What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Academic Job Interview, Part IV: The Negotiation

by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This post offers advice on getting an academic job interview.

Negotiation job interview

If you’re reading this post, you’ve hopefully gotten a formal offer of employment from the university of your choice. If not, hang in there. Job searches can be a long and strange process for everyone involved. Even if you’ve not heard from the university in longer than you’d like, don’t despair quite yet. Sometimes it can take a while to get approval to make even a verbal offer. In either event, it’s acceptable to check in after a week or so with a polite inquiry into whether you’re still being considered for the position. However, when the day comes that you’re finally told that you’re the one that they want, you’ll need to be prepared. Here are some things to consider:

Everything is negotiable until it’s not. That’s a cute way of saying that it’s ok to ask for the things you need to be content and productive. If the answer is “no,” you’ll just have to ask yourself if it’s a deal breaker. If you’re juggling multiple offers, you might want to make a spreadsheet or table listing out the various components of the deal. Get every component of the deal in writing. If you don’t have it in the formal offer letter, or in an email from the person who can make it happen, don’t assume that you’ve come to an agreement.

Focus on salary, just not too much. Salaries vary, and there’s always a chance that the first offer isn’t the best offer you can get. However, do your homework first. Salary information for public school employees is posted online in most if not all states (usually by a newspaper website). Look to see what others are making at the same rank and experience in the department. If it’s not, try to find aggregate data on a website like the Chronicle of Higher Education. Be careful about comparing salaries across disciplines or schools since some garner higher salaries than others (eg, schools like medicine where you generate a portion of your salary from grants pay better). If you do your homework and the salary seems on par with others at a similar rank, you might still counter with a slightly higher offer, but be polite and try to use data to support your position. The easiest way to negotiate is with a formal offer from another university. A simple, “I really want to accept your offer, but I have another one with a better salary. Can you match it?” Only use this strategy if you, a) have another offer, and b) you will accept the position if they match the salary. Don’t use two institutions against each other to get them in a bidding war. You’re not buying a used car.

Definitely focus on your start-up package. Institutions with a research expectation will offer a startup package. Think of these as infrastructure or pilot grant funds to support you as you get your research program off the ground. If you need equipment or supplies, staff support, or anything else (eg, publication fees), they’ll come out of these funds until you get external funding. I would suggest having an itemized list of things you’ll need, and deliverables that you’ll produce if you get the funds. For example, you could ask for research supplies, incentives, graduate student support, travel funds, and summer salary support to run a pilot project that will support a grant application you’ll submit in your second year. The key here is to tie something you need/want (research funds) with something they want (external funds).

Ask about office space, computing, furniture, supplies, etc. If you need a computer that is better than the standard issue desktop computer (and can justify it), an additional laptop, a tablet, a standing desk, file cabinets, an ergonomic chair, or anything else to make your office inhabitable, ask for it during the negotiation. Do not assume that you will get anything that you don’t specifically ask for during negotiations. This goes for any space that you’ll need outside of your office, such as a laboratory and/or offices for staff or students.

Ask for student support (if applicable). If you’re heading to a doctoral granting institution, ask about student support. It’s completely reasonable to ask for support for a doctoral student as part of your start-up package.

Inquire about recurring travel funds. Be sure to ask if you will be getting travel funds on an annual basis. If not, ask for them, at least for a few years until you can secure external funds. Conferences are very expensive these days.

Ask for a teaching load reduction. Unless the teaching load is zero, ask for a reduction. If you’re expected to teach one or more classes per semester, ask to get that cut in half for the first year (or reduced to zero in the first semester). You can easily justify this for course preparation or research initiation reasons.

Request funds to cover your salary. A research-intensive position with a salary coverage expectation (aka, a “soft money” position) will come with a period of “protected time” during which you’ll seek salary support from external grants. Get that protected time in writing. Even if you have a nine-month, hard money position, you’ll likely be working over the summer on your research. As such, it’s completely acceptable to ask for salary support for the first year or two while you get your research funding in place.

Ask about relocation funds. Moving is amazingly expensive. Ask if the university will be paying for the move. If not, ask if they can pay you mileage to relocate to campus. The fifty-something cents they’ll pay per mile might cover the cost of a U-Haul and the beer/pizza to lure your friends to help.

Ask for help for your partner/spouse if you need it. If you have a partner in your life, often their career will take a hit in order to relocate for your position. Many institutions have offices or programs that can help place them in partner organizations or other departments in the institution. Be sure to inquire about this possibility during the interview or after an offer is made.

In the end, most things you ask for will be considered if you ask for them politely and justify them in the context of mutual benefit for you and the university. Even a healthy starting salary can benefit the university, since it will delay the amount of time it takes for your salary to become compressed. Ultimately, you must decide what you can live with, and what is necessary for you to be happy and productive. Be prepared for the fact that you can’t always get what you want, but if you negotiate well, you’ll get what you need. Good luck!


Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Family & Community Medicine of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]

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