I was meeting my new colleagues at a wine and cheese reception. Some of us early-career academics—all members of underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups—started to talk about salaries. I shared how, after years of feeling undervalued, I had doubled my salary in my new job as assistant professor compared with what I was earning as a lecturer a year prior. Jaws dropped. There were lots of questions. We all agreed that we were ill-prepared to negotiate. No classes had taught us that skill, and people didn’t really talk about it. This is probably a challenge for many, but it particularly affects underrepresented minorities who may be first-generation college students and are less likely to have academic mentors with similar experiences. We often find ourselves navigating academia blindly.
I didn’t enter public health research to make millions of dollars, but I hoped not to struggle. I grew up in a single-parent household, with my amazing mother working multiple jobs to make ends meet. I thought academia was my ticket to financial stability.
But when I started my postdoc, I was surprised at how low the salary was after so many years of education. Then it came time to apply for faculty jobs. I got an offer—for less than I had earned as a postdoc. I thought I deserved more, but my internal impostor syndrome voice told me I was lucky to be offered any job in academia. I had no idea how to negotiate. I didn’t know that negotiation was even possible. When I voiced concern about the salary, I received a handshake and a verbal promise that it would increase in a year. I trusted this promise and signed on the dotted line.
I jumped into gear, creating teaching materials for eight courses, taking on administrative roles, starting a new campus global health center, conducting research, supervising staff, and mentoring students. My energy was boundless, but not my time. I began to understand the invisible labor of mentoring students from underrepresented groups who came to me for support—requests that would probably be even more frequent if I were a woman or sexual or gender minority. I was also asked to join several committees that wanted to diversify their makeup. I believed all my efforts would be rewarded in line with the original handshake agreement, and I waited.
I thought I deserved more, but … I had no idea how to negotiate.
After 2 years, I finally got the nerve to ask for a raise. I went in prepared with documentation of strong teaching, administrative work, research grants, staff supervised, students mentored, and other faculty members’ salaries—which I had recently learned were available online because I worked at a public university. But my efforts were for naught. I was told that if I wanted a higher salary, I needed to go out and get an offer from another school. I felt betrayed. I thought I brought enough value to warrant an increase. Did they not care if I left? And what about that handshake?
Once I was on the job market, I realized my true value. I learned from mentors that I could negotiate for much more than salary, including startup funds, moving expenses, parking, laboratory space, graduate research assistants, administrative support, teaching load, and more. I took my best offer back to my institution and they matched it. However, other problems persisted. Six months later I accepted an offer—which I had negotiated well, resulting in that doubling of my salary from a year prior—for a tenure-track job at my current institution.