Negotiating your academic job offer

This is a minority need for advice, but it’s one I luckily get to give to friends and students a few times a year, in part because economics and politics are big markets. Two colleagues–a student and a coauthor–are deciding between a few different academic opportunities right now, and below is is what I told them (today, as it happens).

It’s basically the distillation of advice given to me when I first graduated from my PhD, and again when I deliberated over my move to New York. So all the good ideas come from others.

  1. Whenever you negotiate, don’t feel nervous or ashamed or worried about it. Be mature, open, reasonable, and somewhat firm. Also, don’t be greedy or a jerk, or get full of yourself. You have to walk a line between the two–i.e. you’ll have to be a professional–and it’s not that hard, especially if you are polite and seek advice.
  2. If you’re among the lucky few with several good opportunities, then narrow it down to the 2 or 3 real contenders and quickly decline the other offers. This way they can go to the next person on their list. Decline not only politely, but also thank them profusely and emphasize how much you liked the department, hope for future interaction, and so forth, but you think that  either school X or Y will be the best fit for where you want to be personally and professionally.
  3. Play with an open hand. That is, if the best offer is from X, then share that offer with Y and Z and see if they can match at all. For my own use I made a small spreadsheet with the different terms of the package as rows (salary, teaching load, initial teaching reductions, startup fund, annual top up, summer ninths, etc) and columns with schools, and shared with my advisors. Their advice, which worked well, was to share that spreadsheet with the schools. I also offered to share the actual offer letters, and sometimes did. It worked well. Basically, department chairs want you and need something hard they can take to their Dean.
  4. Once you know where you want to be, then you can choose to say to one school, “If you do A, B and C then I will sign immediately”. There’s a good chance that they’ll do A, B and C. Again, it comes down to something very firm that a chair can take to the Dean. If you’ve already gone through process 3 above, and wrung things out of the school, maybe you should just ask for A and not B-C (let alone D). It’s hard to generalize.
  5. For things A to D that you want, to the extent these are things that will make you professionally successful rather than simply enrich you, this is probably easier to negotiate. Framing a request in terms of “this will help me succeed in the position and get tenure or take on more students” articulates a shared interest and doesn’t come off as greedy.
  6. You can always ask universities—either the chair or the faculty you’ve met there—what the flexible and inflexible margins are at that particular school. For instance, some institutions won’t yield on teaching, while others are more budget constrained but can provide non-financial relief with more ease.
  7. Don’t draw out the process, and don’t string schools along if you’re not serious about their offer. You can do this for a very short while for leverage, but I don’t recommend it beyond that.
  8. If you receive an exploding offer, things get tricky. This can be a bargaining move to make you choose quickly. When they need the offer to go to another, it’s a legitimate if unfortunate move and you may only be able to negotiate for a little more time. If they aren’t waiting to give the offer to someone else, I suspect you can call their bluff. Every case is different. But as the deadline approaches, a sincere ” I could very likely say yes in X days but I can’t say yes by your deadline” is a “no” that puts the onus on them to take the offer away rather than have you decline it, and I think it will buy you some time.
  9. Do not parade your offers or discussion around other students or colleagues on the job market. You never push yourself up by pushing others down.

Advice from colleagues and other experiences welcome in comments.