Spending Startup

If you are starting a tenure-track research-oriented position at a US university, you should have a startup package to help you get started. When I began as a faculty member, I did not have a clear idea of how to use it effectively; 4 years in, here are some thoughts about good use of startup funds based on my experience and reflection, as well as things I've read and heard from others along the way.

This is written from the perspective of a computer science tenure-track position at a mid-tier research-oriented US university. Startup levels, existence, and structure vary between universities and disciplines, so keep that in mind.

The Purpose of Startup

The purpose of your startup funds is to enable you to establish your research program with the expectation that you will obtain grant funding to continue it.

That is, your startup fund is there to give you the starting point to get grants. Really, that's it. It isn't enough money to fund a research program that will earn you tenure — it's to land the funding that will fund your research program that will earn you tenure.

Structure and Negotiation

Startup funds vary in their structure and amounts. Some are all-cash, others are a combination of cash and specific resources such as a department-funded research assistant.

There will usually be a time limit for spending them. At both of my universities, the limit was 2 years. In the negotiation process, you can ask for an extension of this. Do so. Giving you 3 years to spend your startup is quite possibly one of the easiest concessions for the university to make and gives you more time to figure things out. Your first year will probably suck, and more runway to respond to the lessons you learn will only help.

Try to find out as much as possible about the resources and their spending power during the interview and negotiation processes.

If your startup is all-cash, how much does a graduate assistant cost? Do you need to pay their benefits as well? Some universities don't bill you for benefits if you are using startup to fund a student.

If your startup includes a GA, are they 20 hours dedicated to your research? 10 hours? Ph.D or M.S.?

Beyond that, I don't have a lot to say about the negotiation process, in large part because I am not very good at it. I didn't even negotiate an extension, but was able to obtain one after my first year.

Existing Resources

Find out what existing resources are available before spending startup. For example, if your university has access to a computing cluster, you may not need to purchase your own statistical or scientific computing hardware.

Other resources may also be available. I talked to our department's sysadmin about my need for a database server, and it turned out we had some donated used hardware no one had put to use yet. $5–10K saved.

Looking Ahead

In order to develop a successful research career — and earn tenure — you will need to develop an independent career. It should naturally draw from your previous work in Ph.D and, if applicable, postdoc, but starting a faculty position is the time to begin a new line of work that is meaningfully different from that of your mentors.

Startup is to fund that. Anything else is probably a distraction.

If you have the opportunity, getting a head start doing a first project in that new line as a side project while you finish writing your Ph.D dissertation is a good idea, but isn't necessary. I had started thinking about the ideas that are now my main direction my last year but didn't have an opportunity to start doing anything with them.

It's common to have some loose ends to tie up from the dissertation; last pieces to get published, or immediate follow-on work. Do that work — it's a great way to keep your publication pipeline going while you wait to get results on the next thing — but try not to spend much money on it.

Targetting Grants

You should probably plan on submitting to NSF CAREER. Do be careful not to put too much hope in it; it is a complicated and difficult grant to write, and many successful researchers do not win the CAREER. However, if you are at a research-intensive or research-growing institution, your chair and dean probably expect you to go for it. In computer science, its funding rate is also higher than many other NSF programs (as of 2017, 20–25% vs. less than 10% for some core programs).

Think about when best to apply. You have 3 shots before tenure. Unless you're coming off of a postdoc or similar experience and already have a clear, strong direction, your first summer is probably not the best time to make your first attempt. It takes time to develop the research direction, education and outreach integrations, and make the connections to make it all credible.

Computer science also has CRII, the CISE Research Initiation Initiative. This is a small ($175K over 2 years) program meant as a starter grant for junior faculty in computer science, and it should be on any new faculty member's radar. You can apply twice in your first three years; receiving any other NSF grant as PI also disqualifies you, so apply early.

These are the two major programs that most junior faculty in CS should definitely target, along with relevant general programs from federal agencies, state and local governments, and companies. But the key point, for the purposes of this article, is that your goal is to get one or more of these to hit by the time your startup runs out. Assuming you negotiate an extension, by the end of year 3 you want funding lined up to keep paying your Ph.D student.

Doing the work needed to secure that is the purpose of your startup fund.

Preliminary Results

So how does startup funding help you get grants?

By funding the research that produces the preliminary results you will use as evidence that your grant proposals are worth funding.

In my successful grant proposal, I had three main pieces of evidence from my prior research. One was my body of work from my Ph.D, demonstrating that I can do the software development and methodological work needed to carry out my research, because I've done it before. The other two were more proper preliminary results: showing existing techniques don't solve one of my research questions, and a set of early results on a first-order approach to another research question. Both of these results came from M.S. students' theses, with follow-on work by additional students I employed.

If you have student lines, or employ students directly out of your startup funds, preliminary results for the next thing should be your priority. Equipment you need to carry out this work is also top on the list.

Building your Network

Another useful purpose for startup is to work on building the network of collaborators you will need to carry out your research, either by maintaining existing collaborations or building new ones.

Will your next line of work engage with a research community that you haven't been part of yet? Go to a relevant conference.

Is there a more senior researcher in your topic you can bring in for a seminar talk? Besides being fun, this a good opportunity to exchange ideas, introduce your students to someone from your community, and give your department leadership another perspective on the importance and impact of your work.

Get Training

If your NSF directorate has a workshop for CAREER applicants, go to this. It's a very good use of startup funds.

There may be other grant-writing or research cohort-building activities that are worth attending as well.

Your department or college may have a separte pool of professional development funds that can partially support one of these trips, enabling you to stretch your startup funds more.

Start Slow

This wasn't entirely deliberate — I failed to hire a post-doc, for which I am grateful — but I spent my startup slowly at first.

This was a good idea, I think. Especially if you negotiate a spending extension, burning slowly the first year while you get your feet wet, tie up some loose ends, and work on building and maintaining your network frees you up to spend the money after you've spend a year thinking about what you want to do next.

Things Not To Do

You may have loose ends to publish from your dissertation, or immediate follow-up work. This work is good to pursue; the dissertation should be the beginning of your career, not its conclusion, and those papers help you keep your publication pipeline going while you start the next project.

But they do not, directly, establish you as an independent researcher, and so they're good things to pursue on your own or with existing collaborators; I don't think it's wise to spend much startup on them, unless you have surplus after funding work on the Next Thing or they are a clear bridge from your prior work to the Next Thing.

Don't automatically hire the first student that comes your way.

Wrapping Up

To reiterate, your startup is a launchpad for your career as an independent PI with a robust, externally-funded research program.

Focus spend on that.