Thursday, March 13, 2014

It doesn't hurt to ask*

The academic internet is aflame with this story of a job candidate in philosophy who got an offer from Nazareth College, made a counter-offer--and then got told that, as a result of her requests, her offer was rescinded.

Now, I know the college in question, and so I have a very real sense of how unrealistic her requests were (her proposed salary, for example, was probably 30-40% higher than what they'd offered). But so what? You tell the candidate "no"--or you improve the offer very minimally--and you let her decide whether that's something she can live with. Instead, the college rejected her preemptively.

Predictably, a number of the comments on both the IHE article and the original blog post are keen to blame the candidate. But as others have pointed out (including Stephanie Hershinow, who brought the article to my attention and my Twitter conversation with whom inspired this post), the way someone behaves in the context of a high-stakes negotiation isn't necessarily an indication of their true personality or attitude toward the job. A recent Ph.D. has probably never been in this situation before, and is likely operating according to other people's advice. Family and friends who work in the business world aren't reliable guides, but often even one's graduate-school mentors and advisors aren't reliable, either. They may simply have no idea what's possible at an institution very different from their own.

My own job placement officer was no help at all. When I got my offer from RU, eight years ago, the dean quoted me a salary and a fixed amount for moving expenses, told me I'd be getting a new computer and printer--and then asked me to tell him how much I needed in start-up research funds. I knew enough to try to negotiate, and I came up with a rationale for a (modestly) higher salary, but I had absolutely no idea what kind of range was reasonable for start-up funds at a regional state institution. So I emailed the job placement officer at my graduate program. To his credit, he at least indicated that he really didn't know what was reasonable at a place like RU before adding, "I can tell you, though, that when I started at INRU my own start-up budget was $60,000."

Uh, yeah. Not helpful.

The thing is, negotiating is hard. Most of us don't do it often, and when we do, we're usually caught between the terror of losing out on something we desperately want and the fear of squandering our one opportunity for leverage. I got a very good deal with the job I just accepted, but that's partly because I wasn't dying to take the job. I already had a job I liked and I knew this offer wasn't going to go away just because I asked for too much. So I asked for the very far end of what I considered possible. They agreed immediately. Honestly, though: if I'd been dying for the job, I wouldn't have asked for as much. I would have been afraid to.

The philosopher, however, asked for what she wanted. Maybe, like me, she didn't care enough to make a more careful offer; she's currently in a post-doc that she apparently wanted to extend, and she may have figured that she'd have better options next year. I wouldn't necessarily blame her for that. Candidates get a huge amount of pressure from their graduate institutions never to say no, even when they have good reasons not accept: no job prospects for a partner; an isolated region unlikely to be welcoming to certain minorities; not enough money to live on; or just a place that gives off a bad bad vibe. Candidates know the market is bad, and know they're not supposed to say no. But it's not just the prima donnas who sometimes have a hard time saying yes.

So though I'd counsel any job candidate who was serious about a particular job to research the institution and to make requests basically within the realm of the possible, this philosopher's approach is otherwise pretty unobjectionable. From what she shared of her email correspondence, she made her counter-offer by first expressing her enthusiasm for the job and then laying out the areas in which she hoped for movement. She acknowledged that some might be more doable than others and asked the committee for their thoughts. This is exactly the way women get counseled to negotiate: without being apologetic or wishy-washy, but also without issuing ultimatums or insisting on any one item.

Nazareth chose to read this as a sign of her outrageous and unreasonable personality, and I suspect there may be a gendered component to this response. (I have a friend who negotiated hard at her hiring, got strong terms--and her chair made snide, resentful remarks about it for years.) Really, though, it sounds like the old "you can't dump me--I'm dumping YOU!"

*Updated March 14: comments thread now contains a link to additional information from the candidate.


Anonymous said...

I agree that the response from Nazareth College was surprisingly extreme, but I was also astonished by the part of the email from the candidate quoted in that article. It made me think that job seekers need a lot more guidance in approaching negotiations than they are getting. In the corporate world, people take multi-day seminars on this sort of thing.

In this case, I can't understand why the candidate would choose to send that list of demands by email rather than placing a phone call. Everything I've seen via Facebook so far has suggested that the requests she made were totally reasonable, and that everyone is encouraged always to negotiate. I don't think either thing is true. Like I said, I am really surprised that Nazareth treated so ungenerously a request that *must* have come from a place of naivete, but I would strongly discourage any advisee who asked me against sending a list like that to a prospective employer. It's just not good negotiating to list one unrealistic request after another. Neither party is in a position to reach a satisfying conclusion in response to that approach.

I don't want to discount the gender component here--it's a very real and very disturbing kind of discrimination. On the other hand, I think it's a mistake to suppose that this incident was fueled solely by gender inequality. There are a lot of problems with this interaction, and it seems like it's important to parse them carefully. (We'll never know if things would have gone differently if the candidate had been male. It wouldn't exactly surprise me, but a rescinded job offer, in my experience, is extremely rare to begin with.)

Flavia said...


Sure, I agree that the requests themselves weren't reasonable; as I noted at the beginning of my post, her salary request is insanely high--and that's the one place where she knew for sure where Nazareth was starting from; she might not have had any insight at all into their policies for maternity leave, deferred start date, etc., but she definitely knew their basic salary range. That's why I wonder whether her requests weren't fueled, consciously or unconsciously, by ambivalence or a desire not to take the job.

There are a lot of things going on here. I wanted to raise the possibility that gender played a role in the outright withdrawal of the offer--but I never intended to suggest that it was definitely a factor, much less the primary one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Flavia. I should have been clearer in my response--I didn't think you were saying gender was the primary factor. I was inspired to respond to your thoughtful post because of the various comments I've been reading today, mostly on Facebook, that *have* been saying that. I just wanted to note that I think there's so much emphasis on even getting a job in this abysmal market (and, as you noted, the extraordinary pressure to take any offer), that job candidates aren't getting useful advice about how to approach negotiations. That is, I hope this candidate's awful experience might end up helping other candidates seek and get more advice that will help them to be as savvy as they can be in approaching negotiations.

Flavia said...

No worries! I appreciate your stopping by. And though it didn't initially occur to me that there was anything wrong with putting everything out there in writing (both my negotiations were done over email), I think you're right that some aspects might more easily have been dealt with over the phone.

I recently raised a few delicate issues over email ("I'd like to talk about X, Y, and Z") and requested a phone conversation to talk through the possibilities. That worked well: the upper-administrator knew what was on the agenda, but I could feel out the situation rather than making a blunt request or declaring my position.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I was really shocked at the list of demands that were on this email. A lot of these things might be negotiated once you've started and proven yourself (like research time), but all of it together? Jeez... know the institution!

I did negotiate my salary and moving expenses slightly. I think I was offered 46K and I asked for 50 and got it. They offered 1K to move (from west coast to midwest. Puulease!), and I asked for 5K. They compromised with 3 K, but it ended up costing us 9K all together to move, so we still got screwed on that.

I don't know why you'd try to negotiate maternity leave unless you were pregnant already, so that seemed odd to me. But then, who knows? At any rate, I think that the biggest lesson here is that you really need to know the institution you're going into and what is realistic for a place like that. It was rude to rescind the offer, but it was rude to ask for all that stuff, too. My guess is that this is the person's first time on the job market. She'll know better next year.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm glad you posted on this. I was immediately struck by the potential gender issue myself. "Assertive" or "High-Maintenance"? Often the difference comes down to gender.

Anonymous said...

Me too. (Also, it sounds like an polite email ... if it were from an economist. Actually it sounds like word for word out of Getting to Yes or another negotiation manual. It's just the academic market for humanities that's messed up.)

I agreed really hard with these two comments:
This one:

and this one by eliza:

Especially on the heels of an article I just read about women being punished for just asking. I'll see if I can link that in another comment without being thrown in your filter forever.

Anonymous said...

This is the one on negotiation:

Mika Brzezinski talks about her troubles trying to negotiate as well in Knowing Your Value. Women have to walk a fine line.

Flavia said...

N & M:

I was hoping you'd weigh in, as I felt sure you'd have smart things to say! I do think the more egregious response she's gotten--from Naz but also from commenters--says something about the kind of defensiveness/resentment that corners of the humanities are prone to. Thanks for the links, esp. the Brzesinski.

(Also, have been meaning to thank you for a while for recommending Crucial Conversations on your blog. So very good.)

Flavia said...

Oops: Dykman. But you knew what I meant.

Anonymous said...

ARGH. Just lost my comment. :( It was long and brilliant. Here's the short version:
1. Experimental economics has a literature that shows that women behave like men when they're given the same incentives (and men behave like women).
2. Anecdote about the double standards women face with moxy.
3. Glad you like Crucial Conversations (and note that its main failing is it doesn't note that women often face different environments, such as misogyny, harassment and discrimination, but most of their advice still works for women).

Belle said...

FWIW, I find Women Don't Ask an interesting read and tend to recommend it to admin types who assume "women not asking" means "women don't want."

Flavia said...

I just saw this new post by the candidate herself, on the philosophy blog where the story was first shared.

It indicates that, among other things, the salary request wasn't as far out of line as I'd assumed. My apologies for that erroneous claim!

Go read it. The additional details are really fascinating.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Fascinating case! The initial email looks perfectly reasonable to me, too: brief, businesslike, to the point, but not "demanding" or "entitled." Perhaps she could have made it clearer that she recognized these were options, that she wouldn't get all of them, etc., etc., but that's really a matter of tone -- and yes, I, too, wonder whether the tone would have been read differently if the author were male (of course, a request for a full-semester parental leave by a male might also have evoked very different reactions, positive or negative).

I also suspect that her tone was read through the lens of some sort of existing uneasiness on the hiring department's part about finding a candidate who really wanted to be at Nazareth, and would stay long term. If Nazareth had responded with an email that raised questions about whether the candidate and the school were a good fit, I would understand, but rescinding the offer on the basis of a long string of assumptions and conclusions that might or might not be supported by the email strikes me as unprofessional. If I were a possible candidate for the position (either a runner-up this year, or a candidate in a future year), I'd have concerns about department/university climate, and whether there's undue pressure for conformity. Apparently, per Wikipedia, the college is no longer officially a Christian (Catholic) institution, but I'll also say I don't think that, in this exchange, they lived up up to the religious values implied/embodied in their name (while perhaps concluding hastily that their potential faculty member was not sufficiently committed to what they see as their mission, vocation, dedication, etc. Beyond legitimate questions of fit -- and the complicated realities of an employers' market that sometimes paradoxically, makes good fit harder to determine -- I'm sensing an unpleasant combination of defensiveness and self-righteousness on the college's part.)

Contingent Cassandra said...

As far as advice in grad school about these matters goes, I do remember two anecdotes/pieces of advice about negotiating from female faculty members (one when I was an advanced undergrad, one that bridged undergrad and grad):

--The first was a woman who I knew was an undergrad professor, then as the head of an institute (a position she took up after not getting tenure -- at an Ivy that only rarely tenured its own junior faculty). She was pretty open (once they were concluded) about the negotiations that took her to a deanship at another institution, stressing that she had insisted that she be hired *with* tenure (not pending tenure review, as was customary), since otherwise she couldn't ask/expect her husband (who had a potentially but not very easily mobile career -- partner track in a law firm, I believe, or maybe his field was architecture?) and children to make a half-continent move. It worked, and she had a long career as a dean before recently returning to a tenured faculty position at the school with which she negotiated. It does occur to me, however, that at the time (mid-'80s), it might actually have been harder for a male professor in a similar position to make the same argument about a wife with a similar non-academic career (and the argument wouldn't have been available at all to someone with a same-sex partner).

--the second (who also struck out on the tenure track at my undergrad institution, then negotiated tenure at another Ivy at which her husband was already employed -- and which happened to be my grad institution, so I knew her in both places) reminded grad students, regularly, that the time to negotiate salary is at the time of the initial offer, since all future raises are calculated based on that original salary. I don't know how much of that advice was based on personal experience/observation (perhaps the opportunity to compare her husband's salary and/or experiences with her own, and/or the experience of negotiating other positions -- e.g. joint outside offers that may have landed them the joint positions at the institution where they eventually landed), but it is advice I've remembered, even though I've never had a chance to put it into practice. I always thought that, if I did get an offer, I'd get in touch with her for further advice on the strength of her repeating the initial advice so often, but, at this point, it seems unlikely that I'd be negotiating in a situation in any way similar to ones with which she is/was familiar.

I must say, I'm grateful to the Nazareth candidate for sharing her story, and hope it will lead to some fruitful discussions about how negotiations work (and should work) in the present hiring climate, and about the role gender plays in such conversations.

And I'm reminded that I really should get myself a copy of Crucial Conversations (and probably read some of the other links in this thread, too).

Flavia said...


I also suspect that her tone was read through the lens of some sort of existing uneasiness on the hiring department's part about finding a candidate who really wanted to be at Nazareth, and would stay long term....Beyond legitimate questions of fit -- and the complicated realities of an employers' market that sometimes paradoxically, makes good fit harder to determine -- I'm sensing an unpleasant combination of defensiveness and self-righteousness on the college's part.

This is how I read it, too--and I speak as someone at a regional comprehensive moving to what used to be called an R2, but that serves an even more complicated mix of non-elite/first-gen/minority/transfer/commuter students. So I have some understanding of the complex and conflicting sets of anxieties that faculty (and maybe especially faculty who are themselves highly productive researchers) at non-elite schools are prone to when it comes to "fit": wow, what an impressive candidate, with such fascinating research! He'll help consolidate all our strengths. But he needs to respect our student population and understand our mission. And, I wonder. . . could someone like that actually be happy here? He should! It's a great job! We're happy here! But. . . maybe he thinks he's too good for us? Well, fuck him if he does! He's not better than us!

Mostly, I think, departments like mine (and at schools with yet heavier teaching loads) squelch this kind of thinking, never speaking it aloud, much less acting on it: as long as you're a good teacher interested in our particular population, we're thrilled to have someone ambitious with great credentials.

But occasionally these anxieties can come to the surface and cause trouble for candidates--as if they didn't already have enough of a minefield to navigate!

Contingent Cassandra said...

as long as you're a good teacher interested in our particular population, we're thrilled to have someone ambitious with great credentials.

That's the healthy approach, I think (and the one I suspect my own R2, which is very similar to what you describe above, takes, with mostly good results). But I suspect that attitude may be harder to sustain in a number of situations, including (1)multiple losses of new colleagues to other institutions, (2)the possibility that failure of a search may mean permanent loss of a line (and/or that the departure of the person in an line may mean the same), (3)tensions/suspicions of lack of respect between longer-term, more teaching-oriented faculty and newer, more research-oriented faculty, (4)tensions between department and administration over any or all of the above, (5)a small department, perhaps with a less-than-robust local adjunct pool (or uncompetitive adjunct salaries) that may have significant trouble staffing 8 courses for a year, and/or (6)plain old exhaustion from trying to keep up a 4/4 load and run a search in an institution experiencing all the pressures endemic to higher ed these days (including one that those of us in bustling public R2s with student populations fed in part by first-generation Americans and/or college-goers seem less susceptible to, but which is becoming more obvious elsewhere: a declining pool of potential students).

Of course, as someone pointed out over on the original thread, if these concerns are paramount, they could obviate them by going shopping in a very different candidate pool: local, teaching-oriented, possibly even including their own and/or neighboring institutions' long-term adjuncts.

There's a lot out there about the difficulty for candidates of deciding just how broad a range of institutions they could be happy at; maybe there needs to be more pressing departments to think more seriously about what they really want in a candidate, and how those needs/desires should shape the initial review process. As someone also said over on the other thread, there's some evidence to suggest that the process that led up to the campus visit shortlist was faulty.

Anonymous said...

I'm not at that type of institution, but we've made an effort to stop double-guessing what is in candidates best interests. We trust them that they applied because they're genuinely interested.

I think my hire here might have been the deciding factor for that change in policy-- I almost didn't get a job my first year on the job market. The best two schools that I got conference interviews at didn't initially invite me for flyouts because *they thought they couldn't get me*, not realizing they were the best two schools I was interviewing at. I'm a second round hire at one of those schools. Since then we've been aiming higher and we generally get one of our top two candidates accepting us. (Though the recession has probably helped there.)

But we do have the luxury of going to a second round of flyouts if we strike out in the first round because we have the money to do that. The risk isn't as high for us. If there is that risk, the advice to make permanent adjuncts in the area sounds solid, unless they think the can milk the adjuncts for cheap without buying the whole adjunct cow, so to speak.

Flavia said...

nicole & maggie:

we've made an effort to stop double-guessing what is in candidates best interests. We trust them that they applied because they're genuinely interested.

Agreed. And if the candidate gets a much better offer--or comes to campus and decides upon seeing the place that it's not for him/her--that isn't a sign s/he wasn't genuinely interested in the first place.

As I think I've written before, we've also gone past the first round of fly-outs upon occasion, because we also aim high and sometimes everyone in our top three has another offer; one year, all three had offers from R1s. We're lucky that our dean has never balked at bringing more candidates to campus--it's much cheaper than mounting another search!

But not all institutions have that luxury, and you and Cassandra are right that some need to (and very often do) limit their candidate pool in ways that lower their risk.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post, Flavia. I had initially been of the mind to blame the candidate (which I found mostly absurd, knowing the workload of other Nazareth professors) for her profound ignorance of the academic culture at a school like Nazareth, but your post has made me appreciate the complexity of the situation.

Still, I can't bring myself to excuse her email simply because she may have gotten bad advise from her mentors. The fact is that bad advising leads to bad job prospects--at ALL stages of the job search, not just the negotiating ones. I came out of an "elite" PhD program, and I was constantly warned by my advisors that faculty at teaching colleges (like Nazareth) might perceive me as inexperienced or uninterested in teaching, simply by virtue of coming from an elite university. If the candidate's advisors actually prompted her to reinforce a view like that (which possibly may have happened during the interview stage as well), is it surprising that the department decided it didn't want her?

Anonymous said...

As I wrote on my blog, it seems to me that the administration dropped the ball in clearly defining the nature of the job. At most, 2 hours of the day or day and a half interview are made up of the candidate presentations (assuming separate teaching and research presentations). What happened in the meeting with the dean of the college? The department chair? Other administrators? That's where the institution has the opportunity and obligation to define themselves and the job. At my institution, we try to be realistic with candidates at all stages as far as what they are getting into. Nazereth presents itself as a very high-end college, so it's not out of line to think that they might provide some of the perqs that are known to exist at some top LACS (e.g., pre-tenure sabbatical or other leave time, easing someone into full-time teaching, good pay). If "W" is telling more or less the whole story, the whole thing sounds pretty strange.

Flavia said...


I appreciate your bringing up the issue of mentoring again, in this light. I was also told (over and over again) the importance of not seeming "too good" for a particular place--in part so I didn't burn bridges for future candidates from my grad program. And you're right that it's odd if she wasn't coached in the same way.

(Weirdly, though, the schools that seemed most anxious about whether I could teach "their students" or be happy there were lesser R1s that seemed to have ambitious and resentful faculty who themselves felt too good for the place. I never got that attitude from the small non-elite privates or regional comprehensives, maybe because they took my application as a sign I was genuinely interested and wasn't expecting something other than what the institution was.)


You're right to point out that Nazareth should have (it's not clear whether they did) define the terms of the position and what kinds of leaves, course releases, etc., might or might not be possible on the campus visit itself. But in my experience, deans and chairs don't usually indicate where there's wiggle room on things like salary or research funds, and an entry-level candidate can hardly bring up those things without seeming pushy when she's still, after all, only one of three candidates.

Basically, my position remains: W's list of requests still strikes me as unrealistic (though not as ridiculous as I first assumed), but I absolutely do not think she should have been punished for asking. If Nazareth really thought she was going to be dissatisfied with the job on their terms--well, then they let her turn it down, and prove it!