During my first few years at Michigan State, I hired over a dozen tenure-stream faculty members. At first, taking the part of the employer in the negotiations surrounding the hire was a new experience for me.
However, as I gained familiarity with the role, I realized that those sitting opposite me (so to speak) were still as new to the negotiation experience as I had initially been. That made my task more difficult than necessary. If your negotiation partner does not comprehend the process, she or he will make elementary mistakes that are challenging to correct later. This is especially frustrating because you both want the same outcome: a successful hire who becomes a thriving faculty member.
Finding out late in the game that someone had an unannounced dual-career issue or that they had not explained all of their professional needs upfront could put me in an awkward position: there might be insufficient time to arrange a partner/spouse accommodation or I might have already asked the upper administration to approve a specific start-up package.
I decided to start providing a negotiation tip sheet to anyone to whom I was making a tenure-track faculty offer. Without having made a detailed study of the result, I can say that in the ensuing years the new faculty members have done a better job of making their professional needs clear to me during the negotiation process. This, to me, is a success. It enables us to arrange the start of their career in the college in a way that will be clear to them and support their future success.
This article reviews the essential elements of my negotiation tip sheet. Because there are a number of excellent books on general-purpose negotiation skills (such as Getting to Yes and Ask for It), I recommend that anyone not familiar with the principles of interest-based negotiation read one of them forthwith. This article gives specificity to those principles by outlining how they apply within the context of negotiating the starting conditions for a tenure-system faculty position.
Congratulations! You are being offered a tenure-stream faculty position in your discipline at a college or university. You are therefore embarking on a probationary period during which you will build your research and teaching portfolios in preparation for applying for promotion and tenure. This is the time to make sure that your position is arranged in a way that will help you become as successful as possible.
Before you discuss the details of the offer with the chair of your new department (or dean of your new college), you should gather background information. Visit the university web pages to learn about how the institution handles personnel issues that will support a successful start to your professional life there: benefits, child care, elder care, relocation, dual-career accommodations, disability services or diversity.
Contact current faculty and staff whom you met on your campus visit to get a sense of how the academic community functions and ask more questions about living in the region.
Next, do some mental preparation on your own. Consider all the elements of an offer that are relevant to your future professional success at the institution: salary, start-up funds, teaching load and schedule, courses to be taught, probationary-period course release, professional development opportunities, dual-career accommodation, start date, and so on.
Make a prioritized list and be clear in your own mind about the relative importance of different factors and any trade-offs among them. Be aware that “one-time” items (like a work computer) are probably going to be easier to obtain than “long-term items” (like a higher salary).
Consult a mentor who is an experienced faculty member at a similar type of institution to make sure that you haven’t left anything crucial off the list and that you have a reasonable perspective on what the institution may be able to provide. For instance, if a teaching-focused university cannot provide a course release, perhaps they can reduce the number of different preparations during your first few terms (e.g., by assigning you two sections of a multisection course rather than two entirely different classes).
Finally, draw up notes to consult during your negotiation so that you will remember to bring up all of your key questions and topics.
Point of View:
Approach the negotiation as a collaborative process, rather than an adversarial one. The administrator with whom you are negotiating has fundamental underlying interests in common with you: a desire for you to join the faculty and to become successful over the long term. If this is your first experience with negotiating an offer, it is also a great learning opportunity, so pay close attention to how the process unfolds.
Remember that this is a purely professional matter. You are discussing employment conditions with a prospective supervisor, not requesting personal favors. The responses to your requests depend on what is customary and possible at this institution at this time. They are not indicators of friendship or lack thereof.
The negotiation may be completed during a single conversation or spread over a series of conversations and emails. Because you cannot be sure which will transpire, start by assuming that most of the business will be transacted in the initial discussion.
Early in the negotiation make the chair or dean aware of all of the elements on your wish list; explain your perspective on which are most important and how each will support your career. This enables the two of you to craft an offer that is mutually beneficial and acceptable, within the separate constraints that each of you faces. If you try to settle each individual item before even mentioning that others exist, you are likely to lose the opportunity to talk about some items at all. Moreover, it may happen that some items you thought would be difficult to obtain will be unexpectedly easy for the chair or dean to provide. It would be a shame if one of those were an item your discussion never even broached.
Resist the urge to begin by “educating” the dean or chair about the topic at hand. An experienced administrator will evaluate your requests on their merits in light of college and university policies and practices. She or he will also be cognizant of relevant local and national statistics on salaries for faculty members of your rank and discipline, costs of setting up research programs, typical teaching loads, and so forth.
If the offer does not correspond to your understanding of university policies or typical salaries, then ask for clarification. For instance, saying, “I read in Inside Higher Ed that typical starting salaries in my field are about [number]; are there some factors that make the range different at this institution?” may elicit further helpful information.
In fact, you should ask questions throughout the process. Expect that queries posed in a professional and collegial manner will be treated respectfully, given due consideration, and answered clearly. Requesting clarification or proposing alternatives is a reasonable thing to do and should be taken as such by the administrator. If a question draws a defensive or negative response, maintain a neutral tone and consider probing a bit -- “I seem to have touched a nerve here – can you share some perspective on this topic?” If that does not draw out more information, it may be wise to move on to another topic where agreement is easier to reach and return to your open question later.
By the close of the process, you should know how each issue you raised at the start will be addressed. Expect that you will have received some, but probably not all, of what you requested –- and that the overall package should suffice to start you on a successful path toward winning eventual tenure and promotion.
Finally, be sure to get the details of what you have been promised in writing. Items that are not documented and confirmed by all involved parties are vulnerable to the vagaries of memory and the departure of key administrators. You should take copious, legible notes during the entire negotiation process. If the chair or dean does not swiftly provide a written version of the offer, you can initiate that follow-up by sending a simple, clear account of what you believe was agreed to and asking for confirmation. Depending on local practice, the end result should be either a customized offer letter including all of the details or a standard offer letter with an attached memo confirming what will be provided in your case.
Good luck with your negotiation and the next stage of your career!
Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and professor of physics at Michigan State University.
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