There are two main financial issues that TT faculty need to know about: startup funds and salary. Pfffft, I hear you whisper. I know all about that stuff. Aaaaah, but do you really understand how it works? You may have a gazillion years of sciencey training under your belt but do you really understand budgets and how far they can/cannot stretch? Some recent emails and other discussions with some of my pre-TT bloggy buds suggests maybe not.
1. Startup funds
Newbie TT faculty startup funds are highly dependent on the field, institution and person. My work is split across two fields and my primary appointment is in a field that often doesn’t do a lot of basic science so startup funds are typically very low. For example, several of my friends’ startup funds were only 20% of what I was given. Yes, that’s right: 20%. They can’t afford to hire a postdoc and can’t afford to buy major equipment. They are essentially operating with an empty lab or within someone else’s lab until they can get their own external funding. The other field in which I work is pretty heavy on the basic sciences and the startup packages are typically much, much higher than what I received which means that TT faculty who are employed directly in that area are able to get going very quickly. I’m very fortunate that I had a Dean and Chair that are/were basic scientists and recognized that awesome science often comes with a hefty price tag. I received a package that was great from some perspectives but not so great if you look at it from others.
So what comes out of your startup funds?
Well, that largely depends on what you negotiate. Do you have to pay for salaries and/or benefits of anyone you employ? Student stipends and/or tuition? Do you get an additional allowance for equipment purchases? While $100K can seem like an astronomical number to some, that will really only be enough to employ one postdoc for one year and maybe buy one moderately-large-ish piece of equipment along with a few animals. $200K might double all of this but if you want/need bigger lab toys, transgenic animals, per diems, etc, it might still only get you one postdoc for one year.
And if you inherit a completely empty lab like I did, you’ll need to spend a ton of cash on basic stuff like beakers, flasks, bottles, weigh boats, pipettes, mini-centrifuges, electrophoresis rigs, etc. Each of these items are relatively inexpensive but the costs of buying all of them in one hit starts to add up very, very quickly. Throw in delivery charges for everything. $50 here. $30 there. New primary antibodies? $350 each plus $50 delivery. How many antibodies do you need? One? Ten? Watch the dollars fly out the door. And don’t forget you need secondary antibodies. And reagents. And tubes. And slides. What about basic chemicals? Any EDTA on your shelves? NaCl? PBS? You may have to buy everything.
Does your lab have any existing computers? Yes? Excellent. How old are they? When they take 30 minutes to boot up and are still running off Win95, you might need to update them. How many computers will your lab need for everyday work? One? Two? Three? What about computers to run the equipment in the lab? Can you just buy a bottom of the line Mac or PC for those or will you need to shell out more dollars to increase the processing power? What software does your department and/or school have an institutional license for? I don’t have to pay for MS Office but have had to buy software for stats, referencing, etc, as they aren’t covered under the institutional or departmental umbrellas.
Ok, what about services such as disposal of biohazardous waste, laundering of lab coats, removal of hazardous chemicals, leasing of gas cylinders? Who will have to pay for those?
Need to use a core facility on campus? How much does it cost per hour? How many hours will you need to use it? Who’s paying for that? My guess is that it’s coming out of your startup funds.
Do you have access to common-use equipment? You do? Excellent. How old is it? How many people use it? Is there a service contract on it and, if so, are you expected to contribute to the cost? Is it located in a common lab or will you have to ask for permission to use it if it’s located in someone else’s lab?
And how many meetings do you plan to attend each year? How many people from your lab will go? Who’s paying for airfares, hotels, registration and per diems? My department gives faculty a moderate annual allowance that will essentially cover one out of town meeting that requires flights. Anything above that has to come out of my research budget or my own pocket. The cost of sending the lab peeps will either come out of my research monies, my pocket or theirs. Students can get a tiny bit of funding for travel but I’ll have to pay for most of it.
Getting freaked out yet? But wait, there’s more.
The majority of TT faculty are on 9 month appointments and your actual monthly salary will depend on what your school does about doling that money out. Some will average it out over 12 months so that you get paid over the summer. Others, like mine, will pay you from mid-August to mid-May and then you’re on your own for 3 months. I still pay 12 months of health insurance though with the cost of covering the summer months taken out of the last pay of the academic year in May. Other stuff like mortgages, utility bills, etc, will have to come out of money that I save during the 9 months.
If I want to be paid over the summer, I have to find a way to get the money out of my research budget. As part of my contract negotiations for my position, I receive a full summer salary for the first two years. That means that I have one more summer on full pay after which time my annual salary will decrease by 25% back to the base 9 month salary. As I’m on a work visa that is tied to my faculty position, I can’t go and work at a summer camp for 3 months or teach at a community college. The only way I can legally earn the extra pay is by getting a shitload of funding and paying myself out of those. Or going without.
I also have to find a way to pay the salaries of the lab peeps. Luckily my startup deal means that I don’t pay the benefits for my postdoc if I pay her salary from my startup funds but the school will only pay up to a certain amount (equivalent to about one year of benefits) then I’ll have to pay for that too. Each school pays a different amount of the salary in benefits but you can bet that it’s far more than you realize.
I pay the hourly wage of my research assistant as well as her benefits. When she transitions to the graduate program, I’ll have to pay for her summer stipend otherwise she may be forced to find full time work so that she can pay for the roof over her head and feed her family. And those undergrads that will be rotating through my lab over the summer? Yep, I have to pay them too. And any other grad students? Yep, summer salary for them as well.
So how much do I pay my lab peeps?
I pay my postdoc more than the NRSA guidelines. Not much more, but a couple of thousand above. The minimum salary set at my school is below the NRSA. Why don’t I pay her well-above the NRSA? I can’t afford to. Well, that's not strictly true. I can pay her more but if I increase her salary by as little as 10%, then instead of guaranteeing her employment for 2 years, I would only be able to do so for just over 18 months.
I pay my research assistant the going hourly rate which, while more than the minimum wage, is still less than she could make waiting tables when you factor in tips. I would like to pay her more but her wage also adds up over the course of a year. If I pay her 10% more, I would probably only be able to take on one undergrad student over the summer.
Is it just junior faculty on limited startup funds that have to make these kinds of decisions? Ummm, no. We recently had a debate about this conundrum and this came from my good buddy and relatively well-funded, PhysioProf, in response to a fellow blogger asking if her PI would go broke by paying her an extra $10K per year:
NIH has played the game for over a decade of inexorably raising the NRSA salary scale--which is what the majority of post-docs are paid as a matter of institutional policy even when not on NRSA fellowships--while inexorably cutting overall R01 budgets via administrative reductions in both competing and non-competing grant awards (which have been *compounded* reductions for the last four or five years in the case of the latter) and by not increasing the maximum modular budget. So no, there absolutely is no money available to "throw an extra $10,000" to every post-doc in a laboratory. If I "throw an extra $10,000" to each of my post-docs, two of them are going to have to be terminated to pay for the salary increases of the rest.
So, let’s look at the worst case scenario - what will happen if I don’t get significant funding in the next year and/or if my postdoc isn’t able to get a fellowship to cover her own salary?
Well, we’ll be in big trouble. I might be able to grovel to the Dean and ask for assistance but given that Really Big U was on the receiving end of several major budget cuts last year and is looking to close programs, the chances of them investing more money in me are slim. To keep her on, I would have to cut costs somewhere else which means firing the research assistant, not taking undergrads into paid summer internships and not paying the grad students a summer stipend.
And what happens if I can get some funding in the next year but not a shitload?
My first priority is to pay the lab peeps’ salaries/stipends because without them the lab will grind to a halt. Then we’ll need to pay for animals, consumables, reagents, etc. The last priority will be to pay for my own summer salary.
Yes, that’s right. It’s highly likely that I’ll be working 3 months for free next year while my lab peeps get paid. Why don’t I just take those 3 months and head off on an extended vacation? If I did that, who would keep an eye on the lab? Who’s going to write grants? Who’s going to keep the wolves at bay? This isn’t me being magnanimous and taking one for the team. I will be very, very cranky if I don’t have a summer salary. If we get to this point though, I won’t have a choice.
I can hear the grad students and postdocs whispering again. But don’t assistant professors earn a shitload of money on their 9 month salaries anyway? Surely they should just stop whinging about working for free over the summer.
I’ll be honest - yes, I earn more than I did as a postdoc. If I get a full 12 month pay, I earn about double what I did during my postdoc. With the 9 month salary, it’s only about 50% more that my postdoc wage. I can live on that pretty easily but it’s not really much compensation for completing 13 years of higher education and a 4 year postdoc as well as having the added responsibility of ensuring the well-being of lap peeps, making sure the research is ticking along, teaching, doing all of the servicey-type stuff, etc.
A little more complicated than just doling money out for reagents, huh?