Figuring Startup $$

I received the following question in my email in box earlier today:

Hi DrDrA,
I recently discovered your blog, and have found it extremely useful. So now I’m contacting you directly for some help.
I had an extremely successful interview at my dream university for my dream TT job. In a couple weeks I go back for a second visit, and I’m preparing for negotiations. It’s a large state school, so I have a ball-park idea of what kind of salary to expect, but nowhere can I find information on what a reasonable start-up package is. I have a list of equipment I need, plan on requesting salary for a tech and a student or two, etc., but I have no idea whether this total dollar amount is reasonable. I can’t find hard, cold $$ amounts anywhere. I’ve asked around at my current department, and to other postdocs that have recently started TT jobs (n=2), but these figures vary widely and aren’t at institutions that are comparable to where I (hope) will be going.
If you have any thoughts, or can point me in the right direction, I’d appreciate it!


About to be TT faculty (ATBTT faculty)

How awesome is that!? I think it is really excellent timing because I’m imagining this scenario going on all over the country- it is prime time for second visits and offers for academic faculty positions in the US right now… so I offer to you my reply to the question, and solicit your opinions and helpful suggestions for this intrepid junior faculty to be:

Dear ATBTT faculty:

Thanks for your question. I’m glad you find the blog useful, and congratulations on your second visit!

There are really two parts to your question, I’ll take them one at a time.

1.  Salary- you should be able to get a good idea of the salary range if this is a state university.  State universities have operating budgets, and these are usually public information. You will have to do some asking around as to how to obtain information from the operating budget- sometimes this can be found online, sometimes not. At my large state institution, one just walks into the library on campus and asks to see a copy of the operating budget- the library reference desk has a copy you can look at, ours is broken down by system component, then colleges within the system component, then by department- and it is very, very detailed. You can see the salaries of everyone- and if you know who the most recent hires were and what their training was- you should be able to hit salary spot on. Do not feel badly about seeking out these numbers- this information is very important for your ability to negotiate for a reasonable salary.  Probably the most important reason to do this (as I think I’ve discussed on this blog before) is that every raise you will ever receive is a percentage of your base salary- negotiating a higher base salary can add up to earnings of hundreds of thousands of dollars more over your lifetime of working.

2.  Startup. This is A LOT trickier, as you have realized- and good numbers are hard to come by.  This is because the amount of startup really depends on what you do, how much – i.e. do you need a FACS machine with all the bells and whistles to the tune of 500K, or are you a field biologist that goes out into the field with your eyes, a shovel and a notebook… you get my point, I think.  But with that said- and because we do similar things (I think)- I started the status quo was to ask for the $$ you would need to set up and run your lab for 3 years.  With the current funding climate, you may want to extend this time a little bit. Figuring this number will be based on figuring out what kind of stuff you need to buy to set up your lab, and how much you will need for salaries. Several years ago when I myself was looking for a job, the opening salvo at a large state university  was 500K- and this was the beginning of the negotiation. I know that this is currently the opening offer from places I am familiar with that might employ someone like you.

For equipment- you’ve probably got a list already, figure supplies for 2-3 employees for 3-4 years. A rule of thumb is $1000/month per employee (sounds like a lot, but look at the price of kits these days)- if you want a guestimate. If you use any particularly expensive reagents (Cy3 costs can kill ya,… or research animals and per diem etc.), you will need to figure that in. For personnel- you should be able to find out what is the starting salary for technical help in the department where you are going for the second visit, through casual conversation during that visit. You probably already know how grad students are supported there, and what the cost in stipend, fringe, and tuition if applicable- and if you don’t know this already- the second visit is the time to ask. I think it is reasonable to ask for the equipment you need, supplies/animals/etc costs for 3-4 years, and then personnel – including a tech or postdoc, and a student- then include this all in the number that you ask for.

I know that’s probably not very helpful in terms of specific numbers for your particular case- but this should at least get you in the ballpark. Remember going in -that this is a negotiation. So, going in you know you probably won’t get everything that you ask for- but the goal is to get what you need to be successful and get tenure!

If you are game, we can ask the BLC readers what they think as well- they always have bundles of useful advice!

Good luck and feel free to contact me with any additional questions you may have,


So there you go, followers of the blog- got opinions on this topic?


18 thoughts on “Figuring Startup $$

  1. Second-hand advice here:

    Make sure you ask for more than what you think you need for start-up. A recent former-post-doc-from-our-lab-now-TT-faculty made the mistake at his first negotiation to ask for what he realistically needed, and by the end of the negotiation he was offered bare bones operating cost. He was wiser about the second negotiation he entered, asking for more, and he was offered what he realistically needed. Congrats and good luck!

  2. Faculty salaries at my state digs are available online to anyone – every person making over $50k paid by the state is listed. Do a googly for state salaries at your digs to see if the info is available.

    Nonstate schools have a binder book like what doubledoc says, but there’s usually links to the info online – you just have to access it from a school computer or with a school email account. You can call human resources and ask where to access that info.

    Your best resource for dept startup info at your digs is the new faculty. If you had a good feeling about any of the ones you met during your interview, then hit them up for inside info. CALL. If anyone lobbied for you that you know of, they would also be good to call. If anyone works on similar stuff as you and shared equipment might be a possibly, call. New faculty here have been sharing techs and equipment even though they were hired different years.

    Congrats! good luck.


    Ask for what you need, specifically, and in writing. If you need a Model 51344A Bweembleplex, specify in writing that a Model 51344A Bweembleplex will be provided. Do not take the “cash equivalent”, or when the Bweembleplex suddenly increases in price, you’re in trouble.

  4. C PP- Excellent point. Something I wouldn’t have thought of- as I just expect none of the new faculty hire salary to come out of startup. Although I realize it is not that rare for at least some of the new hire’s salary to come from startup.

    jc- I tried asking about startup $$ and a couple of recent hires when I was looking- and that didn’t work well. When new hires ask me, I come straight out with the #s because I don’t believe this should be a secret.

    Whimple- quite right. And different departments handle startup differently- some hand you over a wad of cash and turn you loose, some want to do the purchasing of equipment for you. I, personally, am very leary of that second situation. I want to have control over how my startup money is spent and on what, and I don’t want any administrator or other faculty making decisions on my behalf.

  5. I made a list of what I needed (equipment)
    then I tacked on a tech and a post-doc
    and then made up some numbers for operating costs (based on discussions with m PI)

    that was the number I was shooting for.

    Also, if your salary comes out from start-up, adjust up as needed.

  6. Something I wouldn’t have thought of- as I just expect none of the new faculty hire salary to come out of startup.

    It’s not uncommon in medical schools. I paid for every penny of my salary from my start-up until I had substantial NIH funding.

  7. Like DrDrA said, it depends greatly on your field. I got two kinds of advice here, one was to come in with a number broken down by category and the other was to give a detailed list with prices. What I did was to make a list of every piece of equipment I could think of, right down to thermometers. I got a list price for the bigger stuff and an estimate (on the high end) for the smaller stuff. I then added in salaries, reagent costs, office equipment, computers, software, travel money and publication costs and broke it all down in a spread sheet. At the end I included a few pieces of equipment that were essential, but that were things I did not use often and that I would be willing to share if they were already available. Of the ones I was told I could share, I got that in writing in my final contract.

    I did it this way because I felt like a dollar ammount for something like “equipment” could be haggled down, but with more details they won’t tell you that you can’t have a specific piece of equipment you need. I got the money I asked for after very little back and forth (which probably means I could have asked for more) and leveraged my buying power as a new lab to get far better prices on equipment than I had in my budget. The result is that I have outfitted the entire lab for half of the money I budgetted for that task and now have a substantial slush fund for running extra experiments. I have been very happy with how it has all worked out.

  8. Institutions vary not only in whether your salary is included in the start-up figure, but also in whether you pay a variety of other charges out of start-up — including, but not limited to, “rent” or space charges for your laboratory square footage, secretarial support, janitorial support, even electricity, phone lines, toilet paper … You may also have to bear the cost of laboratory remodeling out of your start-up, if you need it to make your space suitable for the work you want to do. On the other hand, some institutions pay all these costs out of departmental funds rather than subtracting from your start-up, and one institution where I got an offer even paid for graduate student stipends out of departmental funds until a new faculty received their first major grant. The institution where I accepted a position deducted my cross-country moving expenses from my start-up; I hadn’t anticipated needing to cover that particular 14K expense from my budget. Also you may want to find out if the total dollar figure is available to be spent at your discretion, or if it needs to be spent on certain categories. My offer included 200K for equipment, which I expected would set me up really nicely with a couple of large pieces of essential equipment plus a bazillion small things like gel boxes, pipeters, shakers, balances, power supplies… it turned out that the 200K was strictly earmarked for “capital equipment” items over 5K, so I had to stretch my supplies and personnel budget to cover all smaller cheaper equipment, an unpleasant surprise. It is important to understand exactly what is and is not included in the start-up figure, and how it is structured, to make sure in comparing offers that you are not comparing apples to oranges. One institution’s “million dollar offer” may be pretty equivalent to another institution’s 500K offer.

  9. I did what PLS did–I made up a detailed list of every single thing I thought I might ever need, including big ticket, medium ticket and small ticket items. Everything was covered, and I made a spreadsheet color-coded by whether I needed something available in my lab for my exclusive use, available within my building but okay to share, or available somewhere on campus.

    Here’s one thing that HUGELY benefited me in this process: I worked with the lab manager of my postdoc lab, who knew all the vendors, prices, and estimated monthly usage of consumables and supplies, to put together the “wish list.” She made sure I didn’t miss anything, and then when I had accepted the offer and it came time to start ordering, she worked with me to get everything in place. That meant our whole lab (with multiple highly technical equipment purchases and complete outfitting for our type of research from scratch) was set up within three months of my starting date, and we were in full swing within four months.

    MAKE SURE YOU ASK FOR MORE THAN YOU NEED, and ask for it to all be unrestricted funds. I too am at a large state school, and my wish list total ticket price was about $1,000,000. I did not get that whole amount, but the only compromises that were made were on the major big ticket items that were already available on campus that I was ensured access to in lieu of money to purchase my own versions. I ended up getting a very generous package, that met my needs and left me enough for a postdoc and plenty of consumables. The one thing I wish I had thought of was to ask for a little bit extra to cover instrument use time on some of those big ticket compromises.

    Also, when it comes to buying stuff, make sure you pay attention to the F&A rules at this place: I was able to get an additional ~$40K by using a certain portion of my startup accounts (which had come from an NIH grant to a center) to buy capital equipment, so I got to keep the F&A from that which was substantial.

  10. I did exactly the same as PLS and Arlenna. My startup was nowhere near $500K but was substantially higher than anything my friends were getting in my field. As I’m in a hard-money teaching position, I also asked for summer salary for the first couple of years and as well as salary and benefits for a postdoc/tech.

    Also be sure to find out if there is a time limit within which the startup funds must be spent … my offer letter specifies that all of the money must be used within 3 years of my start date and I was told the other day that part of it was provided by another program and that they needed me to half of my entire startup spent by the end of next month (never going to happen). I stuck to my guns, waved my letter of offer around and Dean has ordered the money boffins to do some creative accounting to make up for their own error.

  11. My experience was very, very similar to Arlenna’s: last year, going to largeish state school. I put together a list including everything I might want (and I am sure that I missed some stuff); one $80K piece was agreed to be placed in a shared facility (although I doubt many other folk will use it) but otherwise I got – eventually – what I asked for. It really really helped to have competing offers/amounts that I could play off against one another, but that’s not always possible; what also helped was the broken-down list of stuff with reasons and examples of the data that would be generated by equipment X. Especially when talking to e.g. Deans not in my specific sub-field.

    Otherwise: what everyone else has said. Ask for the absolute moon *after* you have the offer; it’s the one time you have power. And get *everything* in writing – do NOT NOT NOT believe any promises that are not in writing.

  12. Pingback: Academia and the Art of Haggling « Chemtips

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