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Negotiation Tactics and Strategies

So you've been offered that coveted junior faculty research position with your own lab and staff. But making the transition from postdoc to faculty a smooth one depends on your negotiation skills and strategies. Do it well and you're off to a flying start, do it poorly and you could be hobbling along the academic career path.

The phone call offering you a faculty position can signify the end of your postdoctoral woes, but it mostly signifies the start of the negotiation process. Knowing how to use information is key to boosting your negotiating "power": As excited as you may be, 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. Research your potential employer and the job market and decide early on the important issues when designing your ideal package. One good tactic is knowing how much information to reveal during discussions, because too little or too much can impede your discussions. And remember to get everything in writing before accepting or rejecting the offer--misunderstandings and miscommunication can doom good discussions as well as your future interactions with that person.

Don't jump at the offer. That's a key thing to remember according to Laurie Weingart, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The negotiations expert recently related her insights to National Institutes of Health (NIH) students, staff, and scientists at a workshop--"Negotiating a Job Offer"--held at NIH's Bethesda, Maryland, campus last month. Weingart, who holds a Ph.D. in organizational behavior, remarks that the negotiation process begins when you receive an offer. It's understandable that postdocs jump at junior faculty offers, but Weingart urges they steady themselves, find out who they will be talking with and arrange an appointment. "Definitely be enthusiastic," says Weingart, "but don't commit to anything." Verbal commitments, she says, will suggest you're going to take the job--no matter what--and that may diminish your negotiating pull.

Once you've steeled yourself not to say "yes!" the next task is to do some background research so you're prepared to negotiate. Make sure you give yourself enough time to do background research before you begin the negotiating process. You need to figure out the job market and the job 'norms.' "Take time to find out what constraints exist at that institution," urges Weingart. "They're not all trying to take advantage of you," she says. Is it fair to poke around a prospective department and ask what people are making? "No. I would never do that." Instead, use your "friendship network"--peers and senior colleagues--to obtain such information, advises Weingart. Salary ranges and job descriptions are also available from associations prominent in your field of research or discipline.

"Identify issues that are important to you," recommends Weingart. "Some are negotiable, others are not, but they all add value to the package and they all need to be considered." Weingart lists some of the main academic issues as:

  • Salary

  • Benefits

  • Start-up money

  • Length of contract

  • Tenure clock

  • Summer support

  • Moving expenses

  • Teaching load

  • Computing needs

  • Lab set-up

  • Technicians

  • Lab supplies

  • Travel support

  • Secretarial support

  • Graduate assistants

  • Personal issues

Think of it as a package of issues. "You might give your salary priority but it's not the only issue," she stresses. Ranking the issues from the most to least important "helps you understand where you are willing to concede and where you are not," explains Weingart. Also categorize the issues from the institution's perspective. Look for similarities and differences between the two lists. "Actually, you're looking for the differences," clarifies Weingart. "The differences in these lists are places from which you can develop potential trade-offs." You could also add a point scheme: "Take 100 points and distribute them among your list of issues to reflect their importance," suggests Weingart. This way you can further assess issues and identify the compromisable ones. Also try to "focus on the value that will be added to the school or the university," advises Weingart--it can be easier to argue for an issue that helps the institution rather than for one that just helps yourself.

Weingart hopes to dispel a preconceived idea many candidates hold: "We need to break away from the assumption that negotiations are always about winners and losers," she says. "Sometimes people are resistant to taking 'zero' on an issue--they feel they're losing. But sometimes it's worth giving up on an issue completely in order to get something in exchange that's worth that much more to you." Weingart also observes that many assume their expectations are different to those of the other party: While priorities do vary, there are times when both the candidate and the employer want the exact same thing, she reveals. Identifying those issues is key to negotiating.

"You're in a powerful position" during the conversation, says Weingart. "But, the other party is still more powerful than you are." The employer holds information you need to successfully negotiate, such as payscale limits and space availability. Be relatively open and "pay attention to what they pay attention to," recommends Weingart. Let them set the tone of the negotiation: "If they're businesslike, be businesslike. If they want to be a little more personable in the interactions, reciprocate." Let them bring up the salary issue. If asked, How much do you need?--"Don't answer," advises Weingart. Instead, respond by stating you don't have the appropriate information, but then inquire: "What's your typical starting salary?" Take notes and record details of the discussion. Such documentation helps remind you of the negotiations as well as prepare the final package.

Teasers about information you hold close, such as other job offers, can "increase your negotiating power" because "such information tells them you have an alternative," explains Weingart. But don't divulge too much information, because your negotiator may lose enthusiasm discussing their conditions and needs. Remember you're "negotiating a long-term relationship," so you'll see less "game-playing" than you would think, says Weingart.

"Clarify your understanding of the negotiations" before you accept, says Weingart. Pull out your set of notes and use them to reiterate the agreements made and, if satisfied, continue with the acceptance procedure. Of course, you may have to reject the offer, in which case, do so diplomatically. Call the person you were negotiating with and explain your situation. "It's the right thing to do and it is respectful," confirms Weingart.

Negotiations are professional discussions aimed to benefit all parties involved. Make logical justifications for your needs and be prepared to work with--not against--your future employer. Once you realize most negotiations are not tumultuous brawls, you can happily leave behind your war-paint, battle plans, and postdoc lab coat as you progress through to the next step of your independent academic career.