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OK, Let’s Talk About Negotiating Salary

Written by: Karen Kelsky
Published on: Mar 24, 2014

I’ve read about the recent controversy about negotiating the tenure-track salary. I might be getting an offer soon. What should I do?

First off, don’t panic. The vast, vast majority of offers are still negotiated with perfectly good feelings and no ill will on either side. Do not relinquish the genuine leverage you most likely have out of misguided fear and hysteria.

Here is what you do:

When you get the offer, do not under any circumstances accept it right away. Say this instead: “Thank you so much for this offer. I’m so pleased to get it. I will look forward learning the details, and I will be in touch after I study them.”

You will probably get the details of the offer in an email. It is my recommendation that you continue to operate by email. Several people---all of them tenured men, as far as I can tell—have reacted to that recent Nazareth controversy linked above by claiming that all threat of a rescinded offer could be laid to rest by negotiating on the phone. I do not believe this is true. I believe that offers can still be rescinded on the phone.

More to the point, young and inexperienced candidates simply have no idea how to interpret an offer, what to ask for, or how to ask for it. So they cannot be expected to improvise wildly in a phone call. In fact, what will almost inevitably result in a phone call is an overanxious, codependent candidate, too eager to be seen as “nice”---particularly if said candidate is a woman—who will cravenly accept everything offered without a murmur.

By contrast, I strongly urge all of the clients with whom I work on negotiating assistance, particularly women, to work by email. Yes, email can be challenging with regard to tone. But with some effort, you can compose perfectly collegial, appropriate, and effective emails. The trick is to take absolutely fastidious care to edit your emails to achieve a precise effect of non-pandering, non-desperate, but relational and agreeable collegiality.

And the overwhelming advantage of email is that it allows the candidate to study the offer, think about it, share it with advisors and mentors, clarify requests and priorities, and compose requests. My clients have been overwhelming successful in concluding successful, collegial negotiations entirely by email (or sometimes an email thread followed up at the tail end by a phone call).

Now, what to ask for? The typical elements of an assistant-professor offer include some proportion of the following:

  • Salary
  • Startup funds
  • A first-year teaching release
  • A guaranteed junior sabbatical
  • A computer and software
  • Conference-travel arrangements
  • Moving expenses
  • A paid visit to look at houses
  • Summer salary (this is additional salary not connected to teaching, offered on a short term basis for one to three years. It’s useful as a backup if a request for a permanent raise is unsuccessful.)
  • A spousal position
  • Tenure expectations (when appropriate—say, if you're trying to come in with tenure credit)

I can’t discuss all of these elements in a single, brief column, so this should not be taken as exhaustive advice covering all negotiating eventualities. For today I will speak only of salary.

First and foremost, all negotiating must be done with a careful eye to the size, type, and rank of institution, the size and rank of department, the overall comparative wealth and endowment of the institution, its local culture, and several things that you don’t know but should attempt to find out, like historical conditions of salary compression.

If you’re not familiar with the term “salary compression,” here’s what it means: Longtime associate and full professors, who have been working for years with minimal (or no) raises, will often have salaries that are the same (or even lower) than brand new assistant professors. Salary compression means that a negotiating head or dean cannot go above a certain level in salary, because to do so would leapfrog the new hire above her tenured colleagues, which is inappropriate and counterproductive for a whole range of reasons. You, the candidate, will not be privy to the local conditions of salary compression.

The upshot of all this is that you, the candidate, are in absolutely no position to dictate to any department what a “normal offer” is or should be with regard to salary, course releases, startup funds, and so on. You must never include this all-too-common line, which I delete out of countless clients’ negotiation emails: “I’d like to request a salary of XXXX, which is in line with norms for the field, and reflective of the experience and potential I bring to the position.” It is hard to overstate the arrogance and ignorance embedded in this single line. You do not get to dictate to any department what their salary “norm” is or how your value to them is calculated.

This is why you need well-connected advisors who can inform you of the appropriate scale of negotiating requests for tiny teaching colleges, regional comprehensive R2s, R1s, Ivy Leagues, and elite SLACs. Each of these is quite distinct in its negotiating universe.

Keep in mind this basic rule: Wealthy R1s and Ivy Leagues offer the greatest scope for negotiating; small regional teaching colleges the least room for maneuvering. Never attempt an R1 negotiation at a small regional college. Similarly, never accept a regional college-style offer at an R1 institution.

In all cases, if you’re dealing with a small college with a current or former religious affiliation, move with great caution. The rescinded offers that I know of have always arisen at that type of college.

Now, let’s talk turkey. When negotiating salary, in general, ask for a 10 percent raise. They will typically come back with less. How much less depends on the institution. Don’t ask for more unless you’ve consulted with trusted advisors. Relying on aggregate salary scales from The Chronicle or the American Association of University Professors for direction here will absolutely do you more harm than good, because those studies will be lumping institutions of different sizes, scales, and endowments together. Salaries are extremely local, and you must carefully calibrate your asks to the local environment.

Also, don’t construct a breathless, hysterical, needy, or whiny rationalization for the salary raise request. Just ask for more money. This is normal negotiating, and doesn’t require elaborate justification.

Resist the craven urge to think or say, “Any salary is fine, I’ll accept anything, I’m grateful just to have a job!” That is stealing from your future self. Even a small raise at time of hire yields significant gains over time. Take this simplistic scenario (which doesn’t account for compound interest, etc.):

Starting salary, age 30 = $60,000

$2000 raise = $72,000 additional income at age 65

If you invest that $72,000 (3-percent annual return) = $129,000 extra

Or this scenario, of the 10 percent raise:

$6000 raise = $216,000 additional income at age 65

If you invest that $216,000 (3-percent annual return) = $388,000 extra

What’s more, all future institutional raises are calculated based on the initial salary. So a 3-percent raise on the unnegotiated salary will amount to $1,800 annually, while the 3-percent raise based on that salary plus 10-percent raise will be $1,980—almost $200 more, which will further compound with interest. The same goes for contributions to your retirement account.

Be aware that should you get a second tenure track or tenured job, the salary at the new institution will be linked to some degree to the salary you make at the first job.

Therefore, the impact of your starting salary plays out through all the years of your career. Even a $1,000 raise can make a difference, so be sure not to miss the opportunity to seek the maximum raise that is possible within the constraints of the rank/type/size/culture/history of the institution with which you are dealing.

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to me! I welcome 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 me at