Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

Will My Offer Be Rescinded if I Negotiate?

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Can an A.B.D. with no university teaching experience really negotiate a tenure-­track offer? Especially if I think I’m their second choice?

Ah, my dear, your question reveals so much. It contains volumes of incorrect assumptions, and misunderstandings about the nature of the tenure-­track job offer. As it is offer season, let me lay out the answer to this as clearly as I can.

If you’ve been offered a tenure-­track job, then you should expect to be able to negotiate that offer.

Now let me state at the outset: There are such things as rescinded offers, and the number of rescinded offers appears to be increasing. Nevertheless, the rescinded offer is very rare, and there are often warning signs that you can look out for to avoid that tragic outcome. I will discuss those at the end of this column.

The vast, vast majority of tenure-­track offers are still negotiated. If it is a science offer at an Ivy League or major R1 university, the negotiated increase may amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars over the initial offer. If it is a humanities offer at a tiny teaching college, the negotiated increase may amount to just $500 of additional conference funding in your first year.

Nevertheless, all gains are gains, and should be sought within the limits of the institution and the field.

The type and rank of institution will critically determine the scope of your negotiations. For example, you and your good friend from your elite history Ph.D. program — who work on nearly identical areas — may both be lucky enough to score tenure-­track offers in the same year. However, if your friend’s offer is from an Ivy League university, and yours is from a small public college, then you should expect that your salaries will differ by $20,000, $30,000, or even $40,000. And that is just the beginning. Your startup offers will differ by a factor of 10 — $4,000 for you, $40,000 for your friend. Your friend may teach two courses a year (at least while untenured) while you teach six. And so on. That is how it is in this era of the academic 1 percent.

Now, having established this basic background, I’ll answer your question: Wherever your offer comes from, you can most likely increase it through negotiation, and that does not change whether you are an inexperienced A.B.D., or the department’s second choice. Once you have been the recipient of a tenure-­track job offer, then you are indeed the chosen one, and outside of those wretched miserable places that rescind offers, the job is yours.

My clients and readers often believe that only superstars get to negotiate their offers, but that is not the case. At the level of brand new assistant professor, your personal record does not actually play that large a role in the scope of possible negotiations. Having three refereed journal articles does not mean that you can negotiate a substantially better deal than someone with only one. Your record does not actually constitute significant usable leverage. Once again, the scope of your negotiation is determined institutionally — i.e., by the type, rank, and wealth of the department and institution making the offer.

Wealthy institutions/departments have deep pockets, and poor institutions/departments do not. It is that simple. You cannot negotiate above or beyond the budget of a department, no matter how exceptional (or lacking) you believe your own record to be. (If you do have any leverage in a negotiation at the assistant ­professor level, that leverage comes from a competing tenure-­track offer at a peer institution. When you have two or more offers, then you may indeed use them to push for added perks from each.)

So rest assured: It matters not if you believe you are the second choice of the department. You are now the choice, and can conduct yourself as such. Even if you have little or no university teaching experience, you are now the anointed recipient of the offer, and you may proceed with negotiating it.

You do need to beware the possibility of a rescinded offer — which, as I said, is very rare but does happen. To avoid that, watch out for the following red flags:

  • Check all job offers against the Academic Jobs Wiki’s Universities to Fear forum to see if your department has been listed there as one known for rescinding offers.
  • Is the institution very small, or obscure?
  • Is the teaching load 4­4 or above?
  • If the institution is a small college, does it have an evangelical/right­wing religious affiliation?
  • Did the department inform you that there was no room for negotiation while you were interviewing?
  • Is the department head or dean pushing aggressively for you to accept the offer within 24 hours of it being made?
  • Is the offer a skimpy one, containing nothing but a (shockingly paltry) salary and minimal (inadequate) moving expenses, for example?

If any of those conditions apply, then you may be dealing with a rescindable offer. Those are not inviolable rules of course; I offer them only based on my years of working directly on negotiations with clients. If you find yourself dealing with an offer under any of those conditions, I beg you, please get help in negotiating — from graduate ­career counselors, from experienced mentors, or at least from studying the information available at The Professor Is In blog and book. (Actually, I urge every recipient of a tenure-­track offer to get help negotiating, as negotiating is a confusing and totally untaught skill).

The fact is, it is a buyer’s market, and departments know it. While institutions with adequate budgets still consider negotiating to be a core part of the offer process, those with inadequate budgets (and their number increases every year) know that they can both pressure new hires to accept skimpy offers, and quickly move on to the next willing candidate at the slightest sign of resistance.

I would like to invite readers to share stories of the circumstances of any rescinded offers here. The more information available publicly on this subject, the better.

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to The Professor Is In! Karen welcomes any and all questions related to the job market, preparing for the job market while in graduate school, coping with the adjunct struggle, and assistant professorhood. Send questions to gettenure@gmail.com.

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