Academic Promises

Jun 04 2008 Published by under Careerism

Sciencewoman has a nice post up detailing the process she went through to obtain research funds she was orally promised during negotiations for her tenure-track faculty position. Once she came on faculty, and sought fulfillment of this oral promise, she banged up against an immutable fact of academia:

As soon as I settled into my office and wrote my syllabi, I went to my chair to find out about getting the rest of my start-up funds. Chair was somewhat amnesiac and non-committal, but he suggested that I could put in a request to our department's budget and equipment committee.

WTF!? How did a "promise" turn into "put in a request"?


Here's the deal. Oral promises in academia don't mean jack diddly shit! Nothing! They won't even be remembered one hour after they are made, let alone be honored.
If you receive an oral promise, and it actually gets honored, this just means that whatever was promised would have occurred regardless of the promise itself. Even written promises are frequently "reinterpreted" or even ignored as circumstances change, and there is basically nothing any one academic can do about it.
This is why, as Sciencewoman found out, the key to making shit happen for you is to (1) ask for it, repeatedly if necessary and (2) make a good case that making this shit happen will benefit the person who has the power to make it happen.
At the small level: "If you don't give me {small sum of money} to buy X, then I will never be able to generate the data required to get the grant that will provide {larger sum of money}."
At the big level: "If you don't give me an endowed professorship, 5000 square feel of lab space, and five tenure-track faculty slots, I am taking my multimillion dollar highly prestigious operation and going to fucking Stanford!"
Get promises in writing! And even then, be prepared to have to fight to have them honored. Winning such fights means convincing the person with the power to honor that doing so is in his or her own interest.

17 responses so far

  • Orac says:

    This is lesson one in job negotiation that people fresh out of fellowship frequently forget: Get everything in writing. Everything. That includes salary, startup funds, lab space, office space, secretarial support--everything! Indeed, I've learned even go so far as to tell them that I want to see my future office and lab and then to have the room numbers included in my offer letter. In the case of clinician-scientists, it's doubly important to have spelled out in the offer letter exactly what the level of clinical responsibilities expected will be, including percent clinical time, percent protected time, scope of practice, who one's partners will be, coverage for vacations, how often one has to be on call, etc., etc.
    As you point out, even getting them in writing is no guarantee, but a faculty member is in a much stronger position if the promises are in writing than if they are not.

  • joek says:

    To extend on Orac's comment: this is not an academic issue, but is universal for any job offer. The best offer you will ever get from a place of employment is the one on the day you get hired. Believing that job conditions will be improved, that "oral" offers or implied promises will be honored (unless in your employers interest), or in general that your written offer will be improved on in any way, is naive.
    It's not "bad faith" in some personal way --- it's just the nature of unequal negotiations, anything ambiguous will be interpreted to the advantage of the top dog.

  • Zeno says:

    This item is like a report on extraterrestrial life for me. Since I'm a teacher and not a researcher, that situation couldn't be more alien. One of my junior colleagues came to our community college directly from the grad program of a big research U. When he became a finalist for one of our faculty positions, a professor at the big U tried to give him advice: "Be sure you don't settle for their first offer." Ha! Fortunately, he had already taught for us one semester as an adjunct faculty member and understood that there was no "first" offer. There would be only a "take it or leave it" offer. You can't negotiate salary, office space, teaching assignments, ..., nothing. It's a whole 'nother world.

  • okham says:

    Here's the deal. Oral promises in academia don't mean jack diddly shit! Nothing! They won't even be remembered one hour after they are made, let alone be honored.
    [...]
    This is lesson one in job negotiation that people fresh out of fellowship frequently forget: Get everything in writing. Everything.

    AMEN. Absolutely true. It's disappointing, because one assumes to be dealing with people of integrity but... Do get everything you can in writing and don't assume people are honest, or you are in for an unpleasant surprise. In my case this is what I got:
    0) "Unfortunately funding for that has run out right after your hire"
    1) "I am sorry, but that is a promise the former dean made... it's unfortunate, I can assure you that I never would have committed to that...."
    2) "Oh, come on, that is unrealistic... how could we possibly do that ?"
    Good luck telling them that you never would have taken the job without that commitment, that commitments made by previous administrators are binding among non-scoundrels, that, unrealistic or not, they had promised that they would do just that, which makes them either a bunch of liars or seriously delusional...

  • PhysioProf says:

    Okham, you are so ungrateful! You should consider it an honor to hold a faculty position at all at such an esteemed institution! You really need to try to be more of a team player!

  • okham says:

    Okham, you are so ungrateful! You should consider it an honor to hold a faculty position at all at such an esteemed institution! You really need to try to be more of a team player!
    Wait a minute... but that's exactly what the dean said when I complained....
    AH-HA ! So, it was YOU all this time, PP, wasn't it ? You are the evil mind behind this organization, feeding the lines to these puppets...

  • Brian Puccio says:

    How is this different than industry where if an offer is made, you ask for it in writing?

  • joek says:

    okham: It's disappointing, because one assumes to be dealing with people of integrity but...
    Remember, they see themselves as having integrity, but they have a legal, ethical and fiduciary duty as agents of an institution to act in what they regard as the "best interests" of that institution. Yeah, it might be self-delusion and rationalization, but that's how we've written the law. If they didn't act that way, some would argue that they had acted irresponsibly as agents.
    Ain't the law grand?

  • okham says:

    Remember, they see themselves as having integrity
    Nope. Sorry, you can't have it both ways. Integrity means that at some point you have to take responsibility and tell the person "I am sorry, this is all I can offer at this time, and no more. I wish I could do more, but I can't. I fully understand that you may elect to pursue another opportunity, but it would be unethical of me to make promises upon which I may not be able to deliver".

  • CC says:

    How is this different than industry where if an offer is made, you ask for it in writing?
    Industry is a bit different because everyone is (in theory, anyway) pulling in the same direction. It's not like an academic department with a bunch of freelancers competing with each other for resources. Your offer terms focus on your title, salary and bonus, and maybe some details of how many and what sort of reports you'll have. People don't need to negotiate how much lab space they'll get and how many fewer meetings they'll have to go to as vehemently as they do in academia.
    Plus, the equipment and space are usually there already. I came in and replaced someone who does the same thing as me, not some geezer emeritus they finally shoved out the door, so I didn't need to throw out a lab full of equipment from 1952, replace it with all new stuff, and fight to recapture the space he lost to a molecular biologist in 1973.
    Yeah, it might be self-delusion and rationalization, but that's how we've written the law. If they didn't act that way, some would argue that they had acted irresponsibly as agents.
    Curiously, this myth has been seized upon both by people who denounce it and by people who applaud it. In reality, fiduciary responsibility prohibits Dennis Kozlowski-style looting to fill one's own pockets. No department head could possibly face any sort of legal risk over negotiations about lab space for a new faculty hire, let alone over not reneging on a verbal contract.

  • drdrA says:

    So right PP. I ALWAYS tell this to people who come to me with negotiation questions...
    Funny though... when I negotiated, the negotiator on the other side acted very irritated with me for even daring to negotiate- and certain thing would not be put in writing. Said I would just have to 'trust' in certain things. When I was frustrated by this and wanted to insist- other faculty told me that I wouldn't want to push to hard (I am always polite but for me this is business) for this because I wouldn't want to get my relationship with said negotiator off on 'the wrong foot'...??! I don't think that this occurrence is that infrequent...

  • frog says:

    CC: Curiously, this myth has been seized upon both by people who denounce it and by people who applaud it. In reality, fiduciary responsibility prohibits Dennis Kozlowski-style looting to fill one's own pockets. No department head could possibly face any sort of legal risk over negotiations about lab space for a new faculty hire, let alone over not reneging on a verbal contract.
    Legally, I expect that you are correct. Psychologically, all people need is some way to rationalize their self-interested behavior. As I said, they (and others) will believe that they are behaving ethically --- even if objectively they're not.
    That's what you've got to work with, since actually taking the case to court is a losing proposition -- even if you had sufficient evidence of the verbal contract, winning the case would be Pyhrric.
    Like drdrA points out --- the community at large deludes themselves into believing that acquiescing to such behavior is reasonable, even when it is not. In other words, your colleagues will act as accomplices for no obvious reason other than that they've been screwed, so you should be too. Weird eh?

  • A tactful way to get verbal commitments into writing is to send a follow-up letter (or email), saying "What follows is my understanding of our conversation. Please let me know if I've misunderstood anything."

  • PhysioProf says:

    Tactful, and completely ineffectual. This only works with people that you have power over, not people who have power over you. They can simply ignore your e-mail or letter. Weeks, months, or years later, they "never received it" or "you misunderstood" or "circumstances have changed" or whatever, whatever, whatever.
    The real bottom line in academia is that the chairs do whatever the fuck they want to faculty, deans do whatever the fuck they want to chairs, and university presidents do whatever the fuck they want to deans. And the only thing that constrains any of this is an immediate pragmatic calculus: what will benefit my interests at this moment in time?

  • juniorprof says:

    PP, your comment shows a disturbing disregard for the importance of committee structure in the academic setting. For instance, a space dispute could go to the space committee, a money dispute to the cash flow committee, a dean complaint to the committee for dean complaints, a complaint about a committee (or any other committee ruling) to the committee on committees, and so forth. By navigating this simple route one can expect a committee on ruling to convene another committee to hear your complaints that were submitted to the committee on committees committee by the time of your death.

  • pinus says:

    Verbal agreements are worth the paper they are written on. Sure, you can still get shafted when something is in writing, but it becomes a different boat. This is a general life lesson and not one specific to science. Maybe in all the excitement associated with getting a first faculty position this is forgotten by some, but not me. Every thing is documented and agreed upon by all parties in every agreement.

  • PhysioProf says:

    In the interest of full disclosure (I do think I've blogged or commented on this before): I did not negotiate at all for my position, didn't really even read the written offer, and just relied on the good will of my chair. It turned out that I got totally fucking lucky, and he was a great dude, who hooked me the fuck up! The point is that you don't want to have to rely on dumb luck to get what you need.

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