Take this Negotiation or Shove It!

By Alaina G. Levine
Published 09/30/2020
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handshakeThe first rule of negotiation is that you should always negotiate. Business students are taught this on the first of class, but the rest of us have to learn by trial and error. The reason is simple: Your first “real” salary (that is, the salary you have for the first job you acquire after your highest degree or your last postdoc appointment) will determine your salaries for the rest of your life. So aim appropriately high from the start, because every salary will build on the next.

Now I recognize that since we STEM nerds are not necessarily taught negotiation in our coursework, nor did our advisers encourage us to pursue training in negotiation. So the prospect of “negotiating” in a high-stakes environment, like the midst of a job offer, may seem uncomfortable, or even unnatural, at first.

But here’s the good news—you already possess the foundational skills needed to negotiate because you negotiate every day: with your partner over a choice of restaurant, with an observatory for more time on a telescope, with your hotel to get a late check- out. In fact, I am negotiating with you, the reader, for your time now and in the future. If I succeed in my negotiation, you’ll continue reading this piece, and maybe come back for future columns.

Since you already negotiate in seemingly low-stake ecosystems, you can consider that you routinely fine-tune your negotiation abilities, and you can apply these in high-stake situations. Many negotiation strategies and tactics are universally applicable. The same techniques that you employ to get your toddler to put on his socks can be employed to solidify a fair salary and compensation package for a job.

Even with the knowledge that we all have negotiation experience, many feel reluctant to negotiate over an employment offer; perhaps some feel desperate for a job, especially given the current market, and are simply grateful for any opportunity. Others might fear that if they start a negotiation, the offer will be rescinded, with a curt, “how dare you negotiate with us? Be gone from this institution!”

I strongly believe that we should always negotiate, partly for the reasons mentioned above, and partly because the other party is expecting us to negotiate. Negotiation is as normal a maneuver in a business encounter as interviewing. And since every institution is a business (including academia), you shouldn’t be shy about negotiating, especially for items that you absolutely need to accomplish the tasks of the position. In fact, whether you seek employment in academia, industry, or another sector, there are certain things that you cannot do without if you are to inject value into the organization and extract success from it.

For example, a postdoc appointment absolutely must offer time and financial resources to conduct original research, publish, and attend and present at strategic conferences. If this element is not explicitly mentioned as part of the original offer, you must negotiate for them. After all, you would not be successful as a scientist without it, and STEM postdoc appointments were unequivocally designed to advance research careers.

So it was with great surprise that I heard the alleged tale of a philosophy PhD who had successfully interviewed at a university for a professorship. She was offered the job and began to negotiate by email. Her response read in part,

As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.

  1. An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the past few years.
  2. An official semester of maternity leave.
  3. A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.
  4. No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.
  5. A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.

I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.

Her letter was respectful and polite. Her requests were ambitious but certainly not inappropriate for this type of job. Nothing she asked for raised a red flag that she would not be a team player or make a valuable contribution to the university. Furthermore, she ended her note acknowledging that she didn’t expect every one of her requests (not demands!) to be met, thereby clearly expressing that she was open to negotiating.

I would have expected the university to respond with a counter offer, one that did not grant every request, but one that met her somewhere in the middle. They had offered her the job after all, so they must have found her extremely attractive as a potential member of that faculty.

Another potential answer, although rare, would have been for the administration to close negotiation altogether, stating that, while they are unable to meet her needs, or enhance the offer at all, they would still be interested in her joining the faculty.

But instead of engaging in any sort of professional negotiation behavior, the university representatives took the surprising approach to rescind the offer:

Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.

Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.

I was floored. So were the many others who wrote to me after this woman’s blog post went viral. I have never heard of this happening, and my feeling is that the university behaved in a very unprofessional and unethical manner.

Some have suggested that her email was overly blunt or even cocky, but I don’t agree. She advocated for herself and her career, and specified what she feels she is worth on the market, which shows confidence, not to mention excellent research skills. Moreover, she expressed flexibility, gratitude, and enthusiasm, all of which mark her as a superior candidate.

Without knowing any facts of the event other than those she reported, and not being able to verify the facts because she wrote her blog post anonymously, I can only tentatively comment on what appears to be a confluence of issues at work here.

  • The university representatives’ reaction shows, at the least, disrespect for the candidate. Perhaps they have an inflated opinion of their institution.
  • Their behavior demonstrates a rather unsophisticated attitude toward negotiation. It makes me wonder just how many high-stakes negotiations they have participated in.
  • I can’t help but guess that if the candidate was a man and wrote the same negotiation request, the university’s response would have been different. Whereas women who advocate for themselves professionally are often deemed aggressive and bossy, men who do so are considered to demonstrate highly-coveted leadership qualities. I can only hope that we continue to address this double standard and underlying sexism.

However, there is a silver lining for this candidate: it is fortunate that the university displayed this behavior at this stage of the process; had she accepted the first offer and taken the job, she would likely have discovered that this is the kind of behavior that the institution condones and possibly even encourages. Better to find out before you invest in an organization and relocate that it won’t support scholarly activities.

Please don’t let this sad affair discourage you from negotiating. You deserve what you are worth, and you need certain elements (whether that be a fair salary, specialized equipment, or travel funds) to do your job well. Flexibility plays a major role in negotiation, for both parties, but by accepting anything less than what you need to achieve success in the job does a disservice to both you and your prospective institution.

This is the first in an occasional series of columns concerning negotiation. If you have a negotiation story to share, please email alaina@alainalevine.com. I will anonymize your tale for the article.


Alaina G. Levine
About Alaina G. Levine
Alaina G. Levine is an award-winning entrepreneur, STEM career consultant, science journalist, professional speaker, and corporate comedian. Her first book, Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015), beat out Einstein for the honor of being named one of the Top 5 Books of 2015 by Physics Today Magazine. As President of Quantum Success Solutions, she is a prolific speaker and writer on career development and professional advancement for engineers and scientists. She has delivered over 700 speeches for clients in the US, Europe, Mexico, Canada, and Africa, and has written over 350 articles in international publications such as Nature, Nature Astronomy, NatureJobs, Science, Scientific American, National Geographic News Watch, and IEEE Spectrum. Levine is also currently authoring two online courses for Oxford University Press on career development and entrepreneurship/commercialization and is a consultant, speaker, and writer for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. Learn more about Levine.