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Be Honorable and Strategic

The goal of this article is to give a broad overview of the process of negotiating an academic job. Two principles should guide your negotiations: Be honorable and be strategic. If you are going to succeed professionally, your needs must be met. You will need to act ethically, work hard, and be smart to make that happen. Remember that you aren't just negotiating for yourself: Your students, your institution, and science itself all stand to benefit from your success.

My perspective is that of a recent job seeker and of a scholar of higher education. Most of my advice is a distillation of my experience on the academic job market as well as the experiences of friends and colleagues. It is important to recognize that the hiring situation varies by discipline and institution and from person to person. Thus, no advice can anticipate every situation. That said, here are some suggestions that can help many academic job seekers.

Steps of the process

The negotiation process can be viewed as three steps: knowing yourself, gathering information, and negotiating the details. I will discuss them in turn; then I will discuss some special situations in which you may find yourself.

Step 1: Know yourself

The place to start is with knowing yourself: your personal and professional goals and needs. Your colleagues and advisers are likely to have strong ideas about whether a particular job is "good" or "worth applying for." There is often a consensus about what the "best" job available is in a given year. But there isn't just one ideal job that fits everyone. You should resist other people's ideas about what makes a job good--especially your mentor's definition. This is your life, so take the time to think about what is really important to you.

Ask yourself five questions:

  • How do you define a good job?

  • What do you need to be productive?

  • What do you need to be happy in your life?

  • What are your priorities?

  • What is essential to your personal and professional well-being? What is nice, but extra?

This last point is important--and not obvious. Distinguishing between what you absolutely need and what you'd like to have will make it easier to make decisions. These are not dichotomous categories; they form a continuum. At one end are the essential features of a job, without which you would turn it down; in the middle are features that would considerably aid your professional success; at the other end are nifty extras. Write down job features and try to array them along a continuum. You may also be able to list those things that are not important at all (e.g., tuition benefits for offspring when you do not have, and do not intend to have, children).

Step 2: Gather information

The negotiating process starts long before you get an offer. Start collecting information as soon as you apply. In fact, you probably have already done sorting and screening during, and even before, the application process.

What, When, and How?

What should I investigate?

  • Job characteristics and expectations

  • The institution's mission, values, and climate

  • The department's mission, curriculum, and climate

  • The college and department faculty, students

  • The city, neighborhoods, cost of living, quality of life

  • When should I gather information?

  • Prior to submitting a letter of application

  • At the interview and first campus visit

  • When you receive the offer

  • During a second visit

  • From whom should I gather information?

  • Faculty, staff, students, and alumni

  • Written policy

  • Friends and colleagues

  • Think of the interview as a first date. It is just as important for you to assess them as it is for them to assess you. It's a mutual audition. Throughout the process, be inquisitive. Measure the job against your needs and desires. Ask lots of questions--and the same questions of different people. Observe. To make informed decisions, you will want to know about the job, the people with whom you will work, and the place where you will work and live. You want to know whether you'll be comfortable there. The more you know, the better prepared you will be to use your self-knowledge as a decision-making guide. Even if it's one of those "good" jobs, you may decide that it doesn't suit you. If it does seem like a good fit, the information you gather will help you in contract negotiation. And if it is one of those "good" jobs that doesn't suit you, you will have the information to know why it doesn't meet your needs.

    When gathering information, use as many sources as possible, official and unofficial, internal and external. There are many points of view; some converge and some diverge. Written policy may conflict with lived reality; reputations and priorities change. Use your network of friends and colleagues: Do they know anyone who has worked or studied in that department? Were they well supported? Were they successful? Were they happy? Evaluate the quality of the information you collect as you would in your research. Remember: You may end up spending much of your life in this place; base your decision on as much information as you can gather.

    Step 3: Negotiating

    Once you have an offer, the formal negotiation process begins. It is easy to feel so grateful for an offer that you accept any terms that are offered. Don't do it! The decision is too important to rush, and you have a great deal of leverage at this time. Put yourself in the shoes of members of the department who more than anything want to avoid reopening the search. At this moment, you are in the most powerful position you will be in the hiring process. Once you accept an offer, your ability to negotiate terms, and the department's ability to negotiate on your behalf with university administrators, is diminished.

    In theory, everything is negotiable. That said, every department and institution has constraints. Universities are byzantine organizations in which different people control different aspects of the job and different pots of money. Furthermore, many kinds of compensation, and many of the things you may want to negotiate, are nonmonetary. Just because salary, for example, is nonnegotiable at one college doesn't mean that teaching assistants or semesters off from teaching are also nonnegotiable, or that salary isn't negotiable at another institution. Once again, ask question based on your needs.

    This is when the self-knowledge you gained in Step 1 pays off. When you know what you need, you can make a compelling case for the essentials and clearly explain why a particular request is necessary for your professional success. Understanding your priorities will also help you to exercise good judgment in your negotiations: You'll be less likely to alienate your future colleagues by pushing hard for something you don't really need.

    In practical terms, there are three steps in the process of negotiation:

    1. Clarify the offer. Use this moment to communicate your priorities, as well as a way of gathering information.

    2. Ask for other things you need. You can only do this once, or maybe twice. Give the person who is conducting the negotiation a complete list of things you need that were not included in the original offer. Give the department time to respond. Accept that you are unlikely to get everything and that you may not even get everything you need.

    3. Make a decision. Remember, deadlines too may be negotiated. Ask for the time you need, but then make a decision within the established deadlines.

    Most importantly, be honorable and fair throughout the process. It's the ethical thing to do and the most constructive. Memories and reputations are long in academia, and dealing badly once will haunt you throughout your career.

    What Is Negotiable?

    This list of negotiable items may help you think broadly of job features you might use to construct your list of priorities. Although some star faculty members can negotiate for parking spaces or named chairs, junior faculty members generally can't. Part of being honorable is being realistic.


    • Base salary

    • Summer support

    • Salary advance

    Other compensation:

    • Relocation expenses

    • Health care

    • Family benefits

    Start date

    Spouse/partner appointments

    Start-up packages:

    • Equipment

    • Laboratory space

    • Salary for students and staff

    • Computers and software

    • Travel

    Research and teaching assistants

    Grant-writing support


    • Teaching load and reductions

    • Advising load and timing

    • Committee responsibilities

    Special cases

    Three special cases require additional effort and extra vigilance: dual-academic-career couples, appointments with special responsibilities, and multiple offers.

    Dual-career couples are increasingly common. Some institutions, departments, and faculty members view dual-career couples positively, allowing the university to hire two good people instead of just one. These institutions have specific and detailed policies and programs to offer tenure-track positions in the same or other departments, fixed-term spousal appointments, research staff positions, or postdoctoral fellowships. Others view dual-career couples as a puzzle or a nuisance. Few things are likely to affect your future happiness more than the professional fulfillment of your partner, so if you are part of a two-career couple this is an issue you should explore early in the information-gathering stage in order to determine whether the institution will create and support a solution that meets your needs and those of your partner.

    Some academic appointments come with special arrangements: multidepartment or interdisciplinary appointments; appointments with clinical, outreach, or administrative responsibilities; and soft-money-dependent appointments. Investigate these arrangements carefully, exploring all the details. What are the implications for tenure? How will you be evaluated, and by whom? How common are these appointments at your new institution? What are your obligations, and who will be able to advise you about meeting your obligations? If this is a new situation for your institution, remember that junior faculty members are especially vulnerable to changes that either validate such arrangements or diminish their value. Be sure to:

    • Clarify details in writing.

    • Help the department and the institution think through the implications of the appointment, both before and after you've accepted the job. You may be able to influence the criteria that will be used to evaluate you.

    • Seek advice and support, within the institution and beyond.

    Multiple offers are both exciting and an extra source of stress. Unfortunately, offers are not always timed to make a candidate's life simple. In dealing with multiple offers:

    • Be honest and honorable with everyone. Your reputation will be affected by how you manage this situation. Keep everyone informed of the status of your other applications and offers.

    • If you intend to say "no," do it quickly. Remember, there are other candidates who want the job, and the department is eager to successfully finish the search.

    • Ask to extend deadlines if necessary, but don't miss them.

    • Only ask a school to match an offer if you really would accept it. The reality is that multiple offers put you in a stronger bargaining position. Don't abuse this power, but don't ignore it either.

    In summary, negotiating a faculty position isn't complicated, but it is much easier if you are prepared. Analyze your needs, gather information, and act promptly and honorably. If you do these things, everyone will feel good about the process, an outcome that will work to your advantage in the long run.

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