What should I look for in my offer letter that I might otherwise miss?
This is a tough one, because every offer letter is going to be different and each lab has its own unique set of needs. We'll detail some of the items that may be important for you to consider, with special focus on items that are easy to miss. We've divided this into your obligations, resources startup, and restrictions on your offer. The bottom line is that the only promises you can count on are the ones that are spelled out in writing -- either in the letter itself, university policies, or in emails with your department head. (Even if you get along great with your chair, your chair may step down 3 years into your position!)
You are receiving an offer because the University wants you to accomplish something. What is that? Do they want you to be primarily a researcher, a teacher, a combination of these things, or something else? This would often be spelled out in the letter.
- What are your teaching obligations? If you expect a certain teaching rate or certain course selections, get that in writing. Some of us negotiated the development of specific courses that we were enthusiastic about, for example.
- What part of your salary are they covering or, conversely, what are you expected to bring in from other sources?
- How do you actually get paid (9 months? 11 months? calendar year?) How does summer salary work - if you don't have money during the summer, do you simply forgo a paycheck, or does your 9 month salary get spread out over the year?
- What moving expenses and other benefits are offered (e.g. house-hunting trip, home purchase program)? Also note that many places will cover your visits under recruiting expenses until the instant you accept, at which point visits go on your startup money.
- When do you get evaluated, and what can happen then? Is contract renewal midway through your assistant professorship normal, or something to worry about?
An offer letter should include in your startup package the financial, equipment, and space resources that are needed to set up your research lab and give you a good foundation for student support, preliminary data and grant applications.
- Is there a defined amount of square footage for your students and lab, even if all they need is desks in a room?
- Will your office be furnished by the department? If not, expect to furnish it from your startup funding.
- A startup may include teaching reductions during your initial years in the position. If there are course reductions, how is their timing determined? Some people prefer to teach more in their first year, when they're still setting up a lab and recruiting students, and then leave time for grant applications and paper writing in year 2 or 3; others prefer the opposite.
- Does your lab space require remodeling to accomodate specialized equipment? Equipment you consider standard may not be.
- What's the department or grad program funding situation for grad student RAs and TAs? In particular, will you be able to bring in grad students that aren't always on your startup money (because they can get TAs, or there is a training grant)?
- Is there a time-line during which you are expected to spend certain components of your startup? Some of us have been able to negotiate extensions to startup, but generally departments expect you to spend your startup rather than sitting on it.
- Does your startup expire?
- If you are awarded early grant funding that supports items that your startup was meant to cover, do you get to rebudget that portion of your startup or does the university take it back?
- What restrictions exist on how your startup can be spent? If there are no restrictions, is there an explicit statement to that effect? (Startup is frequently completely unbudgeted - do you have to stick to a budget?)
- If you need access to shared resources (compute, microscopy, other facilities), is that access defined in writing?
- If costs for shared resources are shouldered by someone other than you, is that committment in writing?
- Is there an acknowledgement that software, data, etc generated using resources from your startup will be made available under open licenses? Who determines which licenses?
- How do things like family leave and tenure delay time work both in policy (do you request it, does it happen automatically) and culturally (is it allowed, encouraged, discouraged)?
Beyond the Letter
- Universities often assume that you will find things like family leave spelled out in their policies, which are frequently byzantine. Nonetheless administrators will assume that you know everything in them (and then be surprised when you ask about something that's covered on page 552 - "oh, that's in the policy book!"). We might suggest putting together a few hypotheticals ("I adopt a child; how much time off do I get? do I get a tenure extension? if my partner is employed by the same university, do we share our time off?") and running through the policy book to see what would happen in each case.
- Health coverage can vary between universities. It can be very important and is often ignored by new faculty. Generally the only way to really find out what's up with health coverage is to talk to recent faculty (note that older faculty may be covered under other health care guidelines; universities, like everyone else, are constantly cutting benefits for new hires).