More on Negotiating–Thoughts from an R1 Department Head

Discussion of negotiating the tenure track offer continues apace.  Last week I was included in an email exchange between Rebecca Schuman and Mike Tarr, Department Head of the Psychology department at Carnegie Mellon University.  Mike got in touch with Rebecca to comment on the now infamous failed negotiation and rescinded offer that that Schuman discusses here (and that I discuss here, and commenters at Chronicle Vitae weigh in on here.)  I asked if I could share his thoughts on my blog, and he kindly agreed to have these posted and attributed to him.  As he says, “I am happy to have them attributed. If someone is going to say something, they should be able to say it on record!”

Mike’s perspective is valuable because it represents the side of administration–they’re not out to get you, but at the same time, they have various constraints, financial and otherwise, and they may be balancing a faction of the department that wasn’t necessarily your biggest fan base.  You, the candidate, just don’t have all the information.  So err on the side of caution. If you attended my free Negotiating webinar two weeks ago, you might recall that I gave a brief summary of how I approach the pace and tone of the negotiation process, and added, “and this is a relatively conservative approach.”  I take a conservative approach because I am always trying to help my clients balance BOTH the aim to get as much as they can with the goal of retaining warm, collegial feelings with the department.  Mike’s comments show why a department head who may really like and support you may still not be able to give you everything you want.

A last note–As you’ll see, Mike advocates working by phone.  Many people do.  I don’t, for the reasons that I articulate here in my Vitae post on negotiating.  I’ve learned that the people who recommend the phone feel as strongly about their position as I do about mine. We’ll have to agree to disagree. I do not feel the phone is a safe or effective option for an inexperienced candidate who has no idea what the normal scope of tenure track negotiations can or should entail, and who should instead make sure she has the opportunity to run everything by trusted advisors before responding.

Anyway, aside from that quibble, Mike’s advice has that ring of hard truth that comes from decades laboring in the academic trenches. I am happy to share it.


As an admin at a research university and having 20+ years of experience, I would felt I would make a few comments – one intended for any faculty in the process of looking for jobs/negotiating.

1. Withdrawing an offer is pretty shocking and poor form. In the same spirit that one might ask for things, not expecting to get them, the appropriate response from the administration would seem to be “Sorry, we can’t do any of that, but think we made a fair offer and remain enthusiastic about your joining our faculty.” One should be able to “lean in” without getting shoved over. At the same time, I would put maternity leave request in a different class than the other asks. Unless the pre-tenure sabbatical is an official policy it falls in the same “discretionary” category as the other asks, but maternity leave doesn’t. A candidate should always be able to ask about maternity leave without it having any impact on their hiring/promotion decisions. Indeed, any response to the contrary seems actionable.

2. As for whether “leaning in” is always the best negotiating tactic, I would like to caution candidates. Not that they shouldn’t try to maximize their offer(s). But practically speaking they need to know their audience. Email is very poor medium for communicating the nuances of one’s requests and the subtle responses of the administrator. Imagine had this candidate done this by phone. She might have said, “I am very enthusiastic, but I wanted to see if you had any flexibility on a few issues.” She should have ranked her issues by her personal priority and then started with the number one item. She could have said, “of most concern to me is x, is there any way we could do y?” Then she can gauge the administrator’s response. If they respond in the form “We don’t do that, we are a teaching college, I think the offer is fair,” she can back off and realize that this isn’t going anywhere and make her decision based on what is on the table. Or bring up something relatively painless, like number of course preps. But she can at least read the winds.

This might not be fair to the candidate but the fact is that there is an asymmetry of power (unless the candidate is highly sought after). In cases of such asymmetries, one needs to tread carefully – not because it is fair or just or right, but because you want something and you need to maximize your chances of getting what you want. For better or for worse, being savvy on these issues is part of success in academia.

The best administrators should understand this and be working with the candidate, but this is, sadly, often not the case. I would also add that there is no question that it is often the case that female candidates are disadvantaged relative to male candidates. It is another sad fact of both academia and society. But that makes it even more the case that a female candidate needs to gauge her administrative “audience”. Again, not fair, but a fact if one is to maximize their offer.

3. I would also add that candidates should realize that administrators are often trying to do the best for the candidate. Candidates sometimes think of universities as large, wealthy entities – which they are at some macro level – but candidates don’t always understand that at the local level there are a wide variety of real constraints. Space in a department may be at a premium. The amount budgeted for the position may be locked down by the dean. There may be rules that apply across the faculty regarding leaves, number of courses taught, etc. There may be internal salary equity issues. I think it is good rule of thumb to assume the administrator one is dealing with is trying their best. They may not be, but starting assuming an adversarial stance is never good.

Anyway, food for thought.



I would add one more thing. Although candidates may think that a department is very enthusiastic about offering them a job, that isn’t always the case. Many times departments are split or unanimously ambiguous. So sometimes perceived negatives in the next phase may be a tipping point towards a department or administrator changing their mind. So:

1. Be happy you got the job offer.

2. Don’t assume they really really want you.

3. Behave in ways that will make them want you more.

Finally, I would also raise the issue that more and more candidates use suboptimal jobs – from their perspective – as jumping off points (or the minor leagues if you will) for a more attractive job. While that is all well and fine it does ignore the financial and resource commitment made by the institution. So administrators may be leery about offering a candidate a job if they believe the candidate really has their sights set on something bigger and better in a year or two. Universities and departments have limited resources, so if a person leaves a position after a year or two there are real costs. The faculty line may disappear, the startup funds are spent, etc.

I actually think that it might not be so bad and lead to better initial offers if universities could hire as do sports teams – a locked in 5-7 year contract whereby the candidate cannot leave their position for another academic position unless they are released from their contract. Although this would disadvantage some people, it really might increase the quality of offers, plus it would make candidates give pause about committing to a position that they really don’t intend to stay in for the long haul.

Best, Mike Tarr

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More on Negotiating–Thoughts from an R1 Department Head — 5 Comments

  1. Pingback: Indentured Servitude for Academics | Clarissa's Blog

  2. In response to TPII’s concerns about negotiating via phone.

    A. No one is forcing those poor, anxious co-dependent young females to pick up the phone immediately after they receive their offer. As with email negotiations: you go away, talk to your mentors, research the salary norms for your subfield/chosen class of institution. Then you sit down at the phone with a print-out of the official offer, your list of requests arranged in an order of priority and a note to remind yourself why you want those particular things. THEN you pick up the phone.

    B. No one is forcing those poor, anxious, co-dependent young females to STAY on the phone until the reach a final agreement with the university. It is perfectly okay to say: “I really appreciate talking to you about this. I would like some time to think about what we’ve discussed. Let me call you back tomorrow morning.” Then hang up. Call back once you’ve repeated Step A (Calling time out is one of the most powerful negotiating tools at your disposal).

    C. From a completely selfish standpoint, I think that as a new candidate I would rather risk the phone call than rely solely on email. Simply because if I accidentally make some laughable request that the university representative steers me away from, I don’t want a paper trail record of that stupid request that could be used against me in some of the political scenarios outlined already.

  3. Thank you for a great post. I just recently received an assistant professor offer and done with the negotiation part. The department head told me that he is writing the offer letter. How long does it usually take for an official offer letter be sent to me with all the signatures in it? Thankd

  4. Hi: As a former full prof with 12 years experience, multiple large grants, publications, and awards at university #1 who applied for a position at university #2 and received a job offer, I can tell you that the negotiations for me, were non-existent. The position was advertised as an assistant professor position, but throughout the interview process I was encouraged by both deans and others that going in as associate was fully acceptable. So when I received the offer letter in the mail with assistant prof as the rank, I of course countered back with associate as the desirable rank with commensurate salary. I also asked for a small amount of increased funds for relocation expenses. None of my requests were granted. None were even met in the middle. They said take it or leave it. I left it.

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