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

Faculty Movers

Jan 19 2011 Published by under career issues, faculty

A swarm of recent questions relates to the topic of moving from one faculty position to another. 'Tis the season for offers and decisions for faculty moves?

As I have described in the FSP blog at various times, I moved from University 1 to University 2 after several years as an Assistant Professor. Before University 1, I taught at a small liberal arts college, but I was there very briefly, so my main move was between universities. The reason for my move was because of my so-called "two body" situation, not owing to any unhappiness with University 1 (in fact, I was very happy there) or because I wanted to move to a higher ranked program (although that's what I did).

The specific reasons for my move may or may not be applicable to others contemplating a faculty move, but a general question is:

When and how do you tell colleagues, administrators, and students at University 1 that you are (contemplating) leaving?

There is no one "right" answer because there are so many variables, but I can describe what I did, and perhaps other readers can share their own stories.

When I was at University 1, I was very dedicated to my institution, department, and students. I had great colleagues, some of whom became (and still are) my friends. I was open with colleagues and administrators about being on the job market and my reasons for doing so. I did not talk about it constantly, but neither was I secretive about it.

I didn't have to tell them, of course, but news travels, and I figured it was better that I tell my colleagues what was going on than that they hear rumors. I felt that this was the right thing to do for me, but I think it would be perfectly fine if someone did not inform their colleagues of any efforts to move. They might hear about it anyway, and some might ask about it. I think that, if asked, it is best to be honest, but you can be vague in your response if you want.

When I was at University 1 but keeping an eye out for jobs where my husband and I could live and work near each other, my graduate students were generally aware of the situation, but I did not inform them of the details (applications, interviews). I think they knew that I would not abandon them -- i.e., that if I did move, we would discuss it then and make a plan for each -- but I saw no reason to go into the gory details until it was relevant to do so.

When the offer from University 2 came, I immediately told my chair and a sympathetic associate dean, who leaped into action and came up with a retention package that included a tenure-track position for my husband (who, by the way, was more than qualified for a faculty position there). That was nice, but it also made the decision about staying vs. leaving a wrenching one. I understand why they couldn't create a position for my husband until pushed to do so, but even so, one reason we left was so that we could both start fresh in a new place.

I ended up staying at University 1 for an extra year, for various reasons, and this allowed my graduate students to finish before I left.

Since then, I have had a few occasions to contemplate leaving University 2 for another university. As a more senior faculty member without a "benign" reason (like a two-body problem) for leaving, I have told only my very closest colleagues about these moving opportunities. I see no reason why anyone else (including students) should know until there is something substantive to tell. There is no point in everyone's being on alert or making alternative plans until there is a real reason to do so.

When I discussed this in the FSP blog before, it was controversial. Some think that students have a right to know everything, even if moving is just the faintest glimmer in their advisor's eye. I can understand that, but I don't agree with it. The process of possibly luring a professor to a new institution can be a very long and indirect courtship, and can involve offers and counter-offers. Unless someone is 100% determined to leave, which I am not, I don't see the point of keeping a research group on alert for possible major disruption when there may not actually be any disruption.

There is a well-known advantage of possibly-moving in that this is how you demonstrate your worth at some universities (unfortunately) and this may be the only way to get some big-ticket items (a major raise, a job for your significant other); it can also be a route to early tenure and promotion. To my surprise, I have found that the rumor of having outside offers from excellent schools can have an energizing effect on some administrators; in some cases, it is not necessary to have an actual offer in hand.

Supposedly, men are better at negotiating retention packages as a result of outside offers, whereas women worry about being seen as disloyal, or they may fear that they won't get an offer of a retention. I don't know, but I don't think it is disloyal and I wouldn't worry about not getting a retention offer. Even if you get an outside offer, you don't have to take it. You can present it, see what happens, and then decide what is best for you and your family.

My advice, in summary: If you want to move or have to move, and you have the opportunity: just do it. Do it well, though, taking care of your graduate students and postdocs, if you have them, and dealing with all the bureaucratic fun of moving grants and other research-related stuff and figuring out a new university system and moving your cats.

29 responses so far