The Professor Is In: How to Negotiate in a Pandemic

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By Karen Kelsky

Negotiations for academic positions are always high-stakes, given the scarcity of tenure-track jobs in many disciplines, and the fact that job offers come at the end of a long and grueling search process. But this year, negotiating a position — should you be lucky enough to get one — may feel especially fraught.

The faculty job sector — already reshaped by academe’s major shift to contingent labor over the last two decades — is having a particularly austere moment thanks to budget cuts, hiring freezes, and legal challenges over remote learning. All of those factors are a fractal part of a much larger maelstrom of anxiety, uncertainty, insecurity, and trauma that Covid-19 has been this year.

Job-negotiations season is upon us a bit earlier than usual because of another stressful component of pandemic life that has sped up the hiring process: the virtual campus interview. A briefer, and less demanding, online-interview process has some advantages. At the same time, what is supposed to be an opportunity for candidates to visit a campus, get a sense of the students, and (on both sides of the process) meet face-to-face with potential colleagues instead has been condensed into a lot of Zoom meetings at a time when everyone is beyond Zoomed out.

The result: Most job offers this spring are coming with a large dose of pig-in-a-poke anxiety. That anxiety then alights on the offer negotiations, making a stage that is hard enough in a “normal year” even more stressful.

As an academic-career adviser and a former tenured professor, I’ve already written about the basics of negotiation and about “Why You Should Negotiate Every Job Offer.” What follows are some observations about negotiating in this year’s stranger-than-usual market as well as some strategies on how to broker everything from your first tenure-track job to a lateral move at the full-professor level.

The good news: Institutions don’t seem to be rescinding many offers. I still advise clients to tread carefully in negotiating. But early last fall, I thought things might be especially precarious this spring, with job offers whisked out of the hands of candidates who tried to negotiate terms rather than play down their value and just accept what they had been handed.

I am pleased to say that has not been the case. Campus hiring battles, it seems, are being fought out at higher levels. So by the time a particular faculty position is approved, it’s not quite as precarious as many of us had expected in this contracting academic economy.

When it comes to salary increases, predictably, public institutions seem to have their hands tied more than private ones do. That’s especially the case compared with previous years. Offers from public institutions, in general, have the advantage of salary transparency: Candidates can (and should) look at public-payroll information to get a sense of what previous hires have received, and that can usually inform your negotiating strategy. This year, salary gains by recently hired candidates are not necessarily carrying over to today’s market. Deans, department chairs, or whoever is doing the negotiations have a salary figure they are authorized to go up to, and that number seems to be set lower this year than before the pandemic.

That also appears to be the case at private colleges with small endowments. For that assessment, with no public data available, I am relying on my own experience and anecdotal information from helping clients negotiate with the same institutions year after year.

Finally, and not surprisingly, wealthy private universities seem to be the least affected by the pandemic’s economic fallout, and the same goes for unionized campuses, since pre-Covid collective-bargaining agreements have not (yet?) been diluted.

Don’t expect to be allowed a protracted time to decide. Institutions seem less flexible than usual about granting candidates more time to make a decision. Many departments are facing new rounds of hiring freezes, and they want to get their recruiting wrapped up now, before the ax falls.

Departments, in general, are never thrilled when candidates ask for an extra week — or, worse, two — because they are waiting for another offer or dealing with a counteroffer. But this year, in particular, I see institutions’ being draconian about it, and frequently operating on hiring timelines that are even shorter than usual — issuing an offer and giving people less than a week to answer.

For established faculty members on the market this year — looking to change institutions or hoping to use an outside offer as leverage for a pay raise — asking their home institution for a counteroffer can reveal its financial precariousness. I had a client for whom it became clear, through the process of seeking a counteroffer, that the faculty member’s program was potentially going to be eliminated in the next several years as a consequence (or an excuse) of Covid-related budget cuts.

In short, seeking a counteroffer can prove useful not just for negotiating concrete gains but for reading the tea leaves of your department’s and your institution’s future stability.

On the table are topics not usually part of the negotiations milieu. For instance: remote teaching. Departments and candidates are understandably anxious about the fall semester given: (a) the decentralized rollout of the vaccines; (b) the nonstandardized policies around testing, mask compliance, and vaccinations among different states; and (c) the fears about the new variants.

You may be considering a move from a campus where remote or hybrid teaching will continue to be acceptable into the next academic year, to a place where everyone is expected to teach fall classes at full capacity in person. I have had clients in just that predicament: For the past year, they have been teaching remotely or in hybrid formats at campuses in more “cautious” states, and they would like to retain that option for the fall, but the jobs they are being offered are in states where higher education has already fully “reopened” for in-person learning. That then becomes a negotiation point — it is a valid concern, but it is hard to navigate. And it’s something that institutions are not budging on, from what I have seen — meaning, if they are planning for in-person classes in the fall, they are unwilling to accommodate a candidate’s request to keep teaching remotely.

Other, less charged, but still logistically relevant topics include house-hunting visits under Covid restrictions and quarantine rules involved in relocation (this is particularly notable in international negotiations).

Also, a new stage has emerged in the hiring process this year: a post-offer, pre-acceptance trip to the area, since for many candidates signing a contract without ever seeing the campus or the region feels like a huge risk. Departments (presumably saving on campus visits) have been finding money to cover expenses for these post-offer visits, so don’t be afraid to ask.

While keeping all of those things in mind, some cardinal rules remain the same, even this year, for those negotiating a job offer:

  • Know your worth. You are allowed to negotiate. In fact, negotiating is generally expected and a collegial enterprise. You are not required to accept the first thing they offer.
  • Know the abilities and limitations of your department and institution. An example may help: A tenure-track position in history might bring a salary of $85,000 and startup funds of $40,000 at a top research university; a salary of $70,000 and startup money of $15,000 at a midrange research university; and a salary of $55,000 and startup funds of $3,000 at a regional teaching college. Meanwhile, a position at those same institutions in finance or engineering, for example, might well double (or more, in the case of startup packages) all of those figures. This is how the academic economy operates. Reading up on negotiating, and talking with knowledgeable advisers, should help get you oriented.
  • Do the math to integrate those data points. It’s always a mistake to demand things that are out of all realistic reach for the institution. But now, more than ever, a pie-in-the-sky request may well result in a rescinded offer.

For positions in which start-up packages are routine, think about what will set you up for success for eventual tenure and/or promotion, and ask for those things. For some reason, I have had numerous clients this year who have felt “greedy,” specifically for start-up money. There is no reason to feel that way. You might not get everything you ask for, but, in principle, start-up money is the university’s investment in you. The very corporate nature of the phrase “start-up costs” implies the hiring officials’ expectation of a return on investment. So tell them what you need to make their investment pay off.

Karen Kelsky, an academic-career adviser, is founder and president of The Professor Is In, which offers advice and consulting services on the academic job search. She is a former tenured professor at two universities. Browse an archive of her previous Chronicle column here.

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