Negotiating an Academic Job Offer

December 22nd, 2010

I’ve written about applying for jobs and given some tips about on-campus interviews.   I wanted to give some brief advice about what to do when you actually get a tenure-track job offer.   My advice will be pretty general, but with a few more specific things for science jobs like astronomy.

First, celebrate.   It’s hard to get job offers  like these in most fields today.   Take some time to smile, have a drink, kiss your loved ones, play with your dog.   Seriously, enjoy the moment.

Then it’s time to review the offer.   There will be a description of the job provided, along with offers for a salary, start-up, relocation, and perhaps some other particulars.   You want to wait to see this all in writing before negotiating.

Figure out if the offer is a good one.   For state employees, like me, our salaries are public record and you can actually see what your peers are making.   You may be able to check salaries at other similar universities.

Start-up is University money to help you get off to a good start while you’re busy getting settled in, developing courses, setting up a lab, etc.   You need to have enough to be successful.   Outside of science and engineering, most start-up packages are small, but for an experimental physicist a laboratory might cost $600k and be essential to success as a researcher.   These numbers are rarely public but ask friends and mentors about start-up packages at similar universities for similar positions.   Also, there are sometimes restrictions about how the start-up money can be spent, so be aware of what’s off limits, if anything, and realize that that might be a negotiating point.

There will be a teaching load associated with the position.   One thing that can sometimes be negotiated is a reduced workload the first year or first semester, permitting more time to focus on research or just developing one course at a time.

Some other things sometimes come up.   A more experienced applicant might get a job offer with a reduced time to tenure review, for instance.   Make sure that’s something you want as it can sometimes take a couple of years to achieve peak productivity, especially if teaching is new.

Figure out what will make you the happiest and most productive, and also figure out the minimum numbers that you need to be successful.   It can be a disaster to take a job with a $400k start-up if the laboratory to do your work requires $600k minimum — there may not be other funding somewhere.

Figure out if you have some additional bargaining chips on the table.   If you’re bringing in grant money, or want to bring students or post-docs with you, those can play into a negotiation.   For instance, if you’re not being offered a break on the courseload your first semester, you might get one by offering to pay a portion of your salary with your incoming grant money.

If you’ve applied for other jobs, especially if you’re shortlisted and have been interviewed, let all the parties know you’ve been made an offer.   This might help bring you a competing offer that you can use as a huge negotiating chip.

OK, so here’s the meat of the post.   You should not just take or leave an offer.   You should prod to see what is negotiable.   You should make a counter offer, and, if possible, justify the counter offer as much as reasonable.   Give reasons for everything, like the price of equipment, the extra time you will need to develop a graduate course, the salary/start-up your friend at a competing university just got.

There are a few big items you can also include in a counter offer.   One is a job for a spouse.   Spousal hires are more common than many people think, and can often be a boon for both sides as the spouse is often a quality person.   This is the time to bring it up, at the moment of the peak negotiating strength.   The department/dean wants to hire and has a strong candidate they will try to please.   After an acceptance of an offer, there is much less incentive.

OK, so you push on everything you can, basically, and find out if there is room for negotiation or not.   Sometimes there won’t be much, or you have to be ready to turn down the offer if the offer really is lacking something essential.

More common is the situation where some things will be negotiable, but other things won’t be, often for strange technical reasons (e.g., administrative  or legislative rules).     That’s ok —  if they  can’t budge on one important thing (e.g., insufficient relocation funds) then they ought to provide something else,  right?   Be ready to giveaway points that are unimportant in return for gaining benefits that are the most desireable.

The department head may be the one making the offer and doing the negotiating, but it is usually a dean  behind the  head who has control of most of the resources.   Don’t look at the department as your enemy, but potential ally.    A candidate who gets a good salary and start-up is highly valued, and that  value gets added to the department.

Often departments will institute deadlines for reply, and often the deadlines are reasonable (2-3 weeks).   Many candidates want extensions because they want to see if they’ll get  offers from other universities.   Extensions may be available, but only ask for one if there’s a real chance for another offer and it is one you highly desire.   Keep in mind that a counteroffer is an implicit suggestion of a positive response to the demands, so be prepared to say “yes” or offer “yes” immediately if all demands are met.

I have to confess that I was not a great negotiator in the past, and I was always just concerned about astronomy first, everything else second.   A lot of academics love their subjects more than anything else and have not necessarily done much negotiation or want to under any circumstances.   There’s a short book I strongly suggest: Secrets of Power Negotiating.   Well worth the time.   I felt really happy getting some friends higher salary offers offering them some advice from the book about how to make counteroffers.

This probably sounds adversarial, and it is at some level.   But the goal should be to find a win-win solution in the negotiating.   The university wants to hire you, and you want them to hire you.   Find a way to make everyone happy.   When all parties agree, there should not be negative feelings, but mutual respect and good feelings about the qualities of the other.


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