Deciding Between Offers

Congratulations on your offer! Here are some things to consider after receiving a job offer.

The Waiting Game

You probably submitted your materials in the middle of December. However, you won’t really hear anything from anyone until at least the middle of January when the faculty can get together and review the applications. Be sure to check your email during this time, including your spam folder! At the end of December 2004, Michigan sent Wes an email saying that there was a mix up with his application and asking him to resend my letters of recommendation. Unfortunately, it was sorted to his spam folder and he didn’t find it until March, at which point it was too late. Try to avoid losing potential interviews for reasons not related to your merits.

While you’re waiting you may receive a bunch of emails that say “we received your application, we’re starting a folder for it” or “we have received all of your letters of recommendation”.

  • Claire Le Goues Claire Le Goues

    Try to resist compulsively checking your website's stats on where your pageviews are coming from, because it will not make you feel better, even though it is at least a little bit fascinating.

Example Timelines

Here’s (a subset of) several application timelines:

There are a few things to notice about these otherwise-boring timelines:

  • The spread of dates on the interview invitations is wide. Between Wes’s first (Jan 11) and last (Apr 4) there were almost three entire months.
  • Even the spread between an interview invitation and an offer from one department can be long (see: Claire and Georgia Tech). Sometimes you are the first of many candidates to interview. Other times, you are choice #3 for a department with two slots, and they need to make offers to options #1 and #2 first. It is legitimate to email your host or the chair to let them know about your other deadlines.
  • Many official offers will require answers before you have heard all of your offers, conducted all of your interviews (such as Purdue for Wes or NC State or UNM for Claire), or even received all of your interview invitations. CMU called to invite Claire to interview after she had concluded what she thought was her last interview (WUSTL). You may be forced into the uncomfortable position of rejecting a “known good” offer in favor of only the potential of a better offer later. This can be scary, and if you get the one job you really want you should take it, but Claire notes the opportunities she would have missed if she’d signed an offer too early. See below on hard-sell tactics.
  • Explicit rejection notices

    are rare (especially without an interview) and are rarely early. Many places just never get back to you. Claire didn’t even track which schools that did not interview her officially rejected her and when.

  • Zak Fry Zak Fry

    I will elide my timeline, as it does not add much beyond the information present in Wes and Claire's outlines of the process. However, to echo an earlier point: the industrial positions I applied to did not follow a very neat schedule. I had to ask to extend an offer by more than a month to allow for ample time to hear back from other companies. The company in question was mostly happy to oblige a reasonable extension (as I'm told most are), but this is a part of the process to be aware of, as it can be tedious. I'd agree with Wes's sentiments that any place that imposes an overly strict deadline may not be a fun place to work, unless they are in a very advantageous bargaining position.

Deadlines and Hard-Sell Tactics

Official offers will often come with deadlines, especially if you are the institution’s current first choice but they have others “in line” in case you reject the offer. This can lead to uncomfortable situations where you have to decide on one offer without knowing about your other potential offers.

It is basically impossible to avoid this by scheduling all of your interviews in one massive clump. Your interview offers will trickle in at a varying rate, and even if all of the dates are available for you, not all of the dates will be available at every university. Moreover, the practical limit is about 2.5 interviews per week – and 2 is much more reasonable. The travel time and the effort of being “on” for the entire interview are hard to appreciate until you’ve actually done it. Claire only had one 2-interview week, and she strongly encourages you to avoid it.

Another way to cope is to ask for more time. If you explain the situation honestly, many places will push back their deadlines. For example, Purdue was willing to push their deadline for Wes back to effectively May 2. Unfortunately, that can often still not be long enough (it wasn’t for Wes, as his timeline indicates). Waterloo extended Claire’s decision deadline to give her the chance to do a second visit at UIUC.

Finally, certain classes of offers rarely come with deadlines. Industrial research labs (e.g., IBM and Microsoft) can typically afford to sit on an offer for as long as you would reasonably like once it has been extended to you. Claire’s Lincoln Labs offer had a basically infinitely-extensible deadline. Similarly, some academic offers effectively say “you are our first choice and there is no one we will extend an offer to this year if you turn us down, so take as long as you like to think about it.”

That said, it is reasonable to turn down a position as soon as you know you are not going to accept it. You don’t have to/shouldn’t wait until right up against their deadline “just to be polite.” The sooner they know, the easier it is for them to make an offer to their next-favorite candidate.

  • Wes Weimer Wes Weimer

    It is my personal opinion (as opposed to the rest of this, but this bit is really an editorial) that any offer with a deadline that you view as too restrictive should be rejected. I realize that there are economic realities and that most offers come with eventual deadlines, but you owe it to yourself to check out all of your options. In essence, an offer that says "you're so impressive to us that I want you to come here, get tenure, and work with us for the rest of your life, but I'm not willing to give you another two weeks to get all of the relevant information and think about things" is saying "I don't want you to use you brain or it isn't worth it to me to let you use you brain, and I think that my best shot at hiring you involves pressuring you into a situation where you will make a snap judgment in my favor." Morality and honor typically involve restricting your actions for some higher goal and often come with a price (e.g., deciding not to steal rules out a bunch of actions that could get you more money, choosing not to lie can make it difficult to explain certain situations). For me, the price of potentially losing a more lucrative (or otherwise better-appearing) potential job is one that I am willing to pay in order to take the "honorable" action of avoiding such hard sell tactics. In the end, I wouldn't want to work at a place that didn't want me to take my time and use my mind when considering where to work.

  • Claire Le Goues Claire Le Goues

    I feel perhaps slightly less strongly on this issue, though I never faced the choice of having to turn down one offer without another offer in hand. I have been told by various people that this behavior is more common from and attractive to "lower ranked" schools, because they typically have to work harder to interview and attract candidates. Put differently: Stanford can be reasonably confident that a candidate will accept their offer. Ranked-75th-University may have to put out more offers to get a bite. That said, this is a difficult feature of the job search and I wish schools could synchronize their schedules a bit more to avoid it.

Salary and Startup Negotiations

At some point someone will make you an official offer. This will include your nine-month salary and a startup package. The startup package should include money for graduate students (two students for two years each is typical), travel and equipment. It should also include discretionary funds. Your initial contract will probably be for three years, at which point they will evaluate things and then re-hire you, and then a few years later you go up for tenure. The year in which one goes up for tenure is fairly standard, but can vary (e.g., at 5 years in Canada, 9 at CMU, 10 at Yale/Hopkins, etc.). Be sure to check, just to be informed.

Everyone knows everyone else and what the going rate is, so if you don’t do anything about it all of your offers from the same job category will be quite similar. Thus, haggling.

The first thing to note is that haggling is controversial and unsettling. Some people believe that you should just do good work for the good money they offer you and not become known as one of those grasping department members who always has to have more than everyone else. In general, salary negotiations do not take place, because graduate students have no experience with haggling and find the process uncomfortable. Talking so bluntly about money and putting yourself forward to get more of it can be distasteful. Since your new salary will be four or five times what you are making as a grad student, it may seem like it’s not worth making yourself uncomfortable to get another thousand or two.

The trick here is that almost all of your raises will be cumulative and percentage-based. By the laws of compound interest your starting salary becomes critically important, especially since you’re going to be there for at least twenty years. With one exception, everyone Wes and Claire have talked to was in favor of haggling for your starting salary. Responses were either “I didn’t do it and now I regret it” or “I did it and it didn’t work, but you should try it” or “I did it and it worked and I’m glad”. The common consensus seems to be that you owe it to your family and future kids and mortgages to try to get paid what you are worth.

OK, now that we’ve decided that selfishness is a virtue (sorry, couldn’t resist), how do we go about haggling?

The first thing to note is that although you will be conducting this process with the department chair (or hiring manager or whatnot) who sent you the official offer, it doesn’t hurt them and they are not really involved. If you ask for $5k you’re not taking $5k out of the chair’s salary or even the chair’s budget. The chair will go to the dean and convey your request (and typically argue for it). The dean will come back with something and the chair will relay that you. Do not adopt a zero-sum mentality here – you’ll hamstring yourself. In industry the situation is even more clear-cut – you’re not negotiating with your manager, you’re often negotiating with someone in HR or Accounting or somesuch.

  • Claire Le Goues Claire Le Goues

    This is true for both salary and startup negotiations. Negotiating is standard, and they will not think less of you, unless (I suspect) you're "unreasonable" or rude. I will claim that I did my best to be fair and make reasonable requests and to do so politely. I have been told that my requests to at least one school were "all reasonable, professional, and polite." I have also been told that this is not always the case: "some hires send seven pages of detailed demands." I don't know what the line is between reasonable and unreasonable, nor if I succeeded at staying on the correct side of it in all cases, but I certainly made a good-faith effort.

Anyway, so they’ve given you an offer with a starting salary of X. How do you ask more without just saying “give me more money”? There are two traditional approaches.

  • One approach works by comparison. If you already have a higher offer they will probably match it (this isn’t a guarantee – Wes’s UMass offer was not matched by NYU, for example, and if the schools are far apart in rankings they may not play this game). You may well have to send them a copy of the other offer to show the dean. This is the easiest approach. Basically, you say that you would really like to work here but that you have a higher offer from another comparable place. Can they match it? They’ll get right on it.
  • The other approach is just ask for more money. Mention that you think the salary is low or that the cost of living there is high or that (you’ll never do this, but hey) you’re a strong researcher with a promising research career coming from Berkeley with a better-than-respectable resume and that you think you’re worth a bit more.

Evaluate benefits, especially health care, along with salary offers. One of the offers Claire received included a fairly high salary compared to her other offers, but provided notably expensive health insurance that largely counteracted the salary advantage as compared to other schools (especially given her chronic medical condition). You can mention this type of issue in negotiation conversations.

Regardless, you never want to turn things into an “or-else” or “ultimatum” situation. Phrasing is key: “your offer is not the most attractive offer available to me” rather than “give me more or I’m leaving.” The fact that they made you an offer means that they want you. They are sort of on your side even though they are negotiating. It’s also valid to ask to what extent the salary is negotiable. In many places (e.g., Berkeley, Microsoft) you obtain permission to hire someone at a certain “level” or “rank” or “band” and that strictly limits the starting salary range to within two or three thousand dollars.

Claire found that there was wide variability in the flexibility that schools had regarding salaries, especially between state schools. In her experience, state and public schools are free and open with the details of their offers with everyone, because their salaries are typically public knowledge. Department chairs at private schools often keep those details very close to the vest.

It may be difficult to adjust your starting salary, but you’ll probably find it easier to change your startup package. You can try to ask for more students, more discretionary funding, or for the entire startup package to be discretionary (e.g., “I will be able to live with the amount of money you’re offering me if you allow me to spend it any way I like”).

This is easier if you can justify your request(s). For example, Claire blocked out some travel plans (for some reason, SE conferences in 2013-2015 are all in far-flung locations, a fact that she mentioned in startup discussions) and detailed computing equipment. Ask about department policies on both student and faculty equipment. Some departments replace faculty and student computers every couple of years out of a special fund. In others, all such replacements come from faculty budgets. Ask about the computing facilities and what kinds of availability guarantees they provide, and whether costs such as IT support, compute time, or printing are charged to faculty funds. By the way, everyone will tell you that they have state-of-the-art computing facilities that will meet your needs perfectly. Your goal is to identify exactly what you need to make sure that it’s actually available. For example, Claire often needs to execute and manage large numbers of virtual machines based on a custom image (think Amazon EC2). Very few departments can provide this kind of support as of 2013. She planned to purchase a minimal cloud setup from startup funds and used the specs to support her requests during startup negotiations.

By some combination of these approaches (considering and comparing across all offers) Wes was able to increase his (lowest) starting salary by 3.6% and double his (lowest) startup funds. Claire did not track her “haggling success” in this way, but she negotiated at least a little bit with every department that made an offer on both salary and startup, and in all cases was met at least in the middle on at least some portion of her requests.

You can expect industrial salaries to be 12/9ths of a nine-month academic salary. However, raises in industry are much more common. For example, a friend of Wes’s has gotten a 10% raise every year for the last five or six years. Industry raises range between 0% and 15% yearly. You also get bonuses in industry.

Company Trivia: Friends of Wes’s at IBM have suggested that on a starting salary offer of $110,000 you should ask for another $10,000 right off the bat (and that they’ll do it without blinking an eye). If for some reason you can’t bring yourself to do that that it would be “criminal” not to ask for $5,000. However, multiple data points at Microsoft Research suggest that it is very difficult to haggle for starting salaries there because of internal strictures; the same goes for Google. Wes only knows of one success story haggling at Microsoft, and Claire has never heard of anyone succeed at Google.

Find out when your startup funds expire. In addition, make sure (in writing) that your grad student funding includes the summer months. A friend of Wes’s ended up in a situation where he “took their word” that it extended to include the summer and they came back to him later and made a fuss because it wasn’t written in the contract. This advice (“get it in writing”) applies to basically everything, perhaps especially the teaching leave you can expect as a new hire. On the subject of Canada: you can definitely negotiate with Canadian schools just as much (if not more so, in some cases) as you can with US schools. Note, however, that offers from Canada are basically incomparable in every way to offers from the US, because their funding system is completely different, so comparative negotiation is hard. Note also that Canadian schools are especially careful about avoiding salary inversion, but that, like the vast majority of US state schools, their salary information is public. Look it up for your negotiation purposes.

  • Claire Le Goues Claire Le Goues

    In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't ask for a higher salary at all schools. Whether I did or not depended on the offer, especially as compared to my other offers. I did negotiate with every department that made me an offer, however, at least on startup. Honestly, I found negotiating very difficult. However, it grew easier with practice. The first couple of negotiation emails I wrote took me hours to compose and send. By contrast, for my final set of negotiations, I initiated the conversation on the phone with the department chair during the "initial offer" conversation.

Finally, if you think you want to haggle but you need more advice about it, email your local department head (or past department heads). They have probably seen it many times from both sides of the fence and are often willing to give advice (it worked for Wes).

Dealing With Rejection

After you have had an interview with a place there are basically only two reasons for them to reject you.

  • One is that they “couldn’t build a consensus.” Variants on this phrase are common. Since you’ll be there for a long time (e.g., with tenure) it’s important that everyone get along. Thus if one or two people argue against you, your odds of getting a job there are low. However, since you were offered an interview there were at least a few people who liked you, so rather than being able to say “everyone hated you” they will say “we couldn’t form a strong consensus”.
  • Another possibility is that you were their second or third choice (“in line”) and that the first person they offered the job to accepted it.

You should tread carefully in the time period after your interviews but before your official offers. Many department chairs have told Wes that they view it as part of their job (or their responsibility to the department) to put the brightest face on this possible and essentially to “string you along” or “never say no” (and thus keep as many good options for the department open as possible). Thus a department chair saying “we’re still deliberating” may well mean “we’ve made a job offer to someone else already and we’re waiting to see how that goes”. It has been suggested that grad students who are naive about the interview process will interpret “we’ll get back to you in a week or two” the wrong way and may thus end up waiting too long for a job offer that never arrives. In such a case you should talk to your host or other department members in your area to get the inside scoop.

  • Wes Weimer Wes Weimer

    It is my personal opinion (and experience) that this isn't really the case. All of the places that said to me variants of "we're still interviewing candidates and we'll have our faculty meeting to decide in 2 weeks" ended up making me an offer in 2 weeks – it wasn't some sort of smokescreen. Similarly, places that didn't think they were going to be able to make me an offer (e.g. McGill) told me the rumor early (e.g., "we're having trouble building consensus, I can't give you any reason to wait for us") when I asked – long before they sent an official reject letter. This is another case where being more direct or honorable can cost you job offers. I was willing to deal with people in good faith and assume that they were not lying to me when they said they would get back to me later. For me it turned out that they were not lying, but I was willing to take the risk that they were (and thus that I would wait too long for something that would never materialize and lose my good offers along the way). A place that mentions that they play the "positive spin, never say no" game may well be dealing intelligently with a harsh economic reality, but you may not want to work there (cf. office politics).

  • Claire Le Goues Claire Le Goues

    Similarly, I found that most schools and chairs were very straightforward with my position on their "list" and the likelihood of an offer.

Deciding

If you’re having a hard time deciding, it’s quite legitimate to go on a second visit (or two). Claire found these quite informative. She and her partner went on such visits together and arranged a “date night” at each one in an effort to simulate what it might be like to live in the place in question. As mentioned, Claire’s partner also did onsite interviews with companies or otherwise consulted with department members or others about employment opportunities on such visits.

  • Wes Weimer Wes Weimer

    Talk to everyone. Don't forget to consult yourself. I can't really help you here generically.

  • Claire Le Goues Claire Le Goues

    I waited to have complete information for all offers before making a decision. I also asked for advice from as many people as possible, though for the most part this didn't help. I did not choose my position on rank alone, and it's unlikely that you should. Wes suggests that I should say more on this because I ended up at highly-ranked CMU. This decision is mostly related to what matters to you in life and what makes you happy. I sincerely believe that I could have worked and lived happily in all of my options. In the end, some combination of department quality and composition and, very critically, location, led CMU to win the day. I like cities, and Pittsburgh is cool, and it is conveniently located for both my family and my partner's family. It also has a fairly large tech scene, allowing my spouse to get a job. The fact that CMU CS is a highly ranked department was not irrelevant, but it is not the only reason I accepted the position. See below for more commentary on department rankings.

    I found deciding very difficult. You will end up connecting, hanging out, and talking with a large number of people at every school, and it's hard to turn down new friends. One aspect of the job decision process that surprised me was how much time I spent on the phone with faculty at various departments, discussing their lives. Unlike negotiation, writing the "turn down the offers" emails never got any easier.

  • Zak Fry Zak Fry

    Talk to everyone, several times. I had my mind made up based on my assumptions about both places from which I had offers. After talking to Wes a lot, I was contacted by the place I had decided not to go to and, after two subsequent conversations, I now work there. It's impossible to ask all the right questions or get all the information about any given place, but if you have concerns about a certain place then talk to them about it. They should be more than eager to talk to you about things (if not, that's a bad sign) and you might find that you made hasty, or even incorrect, assumptions in this difficult, emotional time.