Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: Why You Should Negotiate Every Job Offer

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Question: I just got my first tenure-track offer, which is great. But my adviser tells me I can’t negotiate the terms because I only have the one offer, and I don’t have any leverage. I want to be fairly compensated, especially as a woman in a historically male-dominated field, but how would I even know what fair compensation is? To complicate matters, I’ve always heard that new faculty hires negotiate with the dean, but my would-be department chair told me that he would handle all aspects of the appointment. Is that unusual?

I intend to take the job either way. But my new institution is one of those sort of strapped-for-cash places, so I am afraid of coming across as either entitled or clueless, and alienating my future colleagues. Maybe I shouldn’t bother trying to negotiate?

Well that is terrible advice. It’s a common misconception, but no less terrible for that. You should always — always! — expect to negotiate a job offer.

Of course when you have leverage of some kind — like a second offer or a counteroffer — negotiations are an assumed part of the process. But even if you have no leverage, you can and should make a case for getting more (within reason) than the original offer includes. Everyone in the academic world and in most every other labor sector — except apparently your adviser — expects you to do that.

Naturally some early-career academics worry that an offer will be rescinded if they try to negotiate. And don’t get me wrong: That has happened. But it’s rare, and usually because the candidate made unrealistic or aggressive demands. (To learn more about rescinded offers, read my previous column and blog post on the topic.)

There’s one other reason candidates don’t negotiate. Some deans take a philosopher-king approach to recruiting and believe in tendering right away the maximum they can afford to offer a job candidate. They say things like, "I don’t believe in negotiations." But such deans are an outlier in hiring rather than the norm. If that is what you are dealing with, you will know soon enough. But that doesn’t sound like the case here.

As a relatively new Ph.D., you’re not alone in finding it very difficult to negotiate your first tenure-track job offer. Aside from the lack of leverage, part of the problem is you are negotiating in an echo chamber and don’t have a reference point of what you could expect to get. So there are emotional and pragmatic issues to untangle here.

The emotional challenges. Here the primary issue is that a tenure-track offer, oddly enough, often seems to magnify a job candidate’s feelings of "imposter syndrome," especially among women. The reasons why would occupy another entire column, but for now, please do read a recent blog post I wrote called "Negotiating as Therapy," which confronts these emotional barriers head on.

Fundamentally, here’s what you need to remember: Asking for a competitive salary and for the research funding, course-release time, moving expenses, or essential equipment that you need to do your job well does not make you "greedy" in any way, shape, or form.

The pragmatic issues. The key challenge here is figuring out what you can reasonably request. What is the maximum you can ask for — while remaining appropriate to the norms both of your field and of the rank, type, size, and budget of your future department and institution?

Inexperienced negotiators are often aware of the risks of making an ask that is too large and too far beyond the means of the department. But there is an equally serious risk of making an ask that is too small — i.e., asking for your starting salary to be raised by $1,000, when the field and the institution willingly would have accommodated a raise of $10,000.

You don’t mention the type or tier of institution — just that it is "sort of strapped-for-cash." From that, I infer your new campus is probably a state college or university. If so, its faculty salaries are most likely public information. You can look up the salary of any state employee — a category all faculty members fall into at a public institution.

Even if your offer is from a private college, find out faculty salaries in your field at the college’s nearby peer institutions in the state system. At least that will give you a starting reference point. (To figure out your potential employer’s peer institutions, look at places with comparable endowments, admissions criteria, and enrollment in the same region, since cost of living (as determined by location) is a salient factor. You can also consult this data visualization, published a few years ago by The Chronicle, to help you understand how institutions determine their peers.)

Private institutions don’t make faculty salaries available through transparent portals. You can consult The Chronicle’s database of faculty salaries at private four-year campuses, by state and institution. The math there is inexact, however, because the averages aggregate salary data by rank, without distinguishing between high-paying fields (STEM and business) and low-paying ones (English and education). But again, it’s a starting point.

An important caveat: I am NOT advising you to explicitly mention in the negotiations any of the salary statistics you’ve gathered. In fact, don’t. The point of collecting the data is to help you find out what a reasonable salary is in the college’s region and among its peers, so that you know whether your offer is the ballpark and how much (if anything) to ask for in negotiations. You justify your request for a higher starting salary or more research dollars in other ways — i.e., your existing achievements or your promise as a scholar and teacher.

The institution’s negotiators. This is handled differently at different institutions. Many academics do think of a dean as the dragon sitting on a pot of gold, but deans are not the end all, be all of the hiring process. First, the parameters of the dean’s discretion in a hiring negotiation are set by the provost. Second, depending on the administrative hierarchy, these negotiations are usually done on the dean’s behalf via a proxy — like a department chair.

So it’s not that unusual for your future department chair to handle the job negotiations. Go into the talks under the assumption that the chair signed off on your hire, and wants you to succeed. So long as (a) your asks are appropriate (both to your stature and to the circumstances of the institution), and (b) your negotiating style does not reveal a toxic personality, the chair will try to do what he (in this case) can to secure the resources from the dean. Because ultimately, securing more money for you means more resources for the department. A higher salary, in addition to being a boon for you, can set a precedent in the chair-dean relationship for other hires in the department. A bigger start-up fund for you means their new colleague is better positioned to present, publish, and earn tenure, which means the department gets to keep the position for a good long while.

The only thing that might be trickier with a chair than with a dean is asking for a reduction in your teaching load. Chairs bear the brunt of scheduling course coverage in the department so your asking to teach less presents an immediate headache for them. But overall the chair’s interests are likely to be aligned with your own, as long as you are not, to use your own words, entitled or clueless.

The very fact that you’re asking these questions suggests you are neither entitled nor clueless. In fact, your problem is likely to be the opposite — you won’t ask for enough. Statistically, women are less likely to negotiate than men, especially when the job advertisement does not explicitly state that the salary is negotiable (although studies show that when women negotiate on behalf of someone else, they are as successful as men in the outcome). So read up on negotiation. Once you get past the fact-finding, the real challenges are those of self-worth and self-confidence. Good luck!

Karen Kelsky is founder and president of The Professor Is In , which offers advice and consulting services on the academic job search and on all aspects of the academic and postacademic career. She is a former tenured professor at two universities. Browse an archive of Kelsky’s previous advice columns here 

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