Negotiating The Tenure-Track Job Offer

Mar 26 2008 Published by under Careerism

We have discussed various aspects of what you need to do to secure a tenure-track job offer: CV, job talk, interviewing, etc. You've done well with all of this stuff, and you have one or more offers. Now let's discuss how to negotiate the particulars of the offer, to best maximize your chances of ultimate success.


In the interests of honest disclosure, I want to start with the story of my own "negotiation", so you can decide whether to even listen to a single fucking thing I have to say on this topic.

Ring! Ring!
PP: Hello?
Dept Chair: Hello, PP? This is Dept Chair. I am calling to tell you that we have decided to make you an offer for the faculty position.
PP: I'll take it.
Dept Chair: Umm, how about if I tell you a little bit about the offer?
PP: OK.
Dept Chair: Well, we will give you suitable lab space, a suitable start-up budget, and...
PP: I'll take it.
Dept Chair: Umm, how about we send you a draft formal offer letter, and you consider it for a few days, call me if you have any questions or concerns, and then we can generate a final version for signing.
PP: OK.
PP received the letter, barely looked at it, signed it, and sent it back.

Fortunately, Dept Chair is an extremely fair person, and she provided an offer with ample start-up funds, protection from teaching and admin stuff for a year, and excellent renovated lab space. If she had not been operating from a mindset of "we need to give PP the resources to succeed", I would have been in big trouble.
Bottom line: I didn't even attempt to negotiate. However, there is a very important broad lesson to take from my story. If at any time during whatever negotiating you do engage in, you begin to get the sense that the chair (or whomever you are negotiating with) is trying to drive the hardest possible bargain, without any consideration of what you would actually need to successfully get your lab off the ground and reach externally funded self-sufficiency, that is a very, very, very bad sign.
The reason my chair provided me with a more than ample start-up package is because she was operating from a position of enlightened self-interest--my ultimate success or failure inures to her benefit or detriment as a chair--and commanded enough resources to satisfy what she perceived as my needs.
This highlights what should be your goal in negotiating the job offer: making sure that the person on the other side of the table is absolutely clear on what you need. If you absolutely require an expensive piece of equipment, you need to make sure that the chair is aware of this. No one will fault you for vigorously advocating for your needs in terms of your research program. In fact, it will demonstrate maturity and persistence that you know what you need, and are willing to engage in a possibly uncomfortable negotiation to obtain it. And this includes things like "protected time" in your first year or so, away from teaching and administrative duties, start-up budget, specialized equipment, space, and access to core facilities.
One thing that is key to recognize, however, is that this negotiation is only the beginning of your relationship with the chair (and the other senior faculty in your department, and maybe even deans, who will surely hear about the negotiation if there is anything out-of-the-ordinary about it). If you leave those people with a bad feeling about your motivations, or your ability/willingness to be a "team player", you are setting yourself up for a rocky relationship going forward. And these are people whose opinions of you will be extremely important as your career progresses.
As I said, there is nothing wrong--in fact everything right--about advocating for what you truly need to get your lab started and ultimately self-sufficient. But there are things that can end up self-defeating. One of the most significant is your own salary.
If the initial salary offer is reasonably consistent with that of similar insititutions for similar positions, then it is a really bad idea to try negotiate the salary upwards. First, it is extremely unlikely that the salary will go up very much for an entry-level tenure-track position. Second, you will suggest to your future colleagues that you are viewing this as a "job" and not a "calling". (I am not opining on whether it is a good thing that people concern themselves with this distinction. The fact is that they do.)
So, the bottom line: (1) Negotiate in good faith for what you genuinely need, and not just to maximize the size of the package. (2) Make it clear that your only consideration is the success of your research program, and not your personal enrichment and/or aggrandizement. (3) If you get the impression that the chair is not approaching the negotiation from the standpoint of wanting to, and being able to, provide you with everything you will need to reach escape velocity, be very wary of taking that position.

31 responses so far

  • whimple says:

    Something that worked very well for me:
    Negotiate to get *things*, not dollars. Instead of $Xk, get "a technician for three years". Instead of $Yk, get "two graduate students from start to finish". Instead of $Xk, get "this specific expensive piece of equipment".
    This goes along with getting what you need to be a success. You need things, not dollars. Sometimes, the price of things changes. Usually the price goes up. If you asked for dollars, you might no longer be able to afford what you need.

  • JSinger says:

    If the initial salary offer is reasonably consistent with that of similar insititutions for similar positions, then it is a really bad idea to try negotiate the salary upwards.
    In general, I'd agree, but people coming out of some locales and entering others might underestimate the degree to which this issue falls under "setting yourself up to succeed". You need to be in a living situation that allows you to get your work done. At Dartmouth or Texas A&M it's likely to be a given that your offer allows you do to that. At Boston University or SF State you need to make sure that your total deal (which might include some housing assistance) doesn't lock you into some insane commute.
    There was an article in the MIT alumni magazine a few years ago bragging about their new program to provide affordable, commutable housing for new faculty hires. The centerpiece of the story was some poor woman they stuck in a condo in Winthrop -- hopefully they threw in a boat and a slip with that package, or she's been spending most of her first years stuck in traffic.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    JSinger- look, it sucks and all but the fact is that academic jobs are not really all that sensitive to "cost of living" argument. From fellowships to faculty salaries, the levels are relatively fixed to criteria that have nothing to do with expensive real estate markets. You should try, sure. But don't expect automatic acquiescence from the hiring institution. I'm in a fairly big biomedical research community with sky-high real estate. Like many of you I imagine. You can paint the concentric circles surrounding the university based on age and duration of career. The young faculty around here are commuting. And renting. That's the gig. Public Universities are usually the worst of course, since they frequently have harder payscale structures.
    this brings me to the practical advice. How do you know what is "reasonable" for salary. Well, first of all, those salary surveys put out by national organizations are next to useless because the categories are so broad. What you should do is start snooping the public Universities similar to where you are seeking a job. Oftimes the salary scales are public info and posted on websites (with some digging). This will give you a start although the 6 levels of "assistant Prof" are going to be a bit unintelligible to you. So you have to guess a bit where you'd come in but at least it is a range. Then, you have to start fronting the people you know and just ask. The younger and most newly hired giving you the best information although people involved with their own departmental hires are useful too. To avoid the usual personal salary discomfort, ask "if you can give me the approximate range that a new hire in your department might expect" instead of "what'd you make when you started". of course most people will just go ahead and give you their salary numbers, assuming you are somewhat well-acquainted.
    Through this process you will become comfortable with what the salary scales most relevant to you should be. You will also have an answer when you are asked "Why should we pay you that much?" if you are trying to negotiate upward. "Uh, because that's what I want" is less useful than "because Universities X, Y and Z paid this salary to their most recent hires in this field, that's why".

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I'll also note that juniorprof had a post-length comment before on negotiating that absolutely rocks. Go read this comment

  • bayman says:

    Interesting post as always.
    A pre-offer post would be interesting some time - something like "How to Find and Secure a Faculty Position" or "How to Know When You're Ready to Go it Alone" for those of us who are still finding our way through the nether-regions of academic serfdom.

  • sciencegirl says:

    Another useful tip that I used for negotiation. I had a few offers, some better than others in terms of actual start-up dollars. The place I was most interested in fell into the lower end in terms of money, however, during my negotiations I asked about whether there might be equipment available that I could have for my lab to make up for the lower start-up. It turns out most of the equipment used by the person in my field that I was "replacing" was still sitting in their lab. Because I asked, I got about $150,000 in mostly "lightly" used equipment (microscope, incubators, centrifuges etc) and supplies (glassware etc) included in my offer letter. The addition of this equipment pushed the offer from my first choice university up to the highest one I received, and made it that much easier to sign on the dotted line. My feeling is that the chair has X amount to offer, but if you ask about other things such as this, you can still get what you need to successfully start your lab.

  • JSinger says:

    You should try, sure. But don't expect automatic acquiescence from the hiring institution.
    Absolutely. My point was merely that depending on your institution, family and work habits and constraints, these sordid, mundane details of compensation might fall into "calling" rather than "job", if your calling involves collecting fractions in the middle of the night or such.

  • I disagree about negotiating salary. At the very least, one should insist that the institution whose offer one wants to accept matches the best other offer one has. The fact one is considering an academic position is ample evidence one isn't in it for the money. At the same time, one has to eat, and one may have others to support besides oneself. You can't be above mere money if you can't pay your mortgage.
    I accepted my Assistant Professor position at an un-negotiated and (it turns out) rather low salary. When I got tenure, they tried to low-ball me on the promotion raise also. I told them that I had no alternative but to look elsewhere; I was going broke. I spent the usual year collecting other offers, and when my original institution came up with a match, it was 60% above what they were currently paying me. (I turned it down; lesson for institutions; never force somebody onto the job market if you can possibly help it and if there's no evidence they're going to go out looking for offers their own).
    Both I and my institution would have been much better off if I'd negotiated my original salary up to a decent amount.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Once you are a proven tenured or tenurable academic, you have a lot more negotiating strength than an unproven entry-level assistant professor candidate. At that point, you don't need to worry so much about offending people. Who's to say that if you had negotiated hard-ball for your entry-level salary, you wouldn't have soured your relationship with your chair or other senior faculty such that they wouldn't have helped you at times when you needed it, or even wouldn't have achieved tenure?

  • acmegirl says:

    What about the fact that one of the reasons that women's incomes lag behind those of men is because they often accept an initial offer that is lower? It seems to me that it is actually very important to do the legwork to make sure you are getting a fair deal, and if you are not, to ask for what you deserve. Acedemia may indeed be a "calling", but it is also supposed to be a meritocracy, so I don't think it's right to suggest that you should just accept whatever salary is offered, unless and until it can be shown that the offers are not biased.

  • I've never known anybody to be offended by a wish to negotiate salary. In the larger scheme of things, with start-up packages now often exceeding $1 M, $5K or even $10 K per annum in salary is peanuts.
    The most recent junior faculty candidate here who seriously negotiated his salary got the job at a higher salary than he would otherwise have, and also did some of his new colleagues a favor, since the university felt compelled to make sure that people hired before him weren't making less.

  • PhysioProf says:

    These are all excellent comments. There will clearly be differences from institution to institution. The important broad point is to keep the big picture in mind when deciding what to push for, and how hard to push.

  • tom says:

    Thanks again for a timely post. I have been on a few interviews and a few people have asked for my start-up requests. No real salary discussions yet, although I am looking forward to that. Oddly, one institute asked for a budget, and haggled a bit, before I even interviewed.

  • whimple says:

    Oddly, one institute asked for a budget, and haggled a bit, before I even interviewed.
    It does seem odd. This sends up a red flag for me.

  • juniorprof says:

    Re #14... I don't think looking at it as odd is the right way to do it. In my case, as detailed in the post DM links to in #4 it was a clear case of a Dept chair wanting to advocate for me in the strongest possible terms when going to the dean. The dean has since confirmed this to me. No one was interested in lowballing me, quite the contrary... Perhaps you are referring to the haggling part as odd.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Yeah, what juniorprof said. My experience was that private institutions just gave me a big round number for the start-up budget, and state institutions asked me for a detailed budget. Of course, all I did to create a detailed budget was to pick the big round number I wanted, and then make up a bunch of plausible line items that added up to it.
    I ended up at a private institution.

  • Ewan says:

    If at any time during whatever negotiating you do engage in, you begin to get the sense that the chair (or whomever you are negotiating with) is trying to drive the hardest possible bargain, without any consideration of what you would actually need to successfully get your lab off the ground and reach externally funded self-sufficiency, that is a very, very, very bad sign.
    Agreed. I encountered this* at only one place, but it was a huge worry and red flag. My sense is that it is very rare; in every case, there was also a 'middle-man' effect where the chair (with whom I was talking) was not in control of the funds (which were coming from Deans) and that the chair had absolutely no reason *not* to be on my side.
    [*I interviewed this past season and will start this summer, so this is at least current commentary, if obviously not universal.]
    I think that most of the other content of the original post was right on; not once did I get the sense that anyone was offended at any element of the pieces I negotiated - teaching load, grad student support, space, whatever. Certainly the *universal* advice - unsurprisingly - from colleagues and mentors is that this is the *right* and often *only* time to negotiate - you have power, especially if there are multiple offers that you are plausibly considering, and as soon as you accept that power vanishes completely.
    With regard to a few other pieces...
    * I have one peer - went off last year to their t-t position - whom I know to have irked her new chair, even before arriving, to the point where he answered the 'phone with "What do you want now?" She got everything - and seems proud - but I do wonder how this will play out long term.
    * I never saw an upside to being less than honest, and it seemed to be the best policy all around; this is another element of the 'building relationships' if nothing else. I was a little nervous about appearing too keen, especially at my first-choice interview, but in fact I think this translated into a perception that I would likely say yes, and hence to more offers than I might otherwise have got; and I don't think that the later negotiations were really affected. I *might* be wrong, but don't think so.
    As have a couple of other commenters, though, I disagree *strongly* with this:
    If the initial salary offer is reasonably consistent with that of similar insititutions for similar positions, then it is a really bad idea to try negotiate the salary upwards. First, it is extremely unlikely that the salary will go up very much for an entry-level tenure-track position. Second, you will suggest to your future colleagues that you are viewing this as a "job" and not a "calling".
    There are a couple of reasons for disagreeing. First, salary offers do change, in some cases hugely. Especially if you have a range of offers and would like to go somewhere that is not the highest. The highest first-pass offer I got was very nearly twice as high as the lowest, and two places were adamant that I should give *them* a number. The initial offer from the first-choice place was on the low end; negotiation increased it by a bit over 30%. One effect of this was to confirm that I was seen as a valued recruit, which was good for several reasons; a second was to force an increase in the salaries of my future area colleagues, which cannot be bad for relationships! (The biggest % change was around 60%. Yes, I was surprised by this - it did feel a little as though there was an attempt to lowball me initially.)
    Second, I *think* that the fact I was open about discussing salary - and had data to support my suggestions/requests - helped in the process of negotiating total start-up, because I had already come across as reasonable and fact-driven. And third, I got to point out to my new chair that I was rejecting higher offers elsewhere, and that I was grateful to *him* for the open negotiations -all part of the relationship-building. Fourth, of course, it means that I can buy a house, and that's a good thing too.
    On the total package, it helped me *immensely* to have senior friends/colleagues whom I could ask for their perspective on recent/reasonable startup numbers. But basically, I really did just work out what I thought I would need for the first few years (through the tenure decision point, basically), give a detailed list, and provide rationales when asked for. I'm part shocked (ok, I'm a naif) and part repulsed by Of course, all I did to create a detailed budget was to pick the big round number I wanted, and then make up a bunch of plausible line items that added up to it. - that would have felt to me as though I were really behaving dishonestly and ungratefully. I didn't see any differences in process between public and private institutions, incidentally: all wanted a detailed list *but* were clear that once approved, what I actually do with the money is my problem.

  • PhysioProf says:

    I'm part shocked (ok, I'm a naif) and part repulsed by Of course, all I did to create a detailed budget was to pick the big round number I wanted, and then make up a bunch of plausible line items that added up to it. - that would have felt to me as though I were really behaving dishonestly and ungratefully.

    Assuming you're going to be funding your ongoing research program from Federal grants, you might as well start getting used to this.

  • whimple says:

    Ewan:
    Since we're all more or less anonymous here, can you provide actual dollar amounts to what you were offered? What was the highest, what was the lowest, and what did you actually wind up accepting in salary? Is this a public or private institution? Big city, or not so much? Biomedical sciences, or something else?

  • neurowoman says:

    Can anybody offer any commentary on how negotiating for a spousal accommodation might fit in? I would expect that another reason women's salaries and startups tend to be lower is that they more often are trying to swing a second appointment, and thus have limited leverage on $$ issues.
    Also, any thoughts on whether is might be better to negotiate release from teaching for the second year to do research when you might actually have personnel and equipment?

  • tom says:

    re #15:
    I thought it was a bit odd to negotiate terms of start-up when I had never met anybody face to face from said department nor seen any of the departmental 'core' type equipment. Every other interview wanted to focus the on 'fit', scientifically and personality-wise, with money being something that would be addressed in the next stage.

  • juniorprof says:

    On release from teaching my experience is that the best way to do this is get grants out that have high % efforts. For instance, a K01 has 75% effort and your dept must commit to give you the release from teaching and other duties to protect your time for research. You can always adjust your grant % efforts as grant come in, at least that is my understanding.
    For instance, I put in my K award grant right about when I walked in the door. I put in an R-like (in terms of money and effort) avant-garde application and will put in a joint R01 and my own R01 in June. My dept has yet to put a teaching load on me, largely because they are already committing to release me for protected time for all these grants... In talking to other junior PIs here and in other spots this seems to be an effective strategy for protecting your time for research. I don't think PP and DM ever implicitly stated this type of thing in their previous posts on advice for getting the grants out but they certainly implied it and I should say that I developed this course of attack for myself largely based on their previous posts (going back about a year) and on advice from my dept chair.

  • juniorprof says:

    Tom, PP had some advice for interviewees about identifying advocates during your interviews. All the money talks I had during first interviews were with people I had a very strong impression were going to be strong advocates for me as the selection process went on. They asked for startup money info and I gave it to them... I continue to have the impression that this worked out handsomely for me.
    I look at it this way... money is tight right now and depts need to know if they can bring in people without portable funds and put them in the position to succeed. If you need a 500,000 piece of equipment and 4 years worth of startup for hiring and consumables a dept needs to know that upfront so they can think carefully about whether they can do it or not. This has to do with making a good fit, a dept can't make a good fit with money they don't have.

  • Massimo says:

    I am not sure whether there are really different "strategies" that one can adopt. I think that one's bargaining power is a function of the number of offers from comparable institutions. With a single offer in my hand, I cannot really imagine doing anything different than what PP did.
    If other offer(s) exist(s), then PP can probably get a better deal but even then, I don't see that "negotiating" is in order. In such a situation, I would recommend that PP thank the department chair for the consideration, give assurance that the offer will be considered very seriously, and ask for a reasonable amount of time to decide, say two weeks.
    PP should make it clear that there are multiple offers to pick from, all from reputable institutions, and in this type of decision obviously personal considerations weigh in as well (this in case the department chair starts saying things like "awe, c'mon, we are so much better than so-and-so university !").
    If the department chair is reasonable, (s)he will be understanding, congratulate the candidate for the success of the job search, say something to the effect that the department is more than willing to go back to the dean and ask that the offer be upgraded/strengthened to match that of other institutions, and encourage PP to spell out any specific request. If this is the case, then there is the chance that a "bidding war" will start and the lucky candidate will end up with a great package, possibly without even having to ask for most of it.
    On the other hand, if it is either that or the unemployment line, I don't really see that there is any "negotiating" to do. Just my opinion, of course.

  • drdrA says:

    I am coming into this discussion rather late- sorry, I just found your excellent blog.
    As for negotiating salary (specifically in reference to comment #3), you should negotiate salary, but juniorprof- you are quite right about being reasonable and doing your homework. The most compelling reason for this is that there is VAST variability in starting salaries between individuals in the same institution- so there is very little fairness in the process- those that ask for more usually get more- its as simple as that- but you won't get a higher salary if you don't ask for one. Even a small difference in starting salary can make a huge difference in $$ over a lifetime of work- because EVERY raise that you will get is a percentage of your salary...this adds up over a career to be hundreds of thousands of dollars.. And I know- I do science because I love it- not because its a high paying job, but nevertheless- I have student loans myself and two kids I would like to send to college someday... so this all really matters.
    Just a note, for public institutions the operating budget is public record, and in some institutions can be had as easily as walking into the library and asking for it. These operating budgets are quite detailed and list the salaries for each individual in the department- and you can go back and figure out what year they were hired, and what their training is -so how well you match up with a particular individual... or you can just look at the last several hires made in a department then figure out based on your training where you fit into these.
    In reference to comment #20 - about spousal accommodations- this is SO tricky. You should not mention your spouse in your application (even if that person will need an academic appointment)- get your foot in the door first. You should mention your spouse who needs an academic appointment at some time during the first interview, AFTER you have gotten a feeling for the department, and perhaps during a private meeting with the chair- the chair is not allowed (nor is anyone in the department) to ask you about this- but once you mention your spouse- questions by the faculty are fair game. Its my experience that both the department and the candidate know when the interview is going really well-and because spousal faculty appointments are complicated take TIME to set up, you should give the department as much warning as you can (after they have fallen in love with you, of course). If the department is serious about hiring you, and they know about your spouse in the first interview (and what kind of academic job must be forthcoming)- the second interview is the time that your spouse should be visiting the appropriate departments on campus and giving talks... Some institutions have special monies set aside for spousal hiring- especially those institutions that are actively trying to recruit women � so you need to find out about those kinds of things.
    I have plenty more to say about this subject- as one member of a two-body problem academic couple� if you are interested I will post something on my blog at:
    http://bluelabcoats.wordpress.com

  • PhysioProf says:

    Speaking of spousal hires, one of the ass prof positions I was interviewing for ended up going to a spousal hire instead of me, after a long and drawn out interview process that involved multiple visits by me to the far-away department. Since then, the person they hired remains without NIH funds and without publications. That makes me laugh my fucking ass off. (Not that PhysioProf is a schadenfreude type of person.)

  • drdrA says:

    Oh PhysioProf-
    As you know, spousal hiring is so complex and often involves multiple departments- even multiple colleges sometimes.
    Sorry that you didn't get that position- but hope you got one that you are happy with. In the end...that's all that really matters anyway.

  • PhysioProf says:

    I got a position that I could not imagine being any happier about: excellent location, excellent institutional committment of resources, excellent colleagues. But I still enjoy knowing that the other department must now know in their hearts that they made the wrong decision not making me an offer.

  • drdrA says:

    We all have that one position (or that one candidate when the case is reversed) that got away.

  • Ewan says:

    Whimple (#19): there are just not that many Ewans in the world, so I think I have been as specific as I am going to get, I'm afraid.
    One thing I forgot to mention - but was hit in passing above - is that some senior folks commented that negotiation *now* is key, because at many places raises from now on are all simply % of that initial number (unless you're out getting competing offers). So it is key to start as high as possible.

  • Carrie says:

    What is the advantage/disadvantage of trying to get a second appointment in another department with "like" research interests as a way to increase salary and visibility on campus?

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