Did They Lowball Me?

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I started my first tenure-track job at a major research university in January, with a 70K salary and a 20k start-up package. I didn’t negotiate a starting salary as I thought 70K was a great start. Come to find out, my colleagues are making at least 5K to 10K more a year than me. Is there anything I can do now? Or am I stuck at 70,000?

Before answering your question, I am compelled to pause and say that this is exactly why all job offers should be negotiated — outside of those with obvious red flags warning you to avoid it. Any offer from an R1 university should most certainly be negotiated, with the salary in particular being prioritized. If you had been my client (or if you had read my columns or book chapter on negotiating), I would have told you to go back to the department chair with a request for $77K, 10 percent higher than the offer. That would have placed you exactly in the range of your colleagues.

You have not specified whether your “colleagues” are new assistant professors, or are further along on the tenure track. If they are more advanced than you are, it may not be surprising that their salaries are a bit higher — assuming you are at one of the increasingly rare places that actually has annual raises. But if these colleagues are at about the same status as you, then indeed, you were lowballed, and missed your chance to negotiate.

Well, “lowballed” is not accurate. Negotiations are negotiations. When department heads offer a starting salary, it’s not meant to “lowball” you or be “insulting,” it’s just meant to be an initial offer. Only in rare cases does a department start negotiations at the highest possible salary it can offer you. (In such rare cases the chair will say something like, “Please understand that there is no flexibility in this salary offer; it has been mandated by the dean/union.” It’s best to accept the salary in that scenario and move on to negotiate other elements of the offer. When clients in that situation have ignored my advice and continued trying to negotiate salary, the result was not more money but merely annoying and alienating the department head.)

In any case, you did miss your best possible chance for gaining an increase. They have you now, and have no real imperative to change the terms of your contract.

It will be fine for you to meet with your department head and show him/her the results of your investigations. (I assume you’re at a public university and the salaries are public?) Ask for an equity increase. If you can point to glowing achievements you’ve accomplished in your first year, that will help. The chair may be able to do something. I doubt you’ll get bumped up to $75K or $80K, though. If you receive anything, it will probably be just a token raise. You will have leverage to seek a significant gain only at such time as you get a competing tenure-track offer at a peer institution (or higher).

The fact is, it’s on the candidate to negotiate a job offer at the time it is made. Too many candidates, especially international candidates and women, hesitate to do this. It’s why I spend so much time writing and speaking about negotiating. It’s why I offer a free webinar on negotiating (with almost 1,000 participants) each spring at The Professor Is In.

I cannot repeat this often enough: You are expected to negotiate your tenure-track offers. Almost no departments — outside of really small, marginal teaching colleges — ever starts a salary negotiation at its maximum possible level or rescinds an offer if candidates try to negotiate it.

So readers, be savvy, educate yourselves, make sure you understand the obvious red flags warning you against trying to negotiate. If you see none, then make an effort to increase some selection of salary, startup, research funding, teaching releases, and so on, as appropriate to the rank and type of the position and the campus.

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to The Professor Is In! Karen welcomes any and all questions related to the job market, preparing for the job market while in graduate school, coping with the adjunct struggle, and assistant professorhood. Send questions to gettenure@gmail.com.

Karen Kelsky is a career consultant who runs the website The Professor Is In. She’s been a tenured professor at two public universities (Oregon and Illinois) and has advised many undergraduate and graduate students, as well as mentored junior faculty. She answers reader questions as a contributor to Vitae.

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