Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Negotiation skills, and my current position

Some other blogs have been discussing whether universities teach
the social skills students need in order to be successful, and whether they should. They're talking more about undergrads and office politics, but there are also plenty of skills that grad students don't get unless they position themselves well.

Negotiation skills are the first set of skills that I exercised first on the job market and then in starting a new position. In my discussion of the job market in my previous post, I think that I sound like a reasonably competent negotiator: nothing counts unless it's in writing, I turned down a job whose salary seemed like the university was getting an incredible bargain, and I even managed to bump up my salary at a job that I liked. What follows is a detailed description of how I really screwed up in negotiation, and ironically in the only position where it makes a difference: my current position.

For negotiating on the job, so far the best that I can say is that I hope that I've learned from my mistakes. As I alluded to in an earlier post, last year I did very well on the job market. Due to the timing of offers and crucial information and being strung along by my only tenure-track prospect which ended up dissolving, it was very late before I actually was settled in a job. In the end, once the dust had cleared, my choice last year was between (a) a fellowship at this university which let me do anything that I wanted including working on this project that I'm currently working on (salary 1.1X, using the salary scale of the previous post), or (b) a job on this project at the same university which paid more than 50% more than the fellowship (1.7X). Since this project would have been my choice anyhow for the research, I decided to take the higher salary. Money isn't everything, but all other things being equal, it's obviously better to have more. And it seemed to my myopic vision like they were more or less equal. The fellowship wasn't perfect, after all --- it had one or two serious drawbacks not true of this position. Nonetheless, I've regretted that decision virtually every day.

Before I took the job, I attempted to get them to define the position better and tell me exactly what my role would be, but the project was just starting, so they said they were just figuring it out themselves. They sent me the grant that they had written me in on, complete with the salary. I had been extremely careful for the past few months not to trust any agreement which was not firmly in writing, but in this case once the grant was approved, it seemed like this was as good as an offer letter. I was busy with dissertation details, moving details, and apartment-looking and packing, that the technicalities of offer letters were not uppermost in my mind. For a long time, the grant proposal with my name and salary on it, and the knowledge that the grant was approved, was the closest that I had to an offer letter. After so much diligence during the bulk of the job search, I actually moved to a different part of the country for a job without an offer letter.

In my defense, I did this because the PI is a well-funded straight-shooter --- very busy and distracted, but he had enough projects that I could work on, and I really do think that he took responsibility for me, that I don't think that I took an actual risk to move. That is, there was no danger that I would arrive and discover no job at all.

When I first started (no offer letter yet), I found that I was doing lots of tasks which on other projects would have been delegated to an administrator. When I mentioned this to the PI, he was very understanding and he said that he could get an administrator from elsewhere in the department. He did get an administrator who took care of the details. A few weeks later I found out indirectly that he had hired the administrator out of my salary, so my position was now 50% time. I realize that there's no free lunch, but he hadn't even mentioned that hiring an administrator would have any effect on my salary, and a 50% cut certainly deserved a mention. I almost resigned right then --- of course, there was nothing to resign from since I didn't have an offer letter yet, and the prospect of looking for a new research position when I still had to finish my dissertation and had already moved was depressing. Half time didn't seem terrible, since I did have a lot of side projects to work on. So I went with it. He said that I could take on another project if I wanted to go up to full time. Of course, it's a far better deal to do mindless administrative stuff for twice the salary than to take on another project which requires thinking --- administrative things can be done when you're too tired to do real work --- so naturally it was really inconsiderate (to say the least!) for him not even to mention that there was such a big financial cost to getting rid of the administrative tasks.

Once I started the job under the offer letter, I found out that half time means benefits are far more expensive so my effective salary for a 50% job was not 50% of the original salary, but actually 45% of the original salary since the university doesn't subsidize insurance premiums as much. It's totally sensible, but I didn't foresee this until, yet again, the last minute.

I was a very well-paid graduate student because I took on extra jobs once I finished coursework, but as of now I'm making less this year than I did as a graduate student. That's just plain demoralizing.

The zeroth rule of negotiation that I learned from all of this: don't negotiate until you have something to negotiate. I didn't have a job description or an offer letter, and as exciting as I found the project (and I realize my excitement is not coming through), I still didn't have a job description or offer letter, and it was not a job.

I'm proud that I negotiated so well for the jobs that I didn't take. I just wish that I'd negotiated for the job that I did take.

1 comment:

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