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The Black Hole

Finding a suitable home for your research program – part 3, verifying fit


“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.”

– Albert Einstein


“In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake … That is why academic politics are so bitter.”

– Wallace Stanley Sayre (Sayre’s law)

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 is encouraged that you 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 this article, I have divided it into three separate posts: reviewing the offer, identifying resources/preparing the budget, and verifying fit.

  • Every institution has politics, and academic departments more than most. Do your homework and identify issues that may not be immediately obvious. Common issues include personal conflicts, financial troubles, upcoming retirements, lack of internal support structures. You can usually pick this up from conversations with colleagues in the department and you will want to be a mix of both discreet and straightforward. It may be the case that there is nothing that can be done about it, but is important to know what you will be walking into if you decide to accept the position.


  • Institutions will often have benefit packages for new hires that include details regarding health coverage, life insurance, disability insurance, retirement benefits, tuition support for family members, access to university recreational facilities, moving expenses, housing subsidy, etc. These are important and it is useful to become acquainted with them early on.


  • Quality of life. A tenure-track faculty appointment will constitute a minimum three-year commitment. Take the opportunity of this second visit to tour the city, identify different residential communities and possible housing, and consider upcoming life issues such as children and school districts. Some cities are safer than others, and yo will need to consider transportation and what a typical day will ultimately look like for you and your family when you accept the faculty offer. Do not take for granted your spouse’s career goals, or your proximity to family and friends as both will ultimately determine how happy and productive you are in your new position.


  • Communicate your needs. Be clear and honest with the institution regarding your needs and engage them in the process of negotiating your start-up package. This is your one chance to get it right, and after your contract has been set in stone it is unlikely you will receive any further support from the institution. If the initial offer is too low, or yu cannot find a way to make it work – make this clear and be prepared to walk away. Different labs will require different levels of support to get off the ground (not always financial), but accepting an offer that is guaranteed to see you fail benefits no one. Remember: the goal of the recruiting department is to have you succeed, and yours should be to identify to them what you will need to get you there.


  • Get everything in writing. Commit everything to paper and circulate a meeting summary following your interview. Highlight areas for which further discussion is warranted and be prepared to justify every line item on your budget. Be prepared to compromise on certain points in exchange for other services, and indicate what equipment you are willing to share in return. For example, the department may not be able to move on salary, but can offer you a parking spot on campus which itself is worth the difference. This document should reflect the fruits of your negotiations and will be used to build your official offer letter. Most importantly, do not expect to get anything you haven’t already been promised before your sign the dotted line; no matter how reasonable.


  • Deciding fit. Do not base your decision on dollar amounts and don’t pad your requests. The goal of this exercise is to get you what you need to launch a successful research lab, and you should be focused on those factors that will facilitate your transition to independence. It is unlikely that any specific offer will be perfect, and you will ultimately need to weigh the benefits and limitations of each offer against the others and choose the one that is best for you. No matter how great the offer, expect this to be the single most difficult decision you will have to make, and the cause of significant anxiety and many sleepless nights. My only piece of advice as an assistant professor is to go where you will have the space and resources to distinguish yourself as an independent investigator and establish the research program you have always wanted. Too many young scientists accept faculty positions within the same department as their mentor because of the (legitimate) fear and substantial risk of going at it alone. While the short-term advantages are obvious, remaining within the shadow of your mentor is too high a price to pay, and your work will forever be associated with theirs. Take the plunge and be prepared to sink or swim.

For postdoctoral fellows interested in pursuing a faculty appointment in academic research, I strongly encourage the following resource, alongside which this article should be read: Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty. Burroughs Wellcome Fund / Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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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