Some Words Today

I’m having a lot of trouble writing these days. I don’t do much scholarship anymore; a little here and there, but not much since leaving the academy (proper). My other writing — about tenure — is draining in many ways; important, fulfilling, exhausting. The basics of that story are done, although there’s a lot more underneath it all. I’m just not feeing a lot of it at the moment, so not writing it. Over the summer I started designing a new website, a new blog thread, a book project, and a podcast. But suddenly it’s November and will be Thanksgiving before we know it. My husband pleads with me not to do this, jump ahead two weeks as if they didn’t happen. He wants — deserves — these two weeks. Too late; I’m already at the end of the Fall term with over 30 research papers to grade in three days before the winter holiday break. And high school for my first born and middle school for my second; new adventures, most of them wonderful, a few painful. For them too. I really like my kids; I would choose them. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, though, hoping that my retirement will be enough to help them pay for the therapy that I’m sure they’ll need after being raised by me. So, I’m a bit paralyzed, intellectually … and physically, as luck would have it, as I lay on the sofa with ice on my back because old and doing stupid 30 year-old-person things. The Buckeyes look horrible. And democracy much worse. So I’m off to touch base with my California peeps because fire again. Then write postcards to voters because those words are discrete, meaningful, communal, doable. I’ll try to stay off Twitter but, really, who am I kidding. I rationalize by counting those words as part of my writing each day. What a cheater. But I’ve got 326 here, so that’s something.

Grad School Reflections: The Dissertation Support Group

For the last three year, I’ve taken my students each term to the Library of Congress for a research seminar and tour. I lucked out when I was first assigned to a wonderful librarian; I’ve been able to schedule him for almost every visit since then. He spends about 45 minutes with us discussing the history of the Library and how it works, and my students get their Reader Identification Cards so they can use the Library for their research. After a brief look at some of the smaller rooms in the library — like the Children’s Literature Center where the smallest book in the world is displayed, and the Microform Room where my students look at me with their “The what?” expressions — he takes us into the Main Reading Room. The audible gasp from my class when they walk through the door is my favorite part of the trip. The grandeur is overwhelming and is not lost on them. I love hearing them remark that they feel smarter just for walking across the threshold; I have the same feeling every time. Another regular part of the visit has become a joy for me, although it wasn’t initially! During the seminar portion, as an example of how to search online databases, the librarian includes one for dissertations. And he pulls mine up every time. It’s a very nice gesture and method for engaging my class, but it was startling for me at first! I have two copies of my thesis in my home office, but haven’t opened them for years. It’s been a long time since I defended, an obvious point when he scrolls past the publication date of 1995 and the students do the math. No one is more shocked than me to realize that over 20 years has passed and the thesis is older than every one of them.

Yet it feels much more recent than that and the memory makes me happy. I liked grad school — mostly — but my favorite part was writing my dissertation. Well, maybe not the actual writing, which was a bit dry and formulaic as academic writing often is. It was the research that I enjoyed, designing a study of my own. I wasn’t sure that I’d like it or that I’d be any good at it. But I loved having the time to think bigger thoughts and to be creative. Unlike course work, this was fun!

It was also a challenge, every bit of it. And stressful. Unlike many of my classmates, I didn’t feel the need to be the best, to write a masterpiece (as if). I wanted to do good, solid work. And I wanted to finish. It helped that I took “the best dissertation is a done dissertation” advice to heart.

More important, though, was the Dissertation Support Group. We were four, from the same cohort, with different intellectual and personal experiences and histories, different substantive interests, and different professional goals, who bonded through the “boot camp” years and worked together at the end to get it done.

Initially, I wasn’t so sure about a group. I preferred working alone and at my own pace; I was disciplined and knew how to structure my time. I resisted competing with others and found it difficult to be around the hyper-competitiveness that’s so prevalent in grad school. For some, that environment was stimulating and productive. Not for me. It made me anxious and increased my self-doubt. School was hard enough; I didn’t need the extra pressure of everyone else’s crazy.

But our group worked. Although we had different work habits and varying levels of intensity, we were able to put them aside to support each other. We’d work at the library, get coffee to start the day, meet for beers at the end of a long week. We’d touch base on our progress, work through individual challenges, and set goals for the next time. And we’d vent. A lot. This and other social aspects of the group was much more important than I’d anticipated. When course work ends and dissertating begins, the time spent alone increases exponentially. Even for someone like me, who valued solitary work space, loneliness was a challenge. I’m sure there was friction at times, but I don’t remember it. In the end, we withstood the inevitable tensions of writing and defending our dissertations with our friendship — and (most of) our sanity — intact.

I’m now reminded of this remarkable camaraderie every term when we visit the Library. As my students calculate my age from the publication date, I smile to myself while the librarian continues to scroll through the pages of the dissertation to the acknowledgements. There — with the dedication to my family and my closest friends — is my tribute to the members of the Dissertation Support Group. Truly, the best of times.

Just ask!

When I was on the academic job market for the first time, salary was the least of my concerns. I wanted a tenure track position in a good department where I liked the people, where I had support to do my research, and where teaching was valued. The market wasn’t nearly as awful as it is now, but I didn’t take for granted the luck I had in getting two interviews early in my last year of grad school, and an offer from my first choice soon thereafter. I was over the moon! I got to be a professor! I was eager to sign on the dotted line the minute the letter arrived.

* * * * *

I’ve negotiated every salary offer I’ve ever received — for a grand total of 5 across academic and non-academic jobs — and I asked for a raise and promotion once too. There is so much at stake in a starting salary, not least retirement benefits and future raises. It’s an essential part of advancing your career and protecting your future. In my view, salary negotiation is non-negotiable!

But I hate it. I really don’t like talking about money, in general, let alone asking for more. And I’m not very good at negotiating (ask my husband about the native mask we may have overpaid for on our honeymoon). That would require many things of me, like knowing (and appreciating) the value of my labor and having the confidence to convince someone else of it.

There’s a ton of professional advice out there about how to negotiate salary (just a few are here, here, here, here, here, and here) and some of it is helpful. But a lot of it is generic and formulaic, and sounds great in theory but hard to put into practice.

The truth is, it’s just really difficult to know what to do.

* * * * *

So, when I got the offer, it looked looked pretty good (especially by grad student standards) and I worried about seeming too greedy in the eyes of my would-be colleagues. Asking for a bit more in research funds and other support was easier because it was directly related to my success in the job, which was presumably in the interest of the department too.

Asking for more salary was different. Knowing that retirement and merit increases would be a function of my starting salary didn’t make negotiating seem any less … selfish? Not surprisingly, this is not a feeling unique to me or to higher ed, as this recent piece illustrates beautifully.

Moreover, I didn’t know how to start the conversation. I can be pretty assertive, but this was new territory and it felt awkward. I got some advice, but there’s just no one-size-fits-all way to manage most things, and this was no exception. None of it seemed right to me.

I was ambivalent and anxious, and ultimately asked the chair if there was “room to move” on the salary. Not the most confident ask ever made. But I was lucky, again. Perhaps she figured I’d have trouble asking because she seemed to anticipate my question and immediately suggested there was some flexibility. She would take my counter — such that it was — to the Dean, who made final salary decisions. In the end, I think we split the difference and I walked away with a little more money and a stronger financial foundation.

More importantly, I came away from the experience with a lot more confidence.

It was such a positive experience. I did it — I asked! And I succeeded! But mostly, I’d worked with someone who so clearly wanted me to be satisfied with my decision to join the department and to be a happy and successful member of her faculty. She provided an invaluable lesson about the significance of supportive leadership — especially for the uninitiated — and I had the benefit and privilege of working with her for many years thereafter.

When I went back on the market some time later, my approach to salary negotiation was a bit different. I dreaded it, but I was more secure professionally, a tenured associate professor with years of experience under my belt, and I was getting married so had more than myself to consider this time around. Unfortunately, the open positions in the city to which I was committed to moving were junior, but I thought my more senior status might give me some leverage. Also, I knew much more clearly than I did before that so much of an academic’s work goes uncompensated. Still not singularly focused on salary, this time I did my homework on the cost of living differences and comparative salaries, and I thought carefully about how my experience might be valuable in a salary negotiation.

When I received an offer, I was glad I’d prepared. The salary seemed low and I thought there must be room to move. I had an appointment with the dean and my argument was ready. And while it’s always possible the answer will be no — I didn’t know if my plan was any good, if my ask was convincing — I was completely unprepared for the response I got.

It was obvious that I’d surprised him by asking. He looked stunned and seemed offended by the prospect of negotiating; he suggested that no one before me had asked him for more money. I remember having one of those split seconds of panic when you wonder if you’ve just done something terribly wrong. But no. His response was totally bizarre. No new hires during his tenure had negotiated their salaries? How was that possible?

Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to sit quietly, to not fill the silence with my chatter that might result in me back pedaling or him talking me out of countering. And in the end, he agreed to some amount more than the original offer but less than I asked for.

As disappointing as it was, the experience made me realize with greater clarity how very important the ask itself is. It would be nice — even appropriate — if the hiring process were collegial, where the new employee and the new boss are on the same page. You know, the page where the one wants the job and the other one wants you to have the job, and everyone works together to make that a productive relationship. But it’s often not.

So, I discovered that for me — however uncomfortable and nausea-inducing, and whatever the odds of success — just the act of asking for more money is priceless. If it doesn’t bring more money, it can build self-esteem and be a decent gauge for how invested and supportive future bosses and colleagues are. [For a similar perspective, see this great twitter thread.]

Since that time, I’ve negotiated my salary three times, twice with new job offers and once for a promotion and raise. None of these positions were (traditional) academic jobs, which changed my approach to the ask. First, starting salaries are higher off campus than they are on campus; I had to force myself not to settle just because the offers were already greater than what I was used to. Also, I struggled with what my skills and experience were worth, a challenge that came on the heels of my painful tenure denial. But with help from my husband and friends familiar with the “real” world, I reframed my academic career and accomplishments into a resume that reflected my expertise.

That sounds very confident. Frankly, the memory makes me want to puke.

Still, it worked, sometimes better than others.

With one offer, I got an immediate “no” to my counter. To be honest, my heart wasn’t really in it and I probably wasn’t very convincing. To his credit, he gave me an explanation and reason to believe that the opportunity for a higher salary would come sooner than later (and it did). Despite my rather cynical view of workplace integrity at the time, he seemed sincere in his approach. I didn’t have loads of job offers, but I did have a few choices and time to consider them. Still, this position came with generous benefits, which changed my calculus about the value of the original offer. Ultimately, it felt like a good decision for the time (and it was).

Several years later, I returned to the job market again. But this time was different than any other time. I didn’t need a new job; I wanted one. This job hunting came on the heels of asking for a promotion and raise at my then-organization. I prepped more thoroughly for this negotiation than any other with a list of my accomplishments and the tasks I was performing at the level of the promotion I sought. I didn’t expect an outright yes, but I felt pretty confident going into this meeting that I had a compelling case.

I got an outright no. And it wasn’t a I-wish-I-could-because-I-value-your-contributions no. It was more of a this-is-a-ludicrous-proposition no. He seemed incredulous that I had asked.

Ooof. There’s nothing quite like the gut punch that tells you how little you’re valued. After the inevitable (for me) period of self-doubt, I knew it was time to move on.

Which is why I was overjoyed to get an offer for what I believed — and rightly, it turns out — would be a phenomenal opportunity doing valuable work that would return me to an academic environment and the classroom. It came with a lower starting salary than I was currently making and less robust benefits, but more flexible hours meant much more time to spend with my kids. The team seemed terrific and my would-be boss had a vision that included a valuable role for me. Like I had 20 years before, I wanted to sign on the dotted line immediately!

But, no. Negotiate! So, I did. Albeit a bit ass-backward. I accepted the offer. And then I asked if there was room to move in the salary. I wanted to act in good faith; this was a position that marked a new beginning for me in many ways, and I didn’t want to be coy. I was going to take the offer regardless of the response to my counter. But if there was an opportunity to raise the salary, even a little, it would have important implications for my benefits. And, I hoped for the affirmation that, at the start of this new chapter of my life, I would be considered a worthy and valued member of the team.

She said yes.