multiple offers — the power to say ‘no’

Here’s a minor point about how to approach selecting programs to apply to, and it revolves around making sure you have the power to say ‘no.’ It’s great to have an offer from your dream program, and it’s so much better to have an offer from your dream program and at least one other program. This is advice that’s worth heeding regardless of what situation you’re in and it revolves around one simple truth: if you don’t have the power to say ‘no,’ then you don’t have any power at all.

This has actually been on my mind for the last day or so because stand-up comic Louis CK has been doing press for his upcoming stand-up special, which I won’t also advertise, and making sure you have the power to say ‘no’ is a leit motif in his career narrative. When he was in negotiations with FX to produce a pilot of his sitcom, Louie, he demanded complete creative control and no network oversight, a completely unheard of amount of latitude in network television. He was in a position to make those demands because his career touring as a comic was going well enough that he didn’t need a television show. If you need the institution you’re negotiating with, then they have the type of power over you that can ruin your grad school career (possibly before it begins).

You can secure this type of power by being successful already in a different or related field (as in CK’s case), but this might not be feasible. It certainly wasn’t for me. I’ve put so much time and effort into developing as an academic that I don’t fit terribly well in other industries (never mind that I don’t have the necessary formal and informal networks to succeed in other industries). So there I was, caught between doctoral study and multiple years of penury.

The way out of this situation is to secure multiple funded offers. If Wisconsin isn’t being forthcoming with the funds, showing them your funding offer from Duke can convince them to fight for more money for you. If you’ve been accepted, that means they want you, so use it to your advantage. Let them know what it will take to get you, because now you’re in the position to make a decision, now you have the power to tell them ‘no.’ You’re fighting, essentially, for your quality of life over the next several years.

I will write a post later about how to approach the negotiations themselves. Right now I want to make a point about one way to put yourself in the position to say ‘no’ to one or more programs. Basically, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Apply to enough programs that you’ll have a decent chance of getting more than one offer, and apply to different types of schools.

Don’t only apply to schools in New York and California. Don’t only apply to Ivies and Ivy-equivalents. Do apply to schools with diverse levels of prestige and in diverse locations. Remember, you only have to be there until you’ve finished coursework, then you’re free to get the hell out of Bloomington or Irvine or New Haven or Lincoln. This might mean applying to five schools or ten schools, depending on your field. And smaller programs can (not ‘do,’ but ‘can’) offer funding packages that are absolutely competitive with top flight programs.

The goal, always, is to be able to send your funding package around and say, ‘here’s what I’m being offered, give me something competitive.’ You don’t have any power in negotiations if you don’t have the power to say ‘no,’ so put yourself in the best position possible to make demands.


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