Thursday, January 3, 2013

How to get a faculty job, Part 3: Negotiating the offer

This is the third (actually fourth) part in this series on how to get a faculty job in Computer Science. Part 1 and Part 1b dealt with the application process, and Part 2 was about interviewing. In this post, I'll talk about what happens when you get a job offer and how to negotiate when you have multiple offers.

There is often a long and painful wait from the time you complete the interview until you hear back from the school about whether they will be making you an offer. This is generally because all (or most) of the candidates need to complete interviews before the final hiring decisions are made, and the actual offer needs to be approved by the department or school administration before the candidate can be given the good news. Depending on how early you interview, this wait can be on the order of a month or two. (Generally, candidates interview between February and April, and offers start getting made around April or May.) Sometimes a school won't contact you at all after the interview, and after a while you figure you're not getting an offer after all. Sometimes they contact you fairly quickly to deliver the coup de gr√Ęce, which is greatly appreciated since then you can at least stop holding out hope.

As I pointed out in the previous post on interviewing, it is a very good idea to keep in touch with schools you are really interested in and let them know where you are in the process, and especially if you have offers from other schools. Usually this can be done via informal email to your host when you interviewed. The last thing a department wants is for their top candidate to take a job elsewhere before they have a chance to make an offer. So let people know what's happening and try to find out how your top choices are doing in terms of making offers.

There are three kinds of offers: (1) Straight-up offers; (2) "Offers for offers", and (3) Second-choice offers. I'll explain each below.

Straight-up offers

The best possible outcome is that you get a call from your host or the hiring committee chair who says, "I'm happy to let you know that we're going to be making you an offer." At this stage, you probably will not get into any of the details about salary, research funding, and the like -- that comes later.

Most of the time, departments will offer to fly you out for a second visit, sometimes with your spouse or significant other, so you can spend time getting to know the department, university, and town. This is much more relaxed than the interview, and is a great way to get to know your potential future colleagues under less stressful conditions. A second visit can be very important for deciding where to kick off your career as a faculty member: you will learn many things that you might not have had time to get into when you interviewed. In particular, you are going to care much more about things like housing, schools for your kids, quality of life, and other factors that you didn't get a chance to judge during the interview. Definitely do a second visit if you are serious about a school.

Offers for offers

The dilemma faced by many departments is that they have several really good candidates but only one (or maybe two) open positions. If a department blindly makes an offer to its top candidate, but that person is not that serious about taking the job there, then their second- or third-choice candidates (who might be just as good!) might end up taking offers elsewhere while the first candidate sits on the offer in the hopes of using it as a point of negotiation with another school. Also keep in mind that schools generally cannot have multiple outstanding offers for a single position.

So, sometimes a department won't make an outright job offer, but will instead feel you out to find out if you're really serious about taking a job there, a so-called "offer for an offer". The idea is that the department can (and will!) make a formal offer, but only after determining that you really want it.

From a purely selfish perspective, it might seem that your best strategy is to amass as many offers as you can so you have the most leverage when negotiating salary and other aspects of the compensation. But this also puts the department in a real bind if you end up sitting on the offer without any real intention of taking it. I don't think pissing a bunch of people off (even at a place where you don't take a job) is a good strategy for anyone trying to jumpstart an academic career.

Some schools do ridiculous things like exploding offers, which expire after a set time, to avoid the situation where someone sits on an offer for too long. Given that schools are rarely well-synchronized in their recruiting schedules, this can be disastrous: Say you get an offer that explodes after two weeks, but you haven't finished interviewing yet and still haven't heard from most of the schools. The last thing you want is to be forced into accepting a job at a school because the offer was going to time out. By no means should you be forced to make a decision on taking a faculty job before you have had a chance to evaluate all of your options. Personally, I think schools that do this are being idiotic and should think seriously about what kind of people they are going to be successful recruiting though such tactics.

I once heard a case of a hiring committee which couldn't make up its mind, so they called their top five candidates and said, "We have two offers available, the first two people who call us to claim the offer will get one, but it will explode in two weeks." I think this kind of strategy is a complete load of crap, and the hiring committee should be ashamed of itself for not being able to commit to their top one or two candidates and ride it through. But I digress.

Second-choice offers

It is often the case that you aren't the school's top choice, but you are their second (or third) choice for the position. Sometimes a school will tell you this outright: That they would love to make you an offer, assuming that their first-choice candidate declines them. This can sting, of course, and I question the wisdom of telling candidates this much information. Most people don't want to take a job somewhere where they feel as though they were the consolation prize. Sometimes, you find out through the grapevine that someone else already has an offer from that school, but later on you get a call with an offer of your own (and it just so happens that the other candidate recently accepted a job elsewhere). At some point you have to swallow your pride and appreciate that in a few months, nobody will remember (or care) that you weren't the first choice, and you got an awesome job at a good school, and that's all that matters. The point is that an offer's an offer, so don't worry too much if you weren't the department's original top choice.

From sitting on the faculty hiring committee at Harvard, I can vouch for how hard it can be for a school to narrow its choices to one or two people in a field of really good candidates. Often the choice of who to make the first offer to is arbitrary, based on some general vibe that you think the person might be more or less inclined to accept the job. A department might have two or three candidates who are all more or less equal but they have to make a first choice somehow.

What's in an offer?

In most cases, the initial job offer is verbal and you won't get a formal, written job offer until much later, based on extensive discussions with the dean or department chair about what you expect the offer letter to say. There are several components to most faculty job offers that should be (eventually) spelled out in writing:
  • The salary (of course). Usually salary is paid for 9 months of the academic year, with the expectation that you will pay the other 3 months out of a research grant. So if the offer is $100k for 9 months, that's really a 12-month salary of $133k.
  • Summer salary support. Since most junior faculty come in with no research grants, usually a department will offer to pay one or two summers' worth of your salary until you get grants of your own.
  • Teaching relief. At many schools, incoming junior faculty are given a semester of teaching relief which they can take at some point in the first couple of years. This gives you a little more free time to kick start your research and lessens the load of transitioning into the new job. My strong recommendation is to wait until your second or third term before taking teaching relief: Teaching a course (especially a graduate seminar) your first term on the job is a great way of recruiting students to your research group, and you're so screwed anyway the first semester as a new faculty member that teaching relief is hardly beneficial until you get your research group up to speed.
  • Graduate student support. Many schools will provide funding to support one or two grad students for a couple of years, to help seed your research group. Of course, you still have to identify and recruit the students (a topic for a future blog post). Keep in mind that grad students aren't cheap. In addition to their paltry salary, the student's tuition and fringe benefits need to be paid for. Typically a PhD student will cost around $75K year all in, so support for a couple of students is a lot of money.
  • Research support. This can take many forms depending on the school, but generally this is money (in some form) to help you get your research going in lieu of any grants. The best form of this is an outright slush fund which you can use to pay for anything related to your research: computers, equipment, students, summer salary, travel, conference registrations, pizza parties for the team, you name it. At Harvard, my "startup package" was in the six figures, but this is unusual; I think that most schools do something in the $20K range, sometimes less. (If the school is offering to pay for students or summer salary separately, you have to factor this in as well.) In many cases, a department will separately offer you some amount of equipment (such as a fund to buy a computers and laptop) in addition to, or in lieu of, a general slush fund. It depends very much on how the school manages its finances and chooses to account for things. Some schools without deep pockets may only offer you a hand-me-down workstation and a few hundred bucks to offset the cost of a laptop. It varies a lot.
  • Lab space. I don't know how common it is for a job offer to include an explicit provision for lab space (that is, not including your own office). In many departments, grad student space is a shared resource and there is not usually a need for dedicated labs for specific faculty. However, depending on the nature of your research, you might need specialized lab space -- for example, if you are developing a swarm of quad-copters you probably need some dedicated space for that.
  • Other perks. It is common for the department to pay for (or offset) your moving expenses, especially if you are moving from far away. An offer also might include things like temporary housing when you first move. Again, this varies a lot.
How to negotiate

Okay, so let's assume you're lucky enough to have a couple of faculty job offers in hand. What do you need to keep in mind?

First things first. Only negotiate with schools you are really serious about. It is a waste of everyone's time (and patience) if you feign excitement about a school just to get them to bump up your offer and use that as leverage against another school. People will know if you are bullshitting them. And keep in mind that even if you don't take a job somewhere, those people you run the risk of pissing off will continue to be important academic colleagues. One day they might be called upon to write tenure review letters for you. The point is you want to avoid making enemies.

Secondly, you can't compare industry and academic offers. At all. Compensation from industry is going to be much higher (especially over time) than any academic offer, when you factor in salary, bonuses, stock options, and the steeper increase year over year compared to a university job. So you can't expect to use an an industry offer as leverage to negotiate higher compensation at a university.

At many universities, the salary is non-negotiable as it is based on a standard scale that (in most cases) can't be changed. You might be able to negotiate a small salary increase if another school is offering much more, but this seems unlikely to me. Keep in mind that the range of starting salaries for junior faculty across different schools (at least among top-ranked research institutions) is pretty tight, so there's not much wiggle room there anyway. You can ask but don't be surprised if you're told that the salary is fixed.

If you can, try to get your startup package to be all or mostly cash. By "cash" I mean funding that can be used to pay for anything: students, equipment, travel, whatever. If your startup is segmented into X dollars for students, Y dollars for equipment, and so forth, that can constrain you down the line, if, for example, you end up wanting to hire more students than you expected or don't need as much travel funding. Fungibility is good.

It's a good idea to have a rough idea of how much you need to get started before you start talking hard numbers. When I did my faculty job search, I had in mind a research agenda involving building out an experimental workstation cluster as well as some other equipment needs, travel to several conferences in my first couple of years, and support for two students. I made up a quick and dirty spreadsheet to estimate how much all of this would cost and used that as the starting point for talking about the size of the startup package. If you have no idea how much you expect to spend -- and what you might spend it on -- you will have a hard time making a convincing case that you need more than what's being offered.

If you have a two-body problem (which is probably deserving of its own blog post), find out what, if anything, the university can do to help your partner land a job in the area. You may be surprised. When I was on the job market, my wife was finishing up medical school and we were going to make a decision about where to go in large part based on whether she would be able to get a good residency position. Although nobody could guarantee my wife a residency slot, the schools that were recruiting me helped set up meetings with a bunch of people to learn more about the programs in each area so we got a good sense of what her options were like. It is also not uncommon for universities to facilitate positions for spouses and partners of faculty they are trying to recruit -- many things are possible.

If you have kids, you should by all means try to negotiate for a spot in the university's day care center. The waiting lists for day care can be years long, but special exceptions can often be made when a school is trying to recruit a new faculty member. This is not always possible but it's worth asking about.

Finally, don't be greedy. This is not about maximizing your compensation and startup package and pissing everyone off in the process. Your goal in negotiating the offer is not to squeeze every penny you can out of them -- instead, it's to reach a point where you feel confident that the compensation and startup package will allow you to be happy and successful in your new job.

So which offer should you take?

Although I'm sure it happens, I would hope that nobody would take a faculty job just because it paid the most or had the largest startup package. If your only goal in life is to maximize your compensation, trust me: You do not want to be a professor. There are many, many other factors that are more important than the size of the offer: The culture and quality of the department, the students, the physical location, the quality of life ... the list goes on and on. In steady state, you're going to be a (relatively) poor academic, and struggling to get research grants just like everyone else. The initial salary and startup package can give you a boost, but it mostly comes out in the wash -- the absolute numbers won't matter much beyond the first year or so. So focus on finding the job that will make you happiest, not just that which pays the most.


  1. Ultimately, there are three ways to evaluate an academic job offer: research, teaching, and your life outside work.

    . Will you get the grad students to realize your vision and collaborators to mentor and help you?

    . Will you teach small or large classes? With what degree of TA support?

    . Does the city work for your needs? Cost of living? Culture? Food? Weather? Great outdoors? Dating scene?

    It's important to understand that, unless you're lucky, no particular school will max out your fitness function on all of these things. It's all about picking the right compromise.

  2. I want to add a comment on the salary portion of the notes.

    There is in fact usually a fair bit of flexibility in school salary offers. It is true that most schools have some sort of a ladder-like system that dictates specific salary amounts at different stages of the career. But there are also usually flexible amounts that can dictate what the final salary is, and is key to giving schools the flexibility to extend higher amounts to match competing offers. For example, schools in the UC system have an "offset" amount that is usually meant to calibrate for differences local living costs, but is often used to extend higher offers to some faculty members.

    In my case in 2004, I had pruned my offers down to a private school that I very nearly chose over UCSB. Of course the private school's first offer was *significantly* higher than the UC offer. Once I decided to go with UCSB, I asked about the salary, and UCSB pulled out all the stops to increase their offer significantly to match the private school salary. When I talked to the private school later (after I had already declined their offer), they reminded me in a very friendly way that the number I was looking at was *just* their first offer, and it could change significantly.

    My suggestion to anyone with multiple offers. Only negotiate with one school. Never use the schools against each other in any sort of bidding war. Regardless of which offer you choose, you are dealing with your future colleagues, and academic offers are uniquely valuable to each department making them. Declining a school's offer can be damaging and hurtful to a department, and should be done with the utmost care and consideration. For example, on my second visit to UCSB, I made a phone call from my hotel room to decline an offer from a different school. The fact that I gave them their answer *before* their friday morning faculty meeting to finalize the offer meant they could immediately turn around and make the formal offer to their second candidate on the list. I know that gesture was greatly appreciated, and helped them avoid missing out on a hire that year (their offer was accepted by the candidate).

  3. excellent notes, wish they were there when I was applying :) I wish Europe also had the recruitment season pattern like US, here faculty jobs can come and go based on a large number of events and funding patterns, the 1-2 week period to decide is absolutely a norm here, and in many cases I ave heard 1 DAY (!) given to candidate to decide, in case a competing institute in area is also hiring (often the case in London) , overall makes prediction and good decision making more difficult, however all the above, and previous posts, still apply!

  4. Matt:

    Another excellent post!

    Just one comment I wanted to add to your point about "first things first" on how to negotiate: once you do get an offer, take your time to seriously consider it, and make sure to give the impression of doing so. Keep in mind that your champion(s) go through enormous university hoops and commit real political capital to get you an offer, especially in highly competitive positions.

    At my first job offer, I was young and made a mistake that cost me dearly in terms of friends and well wishers for sometime to come. At a favorite California school, that shall remain unnamed, I received a sort of "offer of an offer" while I was considering an offer from School B (UIUC). Since previous year, my close friend had an offer that did not materialize (dean said no, after the chair made a verbal/email offer) at a different school, I *insisted* on getting a written offer before I would consider it.

    The California school got back with a written offer and next morning I called to decline it after a night of serious discussion at home. I thought I should inform the California school promptly.

    This was a zero EQ response. Another day or so would not have made a difference, had I known the level of effort the school had put in getting a written offer out to me from the university administration.

  5. Has anyone ever considered a stable matching system for faculty jobs (in CS or otherwise), a la medical/veterinary residencies? I'm sure no one would be happy with using such a system for final decision making, but for deciding who gets an interview where it doesn't seem so crazy to me.

  6. Anonymous, there are a number of ways in which a matching process would make rational sense (e.g., for the great candidates who are not regarded as the top 3 in their field in their year and for a broad set of schools competing unsuccessfully for faculty, both of whom are penalized under the current system). However, its pretty unlikely to happen -- both because the incentive structure isn't there (everyone sees hiring as the principal means for self-improvement and thus we all want those "best" candidates). Second, any inter-school agreement like this would have to pass state labor discrimination law and probably federal anti-trust (we'd need a title 15 amendment like the residency matching programs).

  7. Two other things worth understanding: the processes for making offer differ considerably between institutions. For example, some schools have the flexibility to make offers on the spot (e.g., I got an offer from Cornell before I left Ithaca) other schools like UCSD require planting and harvesting a crop of wheat before we can turn around a written offer. At some departments, hires are pre-allocated to areas in advance, while in others they reflect a competitive process across all areas. In some situations a position may be competed in a larger group than just a department (e.g., school-wide initiatives) or may require additional oversight (e.g., diversity) or can be tied to special deals negotiated between departments. Some schools can negotiate salary, other's can't. Some control their own space, others may not. In some schools, institutes may play a role commensurate with departments (and may be the ones actually placing a hire), in others they are just window dressing. Every thing you can imagine is happening somewhere, this isn't cookie cutter stuff. Its always in your interest to ask your host if there's anything special you should know about the position so you don't get surprised.

    Second, if its really important to you, its worth asking about. Almost anything can be negotiated (up to the limits of a department). In particular, if you know in advance you want to do something weird (e.g., I want to do Motion Capture, I need to do work that would require signoff from campus legal, I need friendly med school to collaborate with, I need a flexible teaching schedule to care for a parent, I want to co-advise students with another department, I will need a radio transmitter placed on the roof, etc) now is the time to ask. You will never be as popular in your life as the moment that a school is trying to hire you. This is the moment when people will go out of their way to help you find creative solutions to problems. Sure, they'll help later too, but as you go up the University food chain the zeal will decrease once you've signed off.

  8. My suggestion to anyone with multiple offers. Only negotiate with one school. Never use the schools against each other in any sort of bidding war.

    Of course this only applies to junior candidates. Senior "super-star" candidates looking to relocate are often the subject of intense bidding wars, both in terms of salary and research funds (endowed research chairs.

  9. So I think its ideal if you could only negotiate with one school, but I don't think its always possible. Its not uncommon that candidates are confused about what they want (I certainly was) and need time to figure things out. Moreover, offers frequently come in arbitrary order and inevitably a school will ask you to start talking with the chair or dean about startup, salary, etc... relatively soon after you receive notification than an offer has been recommended. If you're interested in that school (but not 100% sure yet) its pretty tough to say "hey, I like you guys... but lets not start neogitating about specifics, because I'm not yet sure how much I like you". That's inevitably taken as "I don't like you". Moreover, at many schools you start negotiating before second visits so frankly I think its pretty tough to only negotiate once and I think everyone understands that. I think the only thing you want to really avoid is the _perception_ that you're doing that to gain a financial edge (which indeed, doesn't go over very well)

  10. More very good advice, Matt!

    I'd like to add something that I mentioned in my (very late) comment to your previous post. When you make your second trip, I highly recommend that you insist on spending substantial time with current graduate students, preferably both in and outside your target area. First, the quality of grad students is a huge factor in your likely success, and outside of a small number of halo schools, the quality of students, work ethic/excitement, and other intangibles can vary immensely from school to school and from area to area. Also, graduate students tend to be a lot more candid than professors regarding the good and bad aspects of each department. Professors are (usually) good at hiding their internal dirty laundry, which grad students are often happy to air. Since of the factors that you need to determine is how well you will fit in and what it will be like to work in the department, those kinds of non-technical issue matters.

    I agree with other commenters that there's no reason to limit yourself to only negotiating with one school. If you are fortunate enough to receive a large number of offers, I suggest paring them down to the top few, visiting all of them, and negotiating with any you would seriously consider. Be frank with whoever you talk with and don't lead anybody along after you've made up your mind, but the people doing the hiring realize that it's a major decision for you, too.

    Expiring (exploding) offers are, sadly, a reality... because they can work. I recall losing at least one great candidate who accepted an expiring offer from another (imho lower quality) school before we were willing to extend an offer. We likely would have extended an offer once we'd seen the rest of our candidates, but the other university's gambit succeeded. On the flip side, the first university where I interviewed made me an offer with a two-week deadline, which I declined since it would have precluded me from visiting the other dozen or so places who wanted to interview me. If they'd waited to make their offer, they would have been one of the two finalists. So that gambit cuts both ways.

    Stefan brings up an important point that I think I first read in Brian Bershad's note from 1990 ( The time between when you get your first offer and when you accept an offer is the one time in your career when everybody will love you, want to treat you nicely, be eager to address your concerns, etc. Once you accept an offer, even the school where you are headed will no longer prioritize your needs so much --- after all, now you're just the newest Assistant Professor on campus.

    One final note... don't get hung up over minor differences in salary, startup package, release time, or the like. In the end, those will have only a very small impact on your long term success and happiness. That doesn't mean that you should not negotiate hard, a point where I differ with Matt, but once you feel that you've gotten the best offer you can from each of your finalists, put that aside and decide where you'd be most successful and happy.

  11. First, the quality of grad students is a huge factor in your likely success, and outside of a small number of halo schools, the quality of students, work ethic/excitement, and other intangibles can vary immensely from school to school and from area to area.

    This. Our department has rather strong graduates and more than once we had someone leave "permanently" for greener pastures---funding and salary wise---only to have them come back in no time decrying the much lower quality of graduate students at their new institution.


Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.