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Outside of the odd garage sale or car purchase, haggling has faded from everyday life in North America.  Research is no exception, but there is one brief window in an academic’s career where haggling is not only a good idea, but is expected.  In the small gap between when a university offers one of their applicants an assistant professorship and the applicant accepts some rather heated negotiations take place.  I alluded to this in the subnote of a previous post, and on reflection this is a topic that could use a little more oxygen.

Due to the investment of the hiring process, this is the brief moment in any academic’s career where they have true leverage, and in theory nearly any aspect of the an assistant professor’s life is up for negotiation.  In practice most of the back and forth is around a few key points:


Moving Costs

Spousal job opportunities (for academics with the two-body problem)

Early year teaching loads

Startup funds

The Negotiation in Context

The issue of salary usually gets top billing, but is generally difficult to negotiate.  It’s a simple matter to determine median salaries at universities in Canada (pdf) [1] and the US, but many faculties will refuse go give ground regardless of your negotiating position, or are forbidden from doing so by union contracts.

Of far greater importance is the issue of startup funds.  Early grant-free funding is key to establishing an effective research program, by making it easier to produce low-impact papers on the preliminaries of your work.  These early papers make it far easier to obtain the first external grant, which eventually leads to more personnel and greater funding.  During the negotiations the department head (and sometimes even the dean) is your ally, as they have a vested interest in your success.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know what to request in the negotiations.  The size of the startup package varies wildly from candidate to candidate, and unlike salaries there isn’t much information on “standard” packages.  Worse, online accounts vary from $50,000 to over $1,000,000 (Bio).  More prestigious universities will of course offer greater support, but greater transparency is obviously needed.  To put us all on the same page, I’ll put forward the best consensus I could establish.

Your startup package should fund all aspects of your first 2-3 years of research.

This includes all reasonable equipment, as well as salaries for 2-3 hires (graduate students, undergraduates and perhaps a postdoc).  Values in the US are generally around the $400-600k mark, depending on equipment and staffing needs.  Canadian packages tend to be about 3-4 times lower (ie. $100-200k), though they appear to be on the rise.

The gap comes from the nature of funding in Canada, which depends on several disparate agencies.  At some Canadian universities professors can make their “big-ticket” equipment purchases under Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) grants, negating about a third of the US startup funds.  In the past staffing needs were also mitigated by early career NSERC discovery grant (about $20k/year at the 1 year mark, enough for a single graduate student), but the success rate has dropped to around 60% in recent years (pdf).  This is having an effect on the size of startup funding, as early-career researchers can no longer rely on early external funding.

Know What You Need

Prior to the job interview draw up a list of everything you will need in your first three years, itemized and priced out (example).  Prioritize your list, with a few nice-to-have items added on as bargaining chips, and be prepared to put every purchase in context, linking equipment back to the experiments it is needed for and cogently explaining why you need the funding to succeed.  Also, don’t be afraid to ask for the moon.  Obtaining funds once you’ve been hired can be difficult to impossible, and if you’re in demand anything is possible.

Things to Push For

  • Support for two graduate students for two to three years.
  • Enough funds to cover consumables for the above students (~$9k/year for organic chemistry research, closer to $20k for molecular biology).
  • A waiver on teaching for the first year (two years if possible).
  • Deferred or preferential committee assignments [2].
  • Reduced teaching load through to tenure review (ie. 2 courses/year instead of 3).
  • Time on shared equipment, and funds to cover said use.
  • Support for an undergraduate student during the first summer.
  • (US Only) Summer salaries for the first 2-3 years.
  • (US Only) Big ticket equipment.

Things to Watch Out For

  • The amount of money required to support a graduate student varies by university.  Make sure that your offer letter adjusts for this.
  • Your salary/summer salary should not be drawn from the startup funds, unless this was built in during the negotiations.
  • If you are offered time on shared equipment in lieu of an equipment purchase, ensure that money to cover usage fees is added to the startup funds.
  • Beware hiring freezes.  A quick hiring process is far less susceptible than one that drags out for months.
  • Funds should not come with conditions on their use (ie. $50k must go to item X).  If the department prefers to pay for specific items, the negotiations should focus on the items themselves, not dollar values.
  • For accounting purposes startup packages usually come with a “spend by X date” clause.  Make sure you have 3-4 years to spend the funds, to secure against the possibility that your first grant application is unsuccessful.

And of course, the most important note.  If it isn’t in writing, it wasn’t offered.  Get everything written down, even if you need to offer to write the offer yourself.


[1]  Like the long form census, Stats Canada is no longer collecting this information.

[2]  Proactive committee involvement is a requirement for tenure.  As a result, it can only be deferred, not waived.  Not all committees require equal time commitments though.