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Negotiating An Academic Job Offer

One package doesn't fit all, and a tailored deal benefits both parties

by Corinne A. Marasco
January 21, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 3

Credit: Brad Killer/iStockphoto
Credit: Brad Killer/iStockphoto

MANY NEWLY minted academics may feel they're at a disadvantage when negotiating the details of a new job. Although industry job seekers can easily find advice on negotiating, it's more of a project to obtain good advice for those applying for academic jobs, largely because academic hiring varies from institution to institution and from person to person. Knowing your priorities, though, will help you make a compelling case when you reach the negotiating table.

Ellen R. Fisher, a professor of chemistry at Colorado State University (CSU), is a proponent of negotiating job offers, in part because she herself did not do so. Only later did she realize the impact of that decision, especially in terms of future salary increases and other resources.

What keeps people from negotiating, she says, is fear. "People are afraid that the job offer will be rescinded if they try to negotiate. They don't understand that some negotiating is expected to take place."

In recent years, the sizes of start-up packages for new academic hires have increased dramatically, according to Fisher. "It used to be that a department would supply you with what you initially needed to get your research up and going. Now some candidates expect a department to support them for their entire assistant professorship. They can price themselves out of a job if they're not careful," she cautions.

On the other hand, Stewart W. Schneller, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and dean of science and mathematics at Auburn University, in Alabama, says: "I don't know of any case where the size of the start-up package request has scared us away."

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Peter K. Dorhout, vice provost for graduate affairs, assistant vice president for research, and professor of chemistry at CSU, recommends that young faculty think of themselves as starting a small business. "When I interview people, I want to know what they need to get results within the first three years so they can write a grant proposal that will fund their future research," he says. "It's expected that a well-known, well-funded research program is something that tenure and promotion committees are looking for."

Dorhout adds that asking about the start-up package for the last person hired isn't the best negotiating tactic. "That person might have been in protein crystallography, which may not be relevant to your negotiation. What is more relevant is whether the last person got postdoc support, new graduate student assistant support, or had to pay tuition for graduate students."

TO HELP RAISE her students' consciousness about this subject, Fisher runs a negotiation exercise for her graduate students in which they role-play negotiations between a department chair and a candidate. Some pairs are able to come to a compromise, whereas in others one partner concedes every single point, thereby failing to champion their own interests. The goal, Fisher says, is to get students thinking about their needs and decide at what point they will not negotiate any further.

Through this exercise, Fisher hopes her students learn to answer this question: What is your best alternative to a negotiated agreement? "If you have an offer from University X, what is your alternative?" she asks. "If it's unemployment, you may want to take the offer. If you have three other offers, you're in a stronger position to negotiate a better package."

Consider the issue of laboratory space. It is a limited commodity on every campus. Depending on your research and equipment needs, what is the minimum amount of space you need to do your work?

Fisher strongly advises asking during the interview to see what a typical lab space looks like to get an idea of the square footage you will need. You're not likely to get 2,000 sq ft of lab space when the average person in your department gets less, but your lab shouldn't be so small that people can't work.

Dorhout adds that if you require a large piece of equipment, it should fit in the proposed space, and if it doesn't then renovations should be part of the negotiations. "It's very important to see the lab space, because you don't want an assistant professor in a 500-sq-ft lab," he says. "It can cost hundreds of dollars per square foot to renovate lab space, but if you're in the fortunate position to be considering more than one offer, you can use it as a bargaining chip."

OTHER IMPORTANT questions to ask: Where will your lab be located? Will you be near your colleagues or running back and forth across campus? If the space does need renovating, where will the money actually come from? If you're footing the bill out of your start-up funds, for example, you need to determine whether there will be enough money in your package to get your research off the ground.

Equipment is a one-time expenditure, but it helps to look beyond your personal research needs. If you require a specific piece of equipment, be sure to point out how other faculty members in the department can benefit from its use. That high-end, $60,000 charge-coupled device camera may be nice to have, but will you be the only one using it?

"Departments generally won't quibble on equipment if it's reasonable," Fisher says, "but it helps to be open to sharing." At CSU, there is a central instrument facility with equipment available to anyone who is conducting research. "There's a UV-Vis spectrometer I use once every couple of years," she adds. "If I bought one, it would cost $15,000 to $20,000, but I don't need to since there is one available."

Information about facilities and core equipment is usually listed on a department's website, but ask about any costs for using the equipment. If there is a central facility, it may be easier to negotiate instrument time with your new employer—say, $20,000 of NMR and mass spec time—than $20,000 in funding. Also, ask how much time is available for new faculty to use instruments. If an instrument that you know will be critical to your work is always booked by another group and they have priority, that's important to know, too.

Credit: Dmitriy Shrionosov/iStockphoto
Credit: Dmitriy Shrionosov/iStockphoto

Unlike equipment costs, staff costs are recurring. "Is a candidate asking us to support a graduate student for a couple of years or a postdoc?" Schneller asks. "If it's a postdoc, I hope they have a concept of postdoc salaries." At Auburn, hiring a postdoc takes a year, so a candidate should request those funds beginning with their second year of employment. Auburn provides two years of postdoc support, after which its administration expects the new hire to carry the postdoc on grants.

As federal funding gets tighter and more competitive, the length of time you can negotiate departmental support for your staff before your first grant application is funded is important. Although a department may be reluctant to pay salaries for more than three years, you need to find out what happens if your start-up funding runs out before you obtain external grants. Conversely, what happens if you obtain funding before your start-up money runs out?

Presentation is important in negotiations. If you approach your proposed research budgets as though you were submitting them to a major granting agency such as the National Science Foundation, it shows that you have thought your proposals through, you know what you need, and you are ready to execute your plans. The bottom line, Dorhout says, is that "you will sound more confident and improve your negotiating position. That will do more to help you than knowing the cost of everything you need down to the last beaker."

Finally, consider spreading out your start-up funds over a period of years as opposed to taking one lump sum. "It takes the burden off the university to come up with $500,000 in one fiscal year," Fisher points out. "If you need $200,000 your first year and $100,000 for the next three years, and it won't hinder you from getting your research done, that's a good negotiating point for the department to accommodate."

Possibly one of the more complicated negotiating points is your teaching assignment. Young faculty are generally expected to teach, but how many hours and which courses? If you're trying to establish your research program, then you have to determine the department's willingness to reduce your teaching load.

"Try to get some guarantee that you can teach the same class more than once," Fisher advises. "The second time you teach a class it's easier because more prep time is invested in teaching a new class." In her department, new assistant professors receive a semester off in their first year to get their labs running and another semester off the year before they apply for tenure to write papers and present external lectures.

As for service assignments, it's important that junior faculty seek some balance in being involved with activities other than teaching and research. Schneller advises junior faculty "to keep service to a minimum until they have tenure," whereas Fisher's advice for candidates is to help themselves by identifying what they're willing to do. "If you're going to serve on a committee, it might as well be one that interests you," she says.

It's important to negotiate the best starting salary you can, because future salary increases will be based on this figure, and after that any changes will be primarily cost-of-living increases or based on a promotion. To help you come up with reasonable salary targets to shoot for in a negotiation, C&EN publishes salary data (C&EN, Dec. 3, 2007, page 73) and a salary comparator is provided on the American Chemical Society website ( for use as references.

AS A NEW FACULTY member, you probably will confront limitations on salary that your department will be hard put to transcend. For example, a department may not pay a new assistant professor a salary that exceeds that of the most junior associate professor. If the window for starting salaries is narrowly defined, other negotiation possibilities include moving expenses, housing assistance, spousal job support, conference and travel support, and administrative support.

"We know what other universities in our region are offering," Schneller says. "We can negotiate somewhat, but we do make what we consider to be an intelligent offer."

One important factor is the cost of living in a particular location. "Seventy thousand dollars in Fort Collins is a lot more than $70,000 in Los Angeles," Fisher says. "Sometimes people can't negotiate on salary because of how they're determined institutionally, but you can ask for more vacation time, different hours, or an extra month's summer salary."

Negotiating a position at a larger or research-intensive institution, such as Auburn or CSU, is very different from applying to a smaller institution that emphasizes teaching and service. Tom Reinert is a professor of chemistry at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., a four-year, liberal arts undergraduate institution. He says that at smaller institutions, assessing what kinds of research projects are realistic is one of the biggest challenges.

"We have 1,500 to 1,700 students, so our mission isn't necessarily to conduct the kind of research done at Ph.D.-granting institutions," Reinert says. "We're trying to train students to be successful in graduate school. You may have a great research proposal, but can you execute it? Is the infrastructure in place? What can be done to involve the students? As a small institution, we want someone who won't sit in their office and focus on just their work."

At a smaller institution, Reinert adds, "if you're buying a new piece of equipment, do you have the expertise to maintain it? Perhaps you need to base your research around service-level equipment rather than around research-level equipment." Reinert, for example, knows how to maintain and repair his department's Fourier transform nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer as well as the department's 45 computers.

To help new faculty succeed, he notes, department colleagues will assume higher teaching loads for a time. He adds that the other aspect of teaching assignments at a small school is "when we advertise for an inorganic chemist with the ability to teach a certain area, we really do mean that. We have much less flexibility than larger institutions so it's about how you fit with the other people who are currently here."


ALTHOUGH YOU may not get a big remodeling job for your lab space at a small school, Reinert recommends other items to negotiate for, such as travel funds to attend two conferences a year for the first two years. "Many institutions will restrict travel unless you're going to give a paper," he says, "but early in your career you may not have anything to present." He also recommends negotiating summer stipend money—"if you're working during the summer you should get paid"—and funding for students.

Once you've reached an agreement on the terms of your position, no matter what, get everything in writing. Deans change, department chairs change, and deals change unless they are in writing.

Negotiating an academic job offer is just as essential as negotiating one from industry. How you start your academic career can make all the difference to your success, so it's in your best interest to get the resources you need right at the very beginning. The key, as in any negotiation, is to frame the situation as a win-win for you and for the department.


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