I am in the fortunate position of having multiple tenure-track offers, each of which have different and important pros/cons (for instance different start-up, salary, teaching load, desirability of location, prestige of department, proximity to family, etc). Of course, I am negotiating to put the positions on as much of a level playing field as possible, and trying to make the decision quickly. While I realize the decision-making process is unique for each individual, can folks share what factors they have (or would have) considered and weighed most heavily when making this type of decision and why.
1) Location, for all of the reasons — what places I like, where my spouse can have a career, school districts, COL, and where we are close to family & friends. This was always our top priority, because, you know, LIFE. There is a whole family involved.
2) Teaching load, but combined with other resources and whether there is ease of buying out with research, whether the classes are big/small, whether you can have two courses of the same thing in a semester, sabbaticals, etc. Teaching load also usually correlates with other good things like salary, prestige, etc.
3) Overall vibe of school and department. It's hard to quantify and evaluate, but this is actually in many ways the #1 factor. If people are happy there, that is a good sign, even if the teaching load and the salary aren't great. If there is drama/bureaucracy/etc, then you might end up miserable even if you have a decent salary and teaching load.
I think that people over-weight prestige, though it is a proxy for other good things (like financial stability of the school, teaching load, salary, research resources.) But you should understand that prestige/rankings can be really far off, and you should use your own metrics to see where the school & department really are (e.g. look up the endowment per student for yourself.)
Relatedly, people over-weight "quality of students," at least for undergrad institutions (I can see caring about this more if you have PhD students and you need them to be good because your career depends on it.) I went to elite schools for my training and started off teaching that way, in grad school. I was worried about taking a job at a school with "average" students (like 50th percentile on ACT/SAT) as I had never had to deal with them before. It was really no big deal. And the top ones still make good research assistants. I think if you can't teach average students without pulling your hair out, then teaching is not a career for you.
My research is cheap so I did need a little startup but more wouldn't have made me want a position that much. But if your research is expensive and depends on it, I could see weighing this.
Another thing you can consider is the perfect "starter" job (one that has a light teaching load for beginning faculty, a giant startup—can hire postdocs/RAs for your lab, great research resources, but might be in a bad location and perhaps has more teaching & service burdens on senior faculty, and perhaps not-so-wonderful PhD students, and perhaps not amazing retirement benefits) vs. the ideal "forever" job, when location and longer-term issues matter more. A good starter job can give you a great record for the next 3-4 years and then you can trade up. But it's best to try to pick your forever job on the first try if possible.
Teaching load would be my #1 concern over location and salary. I concur with @Juniorfaculty that the department vibe is important - nothing worse than being stuck with colleagues who are miserable or have a tendency to in-fight for resources, lab space, or otherwise. The teaching load is a critical factor. Once you start creeping above a 3/2 load, research productivity usually slows a lot, especially if you're teaching different courses within a given semester. Reduced research can hinder your ability to build a strong C.V., which in-turn can limit your capacity to move to a new institution if you should desire such down the road.
Department prestige is a curious consideration. While a well-established department with people who are leaders in their subfield is attractive, when it comes to tenure promotions, you will undoubtedly be compared against your colleagues. Some people thrive in an environment where others create high standards. It can be refreshing, though, to be in a somewhat more modest department, though, where you can establish yourself as a leader.
Returning to location, this is also worth considering if your positions afford reasonable (3/2 or under) teaching loads that balance well with research expectations (i.e., with a 2/2 or 3/2 load, expecting more than a couple publications per year depending on grad students might be unrealistic). Your situation is unique here. If you have children and a significant other, they'll factor into this. If not, consider what activities you enjoy outside of academia and how the location fits with those. One last thought with location - factor this into your salary considerations. A position that offers perhaps $50,000 in the Southeast might well technically pay more than one offering $62,000 in the Northeast just because of living cost differences and tax differences. Use a cost of living calculator online to compare your offers.
Thank you! I ultimately chose to weigh location and departmental vibe the highest, and negotiated so the teaching load would be comparable. I am feeling very good about the decision