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The Black Hole

Finding a suitable home for your research program – part 1, reviewing the offer


To read the previous articles in this series please visit the links below:

The chair of the search committee has now made it clear that they are prepared to offer you a faculty position in their department and would like to begin negotiating the details of your appointment. Along with this offer you will typically be invited back for a second interview where you are expected to meet with additional members of the department to get a feel for what you will need to launch a successful research lab. During this visit you will need to find out as much information as possible regarding the position, and what you will need to make it work for you. It’s a good idea to entertain multiple offers at this point to give yourself some leverage and some choice. Different departments and institutions will have different strengths and weaknesses and you will need to decide which environment is best for you.

This is among the most difficult decisions you will make in your career. Make it carefully. Because of the length this article, I have divided it into three separate posts: reviewing the offer; identifying resources/preparing the budget; and verifying fit.

Review the offer

Before your second interview, take the time to learn the details of the proposed appointment. Re-evaluate the list of priorities you made at the outset of your search and consider how this position stacks against your life goals. Specifically:

  • What is the job title and what does it mean?
  • What is the length of your initial contract?
  • In the case of proposed cross-appointments, where is your “tenure home”?
  • What is the student population like?

You should consider what you will want the make-up of your lab to be and what sort of access you will have to quality graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and research associates. At major universities in Canada, it is typically easier for young faculty to recruit graduate students (unlike Harvard, in which the relatively few graduate students per faculty member heavily favour established labs with prestigious reputations). Universities with distinguished reputations in certain disciplines will also attract particular students (e.g. MIT is highly regarded as an engineering school despite having an active life sciences department), which may be advantageous or may make it more difficult to find the right candidate, depending on how your research program fits within the declared focus of your institution, and who you are looking to hire.

Likewise, new hires at smaller universities will typically have a harder time attracting great postdoctoral fellows, whereas larger institutions’ reputations typically make this easier. Finally, labour contracts may limit your ability to afford/retain quality technicians early in your career and should also be considered.

  • Under what terms will the contract be renewed?
  • What are your committee requirements?
  • What are your teaching requirements?

If your focus is on basic research, you should arrange to have your first three years be protected research time in which you are not expected to assume any committee or teaching responsibilities. Setting up a productive research lab is more than a full-time job and you will find yourself quickly overwhelmed if you are required to direct your attention to committee work and teaching as well.

  • Is this a full-time tenure-track position?

Many institutions have begun offering “lecturer” positions that are not full-time and “research scientist” positions that are not tenure-track. These “at will” or “adjunct” appointments offer no tenure protection if the position is eliminated or grant funding is lost. While not covered in detail here, this topic will constitute the basis of a future post by me and Dave.

  • What is the salary and for how long is it guaranteed? (base pay, benefits, source)
  • What are your expected sources of funding? (teaching? internal/external grants? consulting?)

The average private, independent university 12-month assistant professor salary* for PhDs in the United States (2013-2014) is presently ~$82,000 for men and ~$75,000 for women, which is consistent with what I have seen at comparable Canadian institutions. American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Faculty Compensation Surveys for 2002-present are available here.

In my following post we will discuss how to identify the resources you will need to launch a successful research program and how to prepare an appropriate budget. Personal anecdotes from those of you that have been through this process, or are currently in the trenches yourselves are welcome! Every story is different, and our perspectives inherently reflect our experiences. Nevertheless, there are common themes that develop through their telling that help direct us toward areas in the recruitment and on-boarding process that should be improved. Dave and I are eager to hear yours.

*Salaries vary widely depending on degree, geographic location, institution, and scientific discipline, and you should compare your offer to the institution, field and position to which you are applying. The 2015-16 AAUP Faculty Compensation Survey is now open for data collection. 

Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the Founder and CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon Founded Platelet BioGenesis where he served as CEO and Chief Scientific Officer. Before Platelet BioGenesis Dr. Thon was an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.
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