Negotiating Academic Job Offers

You’ve received a job offer from an academic institution—well done! The final step in securing an academic position, like any job, is negotiating the terms of your contract. In academia, some aspects of negotiating terms will be similar to the private sector, but some aspects are unique to academia. Begin with these guidelines to prepare for negotiating the terms of your first academic contract.

Gather information about the university. Each university has an office dedicated to personnel issues. Check online before you speak with anyone at the university to see what’s available in terms of benefits, child care, elder care, relocation, dual-career accommodations, disability services, or diversity, says Elizabeth H. Simmons, Dean of Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University.

Many universities don’t negotiate salary (or they don’t have a salary range they can negotiate within). Have an idea whether your salary offer is flexible before you speak with administrators at your next university.

If your job offer is from a public university, the salaries for current employees are posted online. Check to see what people in comparable fields and with similar experience are making. For example, if you're a starting faculty member in engineering, your salary may be very different from a starting faculty member in the humanities. Look at other engineering faculty members hired in the previous few years to get an idea of what your salary may be. Alternatively, check the average salary for your field in the Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, published by the American Association of University Professors.

Ask the department for the criteria and standards for tenure. This document will help you assess what you need to do for the next five to six years to achieve your goal—tenure. Knowing what’s expected of you as a researcher, teacher, and colleague will also give you an idea of what you’ll need in terms of support. Resources that support your work towards tenure may be easier to obtain than a larger starting salary.

Julie Platt, a blogger at GradHacker, lists the easier-to-negotiate aspects of a contract. Consider what you’ll need to successfully complete your first years at the university (and what will set you up for applying for tenure in a few years).

  • Would a semester with fewer teaching responsibilities allow you to finish a manuscript?
  • Are there professional development opportunities key to your development?
  • Are you part of a dual-career couple and will your partner also be looking for employment at the university?
  • Would additional funds for research support work on your next article?
  • Do you need specific technology to complete your work?

Make a list and rank your needs in terms of importance. When it comes time to sit down and talk about your contract, you’ll have a much better picture of your wants and needs and will be well prepared to discuss them when the time comes. Remember, you may wind up with one or two of these items, not all of them, so you’ll want to be thoughtful about what you ask for.

When you sit down to negotiate, remember that you are speaking with future colleagues, not adversaries. They want you to succeed in your research and gain tenure and they’re willing to work with you as much as possible to help you succeed in your new position.

If you find that one of your requests is met with a negative response, remain positive and open. You might be unaware of a negative history or departmental constraints associated with your request. Ask the person you’re speaking with to help you understand the situation.  By asking for clarification, you underscore that you didn’t know the history or constraints, and that you had no ill intent when you made your request.

Once you’ve agreed on terms, get the offer in writing. Perhaps the dean or chair you discussed particular needs with will be stepping down and may not leave full notes for the next chair. Also, memory can also be tricky, and a chair can easily forget one or more of the terms you agreed upon. If the particular items aren’t included in your contract or in another form of written communication, send an email with the details of your conversations and the items you’ve agreed on. The negotiator at your future university can then confirm each item, ensuring that you are on the same page with all parties involved.