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Essay on how to negotiate academic job offers

It Can Hurt to Ask

March 17, 2014

Negotiation is a delicate dance and it is the first opportunity for your future employer to see how you will be once on the job. If you make reasonable requests and are easy to negotiate with, then that is a good sign to your future colleague. However, you can destroy a relationship if you play hardball in negotiations. Thus, the philosophy that it never hurts to ask is a good one. However it should always include the disclaimer that the way you ask can hurt.

The much-discussed case of the rescinded job offer to a candidate for a philosophy job illustrates how important it is to find the right balance between your needs and the needs of the institution. Don’t look at this as a cautionary tale not to negotiate. Look at it as a cautionary tale not to negotiate poorly.

I know of a case where someone had an offer pulled because he took his adviser’s advice not to be the first to bring up salary. The conversation went something like this:

Candidate: Can you come up on the salary?

Dean: What are you thinking?

C: I’d like it to be higher?

D: How much higher?

C: I’d like to hear your best offer.

D: Why don’t you take some time to think about what you need and call me tomorrow and give me your number.

C: (Next day) I’d like you to do better on the salary.

D: I need a number from you.

C: I’m not comfortable stating the number; I want you to how much more you can pay me.

D: If you won’t tell me a number we can’t negotiate, so I’m sorry, you are forcing me to pull the offer.

C: (Calls back the next day to plead for the position and tells the dean his adviser told him to use that strategy.)

D: So sorry but the job has been offered to someone else.

There are rules to successful negotiations and you should familiarize yourself with the rules before you even get your first interview. If you do your homework in advance then there should be few surprises when the offer comes. And since sometimes the offer can come soon after the interview, you want to be ready.

Rule 1: Do your research. Know the institution type, the funding and the state/college climate. Smaller private colleges tend to pay less because they have smaller endowments. A branch campus of a state university will probably pay less than the main campus. A union shop will have less salary flexibility than a non-union shop. And a higher cost of living in a particular location doesn’t guarantee a higher salary. Salaries in academe vary so widely that even if you read the American Association of University Professors' faculty salary survey each year and see what the average starting salaries are you have to remember that this is the average, so some people are getting less than that while others are getting more.

Also consider if the salary is paid over  9 or 12 months, and understand what that means. Are there opportunities to teach summer or overload classes to increase your salary? There are also other elements of a job offer beyond salary and you should educate yourself about those as well. Some of the information will be easy to find by searching the human resources page on the university’s website. You can learn about the health benefits, retirement, moving or educational expenses etc. If the institution is a public you can find salary scales on the website. If you know someone at a similar institution type you can ask them for advice.

Rule 2: Always negotiate over the phone, never in writing. Successful negotiations require a delicate personal touch. It’s all about relationship management with your new employer. When I coach people we talk about how to ask I suggest starting with a question, “I was wondering if the salary is negotiable?” Then go from there. There are some cases where the salary is not negotiable (unionized institutions, small colleges, colleges in states with shrinking state support). And salary compression may be an issue at the institution. If you get this information up front you can move to the next item on your list.

The other reason for asking is so you can create a dialogue. You aren’t making a demand; you are seeking information. If the salary is negotiable you should still be subtle in the ask. “Would it be possible to bring it up to…” And this is the tricky part; you give a specific number or you can give a range. Would it be possible to bring it to the low- to mid-60s range? Again you have to feel out the other person. If the answer to the question about the salary being negotiable is, "Well, we can come up a little," then I’d be suggest not asking for more than $5,000 but realizing that may mean only $1,000. This is why the phone call is so essential as is listening for cues from the other.

Rule 3: Know your audience. There are some things you just don’t want to ask for, and that is dictated by institution type. Universities with a heavy teaching focus don’t like people who ask to teach less and universities with a heavy research focus don’t like people who ask for a lighter research expectation, or STEM folks who ask for a release from grant expectations. This is why it’s very important for you to consider what institution type is right for you. Not everyone was meant to be at a teaching-focused college. If you are a hard-core researcher, then don’t apply to teaching colleges and vice versa. I know that due to market conditions people are applying to any academic job no matter how big a stretch. But given the time and expense of making hires and the huge costs for you and the institution if the fit isn’t right, it’s better to find the right place for you.

Rule 4: Prioritize your list of requests and modify as needed. It’s O.K. to want five or six items, but you probably won’t get them all. If you get your first three, depending on what they are, you may want to stop there. Asking for too many things can make you sound like a high-maintenance hire. Also each time your future employer says yes, s/he is hoping that’s the last thing on the list and you’ll accept. But when your list goes on and on they will get tired and begin to wonder if there is an end to your list.

Rule 5: If you are going to ask for a partner hire, tread very carefully. I’ve heard from people who have successfully negotiated these that they generally waited until the offer before mentioning the partner. Some presented it as a deal-breaker and others as a strong preference. In all cases they mentioned that you should negotiate for what you need and tackle the partner hire separately, but that may not be possible. You have to play it by ear, so listen carefully to the person on the other end of the phone. Larger institutions can absorb two bodies, smaller colleges may not be able to. And if one of you is willing to be in a non-tenure-track role that may be something to consider as you negotiate. I worked with someone who negotiated a staff role for her partner and he became the assistant director of one of the centers on campus. Many colleges are parts of consortiums or have offices to help with dual-career couples.

This negotiation conversation will impact your new colleagues’ perceptions of you and will hopefully make them happy with rather regretting their choice. You want to communicate that you will be a good colleague, that you understand the institution and that you want a good relationship with your future coworkers. So go ahead and ask for what you need, but make sure your needs are reasonable for the institution and that you are asking in the best possible way. 

 

Bio

Christine Kelly advises graduate students and postdocs at the University of California at Irvine about career issues.

 

 

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