How (Not) to Negotiate a Tenure Track Salary

It’s offer season, and negotiations are underway. I have written a lot about negotiating tenure track offers; here are some links:

Part VII of my book, on Negotiating

OK, Let’s Talk About Negotiating Salary

Will My Offer Be Rescinded If I Negotiate?

Today I want to write about a common mistake that people make when asking for more salary, which is of course the major element of any job negotiation. Many inexperienced candidates will propose verbiage (for an email or a phone conversation) like this:

“I would like to ask for a salary of $XXX because of the high cost of living in XXX/because I will be supporting a family of four/because real estate is very expensive in XXX”

These are not usable rationales for seeking a raise.  The reason is, that everyone at the new institution is dealing with the same high cost of living, and the same price of real estate, and the same struggle to support their families.  You are not special because you are confronting these challenges.  And claiming that you are makes you look entitled and prima-donna-ish.

As I’ve said before, in the column Disappointed in the Offer?, academic salaries have not kept pace with the cost of living. Even fancy Stanford salaries, for example, at the assistant professor level are not necessarily equal to the challenges of maintaining a middle class standard of living in Palo Alto.  And this is all the more so for University of California or Cal State salaries in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, or CUNY salaries in NYC, and so on. This is a national problem, and no academic, with the exception of a few superstars, is exempt. So making a case that you need more money because you can’t afford the rents only makes you look self-involved, and as I said, entitled.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t ask for more salary. But your case for more salary hinges on your own record and achievements, not on the struggles that everyone faces. So you can construct verbiage like, “I’d like to ask for a salary of $XXX reflecting my background in XX and my experience in YY.”  These are actually distinguishing characteristics, which may (with no guarantees) legitimate a higher salary within the realm of what is possible within the salary scales (and possible salary compression scenarios) of the department and campus.

Believe me, I am sympathetic to the struggle to support a family in an obscenely expensive city on an academic salary.  I’m not saying it’s not hard. I’m just saying that asking for “special privileges” based on that challenge will inadvertently send a poor message of collegiality.

These are the kinds of totally unconscious errors of tone that negotiators often make. This is why I am so adamant that negotiators get help from experienced mentors. If you have advisors to help you, please use them. If you don’t, please consider working with me. Here is the information on that for your reference. When clients work with me but get NO gains of any kind from our efforts, I refund half of the payment.

Best of luck!

Negotiating Assistance is $500/first 7 days ($600 for tenured positions), and 7 days are virtually always sufficient (it goes down to $400 [$500], and then $300 [$400] for subsequent weeks in the extremely rare event that this is necessary).  The 7 days of work don’t have to be sequential. We can start immediately, and I make myself available by email and gchat (no phone calls) for the quick turnaround of responses required by most negotiations.  While I technically don’t work on weekends, for NA clients only I check in to keep up with and respond to urgent updates. I assist you in evaluating the offer, clarifying your requests, crafting email and verbal communications, interpreting responses, and knowing how hard to push and when to stop. Most clients increase their offer by thousands of dollars in salary, research support, travel support, moving expenses, etc.  (An R1 Humanities tenure track offer can usually gain $15-30,000 over the initial offer; at a small regional SLAC it may be closer to $2-10,000. An R1 Science offer can sometimes gain $30-60,000 over the initial offer).  If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll invoice you today.  I also have all NA clients sign a contract acknowledging the nature of the work, which i will attach to this email for your reference.

Fine print: You must return the signed contract to proceed with the work. After payment you’ll get a set of instructions on how to provide the offer details; please don’t submit any info until you get that and can follow those instruction.   If your negotiation requires fewer than 7 days I don’t refund payment or apply it as credit to other work.  In the event that your institution refuses to negotiate and you achieve no gains, I will refund 50% of the payment ($250).

For a client perspective, I will share a few recent testimonials:

Assistant professor R1 Social Sciences: I increased my offer by $12,000 conservatively. Another major benefit was that I was confident I wasn’t asking for anything crazy, and I wasn’t missing anything obvious. Since this was my first go-around with a U.S. job offer I would have been much more uncertain about it, particularly in my situation where my advisor was unavailable due to a medical condition. Particularly when I had done the interviews and was waiting for an offer, which is a tense time, the fact that I had this service helped make that easier.”

Associate professor with tenure, R1, Humanities:   “As a mid-career academic in the humanities, I knew exactly how important it would be to negotiate good terms for my new position. Karen provided me with: concrete examples of things I could negotiate for; a sounding board for my requests; assistance in clarifying and rewriting my negotiation emails; and overall, tremendous peace of mind in what would otherwise have been an extremely stressful process. I successfully negotiated increases in my salary, start up package, and travel support, totalling 11K. I highly recommend her negotiation assistance services, no matter what career stage you’re in.”

Assistant professor, SLAC, Social Sciences:  “When I got the job offer, I was so terrified to negotiate, specifically for the delayed start date.  I felt a bit lost, and then I went to a yoga class and on the wall was a quotation from Cheryl Strayed which said, ‘The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it.’  It was at that time, I knew I should contact you and just get one-to-one help with the negotiation so that I could advocate the best I could for myself without worrying about taking up someone’s time or unsettling a relationship, but also not sabotage myself.  I am glad I reached out, because I think I may not have represented myself as well otherwise.  Thanks for your time, Karen.  I look forward to FINALLY becoming an adult after so many years of training….to earning a good salary, to having a retirement plan, to moving to a place where I could really build a home and a life without a foreseeable expiration date.  Thanks for being one of the people who helped me get to this point.”

Assistant professor, Regional Teaching College, Music: “This morning I officially accepted a tenure track job offer from a regional institution in the southeast. Karen’s negotiating assistance helped me see which of my “wants” were an appropriate ask for a regional institution. She helped me find the proper tone to ask for these things, and she also found some things in my “want” list that might be questioned as uninformed or insulting from the department’s point of view. With TPII’s assistance, I was able to obtain a 6% salary raise, double my moving assistance, and clarify exactly how to obtain $10,000 in start up funds for my line. For a regional academic position in the arts, particularly in the southeast, this type of package is almost unheard of.”

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


How (Not) to Negotiate a Tenure Track Salary — 9 Comments

  1. I negotiated my humanities R1 Assistant Professor offer by not asking for a rise in salary, but asking for a Graduate Assistant support and a rise in startup funds – this was the suggestion given by my advisor, and this worked.

  2. In your book on negotiating an offer, you give an example of a client who requested a delayed start date in order to finish her postdoc. While the example in the book did not pan out, I am curious about the acceptability of requesting this as part of negotiating a tenure-track job offer, as I am waiting to hear back both about a job (R1) and about a yearlong research grant that would require I NOT hold down a job during the fellowship period. In the unlikely event that both come through, is it acceptable to ask to delay the job for a year in order to do the fellowship? Thank you, and please know that your book is a Godsend.

    • You can definitely ask, if the job is an R1. No guarantee they’ll provide it. Please do come to my negotiating webinar today at 6 PM EST, by the way!

  3. As a woman negotiating salary, how do I address the pay gap? This question is especially pertinent to states where that gap can be nearly 40%…

    • If you are in academia, you rarely address the gender pay gap directly at the time of offer. If publicly posted salaries for the department show a significant pay gap, I would help you contemplate mentioning that in a negotiation, but I have a very firm policy of not giving concrete negotiating advice about specific job offers unless soeone has signed on as a client and signed a contract. The stakes of tt offers are too high for ad hoc advice, lacking full context. Email me at if you’d like to know more.

  4. Pingback: Biomed Badass - 5 Salary Negotiation Tips for Life Scientists

  5. I accepted an offer verbally and a month later I got a better offer from another institution. I haven received the contract for the first university, but I haven’t signed it back yet. Is it inappropriate to try to re-negotiate with the first university? I do not want to go back on my word, and I would still be interested in working there if they could match the other offer.

    • Nianca, as firm policy I don’t offer opinions about offers or negotiations unless we arrange to work together, as the stakes are too high for ad hoc advice. I do love to help, so pls email me at if you’re interested.

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