The How To of faculty negotiations

From the Termini lab, Fred Hutch Clinical Research Division, and the Kong and Vasquez labs, University of Washington

The day has finally arrived. After years of training, through the wild rollercoaster ride that is PhD and postdoctoral studies, and through the seemingly endless academic job search, you are ready to negotiate a faculty position! Relax and release that breath you have been holding! Quickly inhale again! How does one prepare for an academic negotiation? What questions need to be asked? How can you figure out if the position offered is the right fit for you and your career and personal goals? Luckily, newly appointed faculty, Dr. Christina Termini, an Assistant Professor in Fred Hutch’s Clinical Research Division, Dr. Jennifer Kong, an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at UW, Dr. Claudia Vasquez, an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at UW, and colleagues, have answered those questions and more for those interested in the academic career track. Building on their own personal and recent experiences in the academic job market, the authors joined forces to provide guidance and advice for anyone about to embark on the same path. By surveying members of the Leading Edge community, an initiative that aims to improve gender diversity among life science faculty, the authors gathered a diverse set of experiences that they translated into interview and negotiation guidelines in their recently published article in Trends in Biochemical Sciences.

In discussion with the authors about what they hope trainees will take from the article, the overwhelming message was clear, the ability to self-advocate, to ask for what you need to further your goals. Dr. Vasquez began the discussion by stating “I hope that this article helps people reflect on the goals that they have in negotiating and provides them with a framework to approach achieving those goals. Each situation is very different – and I think one of the strengths of this article is that the authors had very different negotiation experiences and priorities and we were able to draw upon those diverse experiences to hopefully come up with something that provides an outline of a plan for many people.” Echoing her statement and explaining how the negotiation process can be complex, Dr. Termini added “I hope that trainees who are embarking on a faculty job search takeaway from this article the awareness and confidence to ask important questions to clarify and negotiate their offers. As a group, there were so many aspects of our offers that we did not fully understand. It was not that information was being concealed but that we did not know the appropriate questions to ask to understand the implications of our offers fully. I believe this article has helped to peel back the curtain on the many layers of an offer so future generations of faculty are better prepared to evaluate and negotiate their offers.” But don’t be swayed into just shouting “yes, I accept” from the rooftops, as Dr. Kong noted “it's strange because when you get that first offer there is this immense feeling of gratitude... like "wow, thank you for choosing me and believing in my research plan." The urge to say yes is huge. And yet, you need to pause, take a step back, assess the offer, talk to others, and come back asking for the things that will help you set up a successful lab.”

Central to their article is a table that outlines the different topics to consider during negotiation of an offer. This table includes example scenarios, and what questions to ask and when to ask them. This was compiled from the responses received from the Leading Edge fellows surveyed, and is extremely thorough and insightful. While negotiating for your professional needs - i.e., plainly laying out what is required for the success of your future lab - is essential, your personal needs should not be overlooked. “Something that Prof. Manu Platt said in a talk that stuck with me, and I’ll paraphrase here, is there’s never the perfect time for anything so why wait? Which is to say, the negotiation process is an excellent opportunity to evaluate what your whole self needs to be successful, not just your “science self” – because in reality those aren’t detached from each other,” explained Dr. Vasquez. And there are always dealbreakers to contend with. “I’m a person who loves lists, so making a list of the “must haves” in both categories of personal and professional characteristics was key. Everyone is going to be different, though. There are certain things you will not be able to budge on to execute your research program (like a piece of equipment that you need to use overnight for timelapse experiments or space for your animal models). Similarly, you may be unable to support your family in an expensive city without being offered a certain salary. I have found that there are more workarounds for professional needs (i.e., sharing a piece of equipment with your floor instead of having your own) compared to personal needs (i.e., it may be a non-starter to move across the country without any relocation assistance),” said Dr. Termini. 

Leading Edge fellows and new faculty provide considerations and guidelines for the academic negotiation process.
Leading Edge fellows and new faculty provide considerations and guidelines for the academic negotiation process. Figure adapted from the original publication.

The authors note that not all positions will be the right fit, for either the candidate or the institute. After negotiations, if your needs or expectations aren’t being met, “it's perfectly fine to reject an offer. Sometimes a university will not be able to meet the needs of an individual. I think it's important to quickly recognize it's not going to work out and move on,” said Dr. Kong. She continues on to note that “this is a really easy thing to say, but personally, I found it incredibly challenging to reach this point... specifically recognizing when it wasn't going to work out. We are all innovative and hardworking people, when things don't work we look for solutions. And regarding offers, solutions were often available for situations that were less than optimal. But, making that distinction between when to compromise and when to step away is incredibly difficult.”

The authors further discussed how the negotiation process is not ‘one size fits all’. Many research programs are vastly different, and faculty search committees may have varying expectations of the interview process or may have the ability to offer different incentives. What does appear to be more common, is the fact that information is not always readily available for potential interviewees. The authors hope that their study will help future search committees to make the negotiation process more transparent and uniform. “I really hope future faculty search committees take the time to put together a "full picture" of what the job looks like and present this (with the offer) to potential faculty hires. Prior to writing this paper, we all had a conversation of what we liked and didn't like about the faculty negotiation process. One of the things we didn't like was fishing for answers to questions we didn't know we should be asking,” explained Dr. Kong. “In brainstorming for this paper, one of the first things we initially compiled was a "list of things we wished we knew going into the process" and this gradually evolved into the Table presented in the paper. While not a complete list of all the things you should ask about, I hope that this serves as a starting point. Coming from a postdoc, we really have no idea what to ask for or what it takes to start a lab. If a search committee could compile an information sheet, then this provides a stronger position from which to start negotiations,” she continued. Adding to this, Dr. Termini noted that “it is my dream that faculty search committees would create an information sheet that openly shares some of the information that we ask faculty candidates to consider. For example, what is the cost of a graduate student/postdoc/research technician at the institution? It would be helpful to not have to ask this question but to have this information openly shared. Even with this article, not all candidates will know what questions to ask, so I believe committees could take the initiative in this regard. This would help faculty candidates calculate their needs relative to the start-up or trainee support offered.”

It is important to highlight that inequities persist within the negotiation process, particularly for minoritized communities. Dr. Vasquez expressed her hope that the present study would provide a framework to aid in making the process more equitable.  “I think the one thing I would add is to emphasize that inequities in negotiating are often felt the most by those that have marginalized identities. While I don’t think it is the responsibility of those individuals to *have* to self-advocate more for themselves, I hope that this article helps these trainees feel empowered to negotiate for what they need and deserve to be successful AND push search committees to proactively provide information to their candidates,” she said.

Lastly, while the academic job search can be lengthy and stressful at times, Dr. Kong reminds us to not “forget to celebrate your wins and be kind to yourself. Sometimes we strive so hard to make the best decision that we place a lot of undue anxiety on ourselves, concerned that we are going to accidentally make the wrong decision.” “I think sometimes it's important to realize that it's possible to just have a lot of great decisions and choosing one over another is okay because both would have been fine,” she concluded.     

This work was funded by support from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Diabetes And Digestive And Kidney Disease, the Jane Coffin Child’s Memorial Trust Fund, the American Society of Hematology, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Cancer Institute, and the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

Fred Hutch/University of Washington/Seattle Children's Cancer Consortium member Dr. Christina M. Termini contributed to this work.

Kong JH, Vasquez CG, Agrawal S, Malaney P, Mikedis MM, Moffitt AB, von Diezmann L, Termini CM. Creating accessibility in academic negotiations. Trends Biochem Sci. 2023 Mar;48(3):203-210. doi: 10.1016/j.tibs.2022.10.004. Epub 2022 Dec 9. PMID: 36504139.