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I am applying to a tenure-track assistant professor job in an applied math department, for which the job posting states

Applicants should state their current and expected salary in the application.

Questions:

  • Why does the department ask for "expected salary"? Is it because they are trying to exploit my naiveté?
  • What number should I state in my application? If I state a number that is on the low side, will they use that to offer me a lower salary?

At the moment, I am thinking of just stating my estimate of the mean salary for new assistant professors at math departments, which according to a Tenured/Tenure-Track Faculty Salaries Survey is $71,412.

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    Don't answer. If you put you're expecting the median I can guess which side of the median you're going to land on. This is a cheap negotiation trick you can avoid for now. – user18072 Oct 3 '14 at 1:40
  • If they are unable to pay you a decent salary, you have no big benefit to answer. If they are able to pay a decent salary, asking that question means they are trying to exploit you and pay you less than they should, so answering is a net negative for you. Either way, don't answer. – o0'. Oct 3 '14 at 17:41
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    Tell them to make you an offer, and that you'll compare it to all the other offers you're getting. – Aaron Hall Oct 3 '14 at 19:29
  • You might want to also look at similar questions from TheWorkplace – user2813274 Oct 4 '14 at 18:00
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I feel it's kind of obnoxious to ask for an expected salary, and it does raise issues of whether the answer could be used to lower the initial offer (or decrease the applicant's negotiating power). I don't see anything wrong with giving a vague answer or just saying you are flexible. If you specify a number, you should try to choose one that's representative of the type of school you are applying to, as Danny W. suggests.

As for why they do it, one reason is that salaries vary enormously. A regional liberal arts college may pay less than half as much as a leading research university. Some U.S. states scandalously underfund their state universities, so there can be dramatic salary differences between what you'd think are comparable institutions. The net effect is that schools that aren't able to pay a lot worry about attracting candidates who have no idea how little they pay. They don't want to waste time trying to hire someone who will never accept any amount they could plausibly offer. One way to get around that is to announce a salary range. However, some departments are hesitant to do that, perhaps because they don't want to publicly emphasize how little money they get (and thereby humiliate themselves or discourage applicants). Instead, they ask for an expected salary and filter out anyone who names a figure far out of their range. I don't like it, but it seems to work well enough that departments keep doing it.

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  • Often the question is inserted simply because the HR people's automatic job-search system is built for staff rather than faculty. If possible, don't answer: I cannot think of a situation in which any answer would benefit you, and I can think of lots in which it might just possibly hurt you. – CAgrippa Oct 4 '14 at 15:23
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    Of course, if they did publish the salary range, then it'd save them lots of time & effort as they wouldn't have to consider the people who might make it through the interview process, then reject their salary offer. – Joe Oct 4 '14 at 22:35
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If it's a public university, look up the local/regional salary website that covers it (like the Texas Tribune site). Record the names and salaries for all of the Assistant Professors in that department. Estimate via Google search when each of them started at the university in question. Add a year (since the salary sites are usually a year out of date). Assume 2%/year annual raise. Work backwards to their starting salaries. Decide where you think you would rank among the tenure-track professors if you were all starting at the same time, and pick that percentile among the salaries and submit it. If public data isn't available for the university you are applying to, model a similar university in a similar town that does have data available, and then adjust for cost of living.

This is an applied math problem par excellence. You best option is to use your skills to predict a reliable answer.

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    The applied math problem of "figuring out what you're worth" is not necessarily the same as the strategic problem of "figuring out what to say you're worth" :) – ff524 Oct 3 '14 at 4:28
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    You are worth slightly more than the median starting assistant professor in that department. Otherwise, they won't hire you. – JeffE Oct 3 '14 at 5:14
  • @JeffE, good thing I didn't suggest picking the median! – Bill Barth Oct 3 '14 at 11:37
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    I should have said: You are worth slightly more than the median starting assistant professor in that department, after adjusting for inflation. – JeffE Oct 3 '14 at 19:47
  • Yeah, I should have said that you need to push these salaries forward based on inflation (which has been low in the US over the typical tenure clock of anyone that would still be an assistant prof). – Bill Barth Oct 3 '14 at 19:57
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If you want to take the safe approach, it may help to choose the mean assistant professor salary for the kind of school you are applying to, and where the school is: a state school in Wyoming will have a lower average assistant professor salary than a private research-level school in Cambridge, MA, for example.

And, although I haven't been on the job market, I know (from discussion with my adviser about this question) that while this may be a factor, others are more important: how much does the department want you and what your other offers are, being two of the biggest.

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Taking the numbers from higheredjobs.com, you'll see that there is considerable variation across types of institutions- the number you quoted was for "research universities", while "doctoral universities" was a separate classification with a lower average salary. The survey also didn't distinguish between private universities and public universities (salaries at top private universities are considerably higher.)

The American Mathematical Society also publishes an annual salary survey that I'd encourage you to examine. The AMS numbers actually show higher starting salaries at the most prestigious research universities (over $80K), but also show much smaller starting salaries at the bachelors and masters level institutions where most of the jobs are. I think this AMS survey is more reflective of the variation in salaries than the CUPA survey that higheredjobs.com reports.

I also searched AMS's web site for job ads that featured this requirement. There were five such ads, Two were for positions outside of the US (where these salary surveys aren't meaningful.) One position is for a department chair (an administrative job that these salary surveys don't cover.) One position is for a postdoc. The last ad is for a named associate professorship (an endowed chair) where the department will be looking to hire talent away from other departments.

Asking candidates for a more senior level position (department chair or the named professorship) what their salary demands are is a reasonable thing to do- you don't want to waste everyone's time interviewing someone who is already much better paid than you can afford. It makes a lot less sense when you're talking about an entry level tenure track position where most of your candidates are applying from temporary positions (VAP or postdoc.)

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  • Searching SIAM's job advertisements, I didn't see any positions that had this requirement that weren't also on the AMS web site. – Brian Borchers Oct 3 '14 at 4:38
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    One of the advertisements that does include this requirement is looking for someone in computational statistics, an area where new PhD's are pulling down salaries of well over $100K per year in industry. In a situation like that where any qualified candidate could earn much more in industry, this doesn't seem to be an unreasonable thing to ask of applicants. – Brian Borchers Oct 3 '14 at 4:42
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Just write negotiable. That's it. Then negotiate when the time comes.

As a rule, I avoid salary discussions before an offer. If asked, I answer that I'm flexible and I'm confident we could come up with a mutually agreeable figure. Then I move on and start asking questions about the job.

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It's easy for me to say this, since I'm not applying, but I simply wouldn't list anything. There's always some risk when leaving out a part of the application that someone is very bureaucratically minded, but I think in this case, the chance is pretty small. It's very hard for me to imagine the conversation in the hiring meeting going: "This application looks very promising." "But it doesn't list his/her current salary. Well, in the trash it goes!"

It'll be trickier if someone directly contacts you, points out that you missed this and asks you to clarify. At some point, if you decide getting the job is more important than optimizing your salary, you may have to just tell them. I personally find this a pretty insane request, though.

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Q.1: The dept wants to know whether you have realistic expectations about compensation for this position. Trying for >$20k over median for entry level position for institution of this type/location may raise eyebrows.

Yes, they are also trying to exploit an applicant's naiveté (although obviously this should not be taken personally). In particular, a reasonably low figure might suggest to them that salary will be a non-issue. If their resources and room for negotiation for this position are tight, it might tell them which applicant may be worth their time and which might not be worth a significant investment of time if their offer is likely to be out-matched by another institution.

Q.2: If the number was not used at all, it would likely not have been part of the application. So most likely, a very low "self-appraisal" might yield a lower offer.

That said, it does not necessarily mean you should not be modest in your self-appraisal. It is unlikely that your final decision will be solely based on salary. Money only matters when you don't have any. As soon as you have a sufficient amount, other things kick in and shape the quality of life. Friendly colleagues in the department. Overall budget situation at the university and on the state level, and projections for the next 5-10 years. Location, amenities, recreation opportunities, and cost of living in the area. How long you plan to stick around at this institution (keep in mind the likelihood of raises, which over 5 years can lift a salary to a level higher than what you may be shooting for now, risking rejecting offers that might not be quite up there from yr1). Good luck and hope this helps.

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