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Essay on negotiating academic job offers

Get a Job!

'You Can't Always Get What You Want'

February 19, 2014

A friend in a field with few jobs every year once told me that she wasn't about to negotiate her job offer because she was just grateful to have an offer. Job negotiations are tricky business but not beyond the realm of any offer. I've negotiated successfully for three jobs, gaining more than was in the original offer, but that doesn't mean I have received everything I have asked for.

That's why it's called a negotiation, and not a mandate. Negotiations should be a conversation, not a one-sided diva trip or the-other-sided take it or leave it. I've heard too many examples of these last two scenarios over the years -- one instance is too many.

I recently heard from a friend that a well-respected job mentor recommends conducting all job negotiations in writing. This isn't a bad idea, particularly for those who suspect they might cave under the pressure of a discussion. Job offers are usually made by phone, but sometimes by email. Typically after all the on-campus interviews have been conducted, the job candidates have been ranked and have gone to the dean and HR for background checks, then the department chair calls you with an offer.

At that point, he or she usually tells you the institution is making an offer, and goes into details about the offer. Make sure you have something to take notes with. Once I was waiting to board a plane for another interview when the call came in. It's OK to say that it isn't a good time to talk. You may legitimately be in the middle of something you cannot drop -- say, a doctor's appointment. Ask them to email you the details after they've gone through it all.

Once you get the call, you are in the catbird seat and have a LOT of power. Some first-time job seekers let this power go to their heads and ask for the moon and stars. This is annoying and a bad way to start your new position.

Other job seekers verbally accept the job as-is because they are so excited. This is also a bad move, as there is almost always wiggle room in the offer and during negotiations is the ONLY time you have to make changes.

So, breathe deeply and offer your appreciation. Expressing your enthusiasm is totally appropriate. Then ask them to email you the details. They will either send you an informal email with the deets, or they will tell you that HR is drawing up the contract and will email it to you when it's ready. It's normal for this to take a few days; don't panic. And just because it's written as contract doesn't mean it is not still negotiable.

You usually have up to two weeks to hash out the details and give the college an answer. In some fields, they may not follow the standard two-week protocol, usually because the position is in a really tight field. (I will address how and when to choose a job in another column.) Depending on the timeframe, the negotiators' availability via phone or email, and your confidence level, you can usually choose whether to negotiate by phone or by email. I tend to take at least 24 hours to consider the written offer, and then I write a counteroffer, with some of the following considerations:

  • Salary.
  • Course load and course assignments.
  • Computer, software, hardware.
  • Research leave.
  • Research funds.
  • Travel money.
  • Research assistant.
  • Start-up funds (e.g., lab funds, but may also include other items on this list).
  • Office furniture.
  • Moving expenses.
  • Speaker series.
  • Administrative pay.
  • Tenure guidelines.
  • Subvention funds.
  • Spousal hires.
  • Childcare/lab schools.

Your list’s order of priorities will depend on your unique job-search situation. After the initial counteroffer, the department chair usually has to run a few things by the dean to see if there's money in the budget for certain items. For instance, salary is a recurring expense that the dean or provost has to approve, while one-time expenses for moving and research assistants usually come out of variance monies in the department's general budget or from "the magic money coffers" that faculty often like to think the dean's office has.

So a department chair may not be able to say yes or no immediately. Sometimes there are multiple counteroffers written, each with a new contract drawn, so the process may take several weeks. Once the contract or offer letter is written and everyone agrees on it, only THEN do you accept the job and sign the contract. And only THEN should you post your news on Facebook ;)

I could write an entire column on tactics, reasons and tips for negotiating each of these points. (And I have written about negotiating start-up funds as an English department faculty member in this book chapter.) I've been told both directly and obliquely that I am an excellent negotiator. While I have been happy with most of my job negotiations outcomes, it is not necessarily a point of pride for me to be a good negotiator because it is not what I want to be known for.

That is, negotiations should be an expected part of the job offer process, not unusual for anyone to engage in, and should result in a productive working environment for the job seeker and a productive working relationship between the seeker and the university. While I've been mostly successful with negotiations, I only take what I need, and my needs are reasonable and in line with the job ad and tenure expectations for the university.

And that means I don't always get what I want. For instance, office furniture may not seem like a big deal to negotiate, but when you’ve had carpal tunnel since you were 13, like I have, ensuring that the space you’ll spend 40+ hours a week is ergonomically correct and not stuck in the 1950s is incredibly important. Getting an adjustable chair along with four or five other things on the list may make up for a school’s inability to raise your salary above their initial offer (if the offer is a living and comparable wage to begin with).

The main point I want to make in this column is that while all of the above items might be at play when you're negotiating an offer, whether you choose to negotiate for any of these items or not will depend on what the job description is, what type of college or university the position is with, what the tenure requirements for the university are, and what your currency or capital in the field is (e.g., are you a rising star Ph.D. student with the credentials to back it up?). For instance, as a newbie graduate with no professional experience to speak of (e.g., no teaching, publishing, or administrative experience) who is negotiating with a teaching college that has a mandatory 5-5 load, your only negotiation point may be salary, and sometimes not even that if the college is unionized.

While a Ph.D. student with more professional creds negotiating with a prestigious research university could negotiate all of these points, and perhaps others I haven't even thought of. I would have loved to have the balls to negotiate for office location, a parking space, and housing at some of my previous jobs, for instance. Things you usually cannot negotiate include HR (all-employee) benefits such as insurance or retirement benefits.

After a job candidate has visited the campus and an offer has been made, the candidate should have a better idea of what's appropriate to ask for. I can't imagine a scenario other than at a unionized college or university where NOT asking for a salary raise would be considered inappropriate negotiation tactics. As one of my mentors once said: The worst they can say is No.

And getting a No does not make you a terrible person. Unless -- as I've heard multiple cases of over the last few years -- the candidate has NOT done a proper assessment of their candidacy, university type, and credentials and has negotiated well beyond their capital AND has done so inconsiderately. Asking for a salary bump by a few thousand dollars won't engender ill will (and if it does, be wary of the department chair or the college).

But insisting that you are a superstar worthy of much much better than, say, the average salary of a full professor and not understanding the context in which you're negotiating WILL make you persona non grata for the search committee. You are wasting their time if you negotiate above your status. And it is possible that they can rescind the offer, although I’ve never heard of that actually happening  due only to awkward negotiations.

Don't be a dick, but do ask for what you or your mentor has honestly assessed as your worth, all of which is tied to your credentials, the job ad, and the college's tenure guidelines -- that is, above all, ask yourself: How will I use what I gain through negotiations to do the work (and usually gain tenure) that this university is hiring me to do? If you can't answer that question, then you shouldn't be asking for it.

 

 

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