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Negotiated Out of a Job

March 13, 2014

The worst they can say is no. That's the advice a new Ph.D. receives about negotiating with a department that has extended a job offer. Sure, you might not get everything you want, but there's no harm in trying. This may be your best shot at getting good pay or working conditions and, after all, they have offered you the job and won't take that away.

Or maybe not, according to recent post on Philosophy Smoker. The blog, popular among philosophy graduate students and junior faculty, recounts a job offer negotiation gone wrong at a small liberal arts college.

The candidate, identified in the blog as “W,” sent the following email to search committee members at Nazareth College, in Rochester, N.Y., after receiving a tenure-track job offer in philosophy:

“As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier[:]

1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years. 

2) An official semester of maternity leave. 

3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock. 

4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years. 

5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.”

She ended the email by saying “I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.”

In a reply, the search committee said it had reviewed the requests, as had the dean and vice president of academic affairs.

“It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered,” the email continues. “Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.”

The search committee ended by thanking the candidate for her “interest" and wishing her “the best in finding a suitable position.”

The email exchange is the worst nightmare of any job candidate who has put forward requests -- and, not surprisingly, has people talking.

Jaded, Ph.D., a non-tenure-track, full-time professor of philosophy at an unnamed university who is one of the blog’s moderators, wrote that she was most “flabbergasted” at Nazareth’s refusal to negotiate or discuss the requests with the candidate before rescinding the offer.

“If ‘W’ was unable to answer the questions in a way that demonstrated her commitment to providing the type of education a [small, liberal arts college] wants to give their students, then I could understand their position,” Jaded wrote. “But to [rescind the offer] on the basis of a few requests -- some of which appear prima facie reasonable (maternity leave, an increase in salary), but some of which ‘W’ acknowledges as ‘easier to grant than others’ -- seems a disproportionate response (even if it was well within the rights of the [college] to do something like that).”

Commenters on the blog have had mixed reactions, from sympathetic to the candidate to critical, to both.

One reader said it was simply a “buyers’ market,” and that “I would be very reluctant to ask for any [deal] sweeteners, since members of search committees often report that they would have been happy to hire ANY of the candidates they interviewed and flew out.”

Another reader wrote that the candidate’s requests could have been made more “delicately,” but that it was “very hard for me to believe that the college would retract the offer. Do you really want to hire someone not wise enough to try to negotiate him/herself into a better position? Probably not.”

The candidate did not respond to an interview request.

A spokeswoman for Nazareth declined to comment, citing its policy of keeping personnel issues private. Scott Campbell, chair of Nazareth’s philosophy department, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Experts in academic job negotiations were less surprised at the account than some of the blog’s followers.

Karen Kelsky, an academic job consultant and moderator of the blog The Professor Is In, said that while job offer retractions such as W’s are “outrageous, unethical and wrong” they’re not uncommon, particularly at less prestigious institutions without strong traditions of transparency.

“They happen, and they aren’t distinct to philosophy – they happen in all kinds of disciplines at all kinds of schools,” Kelsky said. She advises her clients to negotiate offers, but with careful attention to tone and by tailoring their requests to the institution at hand. Some of W’s requests, such as taking time for the postdoc, would be a major inconvenience to the institution, she said. And it’s never a good idea to suggest what the market-appropriate salary is, since starting salaries vary widely by institution type.

Nevertheless, she said Nazareth should have engaged in a “good-faith dialogue” with the person it was about to hire – not take the offer off the table entirely.

Cheryl E. Ball, a Fulbright scholar at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design who will start as an associate professor of digital publishing studies at West Virginia University in July, recently wrote a column about a negotiating a tenure-track job for Inside Higher Ed. She advised candidates to sit on a job offer for 24 hours, then write a counteroffer. She counted salary, course load and assignments, computer equipment, research funds and leave, among other requests, as fair game.

She wrote that “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.”

But, she cautioned, “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.”

Like Kelsky, Ball said that while Nazareth’s retraction was “totally uncouth,” the candidate’s requests signaled a disconnect between her needs and what the college could offer. Several of the requests involve time away from teaching – the central mission of most liberal arts colleges. Such institutions generally have small faculties and need new professors to cover courses right away, she said.  

“It was the ‘no more than 3 preps a year’ however, that made me guffaw,” Ball added via email. “This candidate really has no idea what s/he was considering stepping into at a [small liberal arts college]. While s/he could have done the job just fine, working at a [small liberal arts college] is, above all, about collegiality and teaching ability, and this candidate basically offered [several] counterpoints to her being able to fulfill that part of the college's mission.”

A longtime philosophy chair at a large research university who has been part of nearly 20 faculty searches and who requested anonymity, said he’s never rescinded an offer. But he has “let the clock run out” on several candidates from whom extensive negotiation requests “confirm” flags raised about collegiality or “fit” during interviews (offers last 10 days at his institution). He also said that frequently – and in weak academic labor markets in particular – candidates’ qualifications are so similar that picking between two, or three, can be like “flipping a coin.”

A candidate is only as valuable as how good the next person is behind him or her, he added.

That said, the chair said he’d be more accepting of unrealistic requests from a new Ph.D., maybe from an elite institution, who was “wet behind the ears” in relation to the broader academic labor market. Rather than rescind an offer, he’d likely pick up the phone and talk to the candidate about which requests were possible and which weren’t. And many aren’t, simply due to departmental or institutional policies regarding research, or salary scales, he said.

Perhaps more than anything, experts said the account points to the need to explicitly mentor graduate students in negotiating before they hit the job market. Kelsky emphasized that candidates shouldn’t be scared off from negotiating altogether.

“Zombie,” another moderator of Philosophy Smoker who is an assistant professor at a public research institution, agreed.

“We are all, as job candidates, advised that we should try to negotiate when we receive a job offer, and we're all told that it can't hurt to ask.”

Zombie said the issue has particular implications for women: “To the extent that women are already disadvantaged in academia -- they get lower salaries, are disproportionately burdened by family and childcare concerns, and so on -- a situation like this has to make you worry about the possibilities for overcoming some of those disadvantages, if the hiring process is so unfriendly to those concerns.”

 

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