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I have interviewed for a tenure-track position. I got a call (followed by an email) saying that they would like to offer me this position and I am their top candidate.

This being said, in the negotiations that followed for a few days after, the department showed no desire in increasing the salary or startup package (which are already pretty low compared to other institutions). This is even after I told them that I have two other offers pending.

I have not seen the formal letter yet, and they are pushing me for a response only a few days after they offered the position on the phone.

I feel like they are low-balling me and being very aggressive. What actions should I take?

BTW, I asked for an extension and they gave me less than a week.

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12  
I don't know much about the academic job market, but you should never accept a job without first getting a formal offer. – Ric Feb 17 at 1:04
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@Ric For an informal offer, at most you can give is an informal accepance anyway. Eg, "I plan to accept." – Kimball Feb 17 at 2:58
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What do you mean by you have "two other offers pending"? Do you mean that two other institutions have given you verbal offers, and you expect to receive formal offers shortly (say a few days)? – I Like to Code Feb 17 at 4:15
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Hi NeoN, can you add which country this is? I know at least of one place where formal offers cannot be given for legal reasons. Not 100% sure whether it applies to tenure-track positions as well, but it is definitely the case for postdocs. – DCTLib Feb 17 at 9:05
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Thanks. Good idea to say: I plan to ... Yes, two other institutions are working on a formal letter. In the US. – NeoN Feb 17 at 16:00

"I would like to see a formal written offer before we move forward."

Any department that's unwilling to do that is sending up huge, brightly colored red flags. With fancy gold tassels. And embroidery that reads "DANGER".

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23  
This is true for non-academic jobs as well... and caterers at weddings. – kleineg Feb 17 at 13:29
    
I totally agree. But sometimes you also dont want to lose the opportunity. – NeoN Feb 17 at 16:01
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I fully agree. NeoN - you don't want to lose an opportunity, and I don't blame you. However, do you want to work for someone who can't even submit a formal offer? I think one point in @Fomite's answer (referring to the Red Flags) is that this is a really huge warning signal. If you do go to work for a place like this, most things will probably be informal, and they also have a lot of leeway to say "We never agreed upon that", etc. – Nate I Feb 17 at 17:06
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@NeoN As Nate has suggested, it's not necessarily clear it's an "opportunity". Consider, for example, what will happen if you wish to negotiate a raise. Or go up for tenure. You're entirely relying on their good will - good will that is, for the moment, entirely absent. – Fomite Feb 17 at 19:01
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@DmitrySavostyanov The action to take is to say what's under quotes. The only sensible course of action is to ask for a formal written offer... – Fábio Dias Feb 18 at 15:16

Just because you have other offers doesn't mean that you're entitled to a higher salary or startup. A department has to balance how much they think you will be able to bring to the department and how much they want you to come, against how much other recent hires got and how this compares to the rest of the salary structure in the department. It also depends on the overall financial situation of the department. As a result of all of this, they may not or can not offer more. You'll have to deal with it -- you gave it a try to negotiate more, but they only offered this much.

As @Fomite already said, you are, however, entitled to a written offer based upon which you can make a decision. Everything short of a written offer and written response is not legally binding to either party.

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4  
Note the OP never specifies that he's entitled to a higher salary or startup just because of other offers, but they do provide a meaningful point of data. – Fomite Feb 17 at 3:07
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No one is entitled to just because you have other offers. It's the process of negotiation that reveals what type of institution you will be working in and who your coworkers are. To be honest, an increase of 2-3% or even any reasonable explanation (which I never received) could show you that you are valued. – NeoN Feb 17 at 16:04
    
@NeoN: A 2-3% increase doesn't really show you are valued, though, it shows that the initial offer was a 2-3% lowball. Yes, they probably have some flexibility, but if they're not using it to increase the offer that means they value you at what they originally offered, not at 2% more. Don't decline their offer just because negotiations ought to follow a certain pattern. However, you should decline their offer, with no hard feelings, if you have a better offer elsewhere. It does sound like they're rushing you, but if they aren't going to move then the sooner you cut and run the better. – Steve Jessop Feb 18 at 13:55

It is difficult for anyone as an outsider to know with certainty what the department is thinking, but allow me to venture a guess based on my experience in my department.

In my department, we have interviewed several faculty candidates whom we would like to work at our department. Reading between the lines of what my department head told my colleagues and I, my department head told several candidates, "[Candidate's name], we would like to give you an offer with salary X and startup package Y. Would you accept this offer?" My department head was hoping that the candidate would accept this "conditional verbal offer", and if the candidate did so, my department head would then proceed with the time-consuming process of working with the HR office to generate a formal offer. (It took almost 2 months from the time when I accepted a verbal offer to actually receiving the formal offer in the mail.)

Some of the candidates who interviewed with us responded to my department head's "conditional verbal offer" by saying, "I am not sure because I still have interviews at other departments and/or I have yet to receive news from other departments." When my department head observed that the candidates would not accept the verbal offer from our department, he decided to withdraw the verbal offer to this candidate, and would tell the candidate, "Keep us updated if there is any news in your job search journey."

In summary, maybe the department would give you a formal offer once you give them verbal acceptance that you would accept their offer. Perhaps they don't want to waste the time of generating a formal offer if you are not going to accept their offer.

My suggestion is that you should be honest with them, e.g., "I am waiting to see what other offers I receive before deciding." If they press you to accept their offer and you can't decide because you are waiting for other offers, you would unfortunately have to politely reject their offer.

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I had to steel myself not to downvote this answer: it clearly describes a behavior that indeed sometimes happens. But -100 to your department head. This is both obnoxious and lazy. Yes, the hiring process is a lot of work on both sides, and sometimes you spend time and effort and don't actually hire the person. But your department is in trouble if you would rather spare yourself some hours of paperwork than (i) make your best effort to get the best candidates, (ii) not encourage dishonest behavior and (iii) not risk negative word of mouth from people who got dropped in this way. – Pete L. Clark Feb 17 at 6:35
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I will say though that the third paragraph makes no logical sense to me. The department head is showing that verbal offers can be readily retracted...so how can he expect verbal acceptances to be any different? With regard to the last paragraph: in general I advocate forthrightness, but less so in the face of skulduggery. In this situation I advocate the following: the candidate should say "I am very pleased to hear that an offer will be coming, and I will give it serious consideration. I look forward to receiving the offer letter." And then they basically have to send it. – Pete L. Clark Feb 17 at 6:46
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My first reading of this was that more people had been made offers than there were actually positions for. I assume that's not what you meant. – Jessica B Feb 17 at 7:58
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@ILiketoCode I agree with PeteL.Clark, I think this is really sleazy (and ultimately self-defeating, in my opinion) behavior. Unless you are in a country where everyone behaves this way, this does not say good things about either your department chair or your university. – Dan Romik Feb 17 at 9:40
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This is indeed a terrible practice, and the questioner should give little weight to verbal offers. When I was searching, I received a very clear verbal offer that was never followed up by a formal offer; I heard rumors that the department chair had offered more than the dean felt was appropriate and so the dean refused to support it. I ended up accepting another offer (at the same level that the original dean felt was too much). If I had cut off my search based on the verbal offer, it would have been pretty upsetting. – iayork Feb 17 at 13:27

To start off, I think it's important to remember that a job negotiation for an academic faculty position is first and foremost a negotiation: that is, a potentially pretty high-stakes game in which two parties with somewhat opposing interests try to bend the other's wills to theirs. Sometimes things go smoothly and it will look like a genial discussion between two academics; other times, things can get ugly, and as in any job negotiation (which I believe you can read quite a lot about over at Workplace.SE), hardball tactics such as lowballing, short decision deadlines, and even some amount of bluffing, are not unheard of. We in the academic world don't often find ourselves in such highly adversarial situations, so when it happens it's good to keep in mind that we are somewhat out of our element, and try to adopt an appropriate mindset.

A further complication is that this kind of negotiation is by its nature highly asymmetric, involving two parties with quite different levels of power, experience, and understanding of the situation. One thing I recommend remembering is that the department chair may not be entirely on your side, and, depending on the precise politics within the recruiting department, may not even personally want your recruitment to succeed. (Of course, it would be highly unprofessional of him/her to sabotage the recruitment because of his/her own preferences, but what can I say? There are a fair number of unprofessional people out there, so I wouldn't make any assumptions about the chair's professionalism/competence.)

Finally, coming to your actual question:

What actions should I take?

the main pieces of advice I have to offer are:

  1. The lack of a written offer may or may not be a problem in your case - that depends on the level of trust you feel you have established with the department chair (by the sound of it, it's not too high I'm afraid). It's not unusual for departments to have to jump through quite a few bureaucratic hoops to be able to produce a completely formal written offer, so there may be a legitimate reason for them to want you to accept the offer before having secured such an official document. However, it would be entirely reasonable of you to demand a high level of assurance from them that an offer would be forthcoming before indicating your acceptance. Documentation of all the parameters of the job in writing would be a minimum. And if they cannot provide a level of assurance that satisfies you and are still insisting that you accept, they are behaving unethically (and possibly illegally, but IANAL). If you can get away with saying you accept in principle but will be considering other opportunities until such time as you are offered a written offer, obviously that would be better, and no one could fault you for saying something like that.

  2. With regards to the salary and startup, as Wolfgang Bangerth said in his answer, you are not automatically entitled to be offered matching terms to those you were offered by another university. It doesn't hurt to ask, but they are within their rights to say no, and they are within their rights to give you a short deadline. At the end of the day you'll need to make a decision about which of the offers you prefer, and it may come down to a tradeoff between a higher salary/startup versus a more attractive location/university/department.

    If you do make requests about salary or other things, the important thing is to send a clear signal about what's important to you. If you make it clear that you prefer this department regardless of what happens but ask for a higher salary just because you feel they should match the other offer, quite possibly your request will be ignored, but if you manage to send the message that this would be a genuine deal-breaker for you, you may get a different answer.

Good luck!

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You have two other offers pending, and this offer is low? I'm not quite sure from your comments whether you already have better informal offers, which you fully expect to be made formal, or whether the other institutions haven't named figures at all until their offers are formal, but you expect them to be better. I'll assume the latter, but in the former case it's even easier to be tough with these guys.

From a negotiation POV you should probably say, "I will not accept this offer at its current level, but I am open to further negotiation if you're prepared to make a higher offer on salary and startup". By all means wrap that up in some stuff to remind them how much you like and respect them--there's no need to be blunt just because your position is tough--but state your position. This satisfies their request for an informal response to their informal offer, and they can decide what to do next.

You could add that the reason you won't accept this offer is that you expect a better offer elsewhere, because that will help convince them that you are not bluffing. The trouble with negotiation is that they can only act on what they believe, not things that you expect or know to be true but they're unsure of.

Alternatively, you could say, "I cannot give you a response until I receive the details of two offers pending, which I expect to happen around such-and-such date". This doesn't satisfy their request, but it does leave them with a clear choice to make: they either cut negotiations now or they accommodate you. If they cut negotiations, then most likely you were never going to reach a deal anyway.

Finally, you could say, "I can informally accept your offer pending your detailed formal offer". Then if you get a better offer, call them back and say, "I have received a better offer, so I am now rejecting yours". This is kind of a jerk move, and they'll dislike you for it, but they'll also learn that this is what happens if they rush people into informal lowball agreements.

I understand that you don't want to be rushed, but if they're pressing for an answer and they're not moving on their offer, you have to consider the possibility that they just don't have enough money to fund the position in competition with these other institutions making offers at the going rate. Every negotiation contains the possibility of not reaching agreement. In which case, the sooner they move on looking for someone willing to do the job for cheap, the better for them and for you.

I suppose another reason they might be rushing you, is that they think you're probably too good for them and kind of expect you to turn them down, so they don't want to lose their second-choice candidate. It's really none of your concern who their other candidates are, but it's legitimate for one of their goals in the negotiation to be, "a quick answer". But then in their own interests they should do everything they can to help you decide quickly, including expediting a formal offer and negotiating salary. If they want you to be in a hurry but don't seem to be in a hurry themselves, then it's more likely this is just a tactic on their part to weaken your position by having you negotiate without the other offers in hand. If all they want is for you to say, "I won't ask for more salary", before you've seen your other options, then yes they're being aggressive.

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If you have an alternative better than their final offer then, after you consummate the other offer, thank them and decline.

If you do not have a better alternative then take the gig.

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Can you please explain your reasoning? – jakebeal Feb 18 at 12:16

I am not sure to understand which response they are pushing for?

This is certainly country-specific but beside saying "yes, I am interested" - what is expected from you when they say "what about this and that"?

In order to be under contract you first need a contract to sign. It is up to you to agree or not to sign it.

  • if you were negotiating and ultimately agree with their final proposal - everyone is happy
  • if you were negotiating and do not agree with their final proposal - you refuse and they are possibly not too happy but this is life. A negotiation is just for that: to find, or not, a consensus.
  • if you were not negotiating and agreed pro-forma to their proposal, then retracted - well, this is not particularly professional and the reaction can go from them sighting, to trying to give you a counter-proposal to making your life miserable by degrading your reputation whenever they can.
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