I'm starting a tenure track position (in the US, computer science) in fall and the position comes with a startup fund that is insufficient to employ any (postdoc) staff and PhD students are funded directly by the department. Also, my conference travel is taken care of by other funds.

How can I use the (limited) funds that I have to benefit my career?

Edit: I'm mostly working in theoretical research (algorithms).

  • How limited? What country? What kind of CS? Do you need computers? – Bill Barth Mar 20 '15 at 15:26
  • In the US. Mostly theoretical research so I don't really need lab equipment. – Miudisu Mar 20 '15 at 15:28
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    You haven't mentioned summer salary for yourself. Are you already funded for summers? Would your department willing to consider a "buy-out" of some of your teaching load? – Brian Borchers Mar 20 '15 at 15:43
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    Informed guess: what about computers for you or your students? Is there any office equipment that you need? (Whiteboards, tables for standing while working, etc.) - these may the things that can be covered by the fund. – DCTLib Mar 20 '15 at 21:15
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    Many options. Pay for your students' conference travel. Get your office, and your students' office, improved so you will look important. Hire an artist to illustrate your work and get the illustration on the cover of a journal. Get a nice research group website made. Hire an undergraduate research or office assistant (much cheaper than a postdoc). Bring in outside seminar speakers. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 21 '15 at 23:45

For those not familiar, Theoretical Computer Science is mostly formal mathematics. Thus the success patterns for research professors are nearly the same as those in Mathematics. In particular, research collaborations are critical.

How can I use the (limited) funds that I have to benefit my career?

There are ideas in two categories that can benefit your career: 1) build fruitful, productive research collaboration relationships; and 2) professional service in areas of critical need. (Nearly all tenure committees and funding agencies consider "service" or "broader impacts" as one of the major criteria for tenure or funding.)

EDIT: These ideas are unconventional and represent a particular set of values. They value long-term benefits over short-term. They value making a difference in the academic community over immediate personal benefit. If you have different values, then you'd make different choices.

For the first category, you could use the funds to sponsor or host activities that will expand your research opportunities, especially build new collaborations.

For example, you could host a series of workshops that bring together researchers that don't normally work together. These researchers could come from your department (if large), from other departments at your university, or from other universities. Because you host the workshops, you can organize them to meet your objectives. Maybe they are oriented toward a "challenge" (a la "hackathon"), or maybe oriented toward writing interdisciplinary research grant proposals, or maybe you give each other tutorials on your specialties, hoping to find fruitful intersections. For a good source of topic ideas, read the "Dear Colleague" letters from Program Mangers at NSF, and also the NSF program solicitations.

It may be there is already some workshop or conference that is close to your interests. You could use your funds to host an add-on event.

For the category of professional service, you might consider these two ideas:

  1. Host a series of workshops for CS majors at your university who are in under-represented groups (women, minorities). The goal of the workshop would be help them with the personal, professional, and practical challenges they might face at your university. If you don't know much about this topic, then you should recruit experts as presenters and facilitators.
  2. Find your nearest Historically Black College (HBC) and co-host a Theoretical Computer Science workshop with someone in their CS department, aimed at students from both institutions. You'd have to spend time to learn about the HBC, what their students are like, and how to usefully engage them in this topic. In addition to benefits for the students, this could lead to an unexpected research collaboration for you.
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    I know CS is often different, but they seem like awful ways of spending startup. – StrongBad Mar 29 '15 at 13:00
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    @StrongBad - you are entitled to your opinion, but you do not provide any reasons why you think these are "awful". – MrMeritology Mar 29 '15 at 20:09
  • I applogize for not adding more detail. Again CS and Math maybe be different, but I think that anything that does not lead to publications and funding prior to the tenure clock running out seems like a bad use of time and resources. I do not know any new TT faculty that have time to organize a workshop, let alone a series of workshops. Finally, workshops seems like something you could extra money for later. – StrongBad Mar 29 '15 at 20:29
  • @StrongBad Thanks for clarifying. I understand those values. The question OP might consider is: Do I want to be just an average researcher, or do I want to be extraordinary in some way? If the latter, then some novel approach is called for. If he/she is not already closely connected to top researchers, then building new collab. relationships will have high ROI via high impact publications. – MrMeritology Mar 29 '15 at 21:18
  • @StrongBad Put another way: why is Computer Science (and academia, in general) in the state it's in? Partly because too many junior professors put all their attention on getting published and minimize attention to everything else. By the time they are tenured, their habits and values are formed, perpetuating the status quo. – MrMeritology Mar 29 '15 at 21:22

The term "small startup" is rather vague. As you say it will not cover a post doc, I will assume it is less than 50k USD. It also sounds like your equipment and research costs are negligible. The goal of a startup package, as the name implies is to help you start up. One expensive aspect of getting started is covering your summer salary. With 50k you could cover your summer salary for 2 years while you get started and apply for grants.

In addition, or as an alternative to, covering summer salary, I would want to invest in technology. I could image dropping 10k+ on "computers" for myself and future staff (maybe 3 desktops, a laptop, and a tablet). A scanner and printer in your office is also super helpful. A backup system (e.g., external hard drives or a NAS) depending on how IT at your university works is also important.

Depending on your field, you want to make sure you have enough for page charges, article processing fees, and open access fees. In my field see fees can hit 2k an article.

An RA can be super helpful. Having someone who can help you prep lectures can be a huge time saver. They can go to the library for text books, scan images, proof read slides, and deal with the book store for your reading list. Similarly, they can help with research by proof reading manuscripts prior to submission and page proofs, make figures look nice, get articles from the library, do literature searches, and help you put together conference presentations. They might even be able to do some real research. My guess is, in a theory based field, you could keep an RA busy for 10-20 hours a week. Cost would depend on the qualifications, but the cheapest would be an undergraduate work study student and more expensive would be someone with a MS who want to do a PhD at some point.

You will want to be able to attend some conferences, but realistically, you are likely to be swamped.

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