A letter came in the mail the other day that I’ll be granted tenure in August… and so it goes.

Looking back on the last and first five years at WSU there are a lot of lessons learned.

One of the most important being how to spend your startup. This is one of those things that everyone has an opinion about, so listen politely, do what you think is best. What I’m about to tell you is something that I was not told, nor have heard, which is why I’m telling you.

The first and most important thing to do when you get to WSU and have that big lab space to fill, is to fill the cyberspace instead. Build a WSU brand website with your lab’s mission/objectives clearly stated. Then, either visit or get on the phone and call all relevant stakeholders: federal program managers, national lab employees, industry in our state, and charitable foundations in our state. Your task is to introduce yourself, your planned mission, and ask them for advice on how to best spend your startup package to uniquely fill a niche they need.

This question of “how can I use my un-spent resources to best help you” is very different from the typical, “how do I maximize the programmatic relevance of my proposal.” Program managers are so use to people calling to ask them for money that it might even catch them off guard. But think about it, few people know the milieu for the research area better than them. It’s their job to further the community. It’s in their best interest to get you headed in the right direction. Now go spend your startup money and fill the lab. You’re not cowing to their opinion, you’re weighing it relative to everything else.

I met with a program manager once and the first thing I said was, “From what I understand your program mission is (complimentary descriptor). If I have that right we have mutual interest in this area. So what is it that you need me to say, or that you really want to hear from me?”

She paused, looked at me, and said, “You know how many people screw that up? Thank you! I need you to tell me (exactly what she wanted to hear).”

So I told her what she wanted to hear and the check arrived a month later.

In many ways program managers are clients. It’s their job to spend the money, it’s yours to make them happy. You’ll likely never get a big startup to spend any way you want again. Best make sure you spend it on something you know that people need, and will keep funding you for.