Tips for negotiating salary and startup for newly-hired tenure-track faculty

So you’ve just been offered your first* tenure-track faculty position–congratulations! Perhaps you even have multiple offers–multiple congratulations! As a brand new faculty member, you now have to do the first of many things you’ve probably never been trained to do: negotiate salary, startup, and possibly other things such as start date or teaching duties. Here’s some advice from Meg, Brian, and I.

It’s aimed at ecologists, but some of it may generalize to other fields. And it’s based primarily on our experiences and knowledge about R1 and R2 universities or their approximate equivalents in the US and Canada, but some of it may generalize to other sorts of institutions and countries. In offering this advice, we’re just sticking with what we know. We encourage commenters to chime in with their own advice, including advice applicable to other contexts.

Jeremy’s advice:

My first piece of advice is don’t just rely on my advice. There are many other sources out there. For instance, The Professor Is In has lots of excellent advice, some of which is geared a bit towards the humanities but much of which generalizes; see here, here, and here for instance. See also these tips from Nature, and these excellent tips from Tenure, She Wrote. And here’s a series of videos from University Affairs in Canada. (Meg adds: this twitter thread had some good ideas, too!)

Second, I’m not going to try to be comprehensive. I’m just going to offer a few specific bits of advice that either worked for me, that seem to me to be particularly important, or that address what seem to me to be common misconceptions.

  • Institutional resources vary hugely. Do some homework to get a ballpark sense of what you can reasonably expect, e.g., by looking up the salary data compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education. At many institutions, salaries are determined by a collective agreement between the university and the faculty union, which is probably online and can be found by googling.
  • You do your homework to help determine your own ask, not to help you get what you asked for. The hiring institution is not going to, say, give you a higher salary just because you point out that the starting salary is typically higher at other similar institutions. Why should they care what some other institution pays, unless you actually have an offer from that other institution? (Aside: as Brian notes below, information on recent starting salaries at the institution that’s hiring you can help you get what you’re asking for.)
  • Don’t just ask for a number of dollars for your startup. Instead, make an itemized, costed list of things you need to get your research program up and running and lay the foundation for its long-term success. The “things” might include people like technicians or postdocs. Don’t forget “little” things like glassware and chemicals; they add up. That list should add up to as much or somewhat more than you think you can reasonably expect. Your startup list is the list of things you need to be the success you and your future employer both want you to be. It provides the basis for a mutually-beneficial conversation between you and your future employer. For instance, they might say “Do you need your own thagamizer? We have a shared facility that has an thagamizer.” To which you might respond “Great!” (if you’re happy to use the shared thagamizer) or “What model thagamizer is it? I need a double-wide thagamizer that can thagamize whole jackalopes,” or etc. (Meg adds: when you submit the specific list of equipment you need, it’s a good idea to have a column that indicates whether you could share that equipment.)
  • That previous bullet is a specific example of a general principle that bears emphasizing: your future employer wants you to succeed, not fail. They’re not out to screw you, and your negotiation with them is not a zero-sum game. It’s a positive-sum game.
  • Horror stories (e.g., offers being rescinded without warning) are rare. Most startup negotiations are amicable and work out to the satisfaction of both parties. Plus, the unlikely possibility that whoever you’re negotiating with might suddenly rescind the offer shouldn’t alter your approach to negotiating. After all, what can you possibly do to prevent your future employer from suddenly doing something crazy like rescinding the offer with no warning and for no good reason? Purely anecdotally [so take this with a large grain of salt], horror stories are most common at very small colleges, though still rare in an absolute sense. But even if that’s true, I don’t know what you can do with that information during your negotiation. A horror story about the department that gave you the offer is a different matter, of course. Not sure what to advise in that case.
  • Try to negotiate an unlimited amount of time to spend your startup, or as much time as you can get. You can stretch your startup to sustain your lab until you start getting grants.
  • If you only have one offer, then you have little leverage. Your only alternative is to walk away and return to the job market. You can still negotiate, because the hiring institution really wants to hire you and would rather not fall back on another candidate or worse have to redo the entire search. But if push comes to shove and the hiring institution says “no” to some things you want, sorry, you’re not going to get those things.
  • You are under no obligation to tell the offering institution that you have, or don’t have, other offers. But having only ever gotten one faculty job offer in my entire life, I am not a useful source of advice on negotiating when you have multiple offers. (Meg adds: I cover multiple offers a bit in my specific advice below but, in general, I think it’s good to tell the offering institution if you have another offer. They may ask you to tell them what the other university is offering, probably because they want to try to see if they can match it. Hopefully it goes without saying that you should be completely honest about what the other place is offering.)
  • Don’t worry about making a bad first impression with your future colleagues or future dean by asking for “too much”. First of all, your future colleagues are not going to be privy to your negotiations. Second of all, no, you don’t want to be an unreasonable prima-donna–but you don’t want to be a doormat who settles for too little either. Do your homework (so that you don’t unwittingly ask for unreasonably much or unreasonably little), proceed professionally, and don’t worry what you think others might think of you. Probably, what they think of you isn’t what you worry they think. Even in the unlikely event that they do think badly of you for how you negotiated, (i) that’s their problem not yours, and (ii) they’ll almost certainly get over it quickly.
  • Try to get everything you’ve agreed in writing, even if the dean or whoever you’re negotiating with seems really nice and says “oh, don’t worry, that’s no problem”. And no, email doesn’t count as “writing”. You may not be able to get everything in writing, but try.

From Meg:

Adding to what Jeremy has above: first, I think it’s helpful to think through the things that might come up in negotiations: everyone focuses on startup (which typically refers to the money for equipment and supplies, for personnel, and for travel), but there are various other things that may (or may not) be negotiable. That includes:

  1. the length of time to spend the startup (the days of startup that never expires are pretty much in the past, I think)
  2. when you will start (it’s often possible to defer a start date for 1 semester or 1 year)
  3. lab space (including access to shared facilities and whether/how much you pay for those shared facilities)
  4. what renovations will be done to lab space (Jeremy adds: If it’s attached to a wall, it generally comes out of a different budget than your startup. At most places, you should not have to pay for renovations out of your startup, or reduce your startup so that the hiring institution can do more renovations for you instead. And now is the time to ask for renovations. You should not put off asking for renovations, figuring you’ll ask once you’re “settled in” or because you don’t want to ask for “too much”. Also, be aware that you can ask for renovations to your office too. I had Calgary tear out a bunch of office shelving I didn’t need, for instance.)
  5. salary (at universities in the US, this will most likely be a 9 month salary; see here if you’re not familiar with 9 month salaries) (Jeremy adds: in Canada it’ll be a 12-month salary, and cannot be topped up with “summer salary” from your grant.)
  6. summer salary in your first 1-3ish years (after that, the idea is that you will bring in your own summer salary; in reality, most ecologists I know are excited if they get even 1 month of summer salary)
  7. support for grad students (e.g., funding to cover X semesters of students while pre-tenure)
  8. your teaching load (though I’m not sure how negotiable this is most places) (Jeremy adds: yeah, you’re not going to be able to negotiate a permanently-reduced teaching load.)
  9. teaching release while pre-tenure (it’s common to get 1 or 2 semesters off from teaching while pre-tenure)
  10. committee service (I don’t think it’s common for people to negotiate this, but I do know a couple of people who negotiated for a particular kind of service assignment or for a reduction in service while pre-tenure)
  11. benefits (I know one place that lets you negotiate how much of a contribution they make towards your retirement; I’m not sure how common this is, though)
  12. moving expenses

Okay, now to cover some things more specifically:

  • Regarding salaries: at public institutions in the US, salaries are available online. Look them up. Two things to remember with this, though, are:
    • Without insider knowledge, you might not be able to tell whether the salaries shown there are the 9 month base salary, or the salary plus summer salary, administrative bonuses, money spent on university travel, etc.
    • Salary compression happens — that is, sometimes the salaries of new faculty go up at a faster rate than the salaries of current faculty, meaning that it’s not uncommon for senior assistant professors to have lower salaries than new assistant professors. (If salary compression is really bad, tenured faculty might have lower salaries than new assistant professors.) So, when you search for salaries, pay closest attention to the salaries of the newer hires.
  • Regarding startup (that is, money for equipment/supplies, personnel, and travel):
    • As Jeremy said, get an idea for what is typical at that place. You may have been told a range while you were interviewing. I suggest aiming a bit higher than the range you were told. For example, if they told you $300-500K as a typical startup package for someone in your area, I would aim to have a list that adds up to about $600K as your initial request.
    • Ask people who have recently been hired who do work that is at least partially similar to yours whether they would be willing to share their lists. In my experience, people are generally happy to help others going through the process, because they know how daunting it can be. You might only be interested in a portion of what they asked for (e.g., the field supplies), but that’s still worthwhile. It helps to see what other people negotiated for both to get ideas for things you should be including in yours (e.g., service contracts on equipment, shipping costs for large items), and to get ideas for how to format your request.
    • But, when you get numbers from people, be aware that they can vary for a lot of reasons. If people just say they got X for startup (just giving the number), that’s not particularly useful if you don’t know what X included. Some people add in their summer salary, costs for renovations to their lab space (which would drive X up very quickly!), and other things.
    • Remember that hearsay is unreliable. I’ve had people tell me things they’d heard about my startup (or startup in my department) that were not accurate.
    • Know what you will need to pay for. Do you need to buy chairs for your lab out of your startup? How about a computer for your office? What about renovations to your lab space? If they say they will give you $50K for a postdoc, does that mean $50K plus benefits for the postdoc (meaning you can pay a postdoc for a year), or is it just $50K (meaning you can pay a postdoc for just a fraction of a year)?
    • Ask about how the money is allocated. Some places, you get a big chunk of money to use on whatever you want. Others, you need to separate personnel vs. equipment/supplies vs. travel. Some places, you can spend your money however you want over X years. Others, you get a part of it in year 1, part in year 2, etc. It’s nicest for you if it’s just one big pot of money, but it will be impossible to get that at some places.
  • Teaching: if you are given one (or more) semesters off from teaching, delay using them. In your first semester, you will mainly be ordering equipment (which takes forever and rapidly leads to decision fatigue), and so won’t be able to get a lot of new research done. (Obviously it’s good if you have some data from your postdoc that you can write up during this time!) So, it can be more effective to teach in your first semester or two, then use the teaching release a bit later when you can make the most of it research-wise.
  • If your partner is an academic:
    • tell them very early in the negotiating process! It takes a while to work out another position, and the more time, the better. As soon as you get a call from the chair saying they want to offer you a position, let them know that you have a partner and ask about possibilities. Do not wait until you’ve hammered out the rest of your offer to raise the topic!!! (Jeremy adds: in general, bring up bigger things earlier in the negotiation.)
    • When you bring it up with the chair, it helps to be clear about what you are looking for (e.g., would you only move if your partner was offered a tenure track position, or would something else work, too?) The more types of positions that would be acceptable, the easier it will be to work things out.
    • Your partner should be prepared to send a CV, research, and teaching statements relatively quickly.
    • I’ve heard that you should lower the amount you request for startup (by, say 10ish percent) if your partner is also an academic. But then I was told by someone else with lots of experience handling negotiations that that was incorrect. I suspect some of this depends on the department.
  • If your partner is not an academic but will need to look for a job in the new location:
    • many universities have resources to help dual career couples, including when the partner works outside academia. There may also be good non-faculty options within the university. Again, early in the negotiation process, say something like, “My partner works in field X. Are there resources available to help him/her connect with potential employers in the area?”
  • Once you hear that you will be getting an offer from somewhere, it’s in your best interest for things to go a little slowly. This leaves time for you time to pull together your startup request (which takes a lot of effort!), and for you to interview other places and potentially get offers from them. You are always in a stronger negotiating position if you have multiple offers, plus it may well be that the second place would be a better place for you to end up. You don’t want to be unreasonable, of course, and people will get annoyed if they feel like you are playing them/just using them for leverage. But sometimes people feel like they need to negotiate at breakneck speed as soon as they hear they are getting an offer. Make sure to take enough time to get things right, as it’s often much harder to fix things once you’ve accepted an offer.

Finally, keep in mind that the place you are negotiating with is excited about having you join them. So, they want to know what it will take to have you accept their offer and, as Jeremy said, both you and the university want you to be set up to have a successful career. You don’t want to be excessive in your demands, but, at the same time, people sometimes sell themselves short, asking for the bare minimum because they are afraid of asking for too much. That’s not good for anyone in the long term.

From Brian:

Meg & Jeremy have given a lot of practical details. So just a few thoughts, mostly on the style or approach instead of the what.

  • Just do it. Don’t ever accept the first offer given to you. As a friend a few years ahead of me pointed out to me during my first negotiation, universities are run like businesses and they will take advantage of you if it saves them money. Unfortunately, a non-trivial fraction of the differential pay in genders can be traced to different choices around negotiations. In some cases you be able to negotiate $10,000 more on your salary, but $5,000 plus or minus is more realistic but even $2,000 is worth the effort. Almost every future change in salary will be a percentage of current salary, each $1000/year gain in salary up front will easily turn into more than $50,000 extra over the course of a career ($1000 growing at 3%/year and summed over 31 years gives about $50,000). And that is not including retirement benefits which are also based on a % of salary. You can be sure the university is doing that calculation in reverse and looking to shave off a few thousand where they can.
  • Think about the whole package. Know what is negotiable and what isn’t but know that it is usually more than just salary and startup. A total package in the US typically includes salary (benefits aren’t negotiable but you should find out what they are), startup funds, start date, teaching ramp-up (the final load is not usually negotiable but the speed at which you get to full load is negotiable at R1 but not usually at SLAC), graduate assistantships (may be rolled into startup in some places but other places it comes out of a different pot of money), moving expenses, lab space, lab renovation costs (again may or may not be rolled into startup). Some universities in places with very high costs of living also have mortgage assistance or house purchasing assistance programs. You also may or may not be able to negotiate slots in a university run day care program. You also may want to negotiate spousal accommodations. Even if your spouse is not an academic, the university may be able to provide jobs (there are lots of accountants, managers, etc positions at a university too). And even if your spouse does something not found at universities (e.g. school teacher) universities have a lot of connections. They may not be able to guarantee a job for a spouse outside a university, but it doesn’t hurt to ask and see what they can do.
  • Negotiate on all fronts at the same time. If you give away the ship on moving expenses and then find out that they genuinely have no flexibility on salary, then you’re stuck.
  • Don’t expect to win on all fronts. Think about your priorities. Negotiations are multidimensional. You will be negotiating salary, start up package, teaching release, start date, possibly spousal accommodations, etc. Know which of these are most important to you and be prepared to push hard on those dimensions and be willing to sacrifice more on other dimensions. Of course the school will have their own constraints and priorities. It may be easier for them to give on salary than startup or on graduate assistantships than salary or vice versa (these come from very different pots of money). These trade-offs are complex and you need to really think they through in advance. And you also need time to adapt as you learn the university’s trade-offs though negotiating process. Which leads to …
  • Don’t just start negotiating on the phone when you get the offer. Ask them what they are offering, write it down, and then say you’ll think about it. It is not uncommon nor unreasonable to ask for their offer in writing before you will respond or start negotiations. Then do your research. If it is a public institution look up their salaries. Talk to your future peers in the department about what is reasonable (despite what you might think they are rooting for you to get a high salary and startup – only the dean and department chair are oppositional to you in the negotiations). Ask friends a few years ahead of you what their negotiations looked like. And think through your strategy. What is a must have and what is a nice to have. What are your priorities. Then get back to them and ask for more than your “must haves”.
  • Going slow is to your advantage. Generally when you get your first offer you will have been very stressed for a year or two about even finding a job. You will want this signed sealed and delivered within days. Resist that temptation. The university is not in a hurry. They’ve spent months searching and are willing to run a new search next year if they have to – they rightly have the long term perspective.  You will be leaving money on the table if your urgency pushes you to a done deal in a few days. Each time you get an offer tell them you want a week to think it over. Appear excited about the job and don’t fail to answer emails/phone-calls, but don’t appear to be in hurry. There are times and places in business where getting a deal done quickly is important (and in academia locking up a potential grad student or postdoc quickly before they get another offer may be important) – but those are situations where the opportunity could disappear. As Jeremy said, withdrawals of offers are extremely rare (the only ones I know of were in 2009 during the economic crash and had nothing to do with negotiations). So taking time is almost always in your favor. You may get another offer (which drastically increases your power). And you will just indicate you are serious about negotiating
  • Ask for more than where you think you will end up. Negotiations involve two parties finding a middle point. It doesn’t involve the university just putting their best offer on the table because they like you a lot. This may sound obvious but I see people mess this up all the time. If their first offer is $60,000 and you think based on your research $65,000 is a fair place to end up, ask for $70,000 in your first request. If your response to $60,000 is “well I’ve done my research and I know the last 3 hires in  your department got an average $65,000” you may well end up at $62,500 or $63,000. Instead say, “well I’ve done my research and I see that one recent hire was at $70,000” (where of course you’ve picked the highest paid recent hire who might even be in a slightly different field that pays more or might have had several offers to give them a lot of negotiating leverage).
  • Wait for the 3rd number. My general rule of thumb is that in the one or two areas most important to you, you should always push back at least twice. IE get their initial offer, then make a counter offer, get their counter, then re-counter and then take their response.IE you should get 3 numbers from them: their initial offer, their counter, and then their counter to your counter. If you haven’t done that you’re probably leaving something on the table. So for example: their initial offer is $60,000; you counter for $70,000; they counter with $65,000; you counter with $68,000; they get back at $66000. You can probably assume you have reached diminishing returns at that point (yes you could probably get $66,500 if you tried but its not worth it at that point). Sometimes they really don’t have any flexibility and they have already reached their max on their first counter offer (rarely on their initial offer). These limitations are usually sincere but ask why they can’t give more. If the answer is that the startup was written into an EPSCoR capacity-building grant and they don’t have more money (as was my case in my last negotiation) or salaries are strongly union controlled or it is a SLAC which has pretty tight salary expectations or its Europe and they tell you the pay scale is set by the government, they’re telling you the truth. On the other hand if it is in the US and the department chair says “I was only authorized by the Dean to go up to $x,000” and its the one number you really want to push on – tell them to go ask the Dean for more. Using the hierarchy is a well-known trick (car salesmen use it all the time – the last time I bought a car from a dealer I made him go ask his boss 3 times and it got lower each time – they’re just playing on your social niceties in a very pre-meditated fashion – although I would say going to the Dean just once is more reasonable than the 3 times I made the car salesman go to his boss – and if you’re already negotiating with the Dean, don’t maker her/him go to the Provost).
  • Provide an explanation each time you request more. Academia is a different world than business or car sales. In those worlds you can often just ask for more money because, well, duh, who doesn’t want more money and everybody knows you’re in a negotiation. But I find in academia every time you push back, it goes better if you can give reasons. Those reasons are usually a mix of factual (showing you know the salary structure at their university, arguments about cost of living in a new city), productivity (I really need X to launch a successful research program) and personal (my kids start college in 4 years so I really need money, my wife has to finish her degree so I really need to delay starting by 6 months). And of course if you have another offer that should be brought up as part of your explanation every time you can.

The bottom line is that while you may have never conducted a serious negotiation before in your life, the university has and is expecting you to do so. They are not a benign “take care of you” kind of place. They are not evil – they are looking for a win-win scenario. But the only one primarily looking out for you is you. So even if you don’t have experience, use those skills you have learned about researching and communication and planning complex field campaigns and do a careful, professional negotiation. They will think better of you for it believe it or not


*Meg adds: Even though this is aimed at people negotiating their first faculty offer, I wanted to add one quick note for people who are moving from one faculty position to another: if you will be moving a grant, you can negotiate to have them make up any difference in overhead rate between universities. I was very glad someone pointed that out to me!

Update (from Meg): I didn’t remember that Jacquelyn Gill wrote a post on negotiating startup a while back! Here’s the link to her post.

12 thoughts on “Tips for negotiating salary and startup for newly-hired tenure-track faculty

  1. Athletes and actors get professionals to negotiate their salaries. I’ve always thought someone should start a recently-hired-academic representation agency.

  2. These are all great suggestions and tips! A few more specific suggestions: If you work on plants, make sure you negotiate greenhouse facilities, and be clear on how much space you need. You will seldom be able to get a commitment of space in writing, but you should be clear on what is available and how much bench space you can reasonably expect. You might also be able to negotiate a field garden. If your institution does not have access to a nearby field station, and you need ‘garden’ space, consider negotiating for space on campus (this might be on a satellite campus, or nearby land the university owns). I was able to get ~0.5 acre of space on campus, with water and electricity, and I used startup to fence it.

    • Good point. And for those working on animals in the lab, similar points apply to animal care facilities of the appropriate type (mouse, large mammal,fish tanks, space for cattle tanks for pond mesocosms, etc)

  3. One important thing to realize is that the university will likely have different pits of money that can be spent on different things, and some of the pots may be dry but others overflowing in any given year. As the candidate this won’t seem to make sense, but be ready to roll with it when it happens. “Oh, the travel budget is dry? Then perhaps with a small salary bonus in the first year I could do any extra conference that way”.

    I accidentally negotiated a whole year’s technician salary, in my first job, because I built one into my startup ask – and they said it had to come from a different pot of money, but they had it. I had no idea!

  4. What about for those of us who have a two-body problem with a spouse in academia? I was always told not to mention it until an offer was made and the university was fully committed to you. Is expected that one would sacrifice some of their startup to negotiate a position for a spouse?

    • I cover this a bit in my comments. I agree 100% not to mention it until an offer is made. When I was negotiating with Michigan, someone told me to reduce my startup request because I was negotiating for a position for my spouse. But I was later told that I shouldn’t have done that. It might be something that varies between institutions, but I’m not sure.

  5. While these negotiation tips were formed from experiences at R1s, they are also appropriate for job offers at the more prestigious, research-focused SLACs (but not at primarily teaching SLACs). At the former, pre-tenure teaching releases, delayed starting dates, remodeled lab space, large start-ups, etc., may be negotiable or even the norm. Karen Kelsey’s book The Professor Is In has lots of details on what sorts of negotiations you might engage in at different types of institutions. In short, R1-style negotiations are appropriate at elite SLACs, but not at most SLACs. A quick way to gauge is teaching load: a SLAC with a teaching load of 1 lecture + 1 lab each semester expects high research output, and thus is prepared for R1-style negotiations; a SLAC with a teaching load of 3 lectures, 3 labs each semester does and is not. The ecology jobs wiki negotiation page is a good place to see what people have been getting recently and reveals great variation in startups at SLACs:

  6. Great post, and a very timely one!
    I would be curious to learn your opinion on amount of money. All what I read about negotiations say that one should never bring a salary size first but rather wait for an offer. I am negotiating with a big conservation NGO, and they want me to tell them how much I’d like. I have some ideas about salary size there, but not very accurate. Should I tell them something which is for sure bigger that their ranges? But then it might not look serious. Should I divert their question again and again?
    Thank you.

    • I guess my advice would be that if they’re asking you to name a number (and they’re big so not making up their salary structure as they go), then they are negotiating pretty aggressively. Even in business they typically make the first offer. I would definitely be inclined to come in with a high number. Not ridiculously high like double what you expect. But don’t leave money on the table by coming in lower than they’re wiling to go. If you truly can’t find out about what is typical for this NGO or this type of NGO, then I would be inclined to bring in numbers from academia or private sector for a comparable job/qualifications and as an example of what you’re comparing the job to and use that to justify your starting number (that will help with the not looking serious problem). Use real numbers but feel free to pick ones that are favorable to you.

      • Thank you Brian. That’s exactly what I am doing. I know more or less how much people make there, but to the precision of +-10’000. So I am thinking to take academia salaries as an example.

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