Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

Disappointed With the Offer?

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I scored a tenure-track job from a well-known 2nd tier university system on the West coast. I know I’m supposed to be thrilled, and I am. But … I’m also disappointed with the offer. The salary is so low I don’t know how my family is going to live on it, and the amount the department offered me for moving expenses won’t come close to covering what it will cost to move there. Please understand, I wasn’t expecting anything lavish. It’s a teaching-focused institution, so I knew there wouldn’t be a lot of research funding or conference money. But I honestly don’t know how to manage on the salary they’re offering. What can I do?

Congratulations on your offer. And I’m sorry. You’re confronting a hard reality. Outside the ranks of elite institutions, academic job-offer packages are not keeping pace with cost of living.

As part of my consulting work at The Professor Is In, I advise candidates on how to negotiate with academic departments. So far in this year’s job cycle I’ve helped about 50 clients in a wide range of fields to negotiate offers at every type of institution, from the Ivies to tiny rural teaching colleges. That gives me a rather unique perspective on the state of tenure-track hiring across the land. I work primarily with clients in the humanities and social sciences, but I do enough science offers as well to maintain a general sense of how things are faring on that side as well.

Here’s what I have observed: Tenure-track academics are part of the vanishing middle class. The offers I negotiate are increasingly falling into two camps: abundant and skimpy. There are fewer and fewer in between. It’s true that no academic job offer will catapult its recipient into the 1-percent crowd. But within the scope of, say, humanities hiring, there has absolutely emerged a bifurcation between academe’s version of the 1-percent and the rest of the professoriate.

Who is in academe’s 1 percent? Quite simply, people who score tenure-track offers at the Ivy League, at elite liberal-arts colleges, and at the very top-ranked R1 institutions like MIT, Berkeley, Michigan, Duke, and so on. Offers from that very top tier of institutions carry generous salaries, breathtakingly abundant startup funding, child-care support, guaranteed maternity leave, and dedicated library acquisition funds. And of course those candidates receive all the rest of the perks of an academic job: lavish conference travel funding, miniscule teaching loads, teaching-release time, pre-tenure sabbaticals at full salary, complete moving expenses, paid visits to find housing, and summer stipends or bonus salaries. In addition, these offers typically include mortgage support--straight up bonus funds to go toward the down payment on a house, or interest-free loans, or a combination of both. (Granted, such payments create complications should you leave the job. The university may well end up owning your house!)

Those are the elite offers. And then there are the rest.

Let me hasten to add that, while this bifurcation is growing, there are still some “middle class” offers at middle-tier institutions (a category that includes a lot of the prominent R1 public universities) that provide a reasonable salary and some amount of basic startup/research support, teaching release time, conference travel funding, and perhaps a paid visit to look at real estate. Any given negotiation is very much specific to the institution in question and to the job. If you have an offer in hand, I encourage you to negotiate carefully and thoroughly, as you may very well be able to improve on its terms.

But there are increasing numbers of offers that, even after some negotiation, do not provide sufficient salary for a family to live on, or for an individual to pay off six-figure student debt. They do not cover even a fraction of a family’s moving costs and provide no support at all for the crushing costs of rental (let alone purchase) of a home in an obscenely expensive location. Indeed, some offers have no scope for negotiation at all. When you try, the department will simply say “no.” That happened to two of my clients last week.

The gulf between faculty at the elite programs and “all the rest” is now so vast that it’s very difficult to imagine any commonality of interest or political commitment emerging between the two. Faculty increasingly inhabit completely different worlds.

Just this week the San Jose Mercury News published an article about professors in the California State University system being pushed out of the middle class: “After adjusting for inflation, the average faculty pay on each of the 23 campuses slid between 2004 and 2013, according to the report. At San Jose State, it dropped $11,570; for CSU East Bay professors, it fell by $12,500. By comparison, inflation-adjusted salaries for University of California professors grew over that 10-year period, on every campus -- at UC Berkeley, by $4,611, and at UCLA, by $8,402, the report found.”

I’ve been hearing the same thing for quite awhile. In April of 2013, a guest poster on my blog described her life as a tenured faculty member:

“Be prepared for ‘middle class’ to cost more money than you make, and to accept that on a professor’s salary, you are unlikely to be able to afford to buy a home in a decent neighborhood until you have received at least the first promotion. … Be prepared also to use a substantial chunk of your salary (in the realm of thousands of dollars per year) toward work-related expenses, including parking fees, union dues, building your library, attending conferences, paying professional association dues, equipment, and augmenting research funds while you wait for a large grant to come in. Your university is likely to have some funds toward some of these things, but given budget cuts, will be unlikely to cover enough expenses to allow you to be free from having to substantially augment.”

I have used your question as a soapbox of sorts, and I hope you don’t mind. But there isn’t much I can say to help. Make sure you try to negotiate. Get expert help in those negotiations, as attempting to broker a deal with a resource-poor college carries the risk that it might rescind the offer.

With or without negotiations, your offer may well not provide anywhere near the compensation you need to support a family, pay off your loans, or build toward retirement, let alone conduct the research that is no longer subsidized by the state. I am sorry. I sympathize. It should be different.

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