An administrator from your prospective employer is likely to hand you a contract and state upfront that it’s the “standard contract offered to all prospective employees.” Many young doctors interpret this, as intended, to mean that it’s non-negotiable. In some cases it’s true that the entry level contract is non-negotiable. But in other cases there may be room for negotiation—the administrator is simply hoping that you’ll jump to the former conclusion.
It costs you nothing to respond politely with a request for changes or additions to the contract. The worst thing that can happen is that the employer will say “no.” If you don’t try, you may be leaving a lot of value on the table.
Your reluctance to ask questions may stem from concern that you’ll be viewed as a troublemaker and perhaps even have your offer rescinded. That’s not how recruiting works! If you’ve received an offer it’s because the prospective employer likes and wants you. The offer is not made as a favor to you. It’s made because the employer believes you’re the right person for the job.
In a world where there are dozens (or hundreds) of applicants for every position, it’s normal for employers to have the upper hand in the early stages. But an interesting change in the power dynamic occurs once you receive an offer. The employer has determined that you’re the best candidate and wants you to join the team. Having to turn to someone else lower on the list is disappointing and feels to the employer like having to settle for second best. The upshot is that in the time period between receiving and accepting the offer you have some leverage. It may be a small or large amount, but it’s the most leverage you have during the process. Most of your leverage is lost as soon as you accept the offer, and any remaining bits of leverage are completely gone once you physically move to your new location and begin work.
My point is that you should not throw away whatever leverage you have without careful consideration. Asking for clarification on elements of the contract or requesting some changes are reasonable responses, and no employer will want to lose you over something that can be dealt with relatively easily. If the employer can accommodate your request she will likely do so. If she’s unable to accommodate your request she will simply say so. The key is to always be polite, honest, and reasonable.
Our brash culture often predisposes us to believe that negotiation is about taking a hard stance and playing hardball—that’s not the type of negotiation I’m referring to. You should seek to engage in an open conversation in which you share your needs and concerns and openly listen to the other side’s considerations. If both sides commit to making negotiation a constructive dialog, both stand to benefit.
There are many good books on the subject of negotiations. A popular choice is, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Fisher, Ury, and Patton.
For academic positions the specific terms of your employment may be outlined in an offer letter. The offer letter will be negotiated between you, the employee, and the chairman or director of the department you seek to join. The terms will likely include your annual salary, lab space, access to support staff and services, etc. It’s likely you’ll be asked to put forward your own wish list for these and other items. Give this some thought in advance so you can properly articulate your wish list when you have the opportunity.
The contract itself may be a very brief document referring to salary and other benefits as “to be determined (TBD).” It may provide links to online resources for more detailed information.
Academic institutions are less likely to negotiate compensation with junior faculty hires. It’s more likely you’ll be able to negotiate protected time for research or other activities. Be sure to ask about these during your interviews.
You’re unlikely to get everything you want in your first contract, so focus on what you need as opposed to what you want. Aim to get as many of those needs addressed as you can.
In the following sections you’ll find common clauses you can expect to encounter in a typical employment agreement. If there are any terms or conditions you don’t like, try to have them changed.
The best time to question the wording of contract terms is when you review the contract—not after you’ve signed it!