I can haz job for Christmas?
December 10, 2017 1:40 AM   Subscribe

This was me. Thanks to the excellent advice from fellow mefites, I now have not one but two (TWO!) tenure-track academic offers in my field. Help me decide!

Trying to keep this as vague as possible because academia is a gossipy space and my field is especially small. I have a throwaway email: academicsockpuppet@gmail.com. Assume salary and benefits are pretty comparable between the two; those would not be the deciding factor here.

University 1 is a large public research university in a traditional college town. I love the location and got on well with the faculty. Many friends in the area, and family is a couple hours away. My research interests are pretty niche and interdisciplinary -- there is one person in the department who could serve as a mentor but she is senior and likely to retire in the next 3-5 years. They are willing to accommodate 2.5 days per week protected time for this interdisciplinary interest for my first three years, plus support for several career development seminars so I can network with others. Downside: their hiring process has dragged on for months, and I feel like I've been poking them at each step. Started with a conference interview in June, then two rounds of campus visit, and I still don't technically have an offer letter, just a verbal offer and list of bullet points. Other downside: salary offer is low for the field (known terrible gender pay disparity in this field), and when I posted in the secret "Women in [Discipline]" facebook group asking if the published regional salary percentiles are accurate or inflated (no mention of locations or numbers), a female faculty member apparently reported to the chair that I'm "gunning for a higher salary." In our last phone conversation, he told me not to compare salaries because "everyone is different." (Note that I wasn't comparing salary offers with individuals, just my offer with the published median and 25th/75th percentiles for the field, and I told him this, but he wouldn't discuss it.) This, along with the interminable hiring process, has seriously made me rethink whether or not to move forward here.

University 2 was a bit of a dark horse candidate to me. A friend is currently on faculty there and nudged me to apply, so I did. It's a large private university, beautiful campus in a large, somewhat gritty (but getting cleaner) city, much farther from family and friends. I'm a little concerned about the conservative/churchy reputation of the area and what that would mean for my social life as a single female atheist. The faculty in my division are ok, but seemed overworked and less friendly (part of the reason this new position is being created is to relieve some of that workload/burden). They are offering me a dual appointment with a 3/2 split (3 days in a traditional department, 2 days in the interdisciplinary center that matches my research interests). The people in the interdisciplinary center are phenomenal. I think with their resources and support, I would really have a decent shot at tenure. Offer letter came through about 2 weeks after my interview, and they have been extremely responsive to questions and negotiations. As an example, they also offered a low salary, and when I asked them how their payscale compared to those published salary data, they responded that they typically start everyone off at 25th percentile but they really want me to come so they raised the offer to about the 40th percentile. (Though benefits are decidedly worse than Univ 1, so the overall compensation is about even.)

I would like to make a decision in a week or so, because I don't want to keep both places hanging. (I'm also SO DONE with academic interviews.) I've been talking to trusted friends, and everyone is like "It sounds like you really want to go to 1" and then I tell them about the story about the facebook tattler and they are like "F that, go to 2." What say you, Mefites? Would you walk?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Disclaimer: I'm not in academia. I have many friends who are, and I know just enough to be aware that it's a completely different world.

That said: I would not take kindly to anyone (CEO, HR manager, department head) who had the poor judgement to bring up that someone on their staff had reported to them that I'd made a post in a private Facebook group. To say that you shouldn't compare salaries is maddening, and in your shoes I would have been seriously turned off the job.

University 2 is offering you 40% of the week on a phenomenal team that matches your research interests, not 50% time as an "accomodation".

University 2 also seems to value your work (as per their salary offer) more than University 1. But maybe I'm just cross about the poor judgement on University 1's part.

(I just read your question again and you mention that University 1 has a well-known gender pay gap, and they're trying to pull this? Oh hell no.
posted by third word on a random page at 2:04 AM on December 10, 2017 [11 favorites]

Do you think you can realistically get tenure at University 1? It doesn't sound super certain to me, but that might just be the way that you've described it. And, you don't actually have an offer in hand yet.

I would look into the city for University 2. If it's of any decent size there will be other people like you. Look at the meetup groups that exist, the arts scene, the local Democrat party organisation,... whatever it is that's vaguely linked to what you would be looking for. If you're potentially interested in dating, check out that city in your online dating service of choice.

If I'm honest, I think that University 1 is probably not going to be as good in reality as it is in your head. It sounds like they would not really support your interdisciplinary interest, which would mean you would struggle to get tenure, and that they have really petty office politics which can make working life feel really bad. But you know this field and these people better than we do.
posted by plonkee at 2:09 AM on December 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

I would try to isolate and discard how much of the appeal of University 1 is prestige/reputational stuff—I mean the happy buzz you might get when imagining yourself saying “I’m a professor at [place]”, not the concrete and material advantages of working there (funding, colleagues, future advancement). If you completely ignore how it sounds to say you work at 1, rather than 2, how does the balance pan out? It sounds like you have the prospect of more security and a less potentially fraught working environment at 2 (less gossip, less gender bias), but the downside is the conservative culture of the city.

Only you can decide what each of those benefits is worth to you. My only advice is to make sure you are ignoring the halo that can attach to the name of a prospective employer, especially in academia, which doesn’t have any actual substance.
posted by Aravis76 at 3:01 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

When faced with a choice like this, where the pros and cons of each option are not directly comparable and the appropriate weightings are hard to decide on, I will generally use the following procedure:

1. Talk it over with people I trust to have my best interests at heart, then sleep on it. At least five sleeps.

If the right choice is still not obvious by the time the deadline looms:

2. Assign one of the outcomes to Heads, the other to Tails, and flip a coin.

Rationale: if two options are so closely matched that I genuinely haven't been able to decide between them after five sleeps, then I clearly can't do better than chance so I might as well rely on actual chance. That way, if things go wrong afterwards I won't be wasting mental capacity on beating myself up for having got the decision wrong and can more easily concentrate on moving on from wherever I've ended up.

3. If my instant reaction to the fall of the coin is dismay at the outcome, and this feels stronger than the relief from having an outcome, switch options. But I only get to do that once, and only right then.

Rationale: though reason has proved itself inadequate to the task of choosing, intuition should be respected if it asserts itself when a choice is about to be forced; but it's important to distinguish actual intuition from mere vacillation, and there's no point having a formal decision-making procedure if there's no genuine commitment to it.
posted by flabdablet at 3:04 AM on December 10, 2017 [11 favorites]

I don't know which job you should take, but I do know these might be irrelevant factors to how happy and productive you are in either one, so I think you might consider taking these out of your calculation and seeing how you feel then.
Univ. 1. The slowness and fact that you had to "poke" University 1 might have nothing to do with anything other than the chair of the search committee not being so great at keeping up with that process in the midst of other scholarly obligations, or the dept. chair being a little flaky with it. Professors vary wildly in their competence and professionalism with the administrative side of things in academia. There are search committees that aren't very functional, and that has nothing to bear on how things go when the candidate joins the faculty.
Univ. 2. Unfortunately in most large universities located in conservative areas, most of your social life is going to be with people at or affiliated with the university. There are also usually people who come to these towns or cities because of the university but in some other capacity than working there (i.e., the area will often generate more music venues and hip restaurants than in other comparable conservative cities) and these people are often liberal and non-churchy in the way you probably mean churchy (they may very well go to church, but won't be surprised by or judge atheism.) So this is just how it is. It's perhaps a smaller dating pool, but people date within that community. And it could very well be exactly the same in the small college town.
posted by flourpot at 4:32 AM on December 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

and I still don't technically have an offer letter

So, actually, I screeeeeeeeeched to a halt right there. You don't yet have an offer from this place: at universities in general and public universities in particular, if it's not in writing, then no official offer has been made.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:13 AM on December 10, 2017 [12 favorites]

First off, congrats! This is an excellent problem to have.

Next- Slow hiring processes happen a lot in academia. (I got an offer more than 9 months after an interview, for example). I don’t think this means anything itself.

I think you like #1, but are rightly concerned about the attitude there. Which of these people will you be working with on a daily basis? Which ones (dept chair, head of interdisciplinary center, etc) will you rely on for support and protection?

In any case, I would be straightforward about it with #1. Say yes, you’d like a higher salary, and that you have an offer from another institution that is better. Mention that you were in fact just collecting data, and tell the chair what that data says: that their offer is low. Consider asking for flexibility in other ways if a salary bump isn’t doable: teaching relief, choice of courses, longer time to spend a research startup fund if applicable, flexibility to go on field work leave if you need it, better office or lab space, etc. Whatever you need most to be a more effective researcher and teacher, and couch it in that language; it is in the best interest of these institutions to provide you with resources for you to be successful because your success benefits them. Note I am talking here about non-salary things here.

You are negotiating. That is perfectly fine. And frankly if the response to you negotiating with #1 is just “no” with a side admonishment of “you shouldn’t be asking”, then they do in fact have an attitude problem and you should go with your other option. You are planning on being at whichever place for a while, so you want to know that you will have adequate support from the institution as you go for tenure.

There is another possible take (more generous than they maybe deserve) on what happened at #1: older prof noticed you asking about salary, thought she would tell the dept so that they don’t lose you, and chair clumsily reports to you in order to bring up salary. Maybe they don’t have flexibility in salary and this was his way of bringing that up. In any case, the chair didn’t have to bring up that he knew you had asked about salary; bringing it up at all seems to indicate that he wanted to keep recruiting you (whether or not they are actually flexible on salary). Whatever; from your perspective, you need to be able to negotiate, and you need to know that your department is responsive, because this isn’t the last time you will need something from them.

By the way, if it wouldn’t be burning a bridge too badly— if you do decide against number one, I would consider telling them why (especially tell the interdisciplinary center, they will want to know why recruitment is failing, and you can tell them that the bad attitude about negotiating is a problem).
posted by nat at 5:16 AM on December 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

As a tenure track academic myself, I'd say that the thing you need most is support. That can take many forms: money for research, space, mentoring, course buyouts, etc. Honestly the first place sounds more supportive than the second to me, even with the weird Facebook story, overall. But you don't actually have a real offer from them, which would worry me a lot.

I have a friend who turned down a tt job at a bad place, then a postdoc, and he finally landed on the tt at an R1. Those few months were nail biters though. With two offers you might not have to settle. Do you have interviews or leads at any other more supportive places? If not, I'd hold out for option one.
posted by sockermom at 5:39 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ps if they aren't flexible on salary, as most places aren't, negotiate your start up. Ask for course buyouts, funds for conferences, a grader for classes, funds for research, etc. as appropriate for your discipline.
posted by sockermom at 5:40 AM on December 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

a female faculty member apparently reported to the chair that I'm "gunning for a higher salary.”

If I’m reading this correctly, it sounds like someone on the faculty is trying to sabotage your negotiations. This speaks very poorly for their community and the kind of supportive environment you can expect to find there.
posted by ewok_academy at 5:55 AM on December 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Doooooon't turn down University 2 until you actually have an offer letter from University 1, or if you decide you'd be happier risking having no job at all than going to University 2 (which is a valid choice, but be conscious that you're making that choice). You don't want to be relying on a position that still has a chance of evaporating. I'm not worried about the slowness of their hiring process per se, because that's very common, but scale the timeline of your own decision-making accordingly.

I am at a school where salary is determined by faculty union-negotiated pay scales, so it's not impossible that they really can't be flexible on salary. However, in my interview, I was told that up-front, and various people I met with made explicit suggestions about "try asking about X* instead." Even so, I ended up bumped up one step on the pay scale after negotiations.

I guess what I'm encouraging you to do is think about the attitudes of everyone at University 1 towards negotiating - in my case, I was similarly told that salary was probably not flexible, but they gave me tips on how to negotiate instead. Does anyone at University 1 seem similarly on your side? If not, how do you think that is going to translate to them being on your side in your tenure case?

*Things I asked for - mostly startup package stuff, like sockermom mentioned above. I asked for, and got, slightly more funds than were originally offered. I also asked for some specific initial purchases to come out of department/university budgets rather than out of my startup, as well as commitments on available research space. So those are things you can ask about if you're going to take that route.
posted by pemberkins at 6:51 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

sockermom has it right. A tenure-track position is not like other professional jobs—your most important question should be which environment is more likely to establish you as a successful scholar. That definitely includes things like how happy you'll be in the environment generally which relates to location and salary, but the ability to get your research done and get tenure is most important. And in general from your description it seems like that is better at university 1.

You have a better handle on this particular case, but in general a "large public research university" has more focus on research than a "large private university". What are the teaching loads like?

I agree with flourpot that your social life and dating pool might not be that different between in a small college town and a churchy larger city.

The one thing I wouldn't let affect your decision is the length of the hiring process per se. It just takes this long at some places, and the main thing it predicts about the environment there is that future hiring processes you might be involved in on the other side might be long too. Also 6 months is just not that long in academic circles.

The chair's attitude to salary negotiation made me roll my eyes. If you feel the salary is lower than it should be you might want to ask him point-blank if there is any room to increase the salary. If not, is there room to get additional support in the other ways sockermom suggests?

The offer isn't real until it is in writing. Under no circumstances turn down another offer until you have an offer in writing from your primary choice. It sounds like you are in a hurry to get this done (concern about length of hiring process, wanting to have it done in a week or so or at least by Christmas, excuse to not leave the departments "hanging" when they haven't given you a deadline). That weakens your negotiating ability.
posted by grouse at 7:05 AM on December 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

tl;dr: It sounds like you have two good options with some slight advantages on either side and you mainly need to decide which advantages are most important to you. The only truly bad decision you can make is to talk yourself into a premature decision. Especially if that decision is to turn down a written offer when you don't have one from the other place.
posted by grouse at 7:10 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

No letter of offer means the offer could be pulled at any time, even if it's been extended verbally. This happened to me early in my career and it was devastating, even though I went on to get a better position the following year.

A public R1 will likely mean more access to graduate programs and the ability to build a national research profile, but it will be highly dependent on what state you're in - eg Wisconsin and NC appear to actively at war with their public education systems right now. Teaching loads (you say 3/2 but characterize it in terms of days: how many actual courses?) are crucial to establishing a research agenda.
posted by media_itoku at 7:39 AM on December 10, 2017

I work in a department that is having some... cultural and personal issues, and I would RUN SCREAMING from school #1. Being near family and friends is so important (I preach that we've got to stop expecting to put the rest of our lives on hold for academia to anyone who will listen), but look: even if we go with the most charitable reading that they're just really, really clumsy at this whole hiring process thing and that the whole "gunning for a higher salary" thing was "we're going to lose Candidate, let them know we don't have room in the budget" - if that's how they did it, what's going to happen the first time you have an issue with a coworker, confide in someone - and they decide to be "helpful" and tell your chair so that everyone can work it out? Being in a department where you don't know who you can trust to keep your business private is exhausting.

They are willing to accommodate 2.5 days per week protected time for this interdisciplinary interest for my first three years

What is the actual facts plan for that? Will you have another office at Interdisciplinary Research Center? Will you have to work at home all the time? Because if they somehow expect to protect your time when you're working out of your main office... that is not going to stop the ambush predators known as your students [I mostly kid, I love my students, but...] from going "Oh, Anon is in her office..."

School #2 has a plan, they're willing to roll a dual appointment (let me tell you about the paperwork and negotiations usually involved with, so if they're willing to do that that is a good sign), they responded with a better salary offer because they want you, they've actually gotten the offer letter in front of you in a timely fashion and the folks in the interdisciplinary center are great, they're being responsive to questions despite being obviously overworked? There are downsides (you're now serving at least two supervisors, but you're interdisciplinary, so you probably expected that), but I'd take offer #2. You can always bail pretenure (heck, you can bail post-tenure. The academic world is changing), but it sounds like a much better launch point at the very least.
posted by joycehealy at 8:19 AM on December 10, 2017

I will add that I have served on search committees at an R1 and it is just slow. Academic standard time is a thing, and depending on the departmental process it may require that literally every faculty member in the department contribute. Faculty might all be doing a quick pass of all of the initial applications (of which there may be hundreds, you would be surprised how far out of discipline some people apply) to make sure the search committee didn't miss someone they really want, a thorough review from the faculty of all serious applicants including attending or viewing any video interviews which could easily take 20 hours of time (conservatively), attending multiple meetings to discuss this stuff (more time, more finding time when everyone's available), and then finding time in everyone's calendars (including the dean or deans) to actually be around to host the on-campus visitors. This takes forever.

When I got hired at an R1 I had an informal conference interview in late October, gave a video interview in mid December, had an on campus visit in the beginning of January, and got an offer in the middle of February. And that was considered fast. I know how hard it is to be patient with these things, but also you may want to prepare yourself for not having this settled by Christmas. Now it's the end of the semester, and things get really really really intense at this time of year, and then everyone g's-tfo because they need a holiday break. So I would really recommend finding a way to be ok with the fact that you probably will not know the answer to the question of where you will be next year before Christmas.

The "job market" is the most stressful thing; it was one of my top five most stressful times in academia so far, and will probably remain up there for the rest of my life! Focus on "self care" and on figuring out patience. Best of luck.
posted by sockermom at 9:12 AM on December 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I know absolutely nothing about academia. I was struck that university 1 guarantees your access to interdisciplinary work for three years only, whereas there is no such limit with university 2 and you say the people in the inter-disciplinary area are phenomenal. Still, having friends and family in the area is a huge advantage for university 1. Please pay attention to the folks about mentioning that until you have a written offer from University one you do not have an actual offer. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 9:31 AM on December 10, 2017

(Though benefits are decidedly worse than Univ 1, so the overall compensation is about even.)

I just wanted to mention that benefits are usually not taxed (current chaos notwithstanding), so a benefit dollar is worth perhaps more than a salary dollar, if you are above the 0 bracket and you value the benefits. (I'm middle-aged and am now jealous of the healthcare and retirement benefits my public sector friends have. But this is subject to change in the decades to come.)

I also agree that your reaction to University #1 being slow made it sound like you feel emotionally unloved by them. Try to set that feeling aside, as I think the slowness is just the institutional flavor, not about you personally.

Regarding closeness to family: how many times a year do you want to see them? How many annual visits are possible from the farther location?

I think job satisfaction, particularly working on what you want with good support or minimal static is the #1 factor and remuneration #2, location #3.

Two offers (or probable offers) is really great!!! You might want to do a thought experiment about how you would make each scenario work if you had only the one choice. It's a way to sink deeper into your thoughts and feelings about each situation. Unfortunately, there's no accurate flash forward mechanism to show what the bumps are going to be in each path. If I had a good device to peep into the future I would loan it to you
posted by puddledork at 10:45 AM on December 10, 2017

Congrats! Nthing everything everyone else has said about negotiating.

Hiring a tenure-track faculty member means that the university is about to spend upwards of $500,000 (depending on your field and start-up costs) over the next couple of years to get you to tenure, which is considerably more than what it would cost them to hire a couple of adjuncts. Hiring a prof is also an long process from the perspective of the uni. The vibe you should be getting is "we want you to come here, and we want you to be successful." The salary thing at uni 1 seems very suspect. Churchy town may be annoying, but might be better for establishing your career and moving somewhere else, if you decide that's what you want in a few years.
posted by frau_grubach at 3:05 PM on December 10, 2017

"University 1 is a large public research university [...] In our last phone conversation, he told me not to compare salaries because "everyone is different." (Note that I wasn't comparing salary offers with individuals, just my offer with the published median and 25th/75th percentiles for the field, and I told him this, but he wouldn't discuss it.) "

Is he unaware that public universities' salary information is public and that you can just go online and look it up for every single person in the department?

University 1's attitude towards you gives me several pauses; University 2 sounds like it has a lot more respect for your work as well as your HR-type concerns.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:30 PM on December 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

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