No deal, I am walking…

I remember many years ago, when I bought my first new car in the United States, going through an issue of the mythical Consumer Reports, in which thoughtful advice was given to car buyers, as to how best to deal with evil car salespersons. I remember being surprised by the subtlety of some of the recommendations given, making it sound as if this was something halfway between an exam and a chess game. “Never make the first offer”… “Find out what the sticker price is”… “Make no mention early on of your desire to trade in your used car”… “be ready to stand up and say ‘no deal, I am walking’ at any moment”…

It really made me nervous; I frantically rehearsed in my head all the various “dos and donts” each time I would walk into a dealership, convinced that my chance of snatching the best possible deal, would crucially hinge on my ability to stick as closely as possible to the Consumer Reports’ script.
These days, when I have to buy a new car it is much less stressful. True, I have more money to spend, but mostly I have become convinced that, clever and astute as the advice dispensed by Consumer Reports may have sounded back then, it is in fact irrelevant, and almost ridiculous.

The price that one is going to pay for a car (or a house, or what have you), to within very minor downward adjustments often not worth the time spent pursuing them, is determined by the law of supply and demand. To put it simply, there is no reason for a car dealer to lower the price of a car significantly, in order to make a sale, if demand is high and customers are aplenty. Conversely, in a slow economy, as excess inventory builds up, buyers can be hopeful to make their purchase at a substantially reduced price, with respect to what they would have to pay for the same good in times of strong sales.
In general, if the item that one is wanting to acquire is one for which demand is high, chances are that seller’s requests will have to be met (i.e., money be shelled), regardless of one’s negotiating or bluffing skills. Cheap goods are those for which supply is high and/or demand is low. That by itself largely influences one’s bargaining position.

The same kind of considerations apply to the ability of a newly hired assistant professor to negotiate salary, space, start-up funds and so on with his/her new institution. Professor in Training (PiT) devotes her latest post to this very subject, but there are countless other posts on this topic throughout blogosphere. For the most part, these posts dispense advice which, pointed and sensible as it looks on the surface [0], is, in my humble opinion, inapplicable and essentially irrelevant for 99.9% of academic job seekers who are lucky enough to be offered a tenure-track faculty appointment.

The academic job market, in the sciences as well as in other fields, is one of the most brutally competitive that there may be. The overwhelming majority of qualified applicants receive no offers, after sending dozens, hundreds of applications over the course of several years, eventually being forced out of their desired professional track and into an alternate career.
Most of these applicants regard such an outcome as terribly disappointing, having invested as many as 15 years of their lives building their scholarly credentials; for this reason, most of them send applications even to institutions that they may not regard as very desirable (i.e., offering little support for research); most of them will gladly take a job at one of these institutions, if nothing better pans out. Most of the applicants who land a job accept the one and only offer that they have received. If an offer is turned down, another applicant willing to take it can be found, normally just as good as the first choice.

Does this sound like a vantage bargaining position ? Is it realistic to think of tenure-track candidates dragging their feet over 10K/yr more for salary, 100 extra square feet worth of lab space, much less an office with a view or relocation with their favourite moving company as opposed to the one selected by the institution ?
Any one of us who has been in that position knows better; and, institutions are perfectly aware of all the above too. Bluffs will be called, offers will be extended to others, jobs will be lost.
And the fact is, in most cases one is after something that is not available to begin with. As PiT correctly notes, “it is in [the institution’s] best interest to give you what you need (within reason) in order for you to succeed.” This means that the offer that is put together by a dean is very close to the best that that school can do at that time. Nobody wants to make oneself less competitive, departments and colleges do not wish to embark in searches that do not go anywhere; their offers will be in line with what is given at comparable places. For candidates to insist on (much less demand) much more (insisting for little more seems pointless [1]) almost always means putting themselves and the institutions in a bind.

Is it really a good idea to start out on a sour note with a department chair or a dean over a few thousand bucks or a new computer ? Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that if one needs money for travel or a new computer one should not ask for it, but, it is always good to ask oneself “Am I really ready to walk out over something like this ?”. If the answer is no, I say it is best not to make a big deal out of it, or only frustration and resentment will ensue.
I think it is important to keep an eye on the ball, here. The dean knows that you could use money to hire an extra postdoc, to support two more graduate students, or a few million dollars to buy a Scanning Tunnelling Microscope. If they do not give you that money, it is not because they do not appreciate the brilliance of your postdoctoral work, but because it is not there.
I suppose that there are a few young “rising stars” out there, who can afford to play hardball, presumably backed by multiple offers from comparable institutions. For the rest of us common mortals, the time to demand the room with a view and the mahogany desk, if it ever comes, is later on, when an individual has built a successful scholarly reputation and is actively courted by other institutions.
At that time, and at that time only, does one get to name one’s price. To bang one’s fist on a dean’s desk (whether it is mahogany or not), defiantly shouting “No deal — I am walking !” and walking out, may make for a nice movie scene, but is a stunt likely going to be regretted by most.

A choice exists only if there is more than one alternative.


[0] I actually disagree with some of PiT’s remarks, at least based on my experience. For example, I do not think it is true at all that “any future salary raises will be determined by your starting salary so you want that to be as high as possible”, quite the opposite. Most schools have a system in place of variable, merit-based increments, and the bar for an assistant professor starting out with a salary on the high end of the pay scale will be generally set higher.
Also, PiT’s insistence that everything “be put in writing” seems naive. Fact is, even when it is “in writing” it is not nearly as binding as one may think. Practically all university contracts include contingency provisions for unforeseen financial difficulties, allowing the institution essentially not to honour a promise. It happens all the time. I really would not stress about that — if you need it, they will give it to you, if and when they can.

[1] In general, my observation has been that obtaining more at the start, means getting less later on.

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22 Responses to “No deal, I am walking…”

  1. Cherish Says:

    I’m not disagreeing with you, but the comment about wanting to have the starting salary be higher may be based on incremental “standard of living” raises. In some places, at least, those are a percentage of your salary and will be dependent on what you’re making at the time. The merit-based raises will only occur when one receives tenure and full professor. In that sense, it does make sense. On the other hand, a couple thousand dollars may be, as you said, not worth quibbling about as it really won’t make that much difference, especially if it means that you’ll be less apt to get more later on.

  2. Schlupp Says:

    I’d really like to agree with you, because it fits with what I did, but I am not sure.

    There are general laws of “supply and demand”, which you so clearly explain, and there’s me. I was offered a rebate by the used-cars dealer after I agreed on the price. Which tells even me that I must have been screwed so badly that even a used-cars dealer felt pity. As I see it, I supply the money for other another customer’s demand…..

    Similarly, when I was in the really nice situation of having two places to work, which is the textbook case for negotiating, I basically went for the better offer without negotiating much, because I am chicken like that. A friend of mine in a VERY similar situation, but with a lot more confidence, managed to get a way higher salary by playing them off one against the other. Are her bosses now angrier at her than mine at me? Don’t think so, I think they are simply happy to have won someone who must be surely be great.

    I definitely agree on the “in writing” part: Paper isn’t all that much more expensive than hot air, and consequently not worth much more either.

    And, nah, I do not think I need that STM, finally.

  3. Doug Natelson Says:

    Two points. First, I agree with 99% of what you said. Indeed, my institution has generally made it a strategy to put forward a preemptively nice offer, followed by a short (say 10 days) timeline for a decision from the candidate. As you say, we want people to succeed. If you give a candidate the best offer you can, and they can’t make up their mind in 10-14 days, then you aren’t their first choice and you probably won’t get them in the end.

    Second, I think PiT is more right than you are about salaries. I say this less from the point of view of starting salaries and more from observing retention offers over the years. It’s very frustrating to realize that the only way to get a truly significant bump in salary is to have an outside offer. It may not seem like much on a year-to-year basis, but over the course of a decade, say, salary differentials can really add up.

  4. Charro Says:

    I haven’t been in the position to look for an academic job, but I bought my first car a few years ago and I am convinced dealers are a bunch of bastards that want to squeeze every penny out of you. I wasn’t in a hurry and maybe that helped, but I was able to reduce the price (after several days of negotiations with 3-4 dealers) by ~5000 dlls. In a car worth 25-30k that’s a significant reduction in price.

    Here’s an interesting story about how dealers work:

    It’s a little long though. If interested only in how much a car salesman makes and how they operate to get the most out a customer then just read part 3.

    I don’t know how you can compare negotiating when buying a car with getting a faculty position. You mention that there aren’t many academic jobs available (and certainly not many in places with tons of resources) but there are plenty of car dealerships around, ALL OF THEM (that sell the same brand) with the identical vehicles to offer.

    • Massimo Says:

      I don’t know how you can compare negotiating when buying a car with getting a faculty position. You mention that there aren’t many academic jobs available (and certainly not many in places with tons of resources) but there are plenty of car dealerships around, ALL OF THEM (that sell the same brand) with the identical vehicles to offer.

      I am talking about the dynamics, which is the same even though it works to the advantage of the universities in one case and of the car buyer (assuming he can actually take advantage of the offer) in the other.

  5. Professor in Training Says:

    I think you’ve misinterpreted some/a lot of what I posted about. In the current economy, TT positions are very difficult to come by and I wasn’t suggesting that people hold out for more than the institution is willing or able to provide. And I agree that most schools are well-aware of what is needed in order to attract the calibre of applicant they’re looking for and their offers are usually in line with what comparable programs would offer. However, that’s not always the case and applicants need to decide if they’ll be able to succeed to both their own and the school’s expectations with what is being offered. For example, trying to hire an unfunded new assistant professor in the biomedical sciences who does molecular or proteomic work and only offering them an empty lab and $50K in startup is ridiculous as there’s absolutely no chance of generating sufficient quality or quantity of data to succeed with publications or grants. If that’s the only offer they have and are likely to have, then it comes down to a decision between accepting a TT position in which there is little/no chance of success, continuing on as a postdoc or even looking at another career path. I agree that dragging the negotiations out for trivial details or insisting on unrealistic demands is just asking for trouble. My point was more that if the candidate doesn’t ask for what they need, they’ll just get whatever the Dean/Chair think is appropriate which may/may not be the case – if you don’t ask, you won’t get anything.

    The list was intended more for those that have absolutely no idea as to the types of things they need to talk to the Chair/Dean about when negotiating the terms of a TT appointment. As a postdoc, you are told what salary you are getting, where your lab is and what tools are at your disposal and it’s often daunting to discover that you can negotiate the terms of your TT position and salary.

    Re my insistence that one needs to get everything in writing: I agree that, in some instances, having the terms/conditions of your appointment in writing doesn’t help but it’s the most protection you can give yourself, apart from having another job offer in hand. It’s more naive for one to accept a verbal agreement for startup funds details such as equipment, money, personnel, etc, as there is absolutely no fallback if, for example, a new Chair or Dean is appointed.

    Re salary: I agree that the bar is probably set higher for those with higher starting salaries but any future raises will be percentages of the current salary. However, your contention that merit raises will somehow equalize the initial disparity is false; merit raises won’t suddenly lift you up from the $50K salary you started on to the $70K that your peers are earning in similar positions at the same or similar institution. Are you suggesting that one takes the first salary offer simply because the expectations will be lower and life will therefore be easier than someone who negotiates a higher starting salary? That’s total crap. Asking for a salary that is reasonable for someone with your level of experience and expertise and that is comparable with other faculty within the same/similar field at the school is not overstepping the line.

    • Massimo Says:

      If that’s the only offer they have and are likely to have, then it comes down to a decision between accepting a TT position in which there is little/no chance of success, continuing on as a postdoc or even looking at another career path.

      But the overwhelming majority of us would rather take that position, for it is better than switching to another career or taking yet another postdoc, especially if we have been postdocs for many years already and have a family (after all, we did apply there in the first place, and because we are not stupid we know what expectations we can reasonably have of the place). That means that we are in no position to bargain. So, sure, by all means ask for whatever you want, it never hurts, but if in the end you are going to have to take whatever they give you, no matter how “ridiculous”, I think you will save yourself a lot of aggravation if you keep your haggling down to a minimum.

      Usually the start-up package is decided in concert with the chair of the department, who presumably has a clue regarding what the candidate is going to need. Of course it may not be perfect and some things may be added and money re-budgeted here and there, but I don’t think it is a good idea to walk in believing that you can ask for this and that when you are in no position to say “I demand it !”. That was my point.

      Also, what do you mean by “no chance of succeeding” ? If you mean winning a Nobel prize I may agree with you, but that seems a bit narrow a definition. There are ways to conduct a respectable research program even at institutions whose focus is not research. Also, presumably such institutions will have different criteria for tenure and promotion than a major research university.

      Are you suggesting that one takes the first salary offer simply because the expectations will be lower and life will therefore be easier than someone who negotiates a higher starting salary?

      Not at all. I was responding to your initial contention that salary increments are based on your starting salary, which I don’t think is true. At both the institutions where I worked there was a merit-based system in place (yes, for probationary faculty as well), and the bar for salary increases was set higher for those whose initial salary was higher.

      • Charro Says:

        But the overwhelming majority of us would rather take that position, for it is better than switching to another career or taking yet another postdoc, especially if we have been postdocs for many years already and have a family (after all, we did apply there in the first place, and because we are not stupid we know what expectations we can reasonably have of the place). That means that we are in no position to bargain.

        If there are little/no chance of success, why would you take that job? To be looking for a new career in 5-6 years when you don’t get tenure? If the overwhelming majority of “us” do take that position it is purely because they don’t want to feel like losers for spending time and effort on something and then not getting it. Many of us taking the job doesn’t mean it was the right decision and if money was an issue they should’ve fought for it harder at the beginning. You are a theorist (or computational physicist if you prefer) so start up might not be that big of a deal for you, for an experimentalist it is extremely important that you get what you want/need.

        My advisor is an assistant professor and with the current situation getting grants for an unproven scientists is even harder. If he hadn’t gotten the big start up package he got we would already be in BIG trouble since running an experiment costs ~$200 dlls/day (not including RA salaries but including undergrads that work on it plus consumable materials).

        If I were to take a faculty position in a place where they offer me less than I need today (even with the possibility of getting more later), I need to make sure I can get tenure by other means (teaching, service mostly as oppose to research).

      • Massimo Says:

        If there are little/no chance of success, why would you take that job? To be looking for a new career in 5-6 years when you don’t get tenure?

        But it does not work that way — you almost answer your own question with your last sentence.
        The people hiring you are not stupid, they know that you cannot be expected (necessarily) to compete with scientists at research universities, especially if your teaching load is also higher, and will adjust their promotion and tenure criteria accordingly.
        Of course, they will also not hire in research areas where a large start-up or in any case access to important funding sources are crucial. And look, we are talking about negotiating — I think by the time you find yourself in that position you have applied, done some research on your own about the place, visited, interviewed — you know pretty much what expectations are reasonable.
        Getting tenure at California State is not the same as getting it to University of California, and if you do not want to work at CSU then why in the world do you even bother to apply ? Anyone thinking that an institution focusing mostly on teaching should still provide the same start-up package to an assistant professor that Harvard or Stanford offer is incredibly naive.

  6. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    This is why I ride a bike instead (a real life bike and the research career equivalent!)

    • Massimo Says:

      Not a tough negotiator, eh ?

      • Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

        Too much hassle. Give me cheap and low maintenance any day of the week! It’s better for my mental and physical health 🙂

        p.s. do you seriously have nothing to say about prorogation and electoral reform? You surprise me!

      • Massimo Says:

        I noticed your lack of interest for my exciting facebook updates on iPhone making me bus sick… I don’t know, Cath, to be honest I am still stuck to twelve months ago… why the hell did the coalition plan not move forward ? Why did the Liberals select Ignatieff as their leaders ? What was he thinking in September when he told Harper ‘your time is up’ without a plan to topple him ? Inquiring minds want to know…

      • Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

        What happened to the coalition? Well, the timing didn’t help – they should have waited until Dion was gone and the Liberal leadership was settled. And the self interest and egos of the opposition party leaders got in the way of progress, as Harper knew they would when he prorogued parliament. He just had to wait for them to hit the self-destruct button, and recall parliament once the coalition had exploded. It’s going to take a change of leadership in the Liberals AND NDP before we see another attempt. Either that or a much better organised version of the ABC campaign at the next election.

        I don’t like Ignatieff either (I actually liked Dion and thought it was a shame he didn’t have the charisma to excite people about his policies), but short- to medium-term, he’s better than Harper.

        BTW I love your nested comments and wish Blogger supported them. I can ramble on completely off-topic without worrying about annoying the on-topic commenters!

  7. transientreporter Says:

    I was hoping for some useful advice on buying a car, but all I get is another post about the shitty academic job market…

    As a SLAC AssProf, I agree with Massimo.

    1) Crazy why anyone would think that teaching-intensive SLACs will hold TT profs to the same research standard as an R1 school. Let’s give administrators some credit – they’re not all morons.

    2) Some schools have “compression” – whereby if people hired are offered a higher salary than yours, you can apply for a comparable increase.

    3) Let’s stipulate that you are in no position to negotiate a pay increase unless you have a better offer from another institution. Barring this, your only negotiable point is the state of your happiness. Who is more likely to be concerned about your unhappiness – a big fancy school with lots of potential applicants to replace you with, or a small nondescript SLAC?

    4) I disagree with you somewhat in that a start-up package will, I suspect, contain some wriggle room with the expectation from the Dean that you will negotiate somewhat. You HAVE to ask. They’re not going to offer it if you don’t. Just don’t make a big deal about it if they say no.

    • Massimo Says:

      Transient, I am still amazed by the misconceptions that exist among graduate students and postdocs regarding things like tenure. They are convinced that, no matter at what institution you are tracking tenure, in order to get it you need to publish a Nature paper every year, bring in a squillion dollars worth of funding and become a member of the National Academy of Science before you go up for review.
      How these things end up in their heads is a mystery to me, especially in the year 2010 when any one can open a browser, look at the roster of any second-tier department, go through the web pages of associate professors and see for themselves what the standards are…

      • transientreporter Says:

        Yes, it’s always amusing to hear from people who went to an R1 school as an undergrad, an R1 school as a grad student, an R1 school as a postdoc who know exactly what life is like at a SLAC.

        One problem is that everyone uses the same terminology – “tenure-track”, “research expectations”, “assistant professor”, “extramural funding” etc etc – regardless of whether you’re at Berkeley or at Cute Little College. So everyone assumes you mean the same things. This is NOT TRUE.

        Just because it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck, it DOES NOT mean it’s a duck. Sometimes, it’s a duckling.

  8. JT Says:

    I have no idea what the situation is wrt new cars. On used cars, for my first and so far only car I hammered the price down $1200 (on a $5200 sticker price) and got new tires and a new serpentine belt+installation with about 2 hours of pestering. The last step was asking, “what if I pay you in cash, today?” which dropped the price the final $800. Not unusual AFAIK – I’m a buckwheater compared to some people I know…

    On jobs, I would be surprised if there was much flexibility at all when negotiating personal renumeration (not sure about lab space and such – that aspect is probably highly situation specific) at a **public** institution – for the reasons you cite as well as because of hard bureaucratic limits imposed. Which is a very good thing, with respect to the 4-fold way of spending money: (1) you can spend your own money on yourself (gift=much wanted gizmo on sale somewhere); (2) You can spend your own money on somebody else (gift=socks); (3) you spend somebody else’s money on yourself (gift=Ferrari); (4) you can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else (gift=a $5000 gold-plated toilet seat). Same problem with big enough corporations – decision makers are too disconnected from decision costs.

  9. Mad Hatter Says:

    Like you said, I think it really depends on whether one is a “beggar” or “chooser”. Most of the people I’ve worked with who have gotten tenure-track offers have had at least two offers and therefore had some negotiating power, although they were more likely to use it to get a better start-up package rather than a higher salary.

    On the salary issue, my institution (at least in my field) does not give merit raises. You get an annual cost-of-living adjustment which is a fixed percentage of your salary, and you get a raise when you are promoted. So what you start out at actually does matter…at least until you hit the next level up.

  10. pablo Says:

    Hi Massimo

    I completely agree with you but I wanted to raise 2 points:

    1. Training for negotiating before being offered a position is not useless. First, it helps you have a better idea of your needs/wishes/motivations for the job, which is always useful (sometimes to discover that the job you dreamt about will never happen and that alternative careers are not that bad…). Second, you can be as brilliant as I was 🙂 chances are that you will NEVER be offered ANY position in a research university. And being ready to negotiate for your next job (outside academia) is not a bad thing…

    2. I do regret that the book “Le marché des universitaires” [the academic market] by Musselin hasn’t been translated in English (yet). It compares the hiring process in France, Germany and the US, based on many interviews. In the US case, the book devotes a whole chapter about negotiation. The fact is -as you said- that generally young professors do not negotiate. But… the deans do it for them!
    The market is so bad for candidates that they can not negotiate, to which you can add that there is a huge asymmetry in the knowledge of the “rules”. So how comes that there is no adjustment to lower “prices”? Just simply because the deans don’t want to hire someone to see her/him leaving after a couple of year, or failing to do good research, or starting a new union; hence deans help the young nominees to ask “the right thing” to the administration. Because they know very well what can be expected in the house, what to demand, where to push, and what is hopeless.

    • Schlupp Says:

      Pablo, your comment makes lots of sense to me, especially the second paragraph of your second point. Because, come to think of it, I did not really “not negotiate at all” as I wrote before. It was just that my negotiations were not “If I don’t get this and that, I leave”, but more like this:
      Me: “xyz would be useful.”
      Boss: “OK.”
      And also, I may have ended up with a lower salary than my friend, but I got more in terms of money to spend on research/people.

      Also, the book sounds quite interesting indeed, so I ordered a copy.

    • Massimo Says:

      Pablo, I agree with you, my point is simply that getting all worked up trying to get the best possible “deal” when in reality 99.9% of us have no bargaining power whatsoever, may not be a terribly good idea.

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