Academic Tenure-Track Offer Letters

From 1995 to 2005, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund made 241 Career Awards in the Biomedical Sciences (CABS) to young postdoctoral fellows to help them make the transition to tenure-track faculty member and independent investigator.  The award pays $500,000 over five years.  On average, awardees normally continued as postdocs for about 18 months after receiving the award, with the balance of the award period spent as an assistant professor. 

BWF’s policy requires institutions offering CABS awardees faculty appointments to make a significant commitment to their career development in the form of a tenure-track position and a laboratory start-up package.  Before a BWF awardee moves to a faculty position, BWF reviews and approves the institution’s offer to ensure that it provides adequate support for the awardee’s career. 

Since the inception of the program, BWF has approved over 200 faculty appointments for CABS awardees.  We require that institutions provide a detailed letter that outlines the terms of the appointment. 

The scope and content of offer letters examined by BWF run the gamut.  Even letters from the same institution vary dramatically.  An analysis of these letters, including salary and start-up packages, follows.  The hope is that this information will provide young scientists seeking a position as an independent investigator at a university with some helpful insights into what to expect and what to ask for in the offer letter.  Also, deans, department heads, and other hiring managers may find some useful information in this analysis.

Start-up and salary data presented here are from 42 offers approved by BWF and accepted by awardees that were received between January 1, 2005, and December 31, 2007.  Physician-scientists received 38 percent of the offers.  Almost one in four (n=10) of the accepted offers came from Harvard.  Most awardees accepted positions at schools of medicine (64 percent), with 26 percent of awardees accepting positions at schools of arts and sciences, 7 percent at research institutes that are closely affiliated with degree-granting institutions, and 2 percent at schools of engineering.

The Offer Letter

The most basic items in the letter should include:

Starting date.  All offer letters should have a proposed starting date.  In the BWF cohort, 17 percent of award letters did not have one, although half without start dates were offers for faculty positions at the same institution where the awardee was doing a postdoc. 

For the letters that did have a start date, the time from the official offer to start date varied from 1 to 12 months, with the average being about 5 months.  About half of the start dates were between June 1 and September 1.  However, the start date is negotiable, and when negotiating the start date, the awardee should take into account any experiments and manuscripts that he or she needs to complete before moving to the faculty position, the time it would take to physically move to a new location, and any family concerns. 

Remember that the tenure clock will begin when an awardee starts his or her appointment, and the awardee will have, depending on the institution, six to seven years before tenure review begins.  If there is a significant amount of time between acceptance of the position and the start date, the awardee might want to consider ordering equipment and supplies for his or her lab in advance to be able to hit the ground running.  Also, if an awardee encounters any delay in getting into his or her lab because of remodeling, construction, or other factors, the awardee might want to renegotiate the start of the tenure clock. 

Salary.  Even if some offer letters do not mention a start date, all mention salary.  Recent beginning 12-month salaries for Ph.D.s ranged from $78,000 to $135,000 (average = $102,153 and median = $100,000).  For physician-scientists with an M.D. or M.D/Ph.D., salaries ranged from $92,304 to $145,000 (average = $121,058 and median = $120,000).  Salaries are normally for a nine- or 12-month year, and the letter should clearly make this distinction.  Typically, salaries at schools of arts and sciences are for a nine-month academic year and salaries at medical schools are for 12 months.  The salary is usually fully paid by the institution for the first three years or so of an appointment; however, in some cases the institution pays 100 percent the first year and successive lower percentages for succeeding years. 

For many of the BWF awardees, salaries comprised not only a base salary but one or two additional components, such as a supplement or incentive component and/or a bonus.  The base salary is normally the institution’s base salary for an assistant professor.  The supplement or incentive component can be for summer work if the contract is for a nine-month academic year, a percentage of the amount of salary support raised from grants, from departmental funds, or from clinical responsibilities if the new appointee is a physician-scientist.  The base salary is normally guaranteed, while supplements or bonuses are considered variable components and may differ from year to year.  Variable components may comprise one-third or more of the annual compensation. 

In those cases where salary or start-up funds are supported, partially or fully, through gifts, grants, endowments, or other outside funds, the awardee may be asked to prepare annual reports or present his or her work at meetings for the benefit of donors or granting agencies.  BWF requires all of our awardees to submit annual progress and financial reports, participate in an annual survey evaluation, and attend one or two career development meetings during the tenure of the award. 

Academic title and track.  Since BWF requires CABS awardees to acquire a tenure-track appointment or equivalent, all of the most recent awardees received a tenure-track assistant professor position.   

Many letters will specifically state that the appointment is a “tenure track assistant professor” position.  Others may call the appointment a tenure probation period, tenure line, probationary faculty member eligible for tenure, tenure stream, tenure eligible, tenure equivalent, tenure accruing track, or tenure related. 

Teaching responsibilities.  Teaching responsibilities are specifically mentioned in over 75 percent of the offer letters.  The norm is to delay any teaching until the beginning of the second year.  The delay gives a new faculty member an opportunity to prepare materials for his or her classes and to provide for additional time to get a laboratory up and running.  The downside to postponing teaching is that it is critical for a new faculty member to be able to attract good graduate students to his or her lab and classroom, and contact with students is probably the best way to recruit. 

Teaching is also one of the areas that will be looked at when a new faculty member comes up for tenure.  A good evaluation may not add many brownie points to a tenure package, but a bad evaluation may certainly hurt. 

In addition to delaying teaching, serving on a committee, which may be time consuming, should be delayed at least a year and be considered carefully before accepting.  Some committee assignments, such as graduate admissions, can be extremely useful, while others, such as curriculum development, may be too time consuming.   

Term of appointment.  About half of the offer letters address a specific term of appointment.  The most common term of appointment is for three years and is renewable for an additional four years if progress is satisfactory.  Other terms of appointment are year to year, depending on progress, and a few are for an initial term of six or seven years.  The terms of appointment fall into the general scheme of the tenure process whereby beginning assistant professors are typically appointed for two- three-year terms plus an additional year to complete the promotion process. 

Reappointment for the second term is not automatic and may involve a vote by the tenured faculty within a new faculty member’s department.  For reappointment, areas looked at are scholarship, funding, teaching, service, letters from colleagues, and comments from postdocs and students.  At most institutions, approval for reappointments usually requires approval and review only by the dean or equivalent.

At the end of the six- or seven-year period, a review for tenure will be done.  The most important considerations for promotion will be a faculty member’s grant support and scholarship in the form of high-quality publications where he or she is the primary author. 

Start-up support.  One of the major keys to becoming successful for a new faculty member is to have sufficient resources at the beginning to start and maintain a lab and to ensure time to gather data in support of grant proposals and apply for funding.  A new independent investigator should operate his or her lab in much the same way that a CEO of a small business operates1,2.  From an early BWF survey, CABS awardees who were in faculty positions supervised, on average, a staff of 6.6 (+/-) and their labs had an average annual direct cost funding of $300,000 (+/-). 

Recent institutional offers of start-up support (excluding salary) for Ph.D.s averaged $800,000 (range $500,000 to $1,400,000), with a median of $750,000.  Start-up offers for physician-scientists averaged $800,000 (range $100,000 to $2,110,250 ), with a median of $710,000.  This money can be used for equipment, consumables, personnel costs, and professional travel.  In many cases, the funds are made available for the first three years and normally (but not in all cases) may be carried forward if not spent.  A few institutions may allow money that is not being used to be placed in an interest-bearing account with the interest added to the total start-up support. 

Start-up funds are initially determined from equipment and supply lists that a new faculty member presents when negotiating a faculty position.  In most cases, equipment purchased becomes the property of the institution.  With BWF awards, however, purchases equipment is transportable.  In addition to providing a sum of money, start-up packages may include such things as use of shared equipment (new faculty members should be sure that shared equipment is truly shared) and administrative support.  One institution was so proud of its “renowned machine shop” that it made a point of stressing that the shop would be available to the new faculty member. 

New faculty members should set up their labs as soon as possible.  Many institutions will allow the use of start-up funds as soon as the appointment is officially approved.  New appointees can get a head start by ordering equipment and hiring technicians before they arrive. 

As part of a start-up package, the space to be provided for a new faculty member to carry out his or her research will be an extremely important consideration.  Over half of the offer letters will mention either a specific location or a square footage.  If laboratory space is being remodeled, an appointee should make sure when the space will be available.  Laboratory and office space will range from about 500 square feet to 2,000 square feet; for BWF awardees, the average has been about 1,000 square feet.  If renovations are required, a new faculty member should be involved in the planning and should find out if the costs are to be taken out of start-up funds or borne by the institution. 

In the institutional offers made to BWF awardees, there was only one instance in which the space that was offered was considered inadequate.  After additional negotiations the issue was resolved. 

Relocation expenses.  Relocation and moving expenses are usually part of an institution’s personnel policy and may not be specifically addressed in the offer letter.  Again, about half of the offers did not address these expenses.  Reimbursement amounts mentioned ranged from $2,000 to $15,000, and many letters said only that the institution will cover the cost of moving.

In addition to providing actual moving expenses, some institutions will provide a housing allowance or access to on-campus housing.  This is particularly true in areas with a high cost of living, such as San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Cambridge.  Institutions may provide a one-time cash supplement (ranging from $7,500 to over $100,000) or may have a specific program for housing benefits.  The University of California system has a mortgage program that provides a low-cost loan with a salary supplement. 

Other Common Letter Components

Offer letters also may address one or more of the following issues:

  • Joint appointments
  • Availability of specific types of equipment
  • Specific assignments, such as committee participation
  • A date in the future when the new faculty member will be required to provide part of his or her salary from outside grants
  • A mentor and mentoring
  • What is expected for promotion and tenure
  • Sabbaticals and/or professional development leave
  • Spouse employment, dual career couples, trailing spouses
  • Institutional support in the form of nominations for other awards and grants
  • Annual performance review
  • Continuing support for a specified amount of time in the event the new faculty member does not get funding
  • Conditions for renewal of appointment
  • Support for a trip to look for housing
  • Parking
  • Criminal background check prior to employment
  • Schools of medicine may require incoming faculty members to sign a confidentiality certificate for compliance with HIPPA regulations
  • Disclosure of outside employment activities
  • Offer contingent upon approval by appropriate institutional officers and committees

Physician-Scientists

Physician-scientists who are clinically trained, unlike Ph.D. scientists working in an academic research environment, often have the added responsibility of clinical service.  Some observers may see this as an added difficulty for the physician-scientist because of competition with the Ph.D. who does not have clinical responsibilities.  Others say that this gives the physician-scientist an added benefit because he or she poses the quadruple advantage of scholarship, teaching, institutional service, and clinical practice.  Initial data from BWF’s awardees suggests that physician-scientists do somewhat better than their Ph.D. counterparts when research support, article publications during award, and citation rates are considered3.  BWF’s CABS awardees must, however, devote 80 percent of their effort to bench research, so clinical or other service cannot constitute more than 20 percent of an awardee’s effort. 

In regard to starting salaries and start-up packages, cited above, the fact that there were only two female physician-scientists in the cohort of 16 means that no meaningful comparisons can be made4.

Unlike Ph.D.s, more physician-scientists tend to remain at their postdoctoral institutions: 37 percent versus 19 percent.  Eighty-seven percent of the physician-scientists have their primary appointment in a school of medicine, while 67 percent of Ph.D.s have their primary appointment in a school of medicine. 

Certain issues that apply only to the physician-scientist may be included in the offer letter.  These issues include:

  • How any excess clinical income will be paid
  • Rules governing clinical work outside the institution
  • Required continuing medical education
  • Non-compete agreement
  • Malpractice insurance (normally paid by the department)
  • Particular mention of protected research time because of clinical responsibilities
  • Licensing and hospital staff fees
  • A date by which specialty boards must be passed
  • Compliance with billing practices
  • Terms of clinical service, which for physician-scientists is usually four weeks per year or one-half to one day per week.  In addition, physician-scientists may be required to work a given number of weekends per year.  

Big Decisions

Choosing a first faculty position will be one of the most important decisions that a scientist will make during his or her professional career.  This means everyone considering a first appointment should seek an environment where he or she can grow professionally and where his or her career will prosper.  Remember, each institution and their affiliated agencies has an investment in the success of new faculty members and desperately want them to succeed.  But each new faculty members also should remember that his or her research and subsequent publication in high-quality journals should be of top priority. 

One final note is that awardees pursing their first faculty appointment do not need to get everything in writing.  Negotiating every small detail may create an adversarial environment.  Rather than aiming for a 10-page offer letter, it will prove better in the long run to build a bridge, not a fence.

Addendum:

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund discontinued the Career Awards in the Biomedical Sciences program in 2006 because of the anticipated impact of the National Institutes of Health’s new K99/R00 Bridges to Independence mechanism.  BWF replaced the CABS program with the Career Awards for Medical Sciences program, which is focused on the physician-scientist who is making the transition from a mentored position to an independent investigator.  The program provides $700,000 in support over five years.  The first 22 awards were made in 2007, and at this writing faculty appointments have been approved for six.  Their average starting salary was $140,000 and average start-up package was $662,000.  All awardees went to clinical departments for the faculty portion of the award.        

By Rolly S. Simpson Jr., program officer at BWF.

Bibliography

(1) Freeman, R et al, Competition and careers in bioscience, Science 294: 2293-4, December 14, 2001
(2) Vogel, G. A day in the life of a topflight lab. Science 285(5433): 1531
(3) Pion, G and M. Ionescu-Pioggia, Bridging postdoctoral training and a faculty position: Initial outcomes of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Awards in the Biomedical Sciences, Academic Medicine 78(2): 12-21, February 2003
(4) Andrews, NC, The other physician-scientist problem: Where have all the young girls gone? Nature Medicine 8(5): 439-441, May 2002