One important difference between a faculty-job search at a community college and the research-university version is that the former rarely allows for individual negotiations.

Starting salaries at most two-year colleges are determined by strict schedules, which in some states are the result of union contracts. Traditional benefits like health insurance and retirement contributions are usually standardized as well, while other benefits or perks, such as reduced teaching loads and research funds, are essentially nonexistent at two-year colleges.

I was reminded of that difference recently when I read a discussion thread on one of The Chronicle’s Forums. The original post came from a reader, “lucyr,” who was panicking because she had received a tenure-track job offer, attempted to negotiate the terms, and then seen the offer rescinded. She was trying to figure out how to salvage the offer by accepting, retroactively, the original terms. (Judging from follow-up posts, things weren’t looking too good.)

A couple of observations. First, I’m no expert negotiator, but it seems to me that lucyr broke the first rule of negotiating: Don’t even attempt to negotiate unless you’re prepared to walk away. I know that’s true of houses (I’ve bought four in my life) and cars (10 or 12), and I suspect it’s true for jobs as well.

Clearly, if the frantic tone of the posts is any indication, lucyr desperately wanted (needed?) the job and was never prepared to walk away. She should have accepted the original offer immediately. (Keep in mind, too, that higher education these days is very much a buyer’s market—which, if you’re not familiar with real-estate jargon, means that supply far exceeds demand.)

Although I’ve held a number of jobs in higher education over the past 27 years, I’ve negotiated terms only twice. In both cases, I was leaving an administrative position I liked to take another administrative position I thought I might like better. One case involved moving from one institution to another, while the other involved taking on a different role within the same institution. But in both cases, I could have stayed where I was and been perfectly happy.

In situations like that, why wouldn’t I ask for a little more money, or for working conditions a little more to my liking? If the administration had said no, then I would have had to decide whether to make the move anyway or stay where I was. Had the offer been rescinded, I would have just shrugged and gone on with my life as it had been before. I was absolutely prepared to walk away.

My second observation relates to lucyr’s statement that, after receiving the job offer, “I immediately started reading everything I could about negotiation.” In other words, she apparently began with the premise that it’s not only acceptable but desirable to negotiate. That may be true in many situations—house and car buying, for instance, as well as some job searches—but readers need to know that it is not the case with most community-college job offers.

Most two-year colleges will offer what they are able to offer, as determined by system-mandated or union-negotiated salary schedules. You can accept the offer, or you can turn it down—but you probably can’t negotiate.

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