I was working with a Negotiating Assistance client last week, and about halfway through our work, as I said for the fourth time or so, “you can’t really ask for ALL of that; you’ll have to pick and choose,” he cried out over email, “But why? Why have I no power?”
At first I laughed—I thought it was hyperbole for comic effect, and ironic self-dramatization. But then I realized he was serious. Then I got annoyed—well of course you have no power, why would you think you had power? But then, as days went by, I found myself reflecting on this cri de coeur. Why does he have no power? Does he actually have NO power? What is power, for a successful job candidate negotiating his first job?
I realized that answering this query accurately requires a rather careful parsing of the successful candidate’s real position vis-a-vis the hiring body. And it is to that that I turn today. For those of you hoping for more of a “how-to” on negotiating, please refer to this post, How to Negotiate Your Tenure Track Offer, and this one, Stop Negotiating Like a Girl.
So first of all, let’s remember Marx. You are the labor, not the owners of the means of production. Ipso facto, you really have almost no power. This is fact.
Add to this that your labor market is vastly, obscenely oversaturated. There are hundreds if not thousands of you who would leap at the job. At the entry level position in the academy, you have almost no leverage.
If you are the happy recipient of more than one equivalent offer (and they must be equivalent—ie, both must be tenure track jobs, not postdocs or the like, and both must be at equal status institutions), then you have more leverage.
Now, a tweak of this basic set of facts at the academic hiring level is that once the department has decided on YOU as their top candidate, they’ve invested thousands of dollars in the search already, and have likely voted all other candidates unacceptable. Therefore although there are in theory hundreds or thousands of you to take the slot, in fact, the nature of tenure track hiring means that all the department’s eggs are kind of concentrated in one basket, and the basket is you. So….. a little leverage appears on the horizon!
However, increasingly in recent years, institutions have taken to rescinding offers of candidates who seek to negotiate an improvement in their contract. This is no joke. It’s not yet common, but it’s happens with regularity. I find it more common among very low status regional colleges than among elite R1s and SLACs, but then again, the forum Universities to Fear has accounts of rescinded offers that range the entire spectrum of institutional locations. I just had a NA client see an offer rescinded last month. Thank heavens she had a second offer in hand. Otherwise, tragedy. She was attempting only a very modest and reasonable negotiation.
So the generalized atmosphere of fear mitigates against leverage for you.
So…do you have any power? Well, it’s my opinion that yes, you do. Even without a second offer, you have a little. The department has invested an enormous amount of money and time into finding you, and you can use their desire not to have the search fail to your advantage. You have a LITTLE bit of power, and it is in that LITTLE that the work of negotiating happens. You can ask for x but not y, z but not q. You can ask for a, b, and c, but not a through h inclusive. And so on.
Traumatized former job seekers tend to be so desperate and craven and codependent and eager to please that left to their own devices they barely ask for, say, half of “x.” That is a mistake. All job offers should be negotiated! At the same time, occasionally an offeree suffers from delusions of grandeur and believes that tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars should be provided as tribute to his or her contributions. Far more often offerees simply have no conception of how the budget associated with a line is actually funded–ie, what pots of money are available, and where they reside, and to whom they may be given, and what strings are attached to them that tie the negotiating department head’s hands.
Let me repeat: All job offers should be negotiated, unless you have it on good authority that the institution you are dealing with is a known rescinder.
Negotiations will cover things like salary, moving expenses, teaching release, a guaranteed junior sabbatical, research funds, start up funds, conference funds, and many other things.
How many of these things you can ask for will hinge on the status of the institution. A R1 or Ivy League will accommodate longer lists; elite SLACs will too. But heading downward status-wise, more and more doors will be closed. To evaluate you need a decent sense of the financial status of the institution with which you’re dealing, and then the relative status or rank of your department within that institution.
It will also depend on your field. The fact is, hard science and life science offers are breathtaking—absolutely breathtaking—from a humanities point of view. I help people negotiate and I stand by flabbergasted at what they get. Any lab-based field hire will easily get 10 times what social sciences and humanities hires receive.
If you’re in the humanities, and you’re negotiating at a small college, and you have no other job offer, then you have very little power to negotiate indeed. You can seek to nudge up salary. You can extract some more startup funds, or a bit of conference travel funding. You can ask for a course release in the first year. And maybe 1 or 2 other things. But not a princely sum.
Negotiating is really an art. I have clients give me a rundown not just of their initial offer but of how warm or cold the department felt, how eagerly they feel they’re being recruited, their sense of what recent hires have been given, the overall financial outlook of the institution, and a range of other factors. Then we carefully construct our negotiating requests.
In sum, then, it is a hard lesson that at the end of all those years slaving away in the Ph.D. program and on the job market, and perhaps as an itinerant adjunct, when you finally grab the gold ring of the tenure track position, you still have very little power indeed. But that is the case. However, never confuse little power with no power. You have some, and a successful negotiation will extract every last little bit of benefit from it.