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I have an upcoming interview/campus visit for an assistant professor TT position with a US R1 university in the sciences. They have asked that I bring a details about my desired startup package to the campus visit. I have never heard of anyone being asked for details about their startup package prior to an offer being made.

This seems to have two effects. First, to some extent my startup package depends on what is already available in the department and the interests of the department. Second, it seems it potentially changes the negotiations. With an offer in hand, you can ask for more in your startup package, since they may not give you what you want, but they won't take the offer away. If I ask for too much in my startup package before having an offer, they may not even make an offer.

I guess I have three questions. First, is it common for US universities to ask for details about the desired startup package prior to making an offer? Second, how does this change what I should include in my startup package request? Third, can I ignore this request and only give them a general outline of what I need to do my research?

  • FYI. I got the same request. To give a startup cost estimate before the formal offer is made. (US R1, science). – Memming Aug 7 '14 at 20:37
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It's very unusual: I've never heard of this happening before. Since they're asking about the startup package (and not salary, which is less elastic at a university) that changes things slightly though.

You might be able to get away (at a first approximation) with a list of things you need (without specifying a price tag). Typical elements of a startup package include summer salary, support for students early on, space for offices/labs, and equipment. All of these can be specified without particular price tags: i.e you need support for X students for Y years, lab space to support this kind of machine, or these many students, and so on.

If you're pressed to put a price tag (which would be also unusual), then you'll have to have some number ready for things that you can price (equipment for example, for which you could add a generous inflation factor). For other things you can ask them ! (how much does a student cost, what is typical lab space, and so on). Again, the goal is to provide as little information as possible while satisfying the unusual requirement.

In addition, if you're asked to put a price, you should preface with "while it's a little unusual to ask this now, and while I can't be certain what things will cost once I'm in a position to purchase them", and ask first whether there's some flexibility in these numbers.

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I've also never seen this at universities in the US (or elsewhere in the world) but I've seen it a lot in industry. I'm guessing someone came in to 'shake things up' or they hired a consultant and are trying things differently this time. Therefore, I will answer with respect to industry which I'm guessing will actually be applicable in the end.

It is a common negotiation technique to get 'the other guy' to make the first offer with the belief this puts him in a weaker position. This seems to be what they are doing and as you stated in your question, when they make the first offer you are indeed in a stronger position.

In your last question, could you ignore their request and simply not give them a number, tread lightly on this point. Some hiring people will become angry when you don't follow the rules and will count it as one reason not to make you an offer at all (or lower your offer because you are unable to follow simple instructions).

As far as how to actually handle the negotiations, like any negotiations, it is MUCH better if you are negotiating from a stance of understanding how you can work together to benefit each other. That is, don't get locked into a 'the more I get, the less you keep' train of thought. The goal is to be creative and find a way that you can actually ADD value to the equation and then divide that new value between the both of you...leading to the win-win settlement.

The problem is if you must make some kind of an offer blind and you have no personal rapport developed with your counterpart, it is very difficult to go down the win-win path. At that point, I would see if you can find a way to change the situation and start building some kind of relationship (even a telephone call can make a huge difference with regards to finding a genuine win-win solution).

If you are stuck and you cannot have any any meaningful conversation before you give a number, then the best I can say is to make a serious statement about what you would like but make it in terms of ranges (say between $100 and $120 [replace with reasonable numbers for you] per month depending on the rest of the details). By offering a range you have retained some flexibility but allowed them what they demanded: Something.

As you might guess, they may lock in on the lower number. However, you have not committed to that lower number firmly because of 'the rest of the details' you included.

Congratulations and good luck!

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Something to keep in mind: The reason that startup packages are typically negotiated at a later stage is because they are not a major factor in determining whether to take someone for a tenure-track position. I think that in your case, even though you are asked for this during the first interview, it will still not be a major factor.

This means that unless your startup package requests are extremely unusual or the university is unusually poor, this will probably not affect the outcome. So I would not worry about this aspect too much.

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