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I have two post-doc offers from universities in the US. Option A is better for me than option B in terms of my interests, however, option B pays slightly more than option A. I want to negotiate my starting salary in option A with the prospective PI via email.

  1. Any tips on how should I proceed and compose my email? For instance, should I propose a specific amount that I expect more?

  2. What should I do if the PI does not accept? Given that I want to choose option A.

  3. Can there be any downfall to this and how to avoid them?

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  • 8
    What field are you in? Is the cost of living similar near A and B?
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 6 at 18:58
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    Can we please not denigrate people taking money into account when making a decision? Money does, actually, matter, especially when inflation is through the roof. If someone is put off by a junior (who just finished not being paid very much in grad school) asking for "slightly" more money instead of the ~~chance to work with them~~ they are a jerk. Jul 6 at 19:56
  • 5
    You should consider carefully whether to do this by email or by phone. Many experts recommend that applicants negotiate by phone (or in person) before a formal offer is sent. Jul 6 at 19:59
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    Please, everyone, let’s take at face value that the difference in salaries between A and B, however slight it is, is significant for the OP, and let’s answer on the basis of this assumption.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Jul 6 at 21:11
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    @Buffy First recall that comments are not for partial answers, but if you want a review of my actions, please bring it up on meta or flag my above comment for moderator’s attention so that other mods can have a look into it.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Jul 7 at 13:31

6 Answers 6

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I made an ultimately unsuccessful attempt of this type before taking my current position, and as long as you're polite and reasonable I can't imagine negotiating being taken poorly. But a few thoughts:

  1. On salary: This can be challenging to negotiate for even in labor markets with a supply-demand balance much more favorable to the seller. Welcome to being a junior academic: You probably do not have the leverage to get a higher salary. Salary discrepancies have internal political baggage on top of raw fiduciary constraints. As you can see from the comments, it does not help that many senior academics also believe as second-nature that financial exploitation of their junior colleagues is acceptable.

  2. You can also consider other possible job benefits that could be within scope for your manager. Office space, guaranteed travel funding/professional development funding, funds for lab equipment, etc. Travel funding, particularly, is almost raw income if you enjoy the travel.

  3. I personally also tried to negotiate my teaching load, namely some flexibility with it.

Ultimately you should temper your expectations of getting much anything. There is simply much more supply than demand in this market. As usual in any professional setting, if you negotiate, do not convey promises that you do not intend to keep. So in particular, I'd err on the side of conveying that you are torn between competing offers when discussing this and avoid implying that if conditions are met then you will definitely accept something. Unless of course that's true.

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    You have some leverage if you really are willing to walk away. Not sure the OP is willing to do that, so the program might see through that. Jul 6 at 21:48
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    If you are not willing to walk away from a really bad offer, you are not negotiating. Jul 6 at 21:57
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    Thank you for the answers! Can anyone explain how such an email look like? For instance is it like "I propose...." or "I expect...." or "Is it possible that...?" or "I would be grateful if....". Any concrete suggestion is much appreciated!
    – The N
    Jul 6 at 22:37
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    I don't know that there's anything academia specific about that and for every 3 people it seems like you get 4 opinions about negotiating tactics. "My main concern is salary, which is mostly due to inflation pressures right now. My other offer from <B> is <Z>. If it's possible, <Y> per year in <TOWN> instead of <X> would make the decision a lot easier..." Jul 7 at 0:18
  • @AnonymousM Thanks! I used your template for my email.
    – The N
    Jul 7 at 17:49
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Always negotiate all job offers, unless there is strong evidence it is futile. You will have less success negotiating a postdoc contract than many other kinds of contracts because the person hiring you often does not have the power to grant your request.

should I propose a specific amount that I expect more?

Yes, but call it a request, not an expectation. You can request reasonable things that are not money, such as a longer contract.

What should I do if the PI does not accept?

Negotiate after you have a complete, written offer. Then you can choose to accept or reject the offer. That choice is based on your personal opinion.

Negotiation can be futile if, for example, the terms are prenegotiated by a union or set by law. Read those rules carefully; they may have loopholes where you can negotiate.

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I concur with @AnonymousPhysicist that there is usually not much space for negotiating postdoc salary: these are usually set by the funding agency or at the University/School/Department level, and the person offering you a job usually have little marge for negotiations (unless they are good friends with the dean or something like that).

One can try to negotiate for additional perks, such as regular conference trips, possibility of teaching, status (being called Assistant research professor or something of the kind), supervision of students, etc.

On the other hand, negotiation remains negotiation - both sides may draw conclusions from it and act accordingly. I have known people to see the job offers withdrawn in response to their aggressive negotiations stance (both at the postdoc and the professor levels).

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Academic year salary is generally the hardest thing to negotiate, so do look to other factors as well.

What is the length of these two postdocs? With a two-year postdoc you need to start actively applying for your next job about 14 months from the start. On a three year post-doc you can apply for a few great jobs at this time and then apply more widely during the final year. It might be possible to get a two-year offer extended to three.

Summer salary can sometime come from a different source. If the salary is an academic year salary, you can ask for some summer salary. It is possible this can be found from another source than the grant funding the postdoc and is a way around the limits on the grant.

Moving costs. For a short-term position, this can be important. If you move as a postdoc every two years the moving costs can be brutal. If they offer no moving costs, ask for a few thousand dollars, perhaps.

As other's mentioned, do these require you to teach? It is possible the grant funds are supplemented with teaching funds, and these may come from outside the grant. They could be more or less flexible.

Travel funds? If you want a permanent job, you really will want to go to conferences. Look into other research expenses. Do you write papers with someone else? Can there be funds for them to visit?

As to the cost of living, there are online resources to sort out costs of rent and food. As to health insurance, ask the two schools what portion you pay. University jobs can have surprisingly large deductions out of the paycheck and these are not uniform across schools.

Grants in the US are not like bank accounts. Moving funds between categories is subject to opaque rules. You want to prompt the PI on the grant to think creatively of all possible ways to get you money. I suggest you signal to the PI that you know rules on funding are tricky, and suggest you want to work with them to see if they can hire you as a postdoc without your going too broke too fast.

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I have hired many PDF. Asking may give you an indication of whether the PI is a reasonable, fair minded person in general. In common with other replies, it may be feasible for the PI to confirm a travel allowance/moving allowance/professional development account etc. beyond simple salary. If you get an outraged response, think carefully about accepting the position.

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I think this is a "can't hurt to ask" situation. The professor(s) who want to work with you are, I would hope, generally on your side. Although they may have constraints.

I suggest telling them about your competing offer and briefly mention any arguments or comparisons in your favor, such as if cost of living is higher at A, or it has a longer commute or anything like that. It's nice if you can point to specific differences and quantify them, $xxxx/year in housing, etc.

I would then suggest asking "if there is any flexibility in the salary". You could say something like "I am very excited about your offer, and an increase would make my decision easy [or easier]".

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