Negotiating Assistance is some of my favorite work. I love it when clients prevail and get jobs, but mostly what I love is to help them over that final hump of asking for what they deserve, and putting a monetary price tag on their own value. This is really deep work for them and me, both, and I feel this way more and more the longer that I do it.
As the years of Negotiating Assistance have gone by, I’ve come to identify patterns of client reactions to the negotiating process. Some leap in gleefully with both feet, and quickly grasp the principles of confident and forthright (while still collegial) negotiating communications that I espouse. When those clients write their negotiating email drafts, I inevitably respond, “wow, well done! You’re good at this!”
But most times I do not. Most clients write excessively anxious, weak, over-diffident email drafts, and also insist to me, in varying levels of anxiety and distress, “I can’t ask for that; that’s too much; I’m going too far; I need to stop here; I’m afraid to alienate them; I give up.”
To all of which I reply, “I will tell you what is too much. And these things, which I’ve just approved, are not. I will tell you when you need to give up; that time has not yet come.”
Basics of Negotiating
To reiterate some basics: in nearly all cases, negotiating is expected and embraced. It builds rather than harms collegial relationships, and lays a powerful foundation for a hire’s success in the department.* The things I approve/endorse are always finely, delicately, painstakingly calibrated to the rank and type of institution, the field, the geographical location, and the nature of the job. I won’t repeat my negotiating advice here, as it’s available in many other places (see here, here, here and here, as well as the three chapters on the subject in my book, and the excellent webinar recording: How to Negotiate An Academic Job Offer), but basically all negotiations are individual and local, and as long as you understand the parameters of the possible for any given context, you can reliably expect (within certain limitations) to increase your offer.
However, I’ve come to understand that clients’ unwillingness to negotiate reflects not just the standard academic resistance to attaching monetary value to scholarly work, but deeper issues that touch core issues of self-worth, sense of identity, and feelings of legitimacy as a scholar. Negotiating also touches on and sometimes triggers enduring anxieties of gender, race and class. Anyone coming from a marginalized subject position in the academy will struggle more to feel entitled to insist on gains in negotiations. And as time has passed, I’ve come to think of my work with Negotiating clients as a kind of therapy. Let me explain.
Women Struggle, Especially Women of Color
It goes without saying that women struggle to negotiate the most. Women, socialized by a lifetime of being “less than,” virtually never easily ask for the things to which they are entitled, without a great deal of encouragement and support through our work together. The process of working with me becomes a process of confronting the highly gendered fear of being seen as an improper woman, and an unacceptable human who has overstepped the bounds of “correct” behavior.
This pattern is based on what I call women’s codependent over-investment in emotional labor and relationship work. An international client shared her anxieties:
“I feel that, if I am happy about the offer, not negotiating could be beneficial. That will not only avoid the risk of the rescinded offer but will make it easier for me to start a good relationship with the chair…. I want to prioritize making a good impression or not making a greedy impression to those who will work with me, rather than increasing the money.” (bolding added)
This thinking is entirely incorrect. Failing to negotiate does nothing to improve one’s standing with the department or chair, and actually sets one up for exploitation.
This kind of misplaced anxiety is magnified among my women of color clients. As one Black woman client wrote,
“As you know, I was negotiating with a school with very little wiggle room. I feel that I was walking on eggshells much of the time, trying to avoid annoying them with the ‘wrong’ request.
Another Black woman client said:
“I could literally hear myself thinking, ‘They’re offering me something great, something that a lot of other people would like to have. I should take it.’ Learning to say no, to ask again, and to ask for more, wasn’t just about getting my career off to the right start. It also required addressing an old habit: taking whatever’s handed to me without complaint.”
Both of these clients negotiated, successfully, for substantial increases in their offer, while maintaining warm and collegial relations with the department.
First generation scholars struggle as well:
“I am the first person in my family to get a PhD and am the first to enter into academe. My mother was a first generation college student and my father did not complete high school. I’m sure there are plenty of other young academics in similar boats, but what I found striking about negotiating was that I didn’t have anyone in my close, immediate circle to whom I could turn to for advice about the process’s ins and outs. People close to me could offer moral support, but when it came to advising me about what I might ask for, how to navigate this dance, I needed support from people who ranged from professional consultants (like you!) to a range of advisers in my department. It took me back to many, many academic and professional experiences where I have had to not just navigate the system, but learn it from the ground up.”
Cultural elements can also intervene in a range of ways, with clients from countries or cultures where either extreme diffidence to authority, or conversely aggressive negotiating, are cultural norms. Both extremes are problematic in a US negotiating context.
Women clients from East Asia are often, I find, almost incapacitated with fear at negotiating almost anything at all. This stems both from cultural background, and immigrant/visa status anxieties. One Korean client explained it this way:
“In addition to all personal/emotional factors that I can fully own, I also grew up in a culture (Korea) where restraining one’s needs and not directly expressing them are considered virtuous – for all, but especially for women. Since coming to the US and being in a field where there are very few international student/scholars, I was always so grateful to be awarded just about ANYTHING. I so often heard “we don’t sponsor employment visas” (many clinical jobs), and just the mere fact of being granted an employment visa, earning the right to work in the US, and not having to leave the US when my desire was to stay here felt like a huge privilege that some other immigrants don’t get to have. There were times that I had to decline bonuses or honorariums because that “extra income” was not authorized by my visa status and I would be violating immigration law. I primarily coped by over-performing and over-compensating to prove that I can be worth that extra money that my department is paying for my visa/green card. I remember not asking for a thing for my current TT job because I knew I would lose my immigration status if for some reason the job offer was rescinded. I didn’t want to risk it. I have become so used to operating this way. This is the first round of job search that I get to be “picky” (and now I have green card) and it’s empowering and therapeutic, yet still quite scary.
All that to say, thank you. You are absolutely right that this process brings up unresolved issues and I hope it can be transformative.”
Conversely, scholars from the Middle East, where negotiating is a way of life, sometimes come in too hot. I have to coach those clients against asking for too much. The fact is, with academic offers, there is a firm upper limit to what is doable. Asking vastly above that will NOT move that upper limit, but it will annoy and alienate the department head. It is exceedingly rare that any client attempts this, and I find that cultural background often predicts the likelihood. As an anthropologist I get that, and I simply explain the “parameters of the possible,” so that the asks remain appropriate.
You Can Ask
I confront all of these struggles head on. I never mince words, and I’m as direct as possible.
To the client above who worried about being seen as “greedy,” I wrote back: “It’s not greedy to ask for the support you need for your work!”
Sometimes clients’ fears cause the process to grind almost to a halt. One client wrote: “My apologies for taking so long. I have been absolutely petrified and your “Negotiation as Therapy” post was spot on!”
When things drag on through too many objections, I get a bit more pointed:
“I’m getting frustrated. This constant second guessing is slowing down your process. I gave instructions for what to ask for, then double-checked them as you asked. And confirmed their appropriateness, and said ‘send.’ So send. Stop double and triple checking. It’s imposter syndrome in action and the point of working with me is not to succumb to that.”
Sometimes my main task is to be cheerleader:
“Now can you please remember that YOU ARE A ROCK STAR to have been offered this and to also be recruited by U of X?!, So your position here is not one of anxious supplicant but rather of simply knowing what you NEED to succeed and asking for that. Honestly, it’s all fine and no need to worry about the phone call. Just listen, be friendly, don’t commit, take good notes, tell her you’ll be in touch shortly, and report back. It’s all good!”
And so, with all negotiating clients, I directly address the emotional or psychological barriers that I see emerging that are stopping them from asking for everything to which I *know* they are entitled.
In other words, I don’t just edit their too-modest asks and anxieties about the process. I actually stop and remark on what I see as the emotional or psychological (and sometimes cultural) underpinnings of the asks and the anxieties.
To many clients I write versions of this:
“This level of codependency and diffidence will set a bad precedent for the rest of your career at XX; the negotiating exchange sets the tone of your time to come as a colleague, so take care how you engage.”
While sometimes it feels odd to make such blunt and psychologizing responses to people I don’t actually know except through email, I also feel a strong ethical obligation to do so.
Because I know what I’m catching at this juncture is some of the purest and most unadulterated expression of the Imposter Syndrome that is so universally destructive to academics, particularly women of color, in the academic career. So to ignore the signs is to miss a critical chance to intervene.
Oddly enough, I’ve come to understand that Imposter Syndrome actually ESCALATES at the time of the long-sought tenure track offer. This may seem counterintuitive, and the reasons why would be worth exploring further in another post. But suffice to say right now–the vast majority of women clients I’ve worked with have attested that their feelings of Imposter Syndrome and anxiety skyrocketed at the moment of getting the coveted tenure track job.
One of the Black women clients quoted above remarked:
“I do think the process triggered quite a bit of imposter syndrome. I might even go as far as saying the most I’ve encountered thus far. As far as the school I negotiated with goes, there is a feeling that my failure to ask for specific things will mark me as ignorant of things that any competent professional in the field would know, and this triggered a fear of my being seen as an easy target to take advantage of that may haunt me for years (I’m still dealing with that).”
It Will Be Hard
I’m not saying the process of confronting this is easy. Some hiring departments, intentionally or not, employ high-pressure methods and rushed timelines that fuel new hire anxiety, which is especially brutalizing to anyone who is already anxious and insecure:
“the very short timeline they gave me (which limited or prevented my ability to negotiate with other schools) had left me questioning my decisions. In this way, I feel like the process actually introduced new feelings of insecurity about the offer that I accepted and the things that I asked for”
In these cases I always respond:
“Don’t allow them to hassle you for a quick response! You are entitled to take the time you need to make good decisions. Also, allowing yourself to feel frazzled and rushed is part of the gendered codependent pattern. It’s good practice for the rest of your career to be aware of that. For now, just tell them you will be able to respond in XX days time.”
The process of drafting the negotiating requests is without question fraught; it’s where everything comes to a head!
“After conferring with you, I wrote the initial negotiating email and it was the hardest 10 lines I’ve written. I kept erasing and re-wording and making sure I was using nice language, and being grateful. As an immigrant and a person of color, being grateful and sounding reverential had been chiseled into of me.
Although I had read all the stuff on how not to act like a woman in the negotiation process, that’s exactly what I was doing, and I knew it. No matter how much I told myself not to, it was hard for me to change my tone. You pushed me to include ‘in recognition of my xx publications, yyy grant awards, zzz, I request a salary of…”‘You told me to ask for more research funds and a higher signing bonus. ‘You are entitled to ask for more!’ you to wrote me. On some level, I knew what you were saying was true. But on a deeper level, I was scared out of my mind and didn’t actually believe it.”
Some clients share that they feel physically ill after just composing the email, let alone after hitting “send.” The client above continued:
“After the email was finalized, I finally submitted it to the university. As the minutes ticked by, I wanted to write to them ‘Just kidding! You don’t need to offer me more. I’ll sign!’
It took everything in me not to email them again. I kept checking my email every two minutes. They didn’t reply until the next day, and I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life. ‘They’re going to think I’m ungrateful,’ I kept thinking. They’re going to think I’m greedy.’”
But here was the result:
“They not only upped my research funds, gave me a large signing bonus, for not one but two years, and upped my salary by more than 10%, but they wanted to make sure I was okay with this new offer. In short, they expected to be negotiating with me. This was completely normal.”
And we’ve come full circle to the start of this post: negotiating IS normative, it’s expected, and it’s something that can be done without harming relations with the department in any way.
Sometimes Your Offer Is Disappointing
To be sure, on occasion my therapeutic interventions can go in the other direction as well. Sometimes clients will go into high dudgeon about receiving “too little,” and tell me they feel wounded and offended. In one case, a client complained about needing “another win” in negotiations to make a modest small college offer feel tolerable to her. This was my response:
“I don’t really get this “need another win” language. This is a normal negotiation for this level of school. You have already “won” the lottery by getting a tt job. There is some money for you as startup, and other money available once you get there. It’s your own attitude that is making this a problem, not the offer. Sorry to be blunt, but, seriously, you need to get a grip.”
This type of entitled attitude often comes directly from advisors, who can be actually dangerously ignorant about the appropriate scope for any given negotiation at small schools with entirely different financial parameters than the R1s at which they work and train Ph.D.s:
“The other side of this comes from my advisors, who, in response to the time issue told me ‘they don’t want you badly enough’ (which I don’t/didn’t at all think was true [KK: I can vouch this was entirely untrue]). They also showed visible disappointment after hearing how much I was able to negotiate salary-wise.”
Honestly, how dare any advisor show DISAPPOINTMENT about any advisee’s tenure track offer, regardless of the terms?
But they do. Because they are ignorant. And ignorance in this job market is dangerous.
Clueless Advisors Don’t Help
I’ve seen how most advisors are unable to provide anything resembling realistic negotiating advice. The most common and most disturbing is when departmental peers and advisors tell their students NOT to negotiate–that is actual malpractice!
“I knew, given everything I’ve read, that you don’t accept an initial offer, no matter how good it can be. I began searching online for tips on how not to fall into the gender wage gap by negotiating a higher salary. But nothing I read gave me a real sense of how to do this in the academic world. I knew I was supposed to negotiate, I just didn’t know how. I reached out to my former graduate school advisors, and as wonderful as they are, they didn’t offer any specifics on how to negotiate per se.”
Indeed, advisors can cause real harm with their irresponsible advice. One client with an offer at a tiny regional college told me she didn’t need to negotiate for various things because her advisors had told her to either turn down the job or only accept it with the expectation of moving to a “better, R1 job” after one year, making the idea of progressing to tenure at such a school “meaningless” to her. I replied:
“Your advisers are behaving unethically. Of course you should accept this job! There is no question of that. But in terms of expecting to move on: the vast, vast majority of PhD‘s get only one job offer in their lifetime. Getting any job offer is winning the lottery. You cannot ever assume that you will be able to move. You should not make any decision based on that assumption. Your advisers are wrong to encourage you to do that. That is elitist and out of touch advising and it gives advisees like you an unrealistic sense of your own mobility and career prospects. This has nothing to do with your individual record or potential productivity, it is simply a reflection of a job market in almost total collapse.”
To which the client first responded: “I’m just processing all of your points, and because it’s a little jolting (emotionally)….”
Before coming back a day later: “I appreciate everything you’ve explained. It teaches me more about how to read what’s happening in this professional context (which is sometimes totally illegible to me)….”
As we all know, Ph.D. advisors tend to be particularly poor at coping with their advisees’ emotional challenges. And so, when negotiating itself emerges as an emotional crisis point, the negative repercussions of bad advising can be magnified.
And then there is the racism of advisors who explicitly or implicitly tell advisees that any success is due to affirmative action:
“Early in the year, one of my colleagues said they were reading the jobs Wiki. I shared that I wasn’t. I didn’t want the ulcer I assumed it would cause. But, I did ask him what folks said, what he learned. His reply: That most of the positions in our field were going to women of color. As a woman of color, it made me uncomfortable and glad I didn’t read the Wiki. I could still remember the sting of a peer saying, after I landed a fellowship in the department, “Ah, so you’re the new affirmative action hire.” He patted me on the back. “Just kidding.” Not really, and also that wasn’t the first time someone had commented on my race in regards to a new job or position. It was impossible to leave these feelings behind in the negotiation process. I knew that what was negotiating a great job, for me, was for some an example of how I was hired primarily to diversify a department’s ranks.”
Negotiations Set the Tone For Your Job
Believe me, I know how hard it is to properly evaluate things in a chaotic academic job market where any offer at all can feel like a lifeline from drowning, and where Survivor’s Guilt is another almost inevitable accompaniment to an offer.
“It was a horrible year in the job market, worse than I’d seen in the past few years that I had been applying to things. I was afraid of pushing for more, and I was already being offered more than I thought I would ever be getting.”
“The competitiveness of the job market, and seeing lots of highly qualified friends and colleagues have no options, fed the guilt I had about turning great offers down.”
“I’ve got some “survivor’s guilt” to have landed an academic job that’s perfect for me. I certainly didn’t expect it. I appreciate the care you’re giving to everyone who is having to make alternate plans.”
For all the reasons I’ve noted, negotiating is the point in the job market process where a new hire’s identity becomes absolutely central to the process, in ways that can trigger emotional responses that may not be entirely rational, or even conscious.
And so the work of negotiating can touch on deep questions of motivation and self-worth. Even those with confidence can find it daunting, but the process for those who lack confidence, and/or come from a place of gender, race, class, or other anxieties can be absolutely debilitating.
But the stakes of doing so are immense:
“Ever since that experience, I learned, just by being coached about how to write an email like this that put a monetary value on my work, that my work was valuable. I always thought about my work as valuable in some sort of intellectual way. But never in a monetary way.”
“In college one of my friends told me, “No is a love word.” This was a complete revelation to me. I was used to saying yes to every challenge put before me and over-performing and over-compensating to make other people happy. The benefit of being able to pull this off is that, on one hand, I did great academic work and a lot of it. On the other, I didn’t know how to set a boundary and my sense of professional self-worth was wrapped up in how much I got done and what other people in my field thought of me. In negotiating, one of the emotional challenges was realizing it’s OK to say no”
This is why negotiating is like therapy. As I said, these emotional issues impact your entire career moving forward, and the negotiation is far from the last time you’ll need to ask for what you want. In fact, it may well just be the first in a lifetime of other moments. As the client above wrote,
“Ever since this experience with you, I now ask for honorariums when I’m invited to give a talk, and ask to be paid to write when a non-academic publication asks for my analysis. Theoretically, I always knew that I had to do this, but I never knew how, nor did I have the confidence to do so. Sometimes, all it takes is someone giving you the words to demand that your work be valued. And reminding you ‘you are entitled to ask for more!’”
If you work with me, be prepared! I may get all up into your feelings at some point in our work! I want to hear from you if you sense impulses within yourself that are holding you back from insisting on your value, and stating your needs. (In fact, I’m linking this very blog post as one of the required readings of Negotiating Assistance work moving forward.)
No matter what, negotiations are often transformative: they allow you to understand your value on the market–for better or worse! Usually, you find you can ask for much more than you imagined; occasionally, you do have to be told you can expect less. But either way, knowledge, in this case, is truly power.
As another client with whom I worked put it so beautifully:
“I do think the process is incredibly transformative… there’s a deeper emotional shift that radiates into other dimensions of life…personal, familial, creative. We spend so much of our time in academia feeling afraid of being crushed by the institutional machine. This is a rare moment where the playing field levels. We gain insight into the inner workings and as a result are able to focus our energies on other, more interesting of life’s mysteries.”
Here are a few more testimonials to the impact of the work–it’s life changing!
“You pushed me to ask for more, including a couple of things I wouldn’t have asked for, and was able to up my salary, start-up funds, moving expenses, and got a trip to visit with my partner before starting. Thank you for the confidence to push where I wouldn’t have thought there was room.”
“As a complete newbie who didn’t even think I’d get an interview this year, let alone an offer, I was overwhelmed with the negotiation process. I worked with Karen in the negotiation process and I was able to secure a deferral to take one of the fellowships, receive a 6% increase on the initial salary offer, and negotiate for an incredibly generous start-up package that far exceeded what I had initially expected to get.”
“The negotiation process was way more stressful than I could have ever imagined, but having you in my corner to tell me when to push and when to stop gave me confidence and I ended up with more than I would have had if I had had to negotiate on my own. I’m still a stress mess, but I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off me!”
“Thank you so much for your help in negotiating my offer, which would not have been nearly as substantial without your expert knowledge and clearly-delivered advice. When I received my first job offer while ABD, I was told not to negotiate, and I have been living with the impact of that bad advice ever since. For the first time, with your help, I will be entering into a position on equal footing with my peers, which means more than words can say.”
*There are such things as rescinded offers. I encounter 1-2 per year, usually. In general the warning signs are visible, and we can take steps to avoid this terrible outcome.