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This is about the time of year when many people learn that their dream has come true: they’ve been offered an academic position. If this is you, then perhaps you received a call from the dean or the department chair. Congratulations! Go celebrate! It is important to enjoy the moment.

Once you have celebrated, the hard work begins. What happens next will shape the next few years of your career and your earning potential. It’s important to take negotiation seriously. Here’s what you should know.

You can and should negotiate. I don’t care if this is your dream job. You still need to negotiate your offer. Before you ask me, I will tell you, no, you’re not “rocking the boat” by negotiating. You are, in fact, taking important steps to make sure that you are positioned to be successful and also guaranteeing that you will earn a salary that can support you.

Do not be afraid. If you have an offer, you can be assured of at least one thing: the institution that has made you the offer is invested in you and wants to do what they can to hire you.

If you don’t believe me, then take a moment to consider, from the institution’s perspective, what it took to get to this point. The position was probably budgeted the year before and advertised for a number of months, a short list was developed, and then candidates were interviewed to generate an even shorter list. Those candidates were then flown to the campus for one or two days. The man-hours and hard cash spent to make you an offer should signal that you are in a position to negotiate.

Get everything in writing. It is common practice to obtain the rough parameters of a job offer over the phone before a written offer is sent. Do not feel obligated to negotiate during that phone call. You will probably be excited, shocked, scared or all of the above -- and not be in a position to know what you need.

If the first phone call is headed in that direction, however, try to sidestep it by saying something like, “I’m not prepared to discuss the details of the offer over the phone just yet, but I am happy to do so after I’ve read it over in writing.” In my opinion, an offer does not exist until it is written down.

If you find yourself in the position of having to negotiate on the fly, make sure you have a sense of what you need. Do your homework before an offer is made so you’re prepared. The information below should help.

Know whom you’re negotiating with. This refers to both the person and the institution. Are you negotiating with someone from an elite research university, a flagship state school, a teaching institution or something in between? Those from each type of institution will have a list of deal breakers and a list of things they will budge on.

For example, if you are negotiating with someone from a small teaching-oriented state institution, it would be a potentially fatal mistake to ask for too many teaching releases to pursue research. If you did so, you might even lose the offer, because you would be signaling that you do not, in fact, understand the culture of the place that is extending the offer.

Are you negotiating with the dean or a department chair? You’ve likely already met the person you will be negotiating with, so you should have a sense of how to approach them and what they are willing to consider. During the interview they probably sent you signals about what was possible. Know that it is their job to save as much money as possible while still hiring you.

Focus on the starting salary. Your first salary is the most important thing you will negotiate, for a couple of reasons. First, as academics, most of us only get two real salary bumps, once after tenure and again when we’re promoted to full professor. Those bumps are predicated on your first salary. If that salary is low, then you will be losing future money once you get tenure or are promoted to full professor.

Second, your salary is what your retirement savings are based on. If you do a standard 5 percent contribution to a retirement account, for instance, your institution may match another 5 percent. So you need to make sure that the salary is as high as possible so you can earn more toward retirement and through the interest that will accrue on that money over time.

Where do you start in determining what you want to ask? You need to know what the typical salary is for someone in your field at your institution at your level.

To start, go to your institution’s website and find someone who is currently at your hired rank. Next, Google “state salaries in X,” where X is the state where the institution is. Find their salary. You can generally assume that your offer should be around what they make, plus or minus a few thousand dollars. Do this for a few people so you get a feel for the range.

Now look at what someone in the next rank up makes to get a feel for what it would be unreasonable to ask. (For instance, a newly hired assistant professor may not want to ask for what an associate makes). Regardless of what your initial offer is, my rule of thumb is to ask for 7 percent to 10 percent more than that offer, assuming that the final number will be closer to 5 percent more. That said, make sure to take cues from the person with whom you are negotiating. If they come back with a final offer of X, then do not be stubborn and ask for X plus one.

Other Helpful Resources

Determining the salary to ask for is just the beginning. To be successful, you may need start-up money, conference travel money and so forth. Every field is different in this respect, so you should ask around to get a sense of what is a reasonable ask. Do not be afraid to request whatever you need, since the worst answer that you’ll hear is no. Typical items to negotiate for include:

  • course releases, if appropriate,
  • start-up funds for research,
  • Ph.D. student support (if at a research institution),
  • conference travel funds,
  • summer salary and
  • spousal hire/job placement.

A brief note on the last two. Many contracts are for nine months, meaning that, unless you find a grant or choose to be paid over 12 months, you will not be paid for three months. Make sure you know what happens during those three months. If you choose to spread a nine-month salary over 12 months, then ask what happens if you write in a few summer months on a grant.

Spousal hires or job placements are a much larger ask, because you are asking the institution for the additional and continued financial support of another person. If you want your spouse to have a tenure-track position, for example, then you are effectively doubling the financial commitment of the college or university and asking your unit to use some of its political capital to hire your spouse. It's a big request, and you should treat it as such.

Our labor has monetary value. I find that academics often become uncomfortable when discussing money. Many of us hold onto the illusion that our labor is separate from the economy in which it operates. It isn’t. Our labor has monetary value, and we should know what it is and negotiate with those who would pay us.

Negotiating can feel awkward, but suck it up and do it. It’s more awkward to not have what you need to be successful.

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