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I've been offered an academic position, and am now in the fortunate, but unfamiliar position of negotiating the offer. I've seen a few blogs/comments/posts on this process. However, I have no real idea how to evaluate the offer that's been made. Coming from the position of a postdoc, the package seems impressive (given that, as a postdoc, my "package" consists of a very modest salary and health benefits). However, I also realize the importance of maximizing (within reason) my initial offer, as this sets the baseline for, at least, the first few years of my faculty career and could provide support that would prove very important in the initial year or so while I'm trying to obtain grant funding.

In particular, I'm looking for two types of information. First, what types of startup packages are standard for tenure-track assistant professors of Computer Science at a public RU/VH (i.e. Research) university? This is just to give me some point of comparison. Second, what types of changes are reasonable to negotiate? Can I ask for more summer salary support while still conveying to them my desire to obtain grant funding as quickly as possible? The offer already includes a reduced teaching load for the first few years --- is it also reasonable to ask for an extra semester off prior to a tenure review?

I understand these are fairly broad questions, but any input or suggestions would be very helpful. I'm definitely interested in the job; I really liked the department and think it's a great opportunity. I don't want to alienate anyone by pushing too hard, but at the same time, I want to make sure that I make every reasonable effort to maximize my chances for academic success, which includes maximizing my available resources by negotiating the best startup package I can.

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By the way, one relevant thing you don't mention is whether you have more than one offer. That really changes your ability to negotiate. – Ben Webster Mar 10 '14 at 11:27
Good point. Currently, this is my only offer. However, I have another interview scheduled soon and a third University has also expressed interest. However, these are not yet concrete offers. To be clear, I'm already fairly happy with my current offer, but there are a few extra desiderata, and I'd really like to make the best of this negotiation stage. – ObviouslyAnon Mar 10 '14 at 13:27
possible duplicate of What items should I ask for in my startup package? – Suresh Mar 10 '14 at 18:11
up vote 22 down vote accepted

Every department is different. Everything I'll write is specific to my (top 5 CS, public, RU/VH) department. And while I know quite a bit about the process of hiring new faculty, I do not know the precise details of any recent startup packages (except for salaries, which are public). My department head manages all startup negotiations directly.

Our formal startup package is a bag of cash (formally: "unrestricted funds"). New assistant professors can spend that money to pay their own summer salary, support students, but equipment, pay for travel, and so on, in the hopefully brief period before they have active research grants. Precisely how and when they spend the money is up to them. Moreover, this money does not "expire"; I still have a bit of money in my 15-year-old startup account. Again, I don't have an exact figure, but I'd guess somewhere in the low six figures.

Our teaching loads are already low — 1 course per semester — but there are courses, and there are courses. The de facto standard is for our assistant profs to teach mostly smaller graduate courses (in part to attract students), with at least one semester without teaching in the first two years (to work on research and grant proposals). However, it is important for assistant profs to teach a few required undergrad classes before tenure. We usually pair new instructors with more experienced faculty the first time they teach such a class. I don't know how much of this is formally described in our offer letters.

The other department that offered me a job n years ago had much more restricted startup package. They asked me to give them an itemized budget listing specific equipment (which they would buy for me), a specific number of student semesters, specific dollars for travel, and so on. At the time, I found this approach unreasonably inflexible, but it's much more understandable now because...

At least at my university, startup packages in each department are funded by indirect cost recovery from grants originating in that department — a small fraction of every grant I obtain goes to CS startup packages. Thus, departments with more grant activity can offer larger and more flexible startup packages. This is orthogonal to faculty salaries, which (at least at my university) are paid entirely out of state money, making them much less flexible.

Second, what types of changes are reasonable to negotiate? Can I ask for more summer salary support while still conveying to them my desire to obtain grant funding as quickly as possible? The offer already includes a reduced teaching load for the first few years --- is it also reasonable to ask for an extra semester off prior to a tenure review?

It's perfectly reasonable to ask for anything, as long as you understand that the answer may be no. Do not be afraid to ask stupid questions. Everybody knows that you're new and don't understand the department's budgeting constraints and standards. That assumption of naïveté gives you the freedom to ask for things you think are "obviously" unreasonable. They probably are unreasonable, but they might not be.

Also, remember that if you're already negotiating startup packages, the department has already decided that they want to hire you. That decision requires developing consensus among the faculty, getting approval from upper administration (not just for hiring you but possibly for hiring anyone), and filling out a metric buttload of HR forms. (Warning: Some universities still use imperial buttloads.) There is almost nothing you can ask that will change their minds about the basic offer.

Don't worry about giving the impression that you're not interested in applying for grants. Any such impression will vanish the moment you actually start applying for grants! (Which is soon, right?)

Finally, the best way to find out what's reasonable is to ask the other assistant professors in your target department about their startup packages. Just straight-up ask them. They won't all answer, but some will.

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