In the movie Broadcast News, William Hurt's smooth character, rapidly promoted toward anchorman stardom, asks his less-successful schlumpy colleague, played by Albert Brooks: "What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?"
Brooks replies: "Keep it to yourself."
Yes, it's tough on the job market for tenure-track positions. Nevertheless, thousands of tenure-track offers are made every year across the disciplines, and contract negotiation is the important next step. But what if you get more than one offer, or anticipate another one? I have no national statistic on that occurrence, but I have experienced and heard from many department chairs that top candidates for assistant professorships often receive multiple offers.
Indeed, as I write, I know of at least a dozen doctoral students and rookie faculty members who are in that very situation. Even if you are not, maybe at some point in your career you will be the object of multiple offers, or in the position of weighing a retention package against a tempting exit to another university.
If you are in such an enviable situation, you should, of course, feel good about it. But there are also issues to resolve and protocols to follow.
Tell the truth. Job hunting, especially for the novice, is stressful, and people under stress can behave outside the realm of good conduct. The temptation to puff your prospects, for example, is almost too strong to resist. A typical example: During a campus visit, the chair of the department describes its timetable for making a hire and then asks, "Will that work for you? Are you a finalist somewhere else?" Well, the pins-and-needles perched candidate may stretch the definition of finalist from reality (a couple of conference interviews) to fantasy fulfillment ("I have some campus visits coming up soon" or even "I have another offer on the table"). Wouldn't a bit of exaggeration help move things along?
Just don't do it. Saying you are a finalist—or worse, falsely claiming that you have another offer when you don't—is unethical and risky. Certainly, the lie might add luster to your candidacy ("others want him so he must be good") and even speed up the process ("we don't want to lose her; let's go to the dean and see if we can't move forward earlier"). But the reaction may be just the opposite: "We can't afford a bidding war or a failed first-choice hire; let's move on to someone else." In addition, the old-fashioned gossip network and the newfangled Wikis and social-media job sites are pretty efficient in revealing the status of searches. Liars get found out.
Don't burn bridges. With multiple offers on the table, it's tempting to get cocky: "So, after all this time at someone else's mercy, now I have the power! Mwa-ha-ha!"
First, on an ethical plane, don't become that which you resented. Second, as a practical matter, you have not been hired yet. Negotiations do collapse. You don't want to stretch the patience, sanity, and budget of your potential employers beyond their walk-away point.
Even if it is clear that one program's offer is far superior to another, treat them both with respect. Be polite and pleasant. Academic disciplines are small towns. Act snotty in triumph and the word will spread. And who knows how future hiring will evolve. The stung and irritated chair of the spurned program might, a few years down the road, end up as your dean.
So inform accurately and without enhancement: "Just to let you know, I do have another offer that came in from Midwest State U. They have initially set my salary at ... "
Hear out the offer. Just as you should avoid a priori prejudices against certain regions of the country, the same is true with job offers. Don't assume that the bigger the university, the better the contract. Maybe you went into your search with College A as your first choice, but don't discount College B automatically if you get an offer from both.
Before you close any deal, wait until you get the offer—preferably in writing—from each department.
Compare, contrast, consider, and be creative. Your future is at stake, so be painstaking and contextual in weighing your options. It's not enough to know that, for example, one place proposes a starting salary of $60,000 and the rival is offering $63,000. Once cost of living is taken into account, two close salary offers might diverge wildly, if they come from institutions in, say, New York City versus Iowa City.
Family variables might also matter: If one institution's location has many jobs in your loved one's field, then your total income will be better than someplace where your partner has no job prospects. Or, if one place is near Grandma and Grandpa, some of your child-care expenses may be lower.
The point is, an item like salary is just a raw number that you have to translate into a meaningful figure for your particular situation.
Which offer is better for your career trajectory? Different institutions reward different kinds of achievements. Whatever your career goals, your contract should outline what you need to feed your success. Some items on the checklist have material value (salary), but others may have more career value (lab setup). A rookie mistake is to care more about the former than the latter.
Example: Department No. 1 might offer a lower salary for a job in the sciences than Department No. 2, but make up for the difference with a research assistant, a better lab, and more travel money. All other circumstances being equal, I would rather start my research career at Department No. 1.
Read the room. Some chairs or deans (like me) prefer to put their best offer forward first, thereby reducing the candidate's anxiety of "am I getting the best deal?" in a negotiation. When you are faced with multiple offers, you want to make sure you understand the status of each one. Was the salary just a ballpark figure to start the discussions? Are the contract terms fixed, or can other elements be brought into the mix?
Your people-reading skills are vital here. Do you get a sense that the departments are OK with some bargaining? Some won't be: They think their offer, program, position, and institution are marvelous and can't understand why you would even be thinking of anyone else. Or maybe their budget or even union contracts limit what they can do for you.
Don't drag things out. The moment you get an offer, formal or otherwise, the invisible clock starts ticking away. Consider that the department chair is now in a position of uncertainty. She can't wait forever, losing other finalists, letting the summer creep closer. The faculty and higher administration will be expecting a resolution. Drawn-out, tortuous negotiations may derail your candidacy.
How long is too long? Two weeks is a typical "offer to cutoff" timeline. The more you delay past that, the more potential bad feelings you risk.
But what if circumstances don't follow the clock? You get an offer but are scheduled for a campus visit for another attractive position weeks later. Your options are limited: It will become transparent that you are playing out the game as the clock ticks, and you may find the chair who made the first offer start to get doubts and even back out—a real possibility, especially if there was no formal, written offer.
Here, too, ethics and pragmatism conjoin. You should be candid about your situation without making any departments feel like they are Plan B. At some point you may just have to roll the dice and decline one offer in anticipation of another. There are no easy answers if you find yourself in a tight corner, with time passing, although in some cases a college might speed up its hiring process if it knows it has competition.
Being offered more than one tenure-line job is a happy conundrum, but one that carries its own kinds of confusion, pitfalls, and anxiety. Once you've made the choice, however, don't second-guess yourself. Your new home, colleagues, and job will demand your unreserved and undivided attention.