Friday, August 13, 2010

Using startup money

I am through my first year and also mostly through my startup money. I have a little "nest egg" of about $20k that I plan to nurse along for emergencies/a little boost sometime in the future. I've been told that the accountants at Prodigal U start to get antsy about unspent startup after 4-5 years, so I have a few years to worry about it.

When I started my position, I saw lots of advice about balance, teaching, recruiting, setting up, etc, but not much about how to best use startup funds. Startup funds are magic money--not tied to any particular project or any particular budget, they can be spent on anything. This type of money is so amazingly rare in academia that I am unlikely to ever have significant amounts of it again. Watching funds disappear from the account can be painful, since they are in effect irreplaceable.

When I started at Prodigal U, all I had was my startup money to buy equipment and supplies, to pay salaries, to travel, and to cover user fees for instrument access. The temptation (at least for a cheapskate like me) is to horde it--what if nothing else comes in? My new chair and my PhD advsior both told me that it is more common for new profs to cheap out on buying stuff than to burn the startup too quickly, and that you can always ask the department to help you pay for students, but you can never get wasted research time back, so I decided to spend. I took a "burn the ships" approach to my startup. I would turbocharge my first year by spending on anything that would get me going faster and worry about the funding situation later.

This was a deeply considered decision. To be at the cutting edge in my research area requires some very expensive equipment. I decided to buy most of what I will need rather than depend on instrument access in other labs. I was thinking 1) I have priority usage, so we can work 24 hours a day if necessary, 2) we can modify the equipment as needed and make permanent installations of commonly used setups, and 3) equipment money is hard to get and user fees can really add up. That said, burning through my startup like this means I cannot hire a postdoc or technician until I get some decently funded proposals.

So far, it has been a good decision. My equipment is humming along and producing nice data. I had 3 proposals funded this year (1 new investigator, 1 solo small grant, and one as co-PI with 2 other profs). None are huge money, but I can probably support 4 grad students with what I have in hand. I have 2 grad students plus myself as personnel (augmented by 3 summer students), and I will probably take 2 more grad students if I can find the right ones. And then I need to find more money.

The postdoc thing weighs on my mind a bit--would I be going faster if I had one? In my field, postdocs last 1-3 years, so it just didn't seem worth it to me to invest so much time into someone so temporary in the very beginning. Mine is a student-heavy strategy that is only possible because my first 2 students are doing amazingly well in terms of research productivity. Sometimes I wish I had hired a postdoc right away, especially when things are not going well in the lab and there is troubleshooting to be done. But then I see some colleagues waiting around for instrument time while we are using our own, and I am happy again.


GMP said...

Congrats on your amazing funding year! :)
It looks like you are doing splendidly.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Wow, I'm not worthy. Congrats on the new dough!

(And to put it in perspective for all you non-PUIers out there, I got about 1.5X of your "nest egg" in total start-up at my PUI. Undergrads are cheap, I suppose, but damn is it hard to get enough preliminary data for big grants.)

Gerty-Z said...

I have also been taking the approach to spend startup money sort of quickly to get equipment and people in the lab. It is a little scary, but I think that getting going fast is totally worth it. Still, I'm glad to hear that it is a strategy that can be successful!

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the nice comments! I am actually a little worried about keeping it going, since most of my funding is what passes for low-lying fruit these days: a new PI grant (~30% success rate), jumping on a a renewal with 2 successful co-PIs, and a very small solo grant. Next time around I won't have that new PI shine!

G-Z, I have been both happy and freaking out at various points with this strategy. The one tangible result I can report is that I have a paper in revision from my new lab, I have 2 under review from National Lab, and it looks like I will have 2 more papers to write this year (one with each student), so paying for a quick start is paying off on the CV. I had to start over more or less completely, so none of my new stuff is in collaboration with NL. I just tried to pick projects that should throw off papers quickly, even as we get up to speed (one is in collaboration with a colleague at Prodigal U). I am lucky that it panned out that way so far.

GMP said...

Prodigal, when you say new PI grant, was it an one od the federal agency named grants (like NSF CAREER, or various DOD YIPs and YFAs)? I love these as they are money, but they are also awards -- so they also enhance your awards and honors CV category! :-)

Any peer reviewed grant that you received as a PI is excellent. The fact that you received more than one (and even as PI!) in your first year is very very rare -- you should be proud of yourself!

Best of luck!