Not That Kind of Job Offer: Tales of Negotiation
It has been a long road to get here, but after all the applications, the interviews, the thank you notes, and agonizing waiting game, you are finally the recipient of your very own offer letter! If you, like many new faculty I know, are a little disappointed in the offer, do not fear. This is just the start of the negotiation process. Although today’s post includes some general experiences of our cohort, the negotiation portion is limited to my experiences (n=some) and the fantastic expertise of those whose articles I have linked. Unlike always, this time n=mostly me.
Ask for time: The most important thing to do when you receive your offer letter is to say thank you and then promptly ask for more time to evaluate it. You need to sit down, identify what is missing, what needs negotiating, and if what is being offered is enough.
What your letter should include: Your offer letter should include your salary and start-up package, along with the space allocation, expiration date of the start-up, and general expectations (the big ones: percent salary covered from grants, tenure, teaching/clinical expectations). When most of us were negotiating, we believed we needed to have everything in writing. While I still strongly advocate for having most things in writing, and believe offer letters will be honored completely, more senior faculty will tell you the offer letter, from the perspective of the institution, is less ironclad. In my experience, most principal investigators (PIs) and departmental chairs use their offer letters as a reference document.
Get feedback on your offer letter: As a trainee, evaluating the quality of an offer can be difficult. For example, there is a considerable discrepancy between the start-ups of male and female assistant professors, and not all of this is attributable to women not asking for more or negotiating better. How can you make sure your offer letter is competitive with an appropriate salary and start-up? If you are a K99 recipient, your program officer (PO) will happily tell you when the start-up or support is not enough. Otherwise, identify a couple of individuals (former trainees who are now new faculty, newer faculty in the department, your current departmental chair, and even your mentors) to share the letter with and get feedback. Again, public institutions post salary data, but private institutions do not, so additional work is required, either through Glassdoor or AAMC. Some people recommend asking faculty in the hiring department about start-ups and salary, but to my knowledge, no one in our cohort did that.
Negotiating 101: After you have analyzed your offer letter and received some feedback, it is time to negotiate. Our cohort has no expert negotiators in its ranks. I hate negotiating and bartering in all its forms, so getting comfortable negotiating was a particular challenge. The following advice is an amalgamation of the advice I have received, some of it described here, here, and here.
Set a positive tone and reiterate agreed upon terms: Thank the person with whom you are negotiating for the offer. Communicate your excitement about the opportunity, your interest in the institution, and admiration of their leadership. Follow that with a “but” statement, stating you have a couple of issues you would like to further discuss. As you work through your short list, make sure you reiterate items which you have agreed upon. At the end of the discussion, thank the Chair/Dean for their time and confirm a time when you can expect to receive an updated offer letter.
Identify three to four things that need to be addressed: In your offer letter, identify a couple of things that need to be addressed and order them in degree of importance. Usually the most important is salary or start-up size, and the other two are less important. Always lead with the hardest ask, usually salary, and then move into the easier requests. For example, I wanted to move my start date back, which was fairly easy to accommodate. I saved that request for last.
Picking the counter offer: Salary: Our cohort was split between data-driven counter offers (i.e., the average salary of an assistant professor) and ego-driven (I deserve a salary of X). Always ask for a little bit more than your desired salary, so there is room to come down and still hit your dream salary. Always negotiate salary. Ask for an amount outside of your comfort zone. Mostly it was the women in our cohort who worried they were asking too much–they were not. My recommendation: ask the most self-assured post-doc or new faculty you know what they requested for salary and go with that. If the Chair/Dean says no, they say no. Do not worry: they have invested too much time and money to throw out your offer because you (firmly and politely) requested a higher salary. Start-up/space/teaching: I found these easier to negotiate because they were not focused on what I wanted (to make more money) but what I needed to be successful (a certain amount of money for capital equipment, more protected time to write my R01, etc). If you phrase most of these negotiation points as problems that you and your Chair/Dean can solve together, it runs more smoothly. For example, if everyone in the department works with mice, it might make more sense to invest in tissue processing equipment than paying the Core to process and section the tissues.
Reports from my negotiations: I negotiated several offers. I worked from a bullet-point list of statements for each offer. I negotiated with Directors, Human Resources (HR, for salary), and Chairs. The negotiations with HR were always the most challenging, since their job is negotiation and their salary recommendations are guided by some black box algorithms/rubrics/compensation analysts. At one institution, when I countered my salary and start-up, I was flatly told both were enough; my PO disagreed that the start-up was sufficient and I walked away from that offer. At another institution, the Chair was limited in increasing the salary by institutional averages, but I was able to increase my salary up to the limit. The start-up was capped by the Dean or Director in other institutions. Extensions on start date and time to decision were granted by all negotiators. One institution had a limit on capital equipment, so I negotiated vouchers for Core use instead.
An important point: At the end of the day, if you accept the offer, you will have to work with your Chair/Dean for a long time. Fight for the things you need, but be ferociously polite and accept there are things that cannot be increased. Although there are things you can do to salvage an insufficient offer, sometimes the offer is too weak and you have to walk away.
Once you and the institutional representative come to an agreement, and you sign your offer letter, it is official: you have completed the arduous task of your first faculty job search. The coming months will be a whirlwind of activity as you move your life and science to a new institution and grow into a new role. While this post is the final entry into the job search series, my next series will focus on navigating your new appointment, from setting up the lab to navigating departmental politics. Stay tuned for more tales!
Still have questions? More confused than when you started? Need to vent about the process? Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org
I think one of the most important things Pipette Protagonist has said here is the reminder that you’re working with these folks for some time to come, and to some extent this is where you set the tone.
In my case, the tone I wanted to set was – there are things I want to accomplish, and this is what I need to accomplish them. As PP, says, sometimes there are workarounds for this – rather buying you your own widget, a divisional/departmental widget can be bought.
On salary – I’ve always been 100% soft salary, and this seems increasingly common. I’ve always asked for what I could afford to pay myself….
But in general, you don’t want to come off as either a pain in the neck, or as someone who’s wishy-washy.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts! How do you determine what you can afford to pay yourself, especially if you’ve never held a grant before (or only held something like an F31/32, which provides a standard salary based on years in school or postdoc)?