September 2013

Starting salaries: how to ask for more and to launch a negotiation

Academics tend to struggle with negotiating job offers because of the enduring monkish quality of the scholarly life, which is ideally meant to forsake material gain for a higher calling of dedication to the truth. How this ideal has endured to 2013 is beyond me, but endured it has, and it does a tremendous disservice to the young Ph.D.s attempting to finalize the terms of their first professional positions.
Because the fact is, you have to negotiate to get the best terms possible. Institutions know that young Ph.D.s are loathe to push for more money and other perks, and while most departments do approach the job-offer negotiation with a new hire with considerable good faith and good will, they by no means start out at their absolute upper limit. They’d like to get you for less, thank you very much. At the same time, they know how to negotiate and will engage in a negotiation with a job candidate most of the time. (There is a disturbing recent trend for schools to rescind offers upon the candidate seeking a minimal level of negotiation. See the Chronicle Forum “Universities to Fear” for stories. Thankfully this is still quite rare.)
It is important to approach the negotiation confidently, firmly and courteously, without emotionalism, drama, self-deprecation or insecure justifications. Simply compose a list of things you’d like, with specifics — always name a salary number, a startup figure, a specific teaching release, etc. — and ask for them.
Women, people from marginalized communities and first-generation Ph.D.s have the hardest time with this. They tend to feel as if they are imposing on the department, being selfish, asking for something to which they are not entitled, etc. They may be encouraged in this wrong-headed thinking by some advisers who still tell their Ph.D.s just to be thankful they have an offer at all.
Reject that thinking! Do not allow yourself to be influenced by such concerns. You are entitled to ask for more and to launch a negotiation. The department may not agree to everything, but, as long as you write and speak with collegiality and good will, they will respect your efforts to provide for yourself.
If they say no once, ask again or ask for a lesser amount. Let the exchange go on for a few days; don’t allow yourself to be rushed.
Below is an example of a bad negotiation email (from an actual client of mine) and how I corrected it. In the first email, I have set in bold every term and phrase that diminishes, juvenilizes, genders, and sabotages or makes excuses for the hire. Note in particular (1) her overuse of the self-minimizing word “just,” (2) the emotionalism in the phrase “I would really appreciate …” and (3) the repeated question form (“would you consider”) that I replaced with declarative requests.
The client was successful (indeed, she was a bit of a rock star) and got nearly everything for which she asked. Negotiating is not rocket science! Don’t apologize; just state what you want.

I just wanted to get back to you and discuss a little more about the offer.
I would again like to let you know that (University of X) is my priority, but I also have an offer from (University Y), which is offering me $XXK. I understand that you many have some constraints, but would you consider increasing the starting salary to some extent? Also, I was wondering if you could add a startup research fund. I understand that conference travels are generally covered, but I would like to make sure that I get covered for two conferences each year in order to stay productive. In terms of teaching load, would it be possible to have a course load of X during the second year? In addition, I would really appreciate if I could get covered for the house-hunting trip for my husband and myself. It is going to be a long move from (current location), so we would like to visit and make sure that we find a nice place for our family.
Also, I would really appreciate if you could consider extending the deadline just a few more days. Again, my priority is (University of X), but I just want to make sure I know all the options before I make my decision and I am expecting to hear from a few schools within the next week.

Here is the new version:

Dear XXX,
Thank you again for the generous offer. (University of X) is my top choice, and I’m excited about joining the faculty there. However, I have a few issues related to the offer that need to be resolved before I can give a final commitment. I want you to know that I have another offer in hand as well as several possible offers that I am to hear about shortly.
My current offer brings a salary of $XXK. I would like to ask if (University of X) can match that.
I would also like a startup research fund of $XX to fund things like travel for research and a research assistant.
In terms of teaching load, I’d like to request a course release for the second year as well.
I would like to make a trip to (location of University of X) with my partner to look at houses, and I’d like to know if the department can cover some or all of that expense.
And finally, I want to ask for a further extension of the deadline by one week. I am very grateful for your flexibility on the deadline so far. But because several offers seem to be pending, I wish to know all of my options before I make a final decision.
I want to reiterate my seriousness about the (University of X) position and hope that we can reach an agreement quickly.

Karen KelskyKaren Kelsky ( spent 15 years as a tenured professor, department head and university adviser. Today she coaches academics who are applying for jobs, grants and tenure. Visit her website at

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