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.”
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.
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 is magnified, of course, for women of color. 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.”
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)
When I encounter this kind of emotional issue, I confront it head on. To the client above, I wrote back: “It’s not greedy to ask for the support you need for your work!”
And so, with all negotiating clients, once we’ve worked together for some days, and laid a foundation of trust, 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 adjust and edit their too-modest asks and anxieties about the process. I actually stop and remark on what I see as the emotional or psychological 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 that I’m catching some of the purest and most unadulterated expressions of the Imposter Syndrome, etc. that is so universally destructive to women, particularly women of color, in the academic career. So to ignore the signs now is to miss a critical chance to intervene.
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).”
I’m not saying the process of confronting this is easy. One WOC client shared her experience (bolding added):
“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.”
My women clients frequently tell me that they feel physically ill after just composing the kind of negotiating email mentioned here, let alone after pushing “send” on it. 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.”
Believe me, I know how hard it is to ask for things, especially in a devastating academic job market where any offer at all can feel like a lifeline from drowning.
“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.”
And I know that cultural elements can also intervene, in a range of ways, with clients from some regions socialized to extreme diffidence, and others trained to push hard. Both extremes are problematic in a US negotiating context.
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.”
I take my role particularly seriously with my clients, because I know that their departmental peers and advisors are not always helpful.
“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.”
Some advisors are 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.”
How dare an advisor show DISAPPOINTMENT about any advisee’s TENURE TRACK OFFER, regardless of the terms?
As we all know, Ph.D. advisors tend to be particularly poor at coping with their advisees’ emotional challenges. Advising can be especially fraught for people of color, where success might be attributed by white advisors and peers 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.”
In addition, some hiring departments, intentionally or not, employ high-pressure methods and rushed timelines that fuel new hire anxiety, which is especially brutalizing to codependent women hires:
“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! 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 all these reasons, 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”
Additionally, negotiating work sets the tone of a new hire’s entire relationship with the department moving forward. And so, when I help clients negotiate, once we’ve laid a solid groundwork of trust in one another and in the offer process (ie, that I trust the institution is invested in good faith negotiation), I foreground emotional issues that I see arise, treating the work as a kind of therapy. 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!'”
So, 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.)
To conclude: a good negotiation can be transformative. As another WOC 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.”
*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.