Guest Post: Academic Negotiations

In my first month in graduate school the new faculty in our department did a “How to get a job” seminar. They talked about their experiences, and one thing really stuck with me. Two of the new faculty said that many things were negotiable at our R1 university but salary was not. Our university took the average of three faculty salary surveys, added 10%, and that was the starting salary. I thought that was a cool system to keep things fair and equal between the new faculty. In fact, I thought it was so cool that I mentioned it to my advisor (who was not junior, and had been at two different institutions). He got a funny look on his face and just shook his head. “No, that’s not true.”

No, it wasn’t true. It was what the administration told new hires to keep them from asking for higher salaries. Some were more savvy, pushed back and made more money than the others who took the administration at face value. Those initial differences added up over time through raises which were all calculated as a percentage of starting salary. My advisor stressed one thing to me: Do everything you can to raise that number.

It turns out our administration was pretty ruthless in negotiations. As a graduate student I sat on a job committee and learned the start-up funds that were budgeted for each position at junior, associate, and full professor levels. Later, I learned that the administration offered junior hires less than half of what had been budgeted. Less than half! I’m sure the candidates tried to negotiate upwards but I don’t think most people would try to more than DOUBLE their start-up offer.

I am not sure how it works in other fields but in science you can negotiate start date, salary, space, research start-up funds (both the amount and what will be covered), teaching assignments and spousal positions. The institution usually starts with a one-size-fits-all offer.

In my experience, junior hires are pressured to not ask for more in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I caught this on a blog the other day “My second caution is to remember that your negotiations are something your colleagues will remember, as they are in many ways their first experience of you as a colleague. While you do not want to be a door-mat, do you want to be a prima-donna? Sending the message that “its all about me” may not be the way to put your best foot forward.” A friend of mine got the advice, “If the offer is decent, don’t ask for more. You don’t want to be that guy.” You know, that greedy junior hire who asked for the moon while everyone else was happy with their crappy salaries and pulled in huge grants after gratefully accepting their tiny start-up. I made the decision early on I didn’t want to be that girl. You know, the one that makes less than everybody else and will for the rest of her career. The one that couldn’t get her dream research going because of her meager start-up and settled for less.

Wait, but when do we negotiate?

I’ve negotiated two faculty positions- unfortunately, in two separate years- and both times I was left waiting for our “negotiations” to start. I got an offer over the phone, they told me I had X time to decide. But when am I supposed to ask for all the things I have been told to ask for? So I asked a friend who also had a job offer what he did. He looked at me with surprise and said “I just called the department head and asked. How are we supposed to do it?” So that’s what I did- I just asked. My initial requests were met with horror. The department head had never heard of anyone asking for more salary without a competing offer and had certainly never seen it granted. She made it clear she was shocked by my behavior and embarrassed for me. Public employees salaries are public record, so I looked hers up. Her salary for the past year was four times what they were offering me. I kept pushing.

The Dean did increase the salary. A member of the committee told me later- after I had already signed the contract- that the College has X amount of money to play with in salary negotiations. Guess how much I was able to raise my salary by? The same amount.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get them to put everything in my offer letter. Everything they wouldn’t put in was waived away with an “Oh, it will all be fine, you worry too much.” Some things turned out fine and some didn’t. For example, the lab space I was promised was taken away and I am still unsure of where my lab space will be and how it will be configured, which is pretty stressful. On the other hand, I got a major upgrade to my office space, my start-up is 20% higher than other positions and my salary is 5% higher. You win some, you lose some.

Things to think about

Academic negotiations are a squishy, weird thing. Universities are leery of lawsuits and everything happens verbally. That means your “negotiations” are discussions and if you are not assertive, your requests will get swept away. I’m not used to being assertive in conversations with people who are basically strangers, and I found the whole thing really difficult.

Get everything you can in the contract. In my case, the department head changed between my offer and my starting date so all those things we discussed… gone. Different department heads have different priorities. I thought I was safe because I had email exchanges but I was wrong.

Do your research. Some institutions have very limited resources, some do not. Consult salary surveys like the AAUP’s and start-up offers from sites like Wiki Ecology. If it is a public institution you can find salaries for current faculty in state databases. There is a culture in academics of not wanting to discuss numbers because it is shallow or crass. It’s not.

Focus on the long-term. A lot was made of the humanities candidate who had an offer pulled from Nazareth University because she tried to negotiate. I know a woman who had an offer pulled because she requested a position for her spouse, another woman who had an offer pulled because she was pregnant and requested to delay her start date to have her baby, and another woman who had an offer pulled because she couldn’t move her family by the start date. They ended up with better jobs at better institutions (the first also negotiated a tenure-track job for her spouse) but it took 2-3 more years on the market. I don’t know if this happens to men too and they just don’t talk about it. Ultimately I think you are better off searching for a job at a place that values you enough to at least try and accommodate your needs but finding that place may take a while.

Identify your priorities. Whether it be teaching assignments, space, salary or equipment there are going to be some things you can not live with or without. At the same time, you are probably not going to get everything you want so don’t feel like a sucker if you take some aspects as-is.

Understand that you are wanted. The administration usually wants to fill your position with a minimum of money, fuss and bother but the department really, really wants you. Your colleagues will be overjoyed to have you share the load and add to the social and intellectual life of the department.

It is very unlikely that other faculty will know any details. Once the department makes their decision and the offer goes out, the administration asks current faculty to bow out. This is meant to benefit the administration because they are the only ones with all the information. Use it to your advantage and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.

Today’s guest post was contributed by Professor in Training, a new assistant professor at a large public research university. 

16 thoughts on “Guest Post: Academic Negotiations

  1. Ugh. I am REALLY afraid of losing an offer if I negotiate, especially at a SLAC. How do you know if the admin will “play ball” or say that your requests are unreasonable, you are wrong for their school afterall, and the offer is off the table? I’m a woman, too.

    • Obviously, this depends on the SLAC. I’m a VAP at a SLAC right now and was able to negotiate for research funds, which weren’t in the original offer. I also secured additional money for moving expenses because of the distance involved. In hindsight, I should’ve asked for a salary bump too, and sorta regret not doing so. Even so, my salary is on par with that of TT friends in other departments who started this fall. So based on my experience, I would say there is *definitely* room for negotiation at a SLAC. I know people negotiated salary, startup, and start date (delayed start due to pregnancy, for example) among this year’s new hires. This may not be true everywhere, but it is definitely true at some places.

      Also, if it helps, I negotiated directly with the Provost, since that’s who made the job offer. The only part I discussed with my department chair was about the courses I would be teaching if I accepted the offer. In talking to one of the current folks in my department (there are several former VAPs now on the TT on this campus, including the person I asked), she advised me to negotiate on anything and everything with the Provost, even for a VAP. She had previously done so successfully, so I took her advice rather than everyone who told me not to (including, but not limited to, my dissertation chair) and asked for the research funds (I ended up with several thousand dollars worth, which is a lot in my social sciences area).

      Good luck!

    • I think you don’t, but the thing to remember is that if your attempts to negotiate are met with shock and horror and they out the offer – *they* are the ones who are violating the norms of hiring and employment, not you. It’s standard to negotiate and most companies (including academic departments) expect you to do so. From all accounts from colleagues, departments and universities pulling offers when you try to negotiate is actually pretty uncommon.

    • Both SLACs I just interviewed at would have expected negotiation. The one that made an offer explicitly wanted to negotiate in writing. We did so. It went swimmingly (as far as I can tell!). I was very impressed by the professionalism demonstrated there. That dean explicitly mentioned (but not by name) the issue at Nazarene – the point was that I shouldn’t expect the moon, but should be prepared to say what I needed to succeed at that institution. At the other, I thought it was clear that while salary might only budge a little, due to strict institutional limitations (that other faculty mentioned), start-up and student support funds might be much more flexible (though reflecting the budget of the institution – make sure you have your expectations in line with the institution). I am a man, one dean was a woman, the other a man. YMMV, of course.

  2. This is excellent advice. I am two years in to my assistant professor position at a private mid-sized research university. My start-up was very generous, but I got push-back on asking for a very moderate increase to my salary. I didn’t push it, and I kick myself periodically for not trying harder.

  3. Great post! Based on the reading that I’d done as a grad student and post-doc I knew that in general women are poor negotiators compared to men and I also didn’t want to be “that girl” and get a raw deal. I found it helpful to make a list of what I needed, what I wanted, and to determine ahead of time if anything would be a deal breaker. I also made a list of all of the equipment, reagents, and consumables that I would need to successfully start my lab and was able to leverage that in order to increase my start-up funds. Another handy trick is to ask for funds in installments. The institution might not be able to give you all of your funding in year one, but could be able to give you half in the first year and half in the second year. You won’t get everything that you ask for, but if you are able to get the institution to move on some of your requests consider that a win. Years later I’m quite happy with what I was able to negotiate for myself and have offered advice to several younger academics when it’s been their turn to negotiate for their positions. It shouldn’t be this great mystery and we should talk about it more openly!

  4. Thank you! Having recently gone through this process, I share some of the same experiences as you and your colleagues. I was told that some things were negotiable (salary) and some weren’t (start up funds). I was told that the department was buying some pieces of equipment that I needed, but it turned out that equipment was never bought. I was told the chair should be a mediator between myself and the dean, but in retrospect I think he was trying to impress the dean with how much money he saved the college. The negotiation process with the chair was awful for me, as I felt he was condescending on several occasions, and as a result I didn’t ask for too much. I think what we need is some public examples of “successful” and “crappy” contracts, even if we make them up. Or a list of “these kinds of things are OK to ask for”, vs. “this is asking for too much.”

  5. Wow. Thank you, thank you for this incredible post. I am curious about how you dealt with the Chair who was shocked and embarrassed for you when you asked for a higher salary. Did she still relay the request to the Dean, or did you find some other way to talk to the Dean? Did you feel your relationship with the chair was harmed by this interaction? I worry that if I encountered a response like hers, I’d run away with my tail between my legs. It would be great to hear more about how you handled it.

  6. Something that I’ve found very helpful in negotiating is to put things in terms of my success in the position, rather than my wants. “If I am going to successfully compete for x grant, then this is necessary”, “if I am going to successfully earn tenure, then y is important”, or “to compete with our rival institution for students, I will need z”. This helped me on a psychological level as it was less about me and it definitely helped the other side see why I was requesting things, keeping them from sounding like prima donna like demands.

  7. I negotiated my first TT offer a few years ago at a top private R1. My perspective is pretty different.

    First, I think I would have been “that girl” had I *not* negotiated. Really, if you’re going to be PI, you have to know what you want and go for it (while being a good citizen, of course!). Senior faculty expect you to have a spine.

    That argument about the offered salary being “fair” is a negotiating trick every employer uses. The way to handle it is to say, “Yes! That makes sense. I care about fairness. Here’s an estimate of what people with this kind of job have been receiving.” Present a spreadsheet with salaries, years, and cost of living adjustments for your area. I pulled numbers from public university records and especially friends in peer institutions (names but not institutions anonymized). Then say something like, “I want to do really productive amazing work here. I know it’s traditional in academia to try to get raises by courting competing offers–but that just wastes everyone’s time. I’d rather spend my time doing awesome work. Based on these numbers, something like [upper range of salaries] seems fair and will allow me to invest all my energy in my lab.”

    Justify everything with “This is what I need to make my lab successful.” Translate every start-up line into papers and grants. They want to cut two lines? Know how it will delay some experiment and compromise preliminary data. Maybe they can offer you use of some machine in compensation. The more you have a well thought-out plan for what you need and why, the harder it will be for them to cut it. (Obviously, you still need to know what a ballpark reasonable amount is.)

    Remember… or hope… that the chair is on your side, and your job is to help the chair make the best case to the dean. I like to think most chairs’ loyalties are with departmental faculty, not the dean. You can always ask them what the dean will think.

    For what it’s worth, I did all this without a competing offer.

  8. The department head had never heard of anyone asking for more salary without a competing offer and had certainly never seen it granted. She made it clear she was shocked by my behavior and embarrassed for me.

    Just to be clear, this is shaming behavior, and it is sexist shaming behavior. We don’t shame men for shocking behavior, or tell them it’s embarrassing, we reward them. That it came from a female chair is disappointing, but not surprising.

    My chair was great. He told me, “Here’s how it goes. I give you an offer. You look at it, think about what you need to be successful, and then you ask me to adjust what you think you need. We go back and forth until we come to an agreement, then I go to the Dean.”

    I negotiated. Without another offer.

  9. Most people I know were successful in their negotiations. I negotiated, and my final contract was almost exactly the same as the initial offer, except I actually lost some startup funds. I asked for a large piece of equipment that would have cost the same amount as the initial offer, in addition to consumables that totaled to close to but less than the initial startup offer. They came back with “We can’t afford the equipment, so you can have the amount you requested for the rest”. In the end, I would have been better off not asking for more. I think this was a weird case, but beware of asking for only large-ticket items that are all or nothing, particularly at small colleges with small startups.

  10. This is such a great post, thank you for sharing your ideas and personal experience on negotiation strategies. It is definitely very intimidating to think about the negotiation process. Being a grad student and a postdoc for 10+ years instills this mindset in you, that you “shouldn’t ask for more. Shame on you if you do. Especially in this poor financial climate.” Posts [like yours] and articles [addressing how to “negotiate the “right” way”: are essential in educating others (not just women) that negotiating is a normal part of the hiring process and that it is up to us to be assertive and not sell ourselves short.

  11. Great post on an important topic. We spent a lot of time discussing this in lab meeting last week and this is a very helpful summary of a lot of advice.

    Something surprising I’ve learned along the way (I’ve negotiated 3 tenure track jobs) is that while the department chair is usually (but not always) on your side, the other faculty members in your new department are almost certainly on your side. Your getting a better salary or start up package not only doesn’t hurt them but may help them in the long run (pushes up departmental average and so improves their negotiating position). Any zero-sum game that may exist to salaries is at the dean/college level or higher. If you connected with a few faculty in your department during your interviews, especially if they’re senior enough to know how things work, probe them gently about what is reasonable to expect. They usually end up telling me the last two or three startup packages given (not initially offered), typical entry level salaries in the department, how much negotiation is really possible (not the initial front put up by the chair or dean), etc. And as already mentioned, if it is a public university you can very easily (e.g. go to the university library and ask a librarian or usually just online searching) find out the salary of everybody in the department so you know what the last two or three salary offers in your department were.

    If you look at the salaries across a department you will quickly realize there is a lot of variability in most departments and that it is not highly correlated with productivity/fairness – presumably it is mostly about negotiations.

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