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I'm about to receive a tenure-track offer and was already informed about the offered salary. Unfortunately, the salary is barely an increase over my current postdoc salary. (In fact, taking into account the tax differences at my current location vs the location of the tenure-track institution, it's going to be a net pay cut.) Also, the salary is below the range that the department head indicated during my visit. I was very excited about the prospect of joining the institution, but now I'm wondering whether all the hard work during several years (which were very successful research-wise) of being a postdoc was in vain.

I do have another offer (but for a non-research based industry job) and a couple more interviews (for tenure-track jobs) scheduled.

How do I best approach the situation without giving the impression as being someone who's overly demanding or gaming the system?

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    At the very least, it seems appropriate to contact the department head as you're outside the range mentioned by them. I'd formulate it as a mere inquiry, like "I remember you mentioned an approximate range of (...). Now my offer came in as (...), and I'm a bit puzzled." He'll likely hide behind bureaucratic hurdles ("I wish I could change this, but administration..."), but this isn't a good sign for your future there, and the discrepancy alone would make me strongly consider alternatives. It's unprofessional and (probably) dishonest. – gnometorule Feb 6 '15 at 20:31
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    @gnometorule The thing that really throws me off is that the head of the department didn't seem to think that they needed to break this news incredibly carefully if there really were unavoidable issues keeping them from offering the salary they were expecting. I find that really odd and worrying. – Ben Webster Feb 7 '15 at 3:37
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I think you tell the chair of the department some version of what you've told us: you're very excited about joining the institution (very important to say that first!), but you don't feel like the the salary is appropriate for the position, and you would find it much easier to accept the offer if the salary were increased. Negotiating over salaries is quite normal, not overly demanding or taking some kind of advantage. Of course you might well not be successful, but people often are.

Negotiating is not fun (at least for me), but it doesn't have to be that hard, especially when you have some leverage. I would mention the fact that you feel the current offer is an effective pay cut from your present position (it's up to you whether to mention your current salary), and that you're very confused about the fact that offered salary is lower than the range the head himself mentioned. Mention the (presumably more lucrative) industry job and its salary, though you should probably make it clear that you don't expect to be matched (unless you won't come unless it will. Obviously, then you should say that).

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    Re "when you have some leverage." Now is the only time that you'll have leverage, at least until you go out and find another job offer at a higher salary. – Brian Borchers Feb 7 '15 at 20:40
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Negotiating salary is a very common thing. You should explain that this offer is low in comparison with your current post doc salary or the salary available to you in industry and that you don't feel that you can accept the offer at the current salary. You might also bring up salary survey data to support an argument that the offered salary is low. They might respond by increasing the offered salary or they might not.

There are several reasons why they might not be willing to negotiate on salary. It might be that the salary is determined by a union contract or some official pay policy of the institution. Even if the administration has the flexibility to offer a higher salary they may not want to do so if it would result in you getting higher pay than current faculty members.

In my experience in the US it is often possible to negotiate a somewhat higher starting salary than your initial offer, but it is seldom possible to get a substantial increase (of say more than 10% above the initial offer.) Furthermore, you can reasonably expect that if you negotiate a higher starting salary you might receive lower pay raises than you would otherwise get in later years.

I would encourage you to look at how long term faculty in the department are currently paid. If they seem underpaid to you, then you can reasonably expect to be in the same situation in a few years.

  • "but it is seldom possible to get a substantial increase (of say more than 10% above the initial offer." I disagree with that. On the one hand, it happened to me that simply mentioning another offer got a 30% increase. (That number is probably much more rare; I've always found their low initial offer confusing.) I've seen many more instances now, and I think that it is very often the case that a public research university will match some other university's offer to get a strong candidate...and some try to save some money by making "first offer salaries" correspondingly lower. – Pete L. Clark Feb 7 '15 at 19:29
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    For instance, if we made an offer at my department, and someone else had another offer from a peer or aspirational peer institution that paid 15-20% more, I would be most distressed to learn that they decided not to further negotiate with us. I don't like your answer for that reason. Also: "Furthermore, you can reasonably expect that if you negotiate a higher starting salary you might receive lower pay raises than you would otherwise get in later years." My experience is exactly the opposite: e.g. at my university, standard raises are a percentage of your salary. – Pete L. Clark Feb 7 '15 at 19:32
  • However,there is a distinction to be made between "I have an offer at University X for $Y" and "I have no other offer right now and I'd like my starting salary to be increased." I agree that the latter doesn't work to get much of a raise. If that's what you meant, I apologize for misinterpreting it. – Pete L. Clark Feb 7 '15 at 19:34
  • Obviously we disagree about what is common in practice. I think we agree that it's reasonable to negotiate for a higher salary, but you think that a substantial increase of more than 10% is likely, while I'm saying that it's unlikely. Clearly, we have different experiences. I'd certainly be curious to hear about how things work out for the person who posted this question. – Brian Borchers Feb 7 '15 at 19:47
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    Danish salaries are high, but that's necessary given the insane cost of living. I remember the first time I was in Aarhus and I went to get some pizza after checking into my hotel. I had to spend the equivalent of 35 us dollars to get a mediocre personal pizza and a coke (nb: this was not a fancy place; it was basically a diner with counter service). It makes e.g. London and NYC look cheap. – Andy Putman Feb 8 '15 at 4:34
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Let me add some thoughts to current answers.

First, on why the salary offer is lower than you were led to believe: the department head, who cannot decide the details of the offers, was likely making a vague guess, possibly based on offers in previous years. (Hopefully s/he was not being intentionally deceptive.) I don't know how the department head indicated to you a salary range--perhaps if you directly asked they had to make a quick guess based on information they didn't have. Or maybe they made a reasonable guess that you misinterpreted. Or maybe the administration is being stingy (e.g., perhaps there have been recent budget cuts, or perhaps there has been a change in adminstration).

Often the department head is on your side, and will be negotating for you so you can be frank with them (hopefully you have some idea of whether this is true or not from your discussions). You should ask why there is a difference between what you were led to believe and the initial offer. In addition to the comparison with your current salary and the industry offer, you should mention you have other academic interviews. Comparing industry salaries to academic salaries is apples and watermelons, so the administration may not be be that moved by your industry offer. However, if you have other interviews set up, it's possible the department head can convince the dean or whoever that you're highly desirable and will be likely to quickly accept if you can get a competitive offer (if this is true, make it clear to the department head).

Otherwise, you should try to defer on making a decision until you have your other interviews. If you can get other academic offers (with a higher salary) before you have to make a decision, it is much easier to negotiate. Also sometime soon (depending on the deadline and time of interviews, maybe now, or maybe at the time of the other interviews) you should let the other interviewing schools know you have a decision with a deadline upcoming so they can try to speed up their decision process about you.

However, given that the initial offer was low in your eyes, there's a good chance that the administration will not be willing to make an offer that is significantly higher, so prepare yourself in case you need to make a difficult decision.

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Did you check the AAUP salary survey for that institution and peer institutions?

You can use that as the basis as a request for a reconsideration of the salary. Note that such a reconsideration is likely to only yield modest results ($5000 or so max) and carries with it the small but real risk of having the offer withdrawn (see horror story here).

I've negotiated my salary and/or lab/startup packages up at all the institutions I've worked at using comparison data from other schools and/or the real needs of doing the work I do; but both were pre-recession.

Be careful.

  • More about that horror story here – ff524 Feb 6 '15 at 20:06
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    That's an interesting story (+1), but merely asking if a salary increase is feasible (or merely adjusting it to what was mentioned before) is far less extreme than asking for 5 substantial employment contract adjustments, as in the case linked. I don't think there is much of a risk in OP's case discussing their more limited goals. – gnometorule Feb 6 '15 at 20:42

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