Academy of Fine Arts

Negotiating for Dummies (Ph.D Version)

This Slate story, about a candidate for a philosophy professorship who had her job offer rescinded, attempts to make the point that academic institutions are cavalierly running roughshod over job candidates. Or as the article’s lead-in states, to gain entry to the academy, “it’s not ‘lean in’ so much as ‘bend over.'”

It’s very likely the case that institutions wield disproportionate power over candidates; tenure-track jobs in philosophy departments have always been a buyer’s market.

But so what? The interesting thing about this story isn’t Nazareth College’s decision to rescind the offer as it is the ignorance of a highly-educated professional to understand how negotiations work.  Here are a few lessons other job-seeking academics can take from this sorry tale:

It’s All a Negotiation

The eponymous “W” made her first mistake in thinking negotiation is some separate part of the job seeking process. Apparently she told the school, upon getting the offer, that she was going into “negotiation mode.” Say what? The whole process of seeking a job is one big negotiation. Sure, the brass tacks come at the end. But it’s a package of relationship-building and dialogue. You can’t think that you can abruptly shift that all aside at the end.  Any list of asks communicates something about you to the other side.  In sensitive or emotional negotiations, the wrong asks – or asks at the wrong time – can blow the whole deal.

Did W have any understanding of this dynamic?  Nope:

“This is how I thought negotiating worked, how I learned to do it, and, for that matter, how I think it should work: You ask about a number of perks and maybe get some of them. I was expecting to get very few of the perks I asked about, if anything … I just thought there was no harm in asking.”

There are plenty of times where “there is no harm in asking.”  And there are plenty of things that you can ask for that won’t cause any harm.  But ask for big things, at the wrong time, and you may well bring the negotiation to a screeching halt.


You can’t really get a sense for where the sensitivities lie unless you’ve taken the time to figure out and account for what’s important to your counterparty.  And here W’s fatal error is obvious.

Nazareth College is a small liberal arts school.  It is, as W’s rejection letter noted, “teaching and student focused.”  Yet 4 out of 5 of W’s asks were for things that would reduce her time in the classroom: special maternity leave, a guaranteed sabbatical, a delayed start date, and a reduced maximum course load for her first few years.  This set of asks sends a powerfully negative message about W’s commitment to teaching and student life.

What’s more, two of these asks also raise additional problems.  Asking in advance for a semester off for maternity leave comes off as naive and entitled (as institutions have existing policies for maternity leave).  And I suspect that asking to delay the start date for a year came off as “retrading” – the bringing up of an issue at the 11th hour that the other party thought settled.  Retrading has been death to many a negotiation, and experienced negotiators know to avoid it at all costs.  There had likely been discussions about the need to fill the role, the timing, etc.  If this was the first time the school had heard that W wanted to delay her start, that would be offputting indeed.

Know Your Leverage

Besides knowing what’s important to the other party, you’ve got to know how much negotiating leverage you’ve got. Leverage determines how much you can ask for, and how hard you can press for those things.  What a superstar, experienced professor can ask for is worlds apart from what a first-timer like W can expect.  About the only leverage a first-timer has is inertia – the fact that the candidate selection process is long and time-intensive, and the school may be reluctant to re-open it.  But this is a thin reed to rely on in a job search.  There may be another candidate who is a close second.  Or your selection may have been a narrow one, with factions of the department opposing it.  Objectivity about your attractiveness as a candidate is key; having friendly, collegial meetings and a job offer is not the same as being heavily in demand.

Don’t Overreach

Understanding the sensitivities of the other side and knowing your leverage will give you a good sense of what you can acceptably ask for.  Even the superstar professor can overreach and fatally offend the sensibilities of the institution; it’s just that such an individual has far more negotiating room than a newly-minted professor will.  It’s here that W got it so wrong – you can’t just assume that “there’s no harm in asking” for your wish list of perks.  With the prize so close to being in hand, she stumbled over this most basic of negotiating principles by badly overreaching.

So does this mean, as the Slate article suggests, that candidates for first-time academic positions are completely powerless and can’t negotiate?  Of course not; it just means they need to recognize the relative leverage of the parties and calibrate their negotiating strategy accordingly.

It’s almost never a good idea to “shoot for the moon” in any negotiation.  But it’s a particularly bad strategy when you’re in a low-leverage position.

h/t: Simple Justice

(Image: The Academy of Fine Arts (1578), from the J. Paul Getty Museum)

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