Documenting the Academic Job Search – Part IV

(Read Part III here.)

This will be the last installment in my job search series, though it will perhaps be the most important. In particular, I share research on negotiating a job offer.

Campus Interviews

If you receive a campus interview, congratulations! You are among 3-4 people who the search committee found suitable after a brief phone or conference discussion. Though the committee may have its favorite among those candidates, the campus visit can alter those perceptions drastically. The reality is that you are all equally qualified, so it’s best to be (a polished, groomed, suited up version of) yourself.

You will be peppered with questions on the day of the visit, so be sure to again review common interview questions. Practice the “elevator pitch” versions of your teaching philosophy and research directions. Keep in mind that, for better or worse, your best chance to make an impression on the department is the job talk. Practice your talk early and practice it often! This job talk advice from Prof. Lerman at UIUC very clearly spells out the goals for which you should strive, as does this article from the MAA’s FOCUS magazine.

In addition to reading advice articles, get out and talk to people in your department—especially postdocs and other recent hires who have fresh memories of the interview process. If your department is hiring, it would be a great idea to attend the job talks of candidates to get an up-close look. You may have other resources available at your campus such as mock interviews.

It’s a good time to dust off your nice clothes to ensure they still fit. A campus interview can involve a lot of walking as well as lunch and dinner with potential colleagues; you want to be well-dressed yet comfortable. This Academia.SE question provides useful opinions on dress etiquette.

As is often mentioned, a campus invite also provides time for you to interview the department. Be prepared with a list of questions to ask the search committee. A full day interview usually incorporates a few short, one-on-one discussions with other faculty in the department. This is your chance to get into the nitty gritty about expectations for the following:

  • teaching load, course assignments, areas of need;
  • research and publishing;
  • grant-writing and institutional support;
  • main ingredients of the tenure process;
  • summer activities and support;
  • student advising.

I will close out this section with three selected articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which generally has good advice.

Negotiating

Having only negotiated a single software development job, I admit I was a bit naive about the negotiation process. Through my own reading and discussion about the academic job search, I have internalized the following rough model of the academic negotiation: The department, through the chair, entrusts the search committee to select the best person for the job. However, a dean or other administrator must be convinced of all decisions by the chair. So once an offer is put forth, the department chair acts as an intermediary and mostly wants to see the search wrapped up quickly and in your favor. Otherwise they must repeat the process, hoping that their second choice hasn’t already moved on. A corollary to this model, which I’ve seen echoed elsewhere, is that if you’re unsure about the feasibility of negotiating on a particular point, then simply ask the department chair.

Unless you end up as a department chair or administrator, you will likely never again have such direct influence over the actions of the chair and dean. You have the most power in the few days when an offer is on the table. After acceptance, you immediately take on the title of “Department Newbie“! (Which doesn’t confer much influence at all.)

You must negotiate!

I’m not suggesting you play hardball or ask for everything mentioned here, I’m merely trying to hammer home the idea that certain parameters of an offer are commonly negotiated. So much so, that a recent instance in which a job offer was rescinded spawned much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth across the internets. So do your research and negotiate!

Allow me to help you out with your research, which I feel is the meat of this post. The first thing everyone asks after hearing “job offer” is “how much?”, so you might as well begin with this primer from Inside Higher Ed. It’s often considered impolite to discuss salary, but I believe open information can help decrease pay inequality. If you happen to have an offer from a public university, then often times you can download incredibly specific salary information. Searching “state u faculty salary” often produces a detailed pay schedule or even an eerily convenient list of the salary of each employee by name. State law usually compels the dissemenation of this information, as well as surveys such as the Report on 2011 Faculty Recruitment and Retention Survey published by the California State University system. Though boring, such documents afford specific insight into institutional thinking. Another source of salary data is the The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession published by the American Association of University Professors (salary data accessible here). The National Center for Education Statistics has fine-grained salary data which may be browsed through this helpful portal. You can break down information by institution, faculty rank and even view gender discrepancies. Really the only thing missing is the ability to see field-specific information. If you want a quick idea of how much room you have to negotiate salary, I’d look here first.

The are a number of potential negotiation points which are almost as good as increased salary. In general, you want to think in terms of your total compensation, not salary. One immediate concern is your relocation and most institutions offer at least partial support to offset these costs. Take a few hours to estimate moving costs and communicate these during negotiation. You may also have some ability to alter terms of retirement and non-cash benefits. For example, if you don’t get the extra salary you want, can you get an extra percentage point matched into your 401k? What about housing? Is it expensive? Then ask about subsidized faculty housing or mortgage assistance. Do you have family concerns such as parental or medical leave? Now is the time to investigate the possibilities!

I must confess ignorance about a very important benefit that is almost as important as salary: the start-up package. You may not need to build a lab like a chemist, but you should still think carefully about this aspect of the offer. For a mathematician, the essential purpose is to supplement your professional activities until you find external funding. Usually the start-up package will include a new computer and other office equipment. But as a mathematician you need to travel for research and professional development. Travel costs money and you really don’t want that coming from your (9 month!) salary. So ask for a travel fund. Figuring $1500 per trip (or twice that for international travel), one to two trips per year for three to five years and you’re looking at $10,000 before you gain tenure! I’m not suggesting you ask for that much in your start-up package, necessarily. But you will need something to form a backstop between external travel grants and your own salary.

As I alluded to above, an academic salary traditionally only covers 9 months of the year. How will you support yourself during the summer? Here again, you may negotiate something into your start-up package. A salary for one summer gives you time to write research grants or develop other activities to supplement your income. A negotiation tip: You can’t simply ask for a free money (well, you can try). Instead you say, “I intend to host an REU in two years, would you support my time to develop a project via two months of summer support?” Then the following year, you can pay yourself one month salary courtesy of the NSF. Finally, your research may also require computing resources. If you don’t have grants to pay for this, you may need help to hit the ground running. Though focused on mathematics education, this article in the Notices provides context for the size of start-up packages, as does the Cal State report linked above.

I will conclude this section by mentioning a few common negotiating points for tenure track offers. In fact, I already heard some of these discussed during phone interviews.

  • Most offers include a reduced teaching and/or administrative load for the first two years. You don’t want to be sitting on too many committees or preparing a bunch of new courses while you’re trying to lay the foundations of your research program.
  • It may be possible to earn a pre-tenure sabbatical. One teaching-focused school I spoke with offered a standard half-year paid sabbatical during the fifth year.
  • There may be flexibility in the tenure clock, in either direction. For instance, if you’ve completed a postdoctoral position and have a solid research program you can ask for a “no-penalty” review after five years instead of six, for instance.
  • If you haven’t completed a postdoctoral position, but would like to, know that it is relatively common to be granted for a one-year deferment in your permanent position. Don’t withdrawal your tenure-track application at “Dream U” simply because you accepted a short-term research postdoc.
  • Perhaps the most delicate to broach, many people have found success in solving the two-body problem! Some forward-looking institutions have even developed specific procedures for dealing with this scenario. Though for a look at some of the pitfalls (and, sadly, outright discrimination) of such a job search, I recommend this two-part series.

Conclusion

You never really stop applying for your job as an academic. When you’re not teaching or performing research, you have to continually write about your teaching and research to participate in professional development, win grants and gain tenure. And I’m sure such writing doesn’t stop after you gain tenure! If you’d like to take your mind off of your job applications, then start thinking about future programs in which you’d like to participate (I linked this helpful blog post previously). Have you applied to teaching-oriented jobs? Then you may want to check out programs like the Project NExT. As mentioned above, you may also want to begin looking into travel grants. There are many institutes which fund collaborative research such as the Simons Foundation, Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, the American Institute of Mathematics and the Banff International Research Station.

Happy job hunting!

About Derek Smith

Former weather dude and scientific software developer. In the upcoming 2015-16 year I will complete my PhD at UCSB in nonlinear dispersive equations. I enjoy spending time with my two young daughters and running.
This entry was posted in Advice, Interview, Interviews, Jobs. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Documenting the Academic Job Search – Part IV

  1. Tom Barr says:

    Two other excellent sources of information about academic mathematics salaries are the AMS’s report on Starting Salaries of New Doctoral Recipients (http://www.ams.org/profession/data/annual-survey/docsgrtd) and the Faculty Salary Survey (http://www.ams.org/profession/data/annual-survey/facsal).

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