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Assume Nothing

A senior professor I know is still bitter about the phone situation he encountered when joining his department more than 30 years ago. He was hired back when land lines actually mattered, so when he arrived and discovered that every desk had a phone, but the department had only one line, he was outraged. “I did a reasonable job negotiating my salary,” he explained, “but it didn’t occur to me to negotiate for my own phone number.”

This faculty member made the mistake of assuming that his new institution would provide him with the basic items he would need to get things done. “Assume nothing” is good advice for those on the market or considering a potential move. The savviest candidates develop a list of items they want and need early in the search process because they know that if they wait until an offer has been extended, stress and excitement can lead them to forget to request things that support their long-term success and satisfaction.

Your discipline and personal circumstances will influence what goes on your list, but in addition to asking for a competitive salary, your list may include such things as office location and square footage, research-related equipment, computing hardware and software, an ergonomically appropriate office chair, appropriate teaching load, travel funds, professional-society dues, summer salary, moving allowance, administrative support, employment for a spouse or partner, a spot in the campus child-care center, and parking. A competitive retirement plan and reasonably priced and comprehensive health-insurance options should also be on the list.

“There’s not much difference between health insurance and retirement plans,” some may claim. “Those items can’t be deal breakers.” Don’t be so sure. One of my colleagues was excited about a new position that would come with a $20,000 salary increase—until she learned that her health-insurance premiums would increase by more than 500 percent and there was a one-year wait to join the retirement plan, which turned out to be far less robust than what she was currently receiving. When she did the math, she determined that the move would not provide the financial boost she had envisioned.

Teaching loads can be another source of disappointment. In most institutions, teaching loads can vary from year to year, so it’s possible to sign on expecting to teach two courses a semester only to be assigned four once you’ve been around for a while. Paying attention to departmental workload norms and getting expectations in writing is essential.

Some of us find asking for what we need to be stressful or even distasteful, and we may be reluctant to seem overly demanding by insisting on a protracted and detailed negotiation process. It doesn’t have to be that hard and can be facilitated by providing your negotiation partner with a written list of items for consideration. “I’ve made a list of items for us to review. I’ll send it to you now and perhaps we can go over it later this week.” Having the list in writing somehow makes it feel less personal.

What strategies have you used to negotiate a competitive hiring package? Have you ever made faulty assumptions about what you would be receiving?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user tj scenes.]

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