Some advice on negotiations for startups

For my first real post I’m gonna steal a little sumthin’-sumthin’ I wrote over at Drug Monkey.  The discussion was veering off into negotiations for startup funds and since I recently went through this process I dropped the following experiences: 


While we’re talking about startups I thought I’d share some advice based on my recent experience (interviewing and obtaining tenure track position at an R1 University). I had a Fellowship and a Foundation grant (as PI) as a postdoc, but no portable funds.

1) Be well prepared to negotiate. I was told negotiations started after the first interview, usually when you come back for your second interview but this is not how it went for me. Several interviewers wanted to know what my startup needs would be during first interviews. Luckily I was ready for this (thanks to some good advice from the postdoc mentor). I carried around a budget proposal with year by year details for a 4 year startup package and I got it out of the bag every time I was asked. I expected to be grilled on it, what actually happened was quite interesting… people generally gave me advice on unexpected details that I had not thought of. In other words, this plan helped me demonstrate that I was prepared and it also helped my recognize that I had advocates in departments that were willing to offer advice in unexpected ways.

2) Demonstrate that you are prepared to start submitting grants. The next question after the budget discussion was always why do you need this money? I also had a R01-style grant ready to go and in my bag which would be the next thing to come out. No one ever asked for a copy or anything like that but it clearly had an effect. This also allowed me to show preliminary data that was not in my talk and explain methods in more detail by going to diagrams, etc.. It is very easy to explain your budget needs when you have an experimental plan right in your hands.

3) Be completely honest about what you need and when you need it. Many new investigators need more money up front to get the equipment they need into the lab so they can start the work. This sounds obvious but not everyone will get it. During the negotiations be sure that your budget details fit the timeline of when you need things. My experience was that no one wanted to screw me on the funds but not everyone understood that I needed a substantial bolus up front. My goal was to make sure that people with hands on the purse strings understood this so that the Dean’s office would also understand.

After negotiations, once you are in the new spot and spending money:

1) Do not complain to the Dean! Do talk to the Dean! Someone, maybe the Dept chair, should facilitate your getting to know your Dean. If no one does, make sure it happens. Deans generally understand the financial problems everyone is having right now and many of them are under pressure themselves from above to make sure the money keeps flowing in. Let the Dean know who you are and let your enthusiasm for your new position shine through when you talk to him/her. Back it up by getting those grants out early and often. If the Dean knows who you are, chances are they will notice such things when they get reports from Deans of Research on submitted grants.

2) Give talks within the University at every opportunity. Scientists are interested in new directions. One way to make your startup grow is to get those collaborations started. This doesn’t mean you should neglect your own research program because your most important obligation is to demonstrate that your lab is up and running and ready to produce. My experience has been that after I give my talks in different departments people come to me with new tools and/or directions that can help me achieve my aims. Often this has resulted in an invitation to use equipment to do new things, new equipment I don’t have to buy with new data to put into grants.

3) There are people in your University who are counting on your success. Don’t ever be in the position where you need to explain what you’re doing. Tell people, enthusiastically, what your newest data is and which grant applications you’re working on before they ask. Seek advice to improve your applications and to demonstrate that you are generating interesting data. Be your own best advocate. 

 Hopefully this will be of some use to others going through the process now…  


4 responses to “Some advice on negotiations for startups

  1. VERY helpful post.

    Yes I think the story that they don’t start negotiating about money until the 2nd interview is out of date now. I’ve heard that from other folks coming back from interviews, too. Unfortunately the PIs are still telling the postdocs where I work not to worry about it (!). I think that sends the wrong message about how important it is to plan ahead.

    I really like that you broke it down into 4 years, I hadn’t heard of doing that. Most people I know don’t even make a list until after they come back from their first round of interviews, and then they start asking people like me how much things cost. grr!

    Anyway given the chance to make one of these lists (if I ever get any interviews) I will copy you!

    I also really like the idea of trotting out your grant as a way of further detailing your plans. Again, while I know you should have something close to an R01 ready to go, I hadn’t heard of anyone actually bringing it along and pointing it out. Very impressive!

    I don’t understand what you mean when you say “Don’t ever be in the position where you need to explain what you’re doing.”


    What you say next makes it sound like you should be roaming the halls bragging to people. Is that what you mean?

    I had a friend a few years ago who would always stop me and talk my ear off about her latest results. She was always very excited and at first I was baffled by this, sometimes annoyed, and eventually I thought it was cute. Now I actually miss it. But she didn’t end up getting a job.

    I do hope that you’ll blog a bit about how you got your job. If you’ve talked about it elsewhere, can you refer me there?

    thanks and welcome to the blogosphere.

  2. MsPhD, I don’t really mean walking through the halls bothering people, although I may do that a bit. What I really meant is that there are a small subset of people (dept chair, assistant deans, VP research, etc.,) who are going to ask you how things are going and want to know what is happening in the new lab. They are likely busy people you won’t see all that often. When you do see them, be ready to tell them something new. Now I don’t mean to just make up some crap — whatever you say can be pretty simple. We just set up an imaging rig (mostly for calcium stuff) for instance and I saw the Asst Dean who played a big part in my recruitment in the hall on Friday. First thing I told him was that we set it up and we’re looking forward to doing x and y on it to get some new data for z grant. Two sentences but it lets him know what we’re doing and that we’re making progress.

    I say all of this largely because I consistently see youngish colleagues in the same situation get asked what they’re up to and not have a whole lot to say. I don’t think this leaves the right impression (I know they’ve got cool stuff going on) and a little bit of weekly preparation can help me avoid getting into that situation.

    I’ll do a post on how I got the job sometime soon. Quick preview, networking played a huge role for me…

  3. A late endorsement of your advice to get to know your dean. We’re here to hire and support faculty, and our success and your success are all wrapped up together. I love being able to tell alumni and donors about the hot new research program that is just getting off the ground, and I often find myself introducing faculty from different departments and schools who have some research or teaching issue in common. And share the love a bit with the staff too. That facilities person who helped plan your lab remodel might like to see the place up and running, and wouldn’t you like her to remember you well when you need to get a fume hood replaced quickly? Networking begins on your home campus.

  4. Pingback: Unsolicited Advice: Job Search (Pt. 14) « Blue Lab Coats

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