How Many Times

May 08 2012 Published by under career issues

How many times can a professor use outside offers to negotiate retention packages at their university?

I don't know, but a reader who is possibly in a position to get their second outside offer asked me this question. This person's first offer was early (tenure-track), but that was a while ago, so this person is not a habitual collector of outside offers. Nevertheless, they wonder if they should go through the outside-offer-ritual a second time.

I have discussed similar issues in the F/SP blogs and in The Chronicle of Higher Education, but I don't think I've ever directly asked for opinions about whether there is a maximum number of offers that is appropriate (whatever that means). Of course the only opinion that matters is that of the professor-in-question's institution, but it's still fun to speculate and opine.

I don't think 2 is excessive, especially if they are widely spaced in a career. I don't think 2 is excessive anyway, and even more would be OK (in theory). Your institution can always say no, they aren't going to negotiate and then you make your decision to stay or leave, depending on what you want to do given the various complex factors involved in these decisions.

That seems quite straightforward, but I know there are nuances, one of which is the effect of multi-offers on the opinions of your colleagues in your department and administrators in your university. If you are a cosmic superstar who brings fame and fortune to your university, maybe the administration (sort of) likes the fact that other institutions are constantly trying to poach you. Colleagues may even admire you for being so academically desirable. For most of us, however, the stakes (for the university at least) are quite a bit lower, and the threshold beyond which we would be widely perceived to be a selfish, greedy jerk (accompanied by little or no admiration) is encountered more easily.

That's why, although theoretically the sky's the limit for the number of offers you could bring to the table in your career, most mortal professors probably should consider a limit.

But what should that limit be? And should there be a particular spacing between outside offers that are sought or entertained, or should it be more random, such as whenever there is a major research accomplishment that helps attract such offers? The realistic limit likely does scale with level of fame and accomplishment, so we'd have to come up with a handy scheme (or equation) that can be consulted as needed. Something that can be used to estimate or calculate how many outside offers one can proffer in a certain number of years based on specific benchmarks, like number of papers in high-impact journals, number of highly cited papers (h-index), number of Nobel Prizes etc.

O great blog community, please opine on this issue: Do you think there is a realistic maximum number of offers that a semi-illustrious professor should entertain? How can one determine what that maximum is? Just keep hurling offers at your administrators until they hurl them back? Surely we can do better than that. If we can't come up with a more specific scheme (or equation), we will have failed to produce the deliverable with which we are tasking ourselves and there will therefore be no outcome for us to assess.


10 responses so far

  • My understanding is that if you're willing to move to the new place, then the sky is the limit. (Though negotiating two years off then getting yet another offer without setting foot at the new place is considered in poor taste... still, doesn't seem to have hurt the careers of folks who have done it.)

    Of course, I'm in economics and we have poor social skills when it comes to money.

    Also I don't know if there's any kind of penalty associated with this for women or minorities-- women don't seem to move as much and they seem much less likely to be retained when they do get an outside offer. (Many of our famous women have moved from the East Coast top schools to the West Coast... the men seem more likely to just double their salaries.)

  • GMP says:

    I'm in a serious proposal mode, so here's a seriously geeky formula for you.

    Let h be the person's h-index or any other metric you choose to measure their quality with respect to their peers. Let h0(n) be the average value of h for the person's age and field. Then Gamma, the acceptable rate [in units of, say, inverse years] of being courted by other institutions may go something like this,

    Gammma (h) = alpha*(h/h0)^n

    where alpha is a constant, with units of inverse years, and n is a (not necessarily integer) power. Both alpha and n are field-specific and are best determined empirically. They are also likely gender-, age-, and location-specific (e.g. more likely to be poached right after tenure or from somehow undesirable locales).

    Alpha can be determined by measuring the escape-attempt rate of completely average people (h=h0). For instance, in my field, I would say alpha would be 1/5 years^{-1} or so for mid-career people. n is probably not a very large number, somewhere in the 1-2 range.

    Anyhoo.... We have a very successful female prof who often gets invited to interview. She has never accepted, it's enough that she tells the powers that be that there is more interest, and they do all they can to make her happy. I think this is good for everyone.

    OTOH, I have a couple of colleagues who are often threatening to leave. One of them literally always has an offer in the works from one place or another. It's a little like with the boy who cried wolf. The first few times, the department and college tried hard to scramble a counteroffer. Now everyone is just pissed and thinking "So go away already, what are you waiting for?" People don't want to see that you are constantly itching to be elsewhere. But I would say getting out there and interviewing every few years is fine, especially because everyone understands the financial pull now that salaries have been flat for years.

  • Ann says:

    I think if you are just collecting offers to improve your present position with a retention but dont really want to move then you might be a manipulative jerk. The process is time consuming for lots of people. However, I dont see why in general you should limit the number of offers you consider, if you really think you might do better by moving.

  • sciencecanary says:


  • annakarenina says:

    I am currently entertaining my first outside offer, and it seems to me that intentions and motives are important in this. As long as it's a genuine effort (ie one is really interested in the new place) I don't think there's a limit, esp if things are spaced out a bit- and in this case they are, in terms of career stages. Also, what are the reasons for looking? For me it was a mix, I wasn't given space I needed, had a bad relationship with Chair, and then there was the salary. While my current colleagues do not know of the offer, they do know that I got caught in a bigger political mess and had promised space taken from me to accommodate Jerk, and I don't think they would be surprised if I took action. I will consider a counteroffer if it comes, provided that it addresses the problems I have here. Unfortunately my chair respects only people who are marketable, so although it wasn't the intention this may address my relationship with him as well.
    Regardless of what decide, though, there are a few places I consider ideal for what I do or geographically, and if I ever have a chance to move there I will act on that....

  • Eli Rabett says:

    The maximum number of times is n-1 where n is the time when the department sends you a goodbye card. Serious, asking is just that.

  • John Vidale says:

    It seems to me an impossible dream to think departments will reward people according to their merit, regardless of outside offers or lack thereof. My favorite statistic, that most faculty think they are way above average and the best in the world at something, illustrates that faculty are fundamentally incapable of judging themselves.

    And so outside offers have to play a key role in calibrating salaries and perks. Those that do not offer periodic evidence of their outside reputations (offers, but also awards and medals, h-factor, etc.) either do not have reputations comparable to those with offers, or are being modest to the point of harming their internal reputations and situation. Modesty is a virtue, but contradicts getting all that one would wish for.

    I got an email yesterday (unsolicited) asking that I apply for a decent job that I have no intention of applying for, and I'll pass that on to my Chair, otherwise how will our administration know my outside rep?

  • John Vidale says:

    I didn't address the main question - whether to apply for positions in which one has no interest to get more perks.

    My personal choice is to only apply for positions I'd strongly considering taking, as I have all the perks I deserve already. But more generally, Chairs should only respond with retention packages to offers that improve over one's current position, and similarly, faculty should usually consider such offers.

    If one is immovably planted in a place with unfairly weak perks compared to the rest of the faculty, well, that's how a free market works. Without a free market, departments end up inbred and built on factors other than competence.

    However often better positions come up (although more than every few years soaks up too much of everyone's time) is how often they should be considered.

  • John Vidale says:

    I'm fairly sure no one is reading these comments anymore, but disagree with myself and don't want to leave up the wrong answer.

    A common case seems to be that outside offers can be WELCOMED by a Chair and the department because it is a valuable reason to extract more resources from the University. So flimsy offers are not infrequently pursued, with effectively zero chance of being taken, to raid the retention funds and raise the salary, but without much cost to the department. Indeed, appealing to the Dean and/or Provost, should they not recognize the hollowness of the offer or fear offending the dept and faculty member, raises the profile and reputation of the department within the university.

    It's hard to generalize.