoc outside the country, I wish I had had a bit more information than I went in with, as some of my assumptions turned out to be false.

So, based on my experience and the collective experience of the readers here, I thought we might be able to put together a decent guide for those of you who will hopefully be in the position to negotiate in a few months. The tricky thing is trying to put a number on this, because there is enormous variance between institutions. Instead of talking numbers, I would like to talk about categories of things to ask for. These should be widely applicable, with variable values depending on your field and institution.

Listed based on priority:

This is obviously one of the big ones. You need to have the cash to set up your lab in a way that allows you to get the things done you need to. Everything from major equipment to chemicals to the stupid little spatulas you use to weigh those chemicals out with needs to be thought of. I did it by wandering around my postdoc lab and writing down everything I saw. It is amazing how many little things you can forget / take for granted. List them all.

How you approach putting a number on this category depends on how nit picky the person you are negotiating with is. In my case, I made categories of stuff (e.g. "freezers and refrigerators"), thought about how many I needed and looked up some ballpark prices. In most cases, you are pretty safe going with the list price, because every vendor will crawl out of the woodwork to give you a discount when setting up a new lab. If you use the list price as your guide, you'll have between 20% and 50% of that money left over when you actually by the item. That is a good thing.

In some cases you will be offered the use of shared equipment for big things or possibly that the university will buy you a specific item or has one they will give you. In this case, GET IT IN WRITING. And I mean the exact model number you want and everything. If they say they will buy it, get a timeframe in your offer letter. Even if you are negotiating with the nicest people in the world, get that shit in writing! Decide what you can share and what need to be dedicated to your lab and make sure you get the latter category. There is nothing more stifling than having to wait for shared equipment when you are just getting things to work.

This is another category that you can budget list prices for and come out ahead when vendors battle for your shiny new start-up money, but put the funds in this category to keep you going for longer that you think. I would say at least 3 years is a good idea, 4 if you can get it. Again, gloves to weigh boats, figure out what you need.

There's no use having a stocked lab with no one in it. Figure out support for your people. Does your department offer TA support for students? If so, get a few lines of support committed to your lab. Do you need a technician? Get salary. Same with a postdoc. You may not be able to ask for the moon and the stars, but decide what you want and fight for it. In this funding climate, best to ask for one more year than you think you will need, as well.

And don't forget yourself. If you are in a 9 month appointment, ask them to cover summer salary for a few years. If you get grants to cover it instead, I'm sure they won't mind.

SERVICES (added)
This was one I forgot and have added in response to comments. In most cases, it would be a good idea to add in the costs involved with data production, if you require outside services or expensive methods.

This is a category that some people take for granted and I've seen some get burned. It is common for a school to show you a space when you interview. Is that the same space you will inhabit? Maybe, maybe not. Will there be renos done? Probably. But when will that happen? In some cases I hear people complaining about never done customization a year or two into the job. At that point, you've either found a work around or are too set up to allow a work crew in the place to mess it all up. Again, get a time frame in writing!

If you can help it at all, don't teach in year one. There's a lot going on and a million things to figure out already, having to do all that with teaching responsibilities on top of that makes life a lot tougher. Ideally, getting out of teaching in year 1 and then getting some softball grad class in your specialty in your third semester before taking on a undergrad class in semester 4, is not a bad way to ease in.

Do you need to go places to collecting things for your research? Do you want to go to conferences in your first couple of years to get the word out that you've moved and you're a big kid now? Budget it. What about your lab peeps? They'll probably want to go to conferences too, or maybe they need to travel for workshops or collecting. Don't forget to make a category for this!

This is a funny one, because sometimes money needs to be in a specific category to buy computers. Find out about that. It may be just for grant funds, but worth asking. In any case, you'll need things like computers for you and your peeps. Printers and ink. Back up systems? Servers? What about software you use? A lot of it can be pricey, just look how much the Adobe suite is. And that's before you get to specialized proprietary software.

I'm sure there are some things I am leaving out that others can bring up. It's a daunting process trying to figure out everything you will need to get going, but it can also be a lot of fun.

15 responses so far

  • What do you do about campus services? E.g. it may (emphasis on MAY; YMMV) be safer and possibly more cost-effective to use a campus-IT backup service than to try to run your own... but it's also an ongoing cost. Can you negotiate for that?

  • Oto says:

    Ditto on making sure to specify support for personnel. I luckily found out ahead of time that my university does not allow startup money to be used as salary/stipend unless it's specified in writing in the offer letter. Knowing that, I was able to negotiate for it, so I haven't had any problems. But if I hadn't asked, they wouldn't have given it to me.

    I'd also add a category for "Analytical services" of some kind. If sample analysis could be done by contract at another university or business, ask for funds to process a certain number of samples in your first couple of years. This is particularly useful when your labs are being renovated and you may be unable to process samples yourself. My helpful department chair put it to me this way during negotiations: "How many samples would you need to produce sufficient preliminary data for an NSF proposal? Ask for that."

  • WeiterGen says:

    We just had our post-doc retreat where these issues were also discussed. Additional points that were mentioned (and which I can remember):
    -running costs for service contracts of expensive equipment
    -costs for facility services (deep-sequencing, mass spec, microscopy, IT cluster time, ...)
    -publication costs

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Good point on the data services, I have updated the text to include it. Service contract costs and publication costs are a little dicier, IMHO. As far as back-up services go, I find it pretty cheap to do it in house.

  • Yeah, there are definitely some things that I should have asked for/insisted on but didn't and now regret it. Part of the problem was that I thought that $X0,000 would be a good deal until Postdoc Mentor stepped in and told me that I needed to multiply that offer by a factor of Y. Even then, it really wasn't enough. Consult with people who aren't connected with the school/dept you're negotiating with before you submit your list of demands. On Postdoc Mentor's advice I did ask for and received a summer stipend for the first couple of years and a reduced teaching load for the first three years. Thank goodness for his advice.

    Above all else, make sure you get everything IN WRITING. After starting here, I was told that I would not be getting X and Y after all and that I was expected to do Z which was all completely ridiculous and would have totally screwed me over ... I waved my offer letter around and got X and Y and was excused from doing Z. You can still get screwed but if you haven't got anything in writing, you don't have a chance in hell.

  • Ewan says:

    As many votes as are needed to get through that if it is not in writing, it does not exist.

    One piece of my startup was a $100K piece of kit (which is nominally shared, but no-one else uses). After my arrival, we had a budget freeze... but that purchase was part of the written, signed contract, so no problem. No way would I have got it if it were not.

    The biggest thing that you skipped - and maybe intentional, not really part of startup - is your own salary number. I was surprised how much flexibility exists here; the offer I took had a final salary number some 30% higher than their initial offer.

    Other than that, negotiate for the startup costs to have no expiration date, if possible. I didn't get that, but I did get an extra year; it's a big deal.

  • Photon says:


    Would you mind sharing your circumstance in negotiating your salary? I am just curious about the various leverages you had on that issue. Did it come from an competitive offer from somewhere else or some other scenarios?


  • Han Aiwen says:

    A really good suggestion I was given was to get $5000 in a separate account for little things (books, consumables you didn't think of, and other such things) that means you don't have to go to the dean (in my case, or department in many cases) every time you buy a book. I got a lot more money out of my PUI than I expected and am really happy I asked for so much.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Ewan, I did avoid salary, since that is typically a separate issue.

    Han, not sure this is applicable everywhere. At least with my start up money, there are no restrictions on what I can purchase or spend it on (other than general university rules, i.e., I can't take a vacation with it).

  • Great post.

    I heard at job interviews one also needed to have a "number in mind", in case a dean or chair asks. Any ideas on how to answer questions like that? Some things, like equipment and conference travel I can estimate, but things like student/postdoc stipends, summer salary, teaching buyout, etc, I have no idea what those things would cost.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    FCS, there's a lot of variability there, depending on the university. It would be worth it to talk to colleagues in your field and find out a ballpark, then explain that you have a ballpark number, but that you would have to really sit down to firm things up.

  • This is a good point. If you don't want to say a number, having a wishlist can be just as good. No one will expect you to know how much to budget for personnel, since this is highly variable by institution. But equipment costs should be about the same, and you should have a proposal for how much support you want from the department in terms of summer salary and students. Don't worry about teaching buyouts in your startup--in my experience, you will be able to negotiate a reduced teaching load without worrying about buying it.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    1. Get a credit card with a minimum of ~ $2000 a month for a couple of years for supplies. You should not have to list weigh boats. You have to keep records, but this is by far the fastest way to work.

    2. If you buy equipment get the longest service contract you can fit in your budget.

    3. Haunt Ebay and LabX. You can get real bargains if you know what you are looking for.

    4. Shipping on heavy stuff will eat you for lunch.

  • [...] A good grocery list of things to ask for in negotiations [...]

  • David says:

    Start buying equipment while you are still in grad school, I am a third year grad student, and I have more running equipment then many PI's with 30 years in the grant game, as well as equipment that no one would think of buying such as mass specs and a modern 60 MHz NMR spectrometer. Check out university surplus stores, good working equipment for pennies compared to the new price. One does not need an Agilent 1100 HPLC, buy an older Waters 600 series HPLC for a few hundred on Ebay as well as a few Waters 510 pumps for spares. Use a strip chart recorder or USB port data logger for data processing. Just saved you $30,000.Buy a HP 5890 GC for around $500, run it using an integrator using the INET card that all of these instruments have until you can afford a computerized data system. Buy the mass spectrometer of your dreams on Ebay, many are under $10,000 and are in nearly working condition. I bought an older HP unit for $1500 with shipping. FTIR is dicey unless you look at the beam splitters first, but I obtained two perfectly working instruments with cherry beam splitters for under $100 each! Considering to buy a single crystal X-ray diffractometer next year, all on about $300 of disposable income each month. IT is quite easy to set up a lab for several people with a grad student stipend as long as you don't drink your money away. Lab equipment is dirt cheap! Also ask around for surplus chemicals, people throw away so much good stuff! One should learn to fix equipment, service on this stuff is outrageous. 20 year old equipment is the best stuff out there, plenty of third party service people and parts on the internet. The old way of doing science is over!

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