Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Negotiation 101

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Bravo, you’ve just managed to score an academic job offer. Now comes the awkward question: Should you try to negotiate for a better salary or lifestyle? Or, with the job market as bleak as it is, is it better to just smile and sign on the dotted line?

In recent weeks, negotiation has been the talk of the online academic community. The surge in commentary can be traced to the popular blog Philosophy Smoker, where a job candidate identified only as “W” detailed how her recent tenure-track job offer from Nazareth College, in Rochester, N.Y., was rescinded when she tried to negotiate the contract terms.

“W,” negotiating by email, asked for an increase in her starting salary; a semester of maternity leave; a pre-tenure sabbatical; no more than three new class preps per year for the first three years; and a start date in the 2015 academic year in order to complete her postdoc.

The response from the university? In short: Thanks, but no thanks.

After reading the story about “W” and her experience, we wondered: how often does this happen? And what should young academics know about negotiation? We asked a handful of our Vitae Voices, all experts on the topic of academic human resources. Here’s what they had to say:

David Evans: Know Your Absolutes

First, you need to know the things you want that are absolute—the ones that, if you don’t get them, you won't take the job. These need to be the priority in any negotiation. I think that one of "W's" errors was providing a basically unranked list of rather unrealistic requests rather than asking for the really key things she'd need to take the job.

I personally have had very good luck as a candidate by just being honest about what I wanted. I knew I was going to take my current job and indicated that to the president. I simply laid out my current salary and some other issues and said I would take the job anyhow, but would be most grateful for some additional considerations, which I got. This is not always a plausible strategy, however, because not everyone negotiates in good faith, and you have to use your judgment and be very careful. Read David's full response »

Gene Fant: Be Reasonable, Be Transparent

Your doctoral-program mentors might try to convince you that you’re weak if you aren't aggressive, or if you don’t treat the hiring institution as if it were a large research institution. Don’t let them. You must be reasonable.

I always recommend that candidates be transparent in their objectives and in their goals. Don't talk your way into a job that you will hate just to have a job. Candidates who won't be happy teaching represent themselves as teachers in order to get jobs all the time. And the reverse happens as well. It is a buyer's market out there right now, but applicants have to realize that every job, and every institution, has a certain reality and that being out of step with that reality helps no one. Read Gene's full response »

Paula Krebs: Find Out What’s Really Negotiable

Ask the dean at your campus interview, or on the offer phone call, which areas are negotiable and which aren’t. I try to lay that out for candidates so they don’t have unrealistic expectations up front. Some schools may allow negotiation on salary but not on moving expenses. Some may have course releases that they can offer but not travel money. Some may be able to give money for software or hardware but not for a course release. Ask what’s negotiable, so you don’t waste your breath. Read Paula's full response »

Allison Vaillancourt: Stop Writing, Start Talking

Begin by expressing gratitude for the opportunity and frame all requests in terms of how much you want to make the offer work.

Stop writing and start talking. It can be difficult to convey appropriate tone in email and the medium does not give us an opportunity to gauge if we are off-track in our requests. Read Allison's full response »

Jonathan Rees: At the Very Least, Negotiate Your Salary

Not negotiating over salary my first year on the tenure track was the biggest mistake that I've ever made in my career. That's because the salary a professor starts at is the floor from which all future salary increases start. Therefore, the (let's say) $1,000 per year that you miss out on by not negotiating is a $1,000 per year that you won't get every single year that you stay with that employer. That can add up to a significant amount of money really, really fast.

Negotiation is expected, certainly over money and probably over other things, too. While your load the first year on the job only lasts a year, your salary is permanent. If you don't at the very least negotiate over that, you're hurting yourself more than you might ever imagine. Read Jonathan's full response »

Rob Jenkins: At a Community College, It’s Take It or Leave It

Let’s get one thing out in the open right away: A faculty job offer at a community college is pretty much a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Yet perhaps there is a faint glimmer of hope in that qualifying phrase—"pretty much."

Say you go through the interview process for a full-time faculty position at a community college and you’re offered the job. (Congratulations!) Your starting salary will almost certainly be dictated by a system-mandated or union-negotiated scale. Once the administration has determined where you fall on that scale, based on your education and years of experience, they have very little leeway to offer you more money, even if you threaten to walk.” Read Rob's full response »

Noliwe Rooks: Women, Don’t Demur

It's always hard to negotiate when you might actually be relieved and happy just to get an offer. Women in particular have a difficult time asking for more: We tend to want people to just sort of notice how fabulous we are and pay us what they think we are worth. Read Noliwe's full response »

David Leonard: Don’t Play the Game

It's time to change the culture of the university. That doesn't start with prospective faculty; it starts with those with power.

Rather than see the negotiation as a game, with winners and losers, chairs should view it as an opportunity to create optimal conditions for a faculty member to succeed. It is an opportunity to figure out what is needed for a prospective faculty member to succeed in the classroom, on campus, and with respect to her research agenda. We need to change a culture of entitlement that presumes perspective faculty, graduate students, and adjuncts should just be happy they have a seat a table. Read David's full response »

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  • Great collection of thoughts. Negotiating is tricky, and especially because some of the most important negotiating comes at the beginning of one's career, when there isn't much personal experience to draw on. There are also gender issues in this context that the commentators didn't address. Men and women do have different negotiation urges, but those can be leveled at least somewhat. A little research on that topic pops up here:

    Curt Rice
    Curt Rice
  • An important thing to find out before starting negotiations are what are the non-negotiables. That varies with different institutions, and even between searches within an institution. Looking at the list of demands made by "W", I'd have rescinded the offer as well, entirely for the last one in the list. If a university or college is looking to hire someone to fill a position this year, and after making someone an offer, that person reveals they actually won't have their degree for another full year, at least (we all know how indefinite dissertation time lines can be), it indicates that person jumped the gun applying for jobs too soon. There might be more flexibility in a research position with a release from teaching to negotiate a one- or two-month delay in start date when there is no classroom full of students awaiting your arrival, but a year or even six months is a long time, and if the position is teaching-intensive, the candidate needs to be standing in that classroom for the first day of the term. If your negotiation points out that you are lacking a qualification you were expected to have by the job start date, it is quite reasonable for the offer to be rescinded. Negotiations for a better offer need to reflect your strengths, not weaknesses.

    Heather Billings
    Heather Billings
  • Nice article

    Rungun Nathan
    Rungun Nathan
  • I think W's first mistake was to do all this by email--email is impersonal and tone is hard to control. It reads like a lengthy series of demands. In conversation, she might have been able to contextualize and prioritize this list and gotten a better response. Second, she just is asking for way too much: it reads like a dream list for a new academe and unless she was applying to a place below her chops (i.e., unless she could give Princeton or Harvard a run for the money), her list is absurdly optimistic. The administrators probably had to restrain themselves from replying: "and would you like a Jacuzzi in your office, too?" And it's true that many community colleges--which tend to pay better than four year schools anyway--have a rigid system in place that doesn't permit negotiations. That said, I successfully negotiated for a raise from one institution before being hired and believe that, as professionals, we are entitled to the same courtesy afforded all other professionals (doctors, lawyers, business managers), which is that while our requested figure may not be met, the fact that we asked should not in and of itself be seen as a black mark on our fitness or enthusiasm for the job. Most institutions don't have the surplus cash to always offer their top dollar for a position, so negotiating makes sense. One last comment to Heather: she said it was a post-doc she wanted to finish; hence, her degree was in hand. She didn't misrepresent herself on that score, though if they had advertised an earlier start date and she didn't bring up the issue during her final interview, that's probably a mark against her too.

    David Charbonneau
    David Charbonneau