Negotiating Your Tenure-Track Offer(s)

(Wednesday Post Category:  Getting Your Tenure-Track Job)


[Today’s post is an excerpt from “Taming The Academic Job Market: The Professor’s Guide.”  The Guide is on sale in The Prof Shop.


Congratulations! You did it! You got the tenure track job offer!

Take a moment and just bask in the glory.

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.” {addendum:  this post is based on U.S. academic practices. I have been informed that in the U.K. you must accept the job instantly or lose it.  If others have an international perspective to add, please, by all means, add it to the comments to the post. Thank you. KK}

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 inexperienced 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.

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. 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, “Dear Margaret, 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. 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 will also write to school number one and say, “Dear Margaret, I want to let you know that I am a finalist for a position at another institution.  I will shortly learn the results of their decision and I will let you know as soon as I do.”

Do not name the competing institutions in either of these initial emails, unless the name value is so patently exceptional that you feel it will add incalculable allure to your status.  If a bidding war ensues, then at that time the names of the institutions may be revealed.

You can be assured that this email will send a jolt of terror through the spine of both Steve and Margaret.  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 another institution, will be more likely to agree to your requests for salary, leave time, research support, and spousal positions.

You are absolutely entitled to play the two offers against each other. If school one is offering a higher salary, then go to school two and see if they will match the salary. If school two is offering a lighter teaching load, go to school one and see if that can be matched for a year or two (usually teaching load is more on the non-negotiable end of things, but temporary accomodations, say for year three, or the semester before tenure, etc., can sometimes be made in writing at the time of hire). The ideal situation for any tenure track job candidate is to be the object of a bidding war between two well-funded institutions. In the end, the choice you make will depend, as mentioned above, upon your own personal priorities. Things to ask about and consider negotiating for include:

  • higher salary
  • summer salary
  • research support
  • graduate student funding
  • guaranteed scheduled research leave
  • potential for early tenure
  • conference and travel support
  • spousal hire
  • lab support

Things that are non-negotiable but definitely worth asking about include:

  • service expectations, especially in joint appointments
  • level of health benefits
  • retirement contribution
  • overall retirement plan
  • on-campus day care
  • questions of maternity/paternity leave
  • housing/mortgage subsidies (in inflated real estate markets)
  • raise schedule

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.

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 $58,000 for your starting salary, or we will offend some faculty,” take that as a hard no, and turn your efforts elsewhere—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 strained salary structure.

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 external reviewers for tenure 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.

You, meanwhile, have tamed the beast. You have secured for yourself a job WITH benefits and WITH a retirement plan! You get to teach and pontificate and attend faculty meetings to your heart’s content. You are now on the tenure track, and can now start obsessing about tenure! Rest assured, there will be a Professor’s Guide about that too.

[This post is also a Special Request Post for Tiffany and Roger, who ask how to deal with more than one tenure track offer.  Here you go, you two!  I hope you have this problem!]

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Negotiating Your Tenure-Track Offer(s) — 10 Comments

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  4. Hi Karen, I love this blog and wish I had known about earlier. Anyway, I am about to negotiate a VAP position and want to make sure I have the negotiating sequence right: the first conversation is to find out *about* the terms (ask questions, but don’t negotiate), after they’re explained, then I ask for them in writing (I assume they will be emailed) and ask how much time I have to review them, then I respond and ask for something more (and here’s my big question: should my response be over email and could you give me an example of phrasing for say conference money), then they respond either yes or no to whatever I’ve asked for, and then a hard copy of the contract is mailed and I sign it. Let me know if I’ve got it right. Thanks so much!

    • Hi VAP. Negotiating is one of the most subtle things you’ll do in an academic career, and teh variables are immense. I would say first that VAPs don’t traditionally provide much scope for negotiating–that really happens at the TT stage. That doesn’t mean you can’t try, but you’re going to be limited to a couple thousand $$ at most in salary increase, and a small fund (no more than a copuple thousand most likely) for conference travel and the like.

      Yes you neg. by email. Yes you always wait to get the formal offer before raising any issues of your own.

      The rest is as you describe.

      I would also mention that I do Negotiating Assistance for $200. That probably seems like a lot, but all my NA clients have increased their offers by many thousands in salary, res. funding, moving, and so on. No hard sell here! Just something you might want to consider.

  5. Thank you for all the wonderful advise. Although it is stressed that one can negotiate the salary, what if you applied to a TT position that announced the salary in the job description. Is it still correct to ask for more money?

    Thank you once again,

  6. Dear Karen,

    Thanks for this great advice. What happens if you receive an offer and have a scheduled campus visit coming up in a week but haven’t visited yet? Is there any way you could postpone until after your visit to make your decision?

    • Tell the campus visit place that you have an offer, and what your deadline is. Meanwhile, request of offering school that they extend the deadline by long enough that school #2 can conceivably manage an offer.

  7. Dear Karen, Is it acceptable to reject an academic job offer after one has accepted it verbally (unofficially) with the head, and unofficially, all salary and perks have been negotiated and finalized?
    Thanks much

  8. I have been picked up as an adjunct at a smaller university and there is talk of a ‘9 month’ contract by next fall. I was also told they are looking for a focus on teaching and scholarship. I LOVE the teaching but the scholarship frightens and intimidates me. I’d much rather teach and have a light scholarship load. Can I negotiate what scholarship entails?

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