Salvaging an Insufficient Offer
Receiving a faculty offer that is financially untenable is the worst of both worlds: temporary excitement followed by a crash. It triggers disappointment at being led along the hiring path alongside explicit evidence that your value and needs were not understood.
Don’t assume the crash is fatal. The shortest but worst path is to organize every shred of anger into a prompt and terse rejection. This department includes your future professional network. You must be gracious even if the offer is moribund.
The longer path requires cautious steps towards understanding if it is possible to redeem the situation. Preparing to discuss why you can’t accept the initial offer requires knowledge of four key parameters, which you ideally organized before and during your job search, but which can be rapidly acquired.
- Concrete information about comparable starting salaries.
Chronicle of Higher Education and AAMC Databook benchmarks (latter is expensive; visit your medical school library) are options as well as journal publications. If the ranges and quantiles are presented for all in a group, e.g. assistant professors, remember to draw the line back from a midpoint of 3.5 to 4.5 years to an approximate starting salary.
- Typical start-up packages for your discipline as well as actual projections of the costs of launching your research.
In estimates for your needs distinguish among equipment, personnel, and research costs as these may be handled differently across institutions.
- Connections with peers at the institution as a point of reference for norms.
Include early career individuals you met while interviewing or alumni of your prior training institutions. Be discreet.
- Familiarity with concepts of negotiating towards mutually desired outcome.
Read Getting to Yes in a single day like your paycheck depends on it – it might.
- Don’t throw in the towel because gap between expectations and offer is large.
- Don’t assume the hiring unit is maliciously trying to “low-ball” your offer.
- Don’t create an artificial emergency. There is time.
- Don’t complain to others at the institution. Ask questions of trusted individuals, but no ranting allowed.
- Don’t send an email with specific dollar values. Better yet, don’t email at all.
Have a reality check with trusted mentors. Review what your expectations for salary and start-up range were and any other terms of the offer. It is helpful to share the letter in advance of a discussion (pdf is fine). Again, don’t email your concerns or frustrations, just the facts of the offer, since this assures your unfiltered impressions cannot be accidentally or purposefully shared with others.
Pick up the phone and call the assistant of the individual who is recruiting you (referred to as chair but can be center director, division chief, etc.). Often this is the assistant who coordinated your visit(s). Tell them you enjoyed meeting everyone, you are excited to have received an offer, and you’d like to schedule time to speak with the chair. If necessary note you may need to ask for an extension of the timeline for responding to the offer. Don’t be specific and don’t share any confidences. If pressed, explain “some details might be easiest to talk about.” Meet in person if you are within driving/train distance.
Roleplay the meeting. This does NOT mean think all the possible answers in your head by yourself. This means actually say the words out loud in response to anticipated portions of the meeting. Prepared talking points in broad strokes while resisting the temptation to use a script which can come across as wooden and stiff. Brainstorm multiple scenarios and plan your open and accepting body language in advance (even if you will be on the phone – your brain feels your body language). Aim to address the two or three deal-breakers, not to take a legalese approach to interpretation of the whole offer.
Chair’s greeting [typically brief; you may need to steer]:
“We’re excited about having you join us.” or
“I hope you’re pleased with the offer.” or
“What ground should we cover today?”
Start with Salary
Your planned content:
[Affirm] “I’m excited by the idea of coming to Fabulous University. You have a great department and I can see how this would be an ideal fit. [Name specific mentors or colleagues as appropriate.]”
Don’t telegraph a “but” is coming in your tone or posture. Convey genuine interest in what actually attracts you. Try not to say “but” for the entire negotiation. Avoiding “but” and saying “and” is harder than you think. Practice.
[Be direct] I wanted to talk about salary and start-up funds.
Say the actual words when you rehearse with a peer, partner, mentor or coach, then practice again in front of the mirror. Aim for professional but informal, for instance “talk” is less threatening than “discuss.”
[Insert a real pause here. It will feel like a long night on a bed of nails. You are inviting the chair into the moment by leaving a silence. Rehearse this too. Time a practice pause to see how long 10 seconds is – seems like forever. Depending on personality type, the chair may need no time or 30 seconds or more to move into the space.]
[Formal]: “What are your salary expectations?” or
[Informal]: “Say more about that.”
Your planned response:
“At state universities in the Northeast, early career faculty in [your discipline] are making between $90,000 and $102,000, so they are likely starting at about $86,000 and $98,000. That squares with the experience of my lab mates and friends who have been on the job market lately.” [Insert another pause here.]
Avoid giving a specific salary. An exact amount creates an anchoring effect, meaning it will overly influence the discussion. You are looking for an initial response to a range.
Potential forks in the road appear here:
a. Nope: “I’m sorry to hear that. Our faculty affairs office advises on starting salaries and I am comfortable with $82,000 because it preserves equity among the current faculty.” Brace yourself and be prepared to move on to next points. Don’t communicate even non-verbally that the game is over. The purpose is to find a third way to get results you both want.
You: I certainly wouldn’t want to be a cause of strife. Let me know if there is wiggle room. Maybe we can talk about what it would look like to get my research launched?
b. Query: “What does the offer need to be for you to accept?” Your best first attempt is to reflect this back.
You: What range works for the department?
This communicates you want to be a solid citizen. Don’t personalize the question so they feel they are on the spot, thus “department” and not “you.” Then proceed as in D below.
c. Inscrutable: “I hear you. Let me get more information and get back to you.”
Say thank you for their willingness to consider and drop the topic quickly to move to “Can we talk about getting my research started here?
d. Sure: “Would $86,000 work for you?” Ideally don’t name a lower end of the range early in the discussion than you are unwilling to accept. It is better to be very narrowly specific in the set up than appear to be piling on more information later. So better to say up front, “for state medical centers in the northeast, the 25th percentile for salary for PhD scientists who have completed a post-doctoral fellowship is XX and the 75th percentile is YY, I feel like I could end my job hunt with an offer close to the median.” Avoid refining your source estimates or range later in the discussion, it feels like bait and switch. But this is where you can name your number.
You: “What about $88,000?” You must know going into this discussion what your number is. You can ask above that but you need to know what you will say “yes” to in advance. If the chair counters “$86,000 is what I can do,” you can ask for time to think but ideally you will answer on the spot. S/he needs to redraft a letter and circulate it through official channels again. So they need a number. Many universities consider the first offer to be The Offer, so needing a re-do comes at some perceived cost to the chair because it means s/he did not get it right the first time.
Getting Start-up Right Depends on Knowing Your Needs
Since the conversation is already moving, it is tempting to be specific about start-up requests too quickly. Be sure you can narrate the story of why you need what you need. Don’t assume the chair understands the cost of your science.
Chair: “What’s off-base about the start-up offer?” or
“So, tell me your thoughts about start-up.”
Your planned response: “I’m aiming to submit a K01 in October of this year. Most of that data will be complete when I get here. Then my goal is to start immediately to put down the best possible foundation for an R01 [or equivalent in your discipline]. Typical preliminary work will involve [what specific number of participants, animals, specimens, lab experiments], and for my work that translates to about $55,000 a year over the first three years [or other timeline from offer].
Implement the same strategy used above for salary. Use ranges if you can honestly report on what similar and comparably accomplished colleagues have received. Note caveats and you’ll get bonus points for candor – “but they are at a private institution” or “they already have their K”. Be able to break down costs. For instance, at times expensive equipment for your individual use is purchased from a capital equipment funds and not included in start-up. The point is to get what you need to do good work, attend meetings, and be productive, not how the dollars are packaged.
If discussion is warm and collegial and you have confidence the offer will move closer to your needs, you may be able to squeeze in my favorite question that helps with your understanding of your leadership:
“If we are assessing in five or ten years, whether I have done what you hoped for, what accomplishments will be the most exciting to you and best for the department?”
Don’t let the meeting drag. At a natural breaking point (often this is after only 15 to 30 minutes), say how much you appreciate the offer and their making time to discuss details with you. If you are certain the fit is not right, still find a gracious way to say thank you. If they have offered to prepare a new offer, indicate you will be ready to respond quickly.
* This approach was recently responsible for a post-doc receiving a revised tenure track offer that increased salary by $4,000 per year and start-up by $35,000 per year. Give it a try. What have you got to lose?