Originally posted in 2011, with a few updates based on helping about a hundred clients negotiate their offers through my Negotiating Assistance services over the past three years. If you have an offer and are interested in getting this help, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today’s post is a Special Request post for Ally and Katy and several other clients and readers who wrote asking for help on negotiating their contract after receiving an offer. I’m happy to oblige, but keep in mind that this particular matter, more than any other, is U.S.-specific. I’ve been told that in the U.K., negotiating is not done and the attempt alone might cost you the job. Other countries, I can’t say. But in the U.S., negotiating is de rigeur [2014 update: except on the rare but increasing occasions where it leads to an offer being rescinded, about which more below]. And women, in particular, are terrible at it, as this recent Chronicle piece points out.
So what follows are my recommendations for how to proceed when (gasp!) you are the recipient of the coveted offer of a job.
Do not, under any circumstances, accept the offer the same day they make it. When they call or email, answer pleasantly and politely, “Oh thank you. That is good news. I’m so pleased.” And then say, “I’d like to know more about the offer. When can we discuss the details, and when can I expect a written contract?” If the Department Head tries to push you for a commitment, simply repeat, “I am very happy for the offer, but I will need to discuss the terms and see the contract before I can make a final commitment. I very much look forward to discussing this further. I hope we can begin soon.”
Now, there are several things you need to know. Once an offer has been made to you, the institution cannot legally offer the job to anyone else for a certain amount of time. While that amount of time may vary by institution, be assured that you have at least one week to contemplate your response, and possibly as much as two or three. During that time you are in the driver’s seat. While unscrupulous or panicky or pushy Department Heads may try to hustle you, do not allow yourself to be hustled. You are now the one in charge. Bask in that.
[2012 Addendum: As noted in comments below, more and more frequently candidates are finding offers being rescinded, either for budgetary reasons, or administrative foul-ups, or most appallingly, sheer institutional malfeasance. Check out the Job Wiki page "Universities to Fear" for more stories of this nature. I am unable to say with any certainty how common this is, and how much it should influence your actions vis-a-vis the offer. My sense is that it is still uncommon enough that you should treat all offers as open to negotiation. The most important thing is to be guided by a trusted senior mentor from the moment the offer is made. In the meantime, I am soliciting a guest post from someone with more direct experience with the rescinded offer. (The guest post is up). ]
[2014 Addendum: I've seen two offers rescinded in three years of helping clients negotiate offers, and heard one other such story from a reader. In all cases the institution abruptly shut out the client when the client simply asked for more information about/initially raised the option of negotiating elements of the offer, with a email that said something like, "thanks for your interest in the position; we will be moving on to another candidate. Good luck with your career." These were all very low-ranking, regional institutions. It is shocking and unconscionable.]
(2014: With the above caveats…) All offers have room for negotiation. You should first see what the formal offer is in terms of salary, summer salary, teaching load, leave time, research support, expectations for tenure, graduate student funding, service expectations (particularly if it is a joint appointment), support for a spousal hire, and other matters. Until you have these in writing you cannot make an informed response.
Once you receive these, decide what you’re going to come back with in negotiation. Because, you ALWAYS come back asking for more. You are entitled. It is expected. Do not miss this one-time-only opportunity to negotiate greater gain for yourself and your family. [Please read comment stream for more elements of an offer that should be up for negotiation].
What you ask for will depend on you and your goals. A single person with no children might decide to prioritize research support —ie, additional leave time and a larger research budget to pay for overseas research. A person supporting a family might forgo additional research funding to prioritize a higher salary. A person seeking a position for their spouse might forgo both research support and salary in order to prioritize a spousal appointment. The point is, in all cases, this is the one AND ONLY time in your early years in the department that you can attempt to turn circumstances in your favor. So do it.
Always proceed courteously and professionally. Respond quickly to emails and calls, and never leave them hanging, even if just to say, “I received your latest email; thank you. I will study it and respond by tomorrow.” Ideally you should have a trusted senior colleague assist you in these negotiations. It is critical that you maintain positive relations with your likely future colleagues. But although they might grumble a bit as the negotiations carry on for a week or two, they will respect you. This is how the game is played.
Now, one aspect to consider is if you have another competing offer or possible offer. If you do, first off, lucky you—you have rocked the system. This is the absolute best position to negotiate from. If you are waiting on an offer from a second school, you may contact that second school and inform them of the offer you received from school one. You will write something to this effect, “Dear Steve, Thank you again for having me out to visit your department at XXX U. I enjoyed the visit immensely. I am writing to let you know that I have received an offer from another institution. My timeline for accepting this offer is approximately one week. I wonder if I could receive a response regarding your search within that time frame. I want to reiterate my interest in your position. I hope to hear from you soon. Sincerely, XXX”
You can be assured that this email will send a jolt of terror through the spine of Steve, if you are his department’s first choice. The greatest fear of departments once an offer is made is that the offerree will reject it and accept an offer elsewhere. The department may have a solid alternate candidate available, but often they do not. Departments often end up voting all but the top candidate as “unacceptable,” so failure to get the top candidate means a failed search, and the risk of losing authorization to hire that year. So all their eggs are in one basket, and that basket is you.
If you are their top candidate, and they just haven’t told you yet because they haven’t had a chance to complete their voting and offer process (offers may have to be vetted by the Dean before they can be made to the candidate), this small, courteous email will send the department into a panic. And a panicked department is what you want. Because a panicked department, sensing that they might lose you to institution one, will be more likely to agree to your demands for salary, leave time, research support, and spousal positions.
Now all departments have financial and logistical limitations. You cannot negotiate above those. If you try, you will quickly alienate them. They will not withdraw the offer, but they will resent you, and those feelings of resentment are dangerous for a soon-to-be junior faculty member. The key to negotiating is to always maintain good faith and honesty, and always have a highly delicate sense for when you are hitting a true wall of “we can’t do that.” Because when you hit that, that’s when you stop.
In terms of salary upper limits, this is particularly serious. Be aware that many public institutions suffer from salary compression problems. That means that associate and full professors’ salaries have not kept pace with the national market, and consequently new assistant professors are offered salaries nearly as high as those of the tenured faculty who have been on campus for years. Salary compression creates terrible feelings of resentment and low morale in departments suffering from it. The Head will be all too well aware of these feelings. When the Head tells you, “we cannot go higher than $68,000 for your starting salary, or we will offend some faculty,” take that as a hard no, because it most likely reflects the Associate level salary scale in the department. This doesn’t mean no additional money is possible—it just needs to be one-time-only, or short-term money instead of a recurring commitment. So, turn your efforts to summer salary for one to three years, one-time research support, a guaranteed graduate research assistant, and other shorter-term forms of compensation that don’t put pressure on an already overburdened salary structure.
In terms of the dreaded spousal issue…this is the hardest negotiation of all. In general, wait until you have a firm offer before you bring up the spouse. Any mention earlier than that could well work against you in the minds of the faculty, consciously or unconsciously. Once the offer is in hand, mention your spouse to the Department Head. Be aware that this is the one and only chance that you will have to negotiate for a spousal hire, so DO NOT WASTE IT! Push as firmly as you can for the actual tenure-track offer, and don’t be put off with the range of one-year, two-year, three- year, instructor, adjunct, and visiting positions that they will try to pawn off on you.
They may say something like “oh we can revisit your husband’s tenure case later, when this contract is up,” but DON’T BELIEVE IT. It is never, ever revisited after you lose the leverage of the initial offer (that is, until you gain the leverage of an external offer, and that’s a pain and time-consuming to manage).
Accept nothing in negotiations, but absolutely nothing in the case of spousal negotiations, that is not in writing. Any “informal” agreements or understandings that you may have with the current Head or Dean are meaningless if not in writing, because Heads and Deans change, and with no written agreement, all arrangements are void.
Make sure that your spouse is debut-ready. His or her cv should be spit-shined, the dissertation finished, and a polished research and teaching statement prepared. Be clear what departments the spouse would be eligible for an appointment in, and the full range of positions for which he/she is qualified.
Be flexible about any offered position that is tenure-track. There are many painful and difficult negotiations that have to take place to line up a spousal hire, and some departments and department heads will play ball more than others. Some Heads are incompetent while others are savvy. To some extent you are at the Head’s mercy.
Be aware of how spousal hires are paid for. Generally, the original department will pay one third of the spousal hire’s salary, the Dean’s office will pay one third, and then the spouse receiving department will pay one third. This obviously has a great deal of appeal for the receiving department as they are getting one full line for 1/3 cost. However, they may resent being forced to accept a faculty member whom they did not go out and recruit on their own, and they may fear that the spouse hire will derail the actual hiring goals they have in place (ie, that the Dean will say, “well you got a full line hire this year, so we won’t approve your other, original search requests”). Thus the interested parties may have to knock on several doors to find a department willing to take this “free gift,” and may well find it impossible, in the end, to accomplish.
The important thing, once again, is to hold firm and politely repeat, “My biggest priority is a position for my spouse,” without any escalation or emotionalism or drama, day after day, to person after person, until you either get the spousal offer, or get a flat-out NO that you read as unmistakable. As long as they are still talking to you about it, don’t waver.
Once you make your decision, call or email both departments immediately, and courteously and professionally express your gratitude for their offers, and accept one with warmth and enthusiasm, and turn down the other with kindness and respect. Remember that the colleagues in the rejected department will continue to play a role in your professional life for many years to come. You will see them at conferences, they might be external reviewers for your journal article or book mss., and who knows, one of them might end up one of your tenure writers one day. So preserve your good relations with these people at all costs. They will not be angry that you rejected their offer. They will just be disappointed. Be very friendly when you next run into them at a conference.