And thanks for not trying to negotiate by e-mail. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg
And thanks for not trying to negotiate by e-mail. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Like many of you, I saw the sad tale last week of a philosophy teaching candidate who sent the following e-mail to a college that had extended her a job offer:

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 last 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.

This was the response of the college:

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.

The shock resounded through academic blogs. At Slate, Rebecca Schuman writes:

Reactions to the story’s coverage in Inside Higher Ed skewed sanctimonious: W’s requests were, apparently, “beyond the pale for hat-in-hand applicants.” She is a “young, immature candidate with unreasonable expectations.” And I can only hope this caring nurturer was being sarcastic: “Who the hell does this woman think she is? … I'm sitting at a rest stop on the NJ turnpike watching fast food operatives dispense burgers and pizza slices: That’s the alternative to an academic position for people, particularly women, with philosophy degrees. What an arrogant women (sic) imagining that she had any bargaining chips!!!”

This, as I see it, is the heart of the outrage over what in many other industries is considered standard procedure. How dare this “women” think she could attempt to secure a better life for herself and her family? In this market, if a university wants her to wade around in pig crap, her only counteroffer should be: “Should I bring my own snorkel?” Any beginning academic who tries to stand up for herself is lunch for the hordes of traumatized ivory-tower zombies, themselves now irreversibly infected with the obsequious self-devaluation and totalizing cowardice that go by the monikers “collegiality” and “a good fit.”

This strikes me as one of those cases where academics have a strange idea about what constitutes “standard procedure” in other industries.* To be sure, those of us who abide outside the Ivory Tower do negotiate our job offers. But having been on both sides of negotiations, and either heard or given some version of all of those requests, I see this e-mail as decidedly non-standard. Not because I wouldn’t try to negotiate any of these things. But I sure wouldn’t try to negotiate all of them in a giant chunk.

Three of her requests are for at least six to 12 months off, for a total of at least 2.5 years off from teaching duties in the next eight years.** The fourth requests no more than three new class preps a year, at a school that seems to have a 4/4 teaching load. The fifth is a request for more salary. So she has bundled a request for more pay with a request for a significantly reduced workload. That’s generally not a good negotiating strategy; you sound like the kind of colleague who’s always going to be looking to get as much as possible in return for doing the minimum.

Yes, yes, I understand that she wants the time off to do research (or have a baby), not work on her nails. But from the point of view of a small teaching-focused college, she is leading her negotiation by asking to be relieved of something like half of her primary duties. That isn't smart, especially for someone who is just starting out. It is especially not smart to combine that with a request for a higher salary.

Might she have been penalized because she’s a woman, or because she’s in a brutally competitive field with a somewhat insular culture? Sure. But unless you’re an absolute superstar that the organization is desperate to get at any price, there is no industry where it’s a good idea to send this list of requests to someone who has made you a job offer.

Those of you who are just starting out to may want a handy list of guidelines for negotiation. Here are mine. They’re not peer reviewed, or anything, but they come with one sterling credential: I’ve never had a job offer rescinded.

Rule #1: Don’t negotiate by e-mail unless you’re in Ulan Bator and can't get access to a landline. Pick up the phone.

Rule #2: Understand your market position. An experienced person with a solid track record of achievement gets to ask for a lot more than someone fresh out of school -- in part because he or she already has arrangements in place at their current employer. It’s a lot easier to ask a potential future employer for leave to write a book if your current employer has already granted it.

Rule #3: The more options you have, the more you can ask for. If there are a half a dozen other people they’d be happy to hire, you’re not going to get much more than their initial offer. And if you can’t afford to lose this job offer, then you had better keep your requests modest.***

Rule #4: Before you demand, explain why you are excited about this position and would very much like to take it. No, I don’t mean issue a pro-forma statement about how you’re excited about this position and would very much like to take it. Explain what about this position excites you and how you envision yourself doing it. I shouldn’t need to explain this. In my experience, however, most job candidates forget to mention the work they’re supposed to deliver in exchange for all the goodies they want.

Rule #5: The organization doesn't exist to give you a job. Want what you want. Why shouldn’t you? You’re awesome. But before you ask for anything, think through what the organization might want. If you were, for example, a faculty member in a small department at a teaching college, how would it sound to you if the brand new potential faculty member asked to be given years off teaching to pursue her research?

Rule #6: You can ask for anything. But don’t ask for everything. Have one or two items that you want, and then some backup items to ask for if the first requests prove impossible. If they tell you they can’t come up on salary, ask about a few extra vacation days, or working from home. This is why you conduct this negotiation on the phone.

Rule #7 Don't, under any circumstances, fall prey to the Myth of the Bargaining Chip. Asking for a lot in the hopes that you’ll end up splitting the difference is a great bargaining strategy -- in the movies. It’s dramatic, and it doesn’t take much screen time to explain. In real life, “If you want the moon, ask for the stars” can often backfire, as the folks on the other side of the table conclude that you’re difficult or unreasonable, and decide to walk away. So to return to Rule #3, this is a strategy that you should only employ if you genuinely don’t care that much whether you lose this deal.

I won’t guarantee that nothing bad will happen if you follow this list. But I think I can guarantee a better outcome than what befell our unfortunate aspiring professor.

* Every time I write about tenure, and why I think it’s not a great system, at least one professor is guaranteed to ask me, “Well how would you like it if your boss could fire you at any time for no reason at all?” apparently without realizing that millions of us are living in that dystopian hellscape right this very minute.

** Assuming a standard tenure clock of seven years.

*** Yes, I know, the academic job market is terribly unfair. Sorry about that, but I can’t fix it. I can just suggest how you can deal with it.

To contact the writer of this article: Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net