Friday, May 27, 2011


Lately, I've been getting settled at SnowU. I'm up on the faculty page in one department (and hopefully soon on the other). My permanent office was just vacated by its previous occupant. Now all they need is a new coat of paint and my furniture and I'm good to go on that front. The other stuff is going decently well too. There's a fellow new faculty member in one department and we're trying to work out logistics between the two labs, costs for remodeling, and establishing a 3-5 year plan for our spaces. I'm not too worried about that as I think it will get worked out shortly.

That does, however, lead to the main topic of this post: negotiations. When I originally discussed the App Package (part 1 & part 2) and the rest of the interview process, I realized I never mentioned much about the negotiations. From what I've heard and from my (limited) experience, everything is negotiable. If it's something that is a deal breaker for you, definitely bring it up now because you would be able to do it later. However, most negotiations break down along a few lines, namely: Startup, Students, Lab, Office, Salary, Extras. First, I'll start with some general thoughts though.

General Info
Have specific targets in mind for everything. I need "X" amount of lab space, roughly "Y" students salaries for at least two years, and I'm a rough startup pile'o'cash of "Z". If you're needing specific equipment, come prepared with a list during your interview. Also, look up student salaries and tuition expenses to get a rough idea of the cost per student. I didn't really have to show the specifics during my interview but they definitely glanced at my rough startup outline and were impressed that I had what appeared to be a detailed list. It shows you've thought about what you'd need, estimated costs, and are prepared for the job.

I know the whole thing is called your "Startup Package", but this is really the money part. How much do you need to get the ball rolling on your operations? What's the minimum amount you need to grease the wheels. If you throw out a huge number, be prepared to back it up with hard figures (even quotes if necessary). The university you're interviewing at will have some ideas about your research field and they'll know roughly what to expect from you. If you low-ball it, they'll probably not take you seriously. If you high-ball it, just justify it and negotiate from there. Remember, most (decidedly most, but not all) don't want you to fail in your tenure track period. They want you to succeed because you're expensive for the university. But if you don't ask for it now, it's not going to matter at tenure review when you say "well I didn't have enough to start the ball rolling." Have a rough number in mind and then round up by 30%. Hey, it's negotiations.

In my case, startup money, students, and summer salary got lumped into one total pot that I can draw from so I don't have to stick to 3 students and X in money. I can change it to 2 students and X+dX in money if I want. If you can negotiate that, do so because it will make things more flexible for you.

I specifically separated students and startup money because tuition is expensive and 4 years X $$$$ tuition X some students = a lot of startup money. In practice, that will probably come in the form of tuition waivers and things like that. It doesn't matter how the university does it, just make sure you budget for students. Also find out the policy for tuition waivers (if any) or if you get TA support as per normal faculty.

Inquire about the average cost per student per year ( (tuition+salary+taxes)*overhead). This may be a key factor in deciding where to go if you've got multiple options. If you're planning on having a big group (say 10 people), the difference between $100k/student/year and $85k/student/year means $150k difference in your needed funding per year. If you're running a 10 student lab then you're in the $1M+ in research money turnover per year. To some profs, the difference between $850k and $1M in research money per year may not seem like much but as a new faculty member, that scares the shit out of me. That's a lot of money to have to bring in every year to keep things going.

Lab Space
Your lab space is directly coupled with the startup package and the size of your group. How many students are you planning on supporting right away? What equipment do you need and how much floor space does it take up? What are the requirements for your lab conditions (temp control, lighting, humidity, fume hoods, whatever)? Once again, a detailed list is better here. It shows you've thought about it and they you're not in over your head. I probably wasn't too specific on the size but I had very specific requirements on the lab conditions.

I've heard two different schools of thought when it comes to salary. One is: don't negotiate on it and save all your chips for more space/bigger startup/more students. Two is: only mainly negotiate on salary because the rest won't matter too much in the end.

I can definitely see the logic in (1). You're probably going to make decent money anyway and you'll probably do some consulting on the side. So your academic salary + summer salary + consulting should be enough to live on. Plus, instead of taking some extra money, you can get possibly an extra student or more equipment or whatever. That will help you get tenure (and more output, recognition, etc) and a higher earning potential.

However, (2) also makes sense. Here's the point reason. They're going to give a startup package so you will get some stuff. If you've asked appropriately in the beginning, even if they low-ball you, you're going to still get a nice package. So, this will be your only time to really ask for more money. And, to tell you the truth, I'm not so sure an extra "X" amount in startup or 1 extra year of a student salary is going to make or break tenure. If you're that close to the "go/no go line", then a lot more has gone off track than your initial negotiations.

In the end, make sure to ask for summer salary for at least your first two years. You're not going to have much research money coming in before then. After that, it's up to you.

I'm not sure how much it matters (although I'm not in FSP's office) so I just asked for the same sort of office space that all the other tenured/tenure tracks have. I did ask for a nice coat of paint and a carpet though. Basically, I would try to make sure you're on professor row where you are visible like the other profs. Young students don't want to forage around in the dank basement for your office. That's going to make it harder to attract good students.

I wasn't sure what extras you might negotiate on until this past week, which is ultimately what spurred this post. PARKING!!! Maybe this is just me but I don't think you should have to pay for parking where you work. And I don't think you should have to deal with BS about which car you take on a given day. This is the one thing I did wish I negotiate for and forgot to do so. I think all faculty (and probably all employees) at a university should get a hang tag free'o'charge from the university when they start. No fuss, no bullshit, and no dealing with parking which seems like an entity unto themselves with universities. And, if all the new faculty start asking for it and get it, they might change the policy at the university.

So that's all I have on the subject for now. Anything else I missed, please comment below. Feel free to add other tips and thoughts as well.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Next Big Thing

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss the 5 technology items that changed my generation and put forth the question: What's the thing that will become the norm for our children's generation?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Age matters

Chris Gammel had a great post at Engineer Blogs about the valuable resource that older engineers bring to the table. I think this is a great post but there are some other things that could be added to his list. One of those is the "applied" nature of life. For instance, most people in my parents generation probably worked on cars non-stop during HS and college and engineers even more so. The same could be said for sparkies with transistor radios and computer engineers in the old computer clubs in silicon valley before it was Silicon Valley.

The one area where I would say there's a shift towards younger engineers is dealing with computers. That's not to say older engineers cannot use computers but younger engineers who, for the most part, grew up with computers, they're second nature. New version of Solidworks, Pro/e, MS Office? No big deal. Even the transitions from Office 2003 and Office 2010 are fairly easy even with the interface changes. My suspicion is this is more difficult for the older generations of engineers. Plus, my generation and younger has basically a wired-24/7 attitude. And while you can argue the pluses and minuses of that, you can also see how we get things done in a different manner.

For instance, I use skype regularly to video chat with colleagues. Their screen share function is great and it's much easier to visualize a lot of things rather than just describing them over the phone. But I can see why that would be somewhat different from older engineers. At the same time, I am probably more awkward on the phone in a professional sense because I'm much more used to using email as the first contact. Older engineers, however, grew up talking on the phone and they are more versed in that sort of social conduct.

It is a shame though that most older engineers have to go into management to get the respect (and pay) they deserve.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Proving Vs Disproving

Some of the most fruitful work I did during my PhD studies was with a Postdoc. Working with SuperK was the classic East-meets-West in middle and total opposites attract (no, not in that way). Quiet, determined, calm, yet surprisingly funny versus loud, persistent, obnoxious, and a bumbling idiot at times. Can you guess who's who?

Anywho, SuperK and I worked on a bunch of topics, wrote a bunch of papers, and traveled to a bunch of conferences together. After SuperK moved on, I was pretty upset because my sparring partner in the lab and the one person who understood me academically was no longer there. We still keep in touch but SuperK's at a company now doing other cool things but it's all secretive.

When SuperK left, there were still a ton of experiments to finish and things to prove in the lab. The end goal of all of this was to prove the uber simple system and have our industrial partner pay the university (and us) an 18-wheeler full of $100 bills to license the technology. I tried to do as much as I could but I was saddled with my main PhD project and other projects and ultimately we didn't have the funds at the time. Right around the time I defended last fall, OldEuropeU hired NewPhD to finish working on that project. I agree to mentor NewPhD and things were going great....

... until yesterday.

Aside from building a demonstrator in the lab, we also needed to make sure the theory matches the results. Before building the final setup, we spent a few months to building different systems and making sure the more known methods indeed worked. Plus we had a few conference proceedings to write and we wanted to do a comprehensive paper with each system at the end.

Well, some things changed with the setup and things got sidelined in Europe. We needed to get a key component fixed in order to prove the final setup. In the meantime, I moved back to the US and am now trying to start new stuff here yet finish stuff from there. That left NewPhD to finish the system characterization while I worked on the theory. Before I left Europe, we did some rough calculations and I was pretty confident.

I should really learn to check my math. It turns out, the ideal system (for practical reasons) will not theoretically work for all cases, so it will not be robust enough for transferring to industry. And, to add some fuel to the fire, we guess wrongly with our intended results and were accepted for a talk at a conference and the paper is do ASAP. We were fairly vague in our description in the initial abstract but now our proceedings that was going to prove something actually disproves our initial ideas.

I'm pretty bummed about it this. The really sad part is this technology could be adapted to a bunch of different systems and widely applicable.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Reality vs Virtuality

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I bash Controls Engineers for not living in the real world. No, I'm not joking. They really do live in a parallel universe where simple concepts are made to be unrecognizable and more difficult than necessary.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Honeymoon is Over

This past week has been crazy busy for me and the rest of the family. Our stuff in the shipping container arrived (waaaay ahead of schedule) which now means endless days of unpacking. NanoGEARS definitely likes it though; she's crawling all over boxes and reaching into everything and pulling out stuff. (Her way of helping.)

So now that our stuff is here and I've been officially-unofficially working on campus for two weeks, I can definitely say the honeymoon is over. Don't get me wrong. It is totally fantastic to have this opportunity and I am looking forward to the next set of challenges but it is definitely overwhelming. I know I'm not officially working for a few months so I have time to finish other, prior work. But that's a lot of work and with meeting my new colleagues, learning the area, and general living issues like unpacking, I don't have nearly enough time to do what I want to do. Hence my lack of blogging.

One thing that has been weird is the lack of need for an alarm clock. If you're trying to get up early and you hate waking up to that alarm clock, just sleep with the curtains open. Or don't have curtains like our current situation. Since the sun is up at 5:30 am, I haven't had to wake up to an alarm clock since we've moved. I used to think that Philips Wake-up Light was total BS. But maybe not. If the sun is up early where you live and you need to wake up early, just use that rather than your alarm. You'll end up feeling better without that grogginess.

Well, I'd like to blog more but I have meetings about my lab space and future research projects. Look for me tomorrow on Engineer Blogs, where I discuss the difference between real engineers and virtual engineers.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Official Unofficial Day 1

I know I haven't posted in a while but I hope to get back on the right track this week. With moving, house hunting, car shopping, daycare issues, and watching Fast Five, I've been swamped lately. Actually, it's been very frustrating because I am definitely a creature of habit. I like my daily routine, where I know roughly what to expect in the morning, day, evening, and night. And I've had no routine for a few weeks, and I'm getting crabby about it :-\

But that's ok, because tomorrow is officially the unofficial first day on the job!! I'm meeting with the lab coordinator to see that my lab is up spec. I move into a temporary office until my official office is complete. And I've got an appointment with SnowU's grant support staff to get started on some NSF grants.

I feel like I have the jr high to high school, day-before-first-day, new-guy-at-the-new-school jitters. Things will most likely go smoothly but I'm nervous nonetheless. Wish me luck!