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