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Job Hunting (Part II): Let the Negotiations Begin!

February 2003

Negotiation begins when you first get the offer. While you may feel enormously relieved and flattered to have received an offer, take a deep breath. Be enthusiastic, but try to refrain from blurting out that you "can't wait to start" when you receive the phone call, because doing so may weaken the strength of your upcoming negotiations. A verbal commitment may signal that you are going to take the job (no matter what) and that will diminish your pull.

As discussed last month, you need to be prepared. Now is the time to do more research. The time you spend preparing will more than pay back itself during the actual negotiating process, when you can concisely articulate your needs and the reasons for them.

Last month I gave an overview of potential issues:

1. Salary
2. Start-up funds
3. Tenure
4. Lab needs, including access to and purchase of big ticket equipment items
5. Research support
6. Travel support
7. Teaching/clinical load
8. Secretarial support

Remember, this is a package of issues. Prioritize them in terms of importance to you. This will help clarify on which issues you are willing to compromise. Also, think of the list from the institution's perspective. It can be easier to argue for a certain item if you can point out its value to the institution as well. Where differences occur may point to areas of potential trade-offs, i.e., backing off or giving up on an issue in order to gain something (of more worth) in exchange (e.g., an increase in salary in order to make up for a higher teaching/clinical load or lack of moving expenses, or having bigger lab space in a less desirable location).

Be prepared to think about details. For instance, even a seemingly small issue such as parking can assume some importance, especially if you will be working at multiple locations. If you will be hiring a technician, who will arrange and pay for advertisements, etc.?

Let the potential employers set the tone of negotiation. If they are business-like, be business-like. If they seem more personable, by all means, reciprocate. Both of you have a common interest in reaching an agreement, both parties want to make sure that each is "right" for the other. After all, the institution doesn't want to have to start a job search all over again. On the other hand, the institution also holds information you need to successfully negotiate, including payscale limits and space availability.

Information is key. Knowing how to use information is key to boosting your negotiating "power." To find out what is reasonable and fair, investigate the job market and find out the job "norms" for items such as salary ranges and job descriptions. Some of this information is available from associations prominent in your field of research or discipline. Use your "friendship network"--peers and senior colleagues--to obtain such information. Let them raise the salary issue. If asked, "how much do you want/need"? Ask what their typical starting salary is.

What follows is a commonsense approach to negotiation. Much of this is based on Getting to Yes, a book that arose out of a Harvard Law School project. Negotiation is NOT about winning and losing. It's about winning and winning. Remember, you are negotiating a long-term relationship. As the line in the Rolling Stone's song says, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need."

You can't be shy. Science seems to attract introverts. But, just as you must be prepared to stand up and defend your data and develop professional collaborations, you must be ready to clearly state and firmly defend your priorities to a potential employer. This includes having a clear list of needed equipment items in order to justify your requested start-up funds.

The ultimate goal of any negotiation is that the needs of both sides are met. To accomplish this:

  1. Focus on interests, not positions. This is not a contest of wills
  2. Invent options (for mutual gain). For this to be successful, you should develop options that will satisfy the needs of both parties. This requires that you not only develop your own alternatives, but that you also put yourself in the shoes of the people with whom you are negotiating. Think of this as a problem that must be solved by all parties involved
    • Step I. The Problem: Figure out what's wrong. List the symptoms and what you dislike about the current situation in contrast to a preferred situation.
    • Step II. Analysis: Diagnose the problem by sorting symptoms into categories, suggesting causes and identifying barriers to resolving the problem.
    • Step III. Approaches: Identify possible strategies and theoretical cures and come up with broad ideas about what could be done.
    • Step IV. Action Ideas: Name specific steps that might be taken to fix the problem.
  3. Clarify the offer. Take notes. Use them to reiterate and confirm agreements
  4. Anything else you need? Go over your list carefully and make sure it includes all of the items you have discussed. You don't want to have to go back and ask for more items after the first or second letter.
  5. Get it in writing. The letter should be as detailed as possible and come from both the division director and department head. If your offer involves university resources (e.g., lab space, FTE or state-line monies, etc.) then also have the dean sign off on the letter. If you will be based at a Veterans Administration, make sure that whoever is in charge of space allocation there also signs off on the agreement. Universities are Byzantine organizations in which different people control different aspects of the job and control different pots of money. In addition, changes in leadership positions can occur anytime before, during or just after your move-you want to guarantee that commitments will be honored.
  6. Make a decision. Ultimately, it is not just a matter of numbers, but the overall sense of where you think you can be happy and successful. A positive atmosphere conducive to professional interactions with clear opportunities for career development can make up for less than ideal salary or lab space.

Remember, deadlines too may be negotiated. Ask for the time you need, but then make a decision within the established deadlines. You may be considering other institutions. Multiple offers put you in a stronger bargaining position. Don't abuse this power, but don't ignore it either. Only ask a school to match an offer if you really would accept it.

Knowing When To Walk

As a part of developing options, it is crucial to have a plan B, an alternative to the negotiated agreement. You must be prepared for the possibility that things may not work out to the satisfaction of either party. It will decrease the pressure on you and also make it much easier to negotiate if you know when to walk away. Think carefully as well about the institution's plan B. What if the other side's alternative is to take their time or to do nothing? Could it be possible that this is in their best interest?

If you have to reject the offer, be diplomatic. These are contacts with whom you will have to interact at future points in your career. How you handle this will reflect on your professional reputation and may affect future opportunities at that institution as well as manuscript and grant reviews. For the same reason, don't burn your bridges at your current institution. Be "up front" with your current division chief if you are no longer a fellow and already on faculty. They almost always find out if you are interviewing anyway. Be fair--it is not easy to replace someone on a short timeline. Finally, there are good reasons you are at your current institution-family, high-quality program, specific programs of interest, etc.-these reasons may bring you back to this institution, and you want to have left in good standing.


  1. How To Ask The Right Questions In Assessing An Academic Job Offer
  2. The Right Start-Up Package for Beginning Science Professors
  3. Negotiation

The author gratefully acknowledges the critical input of Lynn Schnapp, Ph.D. and Dr. Rita Ryan.