Monday, January 26, 2015

Negotiating a Single Tenure Track Offer

Today’s guest blogger is Stella Offner. She is an assistant professor at UMass Amherst.

In the current stressful faculty job market, multiple job offers are becoming more rare and the typical lucky job seeker receives only a single tenure-track offer. The single-job offer naturally produces a more unequal negotiation between the applicant and institution, versus the case of multiple offers where institutions can be pitted against one another, like two wrestling titans. So, how does one successfully negotiate an offer without leverage from a second option? 

In two different years I found myself in this situation: the happy recipient of a single tenure-track job offer. Many very helpful resources have been written containing general negotiating advice. Whether you have one offer or many, here is one good resource. However, from my experience I learned that there are some surprising advice omissions. For example, most job-advice panels focus on the best-case scenarios, where the job seekers received what they wanted. Unfortunately, due to the inherent secrecy of offer details, dissatisfied parties rarely broadcast their negotiation failures. Worse, the whole negotiation can go badly wrong. If this happens it is a frustrating and isolating experience. After all, in this job climate wouldn’t one be crazy to decline a tenure-track job offer … in favor of a post-doc?? Although this situation is rare, it happened to me and I have since learned of other instances where applicants walked away from their single tenure-track job offer. All the cases I know of involve women applicants, but this may be due to small number statistics.

What I learned from my experience, and later from others in the same situation, is that there are several important points that are missing from the typical job advice that are especially important in the single-job offer situation. I offer them here. 

1. Stall for Time
Leading institutions, like Harvard, will wait almost indefinitely for a prize hire. However, most institutions do not welcome competition for their top candidate and would prefer to wrap up the search as rapidly as possible. This can pose a serious issue since the interview and decision process can span January to May, and an offer may materialize while the candidate has not finished interviewing elsewhere. In my case, the first on-campus interview resulted in an offer in mid-January, far in advance of all my other scheduled interviews. As a post-doc, I was regaled by numerous stories in which candidates gymnastically juggled offers, not only playing one against another, but successfully delaying negotiations, rearranging interviews, and ultimately fending off commitment until a second more preferable offer appeared. In my case, the institution refused to wait more than 3 weeks for my decision; the other institutions that I was visiting refused to speed up their on-campus interview or decision-making process. Best ways to stall for time: (1) Ask for more time to gather information for your wish list; (2) Plan a second visit, one which naturally must be delayed due to other commitments (do not mention other scheduled interviews, unless your offer is from Harvard or other equivalent); (3) Make a request that is likely to require additional lengthy negotiation (e.g., a spousal hire).

2. Play Hardball
The essence of this advice is to accept the offer on the table and then back out (if desired) if a second better offer appears. This advice was offered to me a number of times when it became clear that my negotiation was stuck. Obviously, this generates ill will, because once the offer is accepted the institution will notify the other applicants that the search has finished. If the hire later reneges, the department may be required to perform a fresh search, which is costly and time intensive. I found this piece of advice morally troubling, but, as one person put it to me, “this is their faculty position, but its your life.” Bottom line, I do not personally advocate doing this, but it’s something to consider.

3. Be Prepared to Walk Away 
This sounds fatalistic, but it leads to an incredibly important exercise. When you go into the negotiation not only should you have a “wish list” of items, you should have some minimum requirements that you need to be successful and happy: a “must-have” list. These items are not “priorities”; these are necessities. Whether this includes some funding floor, a position for a partner, or contractual certainty, if the final offer on the table does not meet these needs, you should be prepared to walk away. These three examples are all things that led applicants to walk away from their sole offer. In one case sufficient resources for success in research were not offered. In another, a viable spousal position did not materialize. In the last case, the final contract was completely discrepant with the verbal promises. This last is especially important— if something is not in the written contract it is not part of the offer and it is unlikely to materialize, no matter how eloquently and emphatically it may be promised.**

**The final contract should be as specific as possible. One of my colleagues included the square footage for his lab space in the contract. As a legal document, the contract was later his only defense against the administrators who were intent on installing his lab in a smaller, less desirable location.

4. There Are Other Fish in the Sea
This common, if annoying, relationship advice also applies here.  Whether you accept a bad offer or choose to walk away, you can always apply to other jobs again next year. You are not stuck in the job for life. Walking away is particularly agonizing, and from experience I can say its impossible to escape the terrible thought that you might never receive another tenure-track offer ever again. The good news is that there are other fish. In all cases where offers were declined (that I know of), the job seeker was offered, and happily accepted, a tenure-track position the following year. This is not a guarantee, of course, but it’s worth keeping the big picture in sight to maintain sanity.

Good luck!


Nick Nelson said...

Very helpful post - thanks! Until reading this post I don't think I had ever seen someone address this situation. My only question is has anyone seen the hardball option play out? How bad was the fallout?

Just as a note, I am aware of two instances where male candidates turned down their only TT-faculty offer - one because of an inadequate start-up package and the other because of a two-body problem with which the university in question was uninterested in providing any sort of assistance.

Anonymous said...

I got single offer from a reasonable institution after trying to receive one for quite a while. Suddenly, other things in life became more apparent than just the holy grail of TT position. While the offer itself was not good enough (low startup package, high teaching load), the main things that made my decision to decline were "I don't think I want to spend the rest of my life here", and "I don't think this is the place I want to raise my kids", and "what would my wife do here?". Purely personal aspects that have nothing to do with academia. We all have to remember that at the end of the day, it's only a job and there are other things in life. Don't get people who work for law firms either...

Stella Offner said...

Thanks for your comments! It would be great to collect some anonymous statistics on what caused people to turn down their offers. And what they're doing now.

I would love to know if there is any actual correlation with gender (e.g. women are sometimes stigmatized for negotiating, there may be a perception that they would settle for less...).

I do not know of specific examples of people who played hardball--the people who gave me this advice had not done this themselves!

Anonymous said...

I am a female and I am in this precise predicament right now :-)
so thank you for writing about it, helps me to think about options, because honestly I am leaning towards taking a postdoc over a TT with high teaching load. We shall see, but if you do a longitudinal survey, I would be happy to participate.