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The Black Hole

Finding a suitable home for your research program – part 2, budgeting and resources


The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.

– Amelia Earhart

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 best to entertain multiple offers at this point to buy yourself leverage and give yourself choice. Different departments and institutions will have a different complement of strengths and weaknesses and you will want to weigh these against one another as you decide what 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 of this article, I have divided it into three separate posts: reviewing the offer, identifying resources/preparing the budget, and verifying fit.

  • Identify necessary resources. Enumerate in detail all of the resources you will need to access (beyond the immediate laboratory equipment you intend to purchase) and rank them into two categories: need (can’t live without) and want (would consider a perk). Shared equipment is instrumental to balancing a budget and access to existing resources should be leveraged when negotiating start-up costs. Science is by necessity a collaborative venture and it is important to identify collaborators in the department, institution and surrounding region (neighbouring universities, research institutes, technology transfer offices). Being the only person with expertise in your field, while perhaps filling an institutional niche, may be isolating and you will need to seek out colleagues with similar backgrounds or interests to bounce ideas off of.
  • Prepare a budget. You will need to calculate precisely what it will cost to set up and run your research lab. This will determine your start-up costs in the negotiation. Take in consideration cost of living, transportation and peripheral costs as well since these will be included in your package.

The average university start-up packages (less salary) for PhDs beginning as tenure-track assistant professors in U.S. universities is presently $506,392* (median: $675,000) (Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty), which is consistent with what I have seen at comparable Canadian institutions.

* Start-up packages 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.

While every budget will be different, important costs to consider are:

  • Major Equipment (>$5K)
  • Minor Equipment (<$5K)
  • Computer Hardware/Software
  • Personnel
  • Supplies/Consumables
  • Animal Costs
  • Access Fees to Core Facilities
  • Travel Expenses
  • Publication Costs

There are, of course, nuances to formulating a budget, and it’s highly advisable to consult with someone who is experienced and understands the politics of the department you are applying to before committing. To help, I’ve asked my friend Damien Wilpitz of EDC to contribute a number of articles on the details of negotiating a start-up package, keeping track of one’s expenses and hiring, which will be appearing after my following post.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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