Salaries and Personnel to Start Your Lab…

I’m supposed to be finishing slides for lecture, but I’d like to comment on this. PiT is putting up a vseries on negotiating start-up monies for your first faculty position- in a very detailed series of posts that can be found here, and here (I think we are on the second installment thus far, I’ve also posted on this from time to time and put the links here and here for those wanting all perspectives in one place). A large part of these posts concerns salary both for the TT faculty hire as well as for people you would hire to work in your lab, and there is lots of good information here.

I’d like to add something though, to what PiT wrote- how do you know what salary you as the TT hire should be asking for? PiT rightly mentioned that you should educate yourself on what the going rate is- but there are a couple of sources that she didn’t mention for this. First, if you are getting an offer from a state institution – the salaries of all of the employees of that institution are public information and can usually be found as part of the operating budget of the institution. You may have to poke around a little to find this, but for my institution it is as easy as walking into the campus library and asking for the operating budget. Once you have this in hand you can look for what other hires at your rank/dept/training etc- are being paid. You’ll be shocked by the wide disparities between TT faculty, even those in the same department and hired in the same year. I know I was. Second, if you are considering an offer in a medical school, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC, I believe that is what it is called) publishes a book that contains the average salaries for different regions of the country, for different subject areas, and also by what your terminal degree was (Ph.D. or M.D.), this will at least help you get in the ballpark. Now, it is pretty expensive- but perhaps someone you know might have it (even your library?), and might let you have a look. Anyway, I urge you to go over and read PiTs stuff and the comments on her posts, because they are packed with good information and food for thought.

One other thing I want to address in relation to this, is a post I read this morning from Dr. Zen, written in response to PiT’s posts, entitled:  No postdoc? No problem! Well, I’ll just quote directly:

You can survive and conduct research without postdocs, but you have to think about it. It’s very helpful to have ideas for $5 projects in your pocket as well as $50,000 projects. There’s a lot of research that can be done with time and elbow grease instead of big bucks.

Undergraduates can be awesome in the lab. The trick is to recruit them early, in their first year. That way, you have the potential to work with someone for three or four years. Still, you can get a lot of good work with people who are around for a year.

Hmmmm. While I TOTALLY agree that undergraduates can be excellent, I think, perhaps that it is not optimal to start up your new laboratory on undergraduates alone. Why? Because you will have a limited time to secure significant external federal funding. This is a huge job, and one that will keep you writing A LOT of the time. Undergraduates will generally come to you with little or no experience, and most of the time they are not full time employees by virtue of the fact that they are in class most of the day. These kids (awesome as they can be) will need training and a considerable amount of your time. I suggest that as a junior faculty member you are going to have to figure out where the balance of your time should be spent to achieve the level of external funding that you need to run your lab- and spending lots of time training undergraduates at that stage in your career is not a good idea!!

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again- as junior faculty you need a senior tech or postdoc (and we’ve argued here and elsewhere (Drugmonkey- but I can’t find the link at this moment) about that) to be running things and pounding out data (like the preliminary data for your grants)- while you feverishly write grants.

Grants and papers MUST be your first priority as junior faculty.


14 thoughts on “Salaries and Personnel to Start Your Lab…

  1. “Because you will have a limited time to secure significant external federal funding.”

    To repeat: There is variation. Not every institution is going to fire you if you can’t get federal funds. Big research institutions hire so many people that “You must get federal funding to survive” seems like the only way it can be, but it isn’t.

    At some institutions, you’re not going to have any other talent pool to draw from except undergraduates.

    A lot of people are going to be in for some nasty shocks if they are expecting every institution to be like the big research institution they got their doctorate from.

  2. This site is also extremely helpful and provides salary information for public, and some private, institutions. And it’s searchable by school, by state and by degrees awarded.

    It was useful to know what the previous year’s hire in my department was making. There was no room for negotiating salary here, though.

  3. Newbie: Those data don’t have a breakdown by field, though, so it’s of limited use. Assistant professors in some departments get higher starting salaries than tenured — indeed, long serving — full professors in other departments.

  4. True.

    I wanted to add that public universities now often have searchable online databases with salary information.

  5. Zen- I am not particularly familiar with institutions that don’t require federal funding for tenure and promotion, so I can’t speak to that. I do know that at my institution if you do not obtain external funding, your chances of getting tenure are pretty much zero. However, not every place has graduate programs of equal quality- and I will say that there are many bright undergraduates that are sometimes more interested, more talented, and more motivated than your average graduate student in a graduate program that isn’t very high quality. Strange as that may sound. I still think that a technician, if not a postdoc, is well worth the $$ if they can be had.

  6. I’m with DrDrA on this. I love having undergrads in the lab and have got a bunch of really cool stuff done with them, but trying to start a lab with just undergrads? Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

  7. Another useful source for salary information is the school newspaper. At our institution, the undergrad rag annually publishes faculty salaries – as a state university they are publicly available, but not always easy to find. Usually with a bit of this-is-why-our-tuition-is-so-high moaning.

    My experience with undergrads is that they are fun to have around, but are always more of a sink than a source. However, in the case of at least one college I interviewed, all research gets done with undergrads, and almost entirely over the summer (fed grants NOT required for tenure, but mentoring of undergrad research was looked on highly favorably, as it boosts the ability of the department to get their students into grad or med school). I’d have to radically change research focus to get anything done with undergrads only; something one should ponder when planning a broad job hunt to different types of institutions.

  8. drdrA: Agreed that good technicians or postdocs are worth their weight in gold, if not platinum.

    Odyssey: Yes, starting a lab with undergrads is a different task than starting a lab with postdocs and technicians and doctoral students. This is exactly why I wrote that people should think about it in advance in case expected advanced assistant scientists don’t materialize, for whatever reason.

    The great thing about blogs like this is the breadth of different perspectives and experiences. I wish this kind of stuff had been available when I was making that transition.

  9. When I look at the Chronicle site Newbie linked to, it appears that at a couple of test universities (eg NYU), faculty salaries have increased by 30%+ in the last decade. That seems above and beyond inflation, to be sure. What’s the deal?

  10. Dr. J.: Try playing around a bit with the inflation calculator:

    If you figure 3% inflation per year (fairly standard estimate), you get to 30% over 10 years.

    Starting faculty salaries do tend to rise above the rate of inflation (for reasons that are not entirely clear to me). This leads to salary compression, or, in extreme cases, salary inversion, where junior faculty can actually make more than more senior faculty.

    There could also be some weird demographic things going on. If the average age of professors are going up (all the baby boomers in the pipeline who haven’t quite hit retirement), that would drive up the average salary, too.

  11. Odyssey: “I love having undergrads in the lab and have got a bunch of really cool stuff done with them, but trying to start a lab with just undergrads? Sounds like a recipe for disaster”

    I totally agree. Ugrads in a lab that already has postdocs, grads students and techs are terrific because they keep the teaching spirit alive and remind established people of how far they have come. A key is to have experienced people outnumber the ugrads. And I do not rely on ugrads to do core work unless they are truly exceptional. Which does happen now and then.

  12. drdrA: for lab tech hiring, do you recommend paying a hourly rate (e.g. $10) or salary (e.g. $30,000)+benefits?

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