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Deconstructing the academic job offer letter

You’ve got mail.


When you’re job searching, seeing an envelope bearing a university crest in your mailbox can make your heart skip a beat. Finally! After the interviews, job talks and several days of meet and greets, you have received an actual offer to teach at a university. But there may be things in the letter you don’t recognize. And what if something is supposed to be there, but isn’t?

At the 2011 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences of Canada, I gave a Career Corner presentation, discussing which information should be found in a standard academic letter of offer. While this article won’t cover all elements in all types of letters – it does depend on what kind of position you are interviewing for – this should give an idea of the basic things that should be included.

First, know that by the time you have a letter of offer in your hands, you are the preferred candidate. Your selection is the result of a very detailed (and sometimes drawn-out), well-considered review process, governed in most cases by collective agreements and “best practice” hiring processes. The process looks at your CV, your statement of teaching, your teaching philosophy, your research program and supporting letters from your referees. Some letters of offer may be written in a very clear way that makes it obvious that you are being offered the job. However, others may start off with “I am delighted to inform you that I have recommended you to the president for the position of X.” While this may seem conditional upon the approval of the president, bear in mind that the person offering you the job is usually negotiating on behalf of the president. If you are unclear about the wording, call the person who sent you the offer; their name and contact info will be included.

Salary, appointment type and benefits: This is an obvious one. There should be mention of how much you can expect to receive for your work and whether you are being hired on a tenure-track or a limited-term appointment. You should be aware that most universities have a defined salary scale as part of their collective agreements, so don’t expect much wiggle room. The letter of offer should state your salary as well as important future dates, such as the length of any probationary period and time to tenure.

There will probably be some mention of the benefits package in the letter. Most universities have reasonable health care and related benefit packages, but there are variations. While the benefits package is not usually negotiable there may be some “opt in” provisions, and you should familiarize yourself with the details.

Deadline: This is another fairly obvious one. There should be a line somewhere in the offer that says “We look forward to hearing from you by date X.” You must meet this deadline, but in some circumstances it could be negotiable. If you are being offered a limited-term appointment but have been shortlisted for a tenure-track position at another institution, you should contact the person you are negotiating with for the limited-term appointment and inform them of this. You may wish to ask for an extension on the limited-term offer as soon as possible. Most administrators are motivated by the need to ensure that the wider interests of the academy are well-served and if this means allowing you to act on a tenure-track offer, it is highly unlikely anyone would stand in your  way. On the other hand, remember that this is a competitive process and there are other candidates.

Start-up funds and moving expenses: Many universities have funds set aside to encourage the research programs of new scholars. The letter of offer (or a separate letter) might refer to what is available.

If you’re moving from Toronto to Whitehorse, you’re going to have expenses, and those need to be referred to in the offer. Keeping in mind there will be limits on what the school can do, you do need to ask before you make moving plans. You should also ask about help with accommodation, such as connections to real estate agencies. You should ask about child care (it would help if you had already discussed some of this during the interview process). Some universities have provision for spousal or partner hiring, and if you have negotiated that, it should be in the offer, or at least a reference to it.

If the letter you receive is missing some of these elements or if you feel that more information should be included, contact the person who sent you the letter – they should be able to answer any questions you might have.

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