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Negotiating a Job Offer (I).

The first thing you should ask for—if you haven’t already received it—when negotiating a job offer is a job description. This is a document that often has bullet points that describes the title and duties of the job, required and preferred qualifications of the applicant, and basic (and sometimes vague) information about salary and benefits.

Sometimes employers post the entire job description as a classified ad. Sometimes they post an ad that is a three-sentence summary of the job description. Sometimes they send out an e-mail that announces a job opening. Sometimes you hear about a job from a friend and you’re invited to sit for an interview when you call the employer to express interest.

The point is that you could end up sitting for a job interview without ever seeing a formal job description. If you can get a job description before or during the interview, get it: You can ask clarifying (not negotiating) questions during the interview.

It sounds obvious, but the value of the job description is that it tells you what your employer wants you to do. You learn what is expected of you and what you can expect in return.

Maybe you prefer hospital work to clinic work. The job description should tell you if you have to do any clinic duties, such as providing coverage when people are on vacation. If you will be conducting research, teaching, or doing administrative stuff, the job description should tell you how much time and other resources you will have to do that work.

Without a written job description your employer could shift or change your job duties in what seems like a unilateral fashion:

“But when I interviewed, you told me that I would never have to cover the inpatient consult service.”

“Well, that’s where we need coverage right now. Starting next month, we’d like you to do that two days a week.”

Thus, the job description also provides the basis for job negotiations. Review the job description to see if anything is missing (like specific job duties, particularly things you like to do) or if there are details that you want changed (perhaps you want more leadership responsibilities that merit a higher salary).

The job description can provide the foundation for a job contract (or a “hire letter”, as some agencies don’t use contracts). Not every detail about your job has to be in writing. For those details you care about, though, written descriptions of your role and responsibilities make expectations clear to both you and your employer.

Sometimes employers—such as small agencies or new, innovative programs—don’t have job descriptions. Maybe the job description is vague (“will provide clinical services”). What should you do then?

You’ll have to look for other cues during the interview and recruitment process to discern how much to push for a job description. In some cases it is clear that a job description won’t be useful. Consider a start-up project, where no one can anticipate what the program will eventually look like or how your role will evolve over time. Maybe the organization only has ten people and things are routinely discussed and resolved informally. To be clear: If the employer doesn’t give you a job description, that doesn’t automatically mean that the employer is going to screw you over. It just means that they don’t have a job description to give you. It also suggests that you have the opportunity and flexibility to tailor the job to your specific interests and strengths.

Given the often rigid structure of medicine and that physicians are trained to do specific things, we may not think that a job description can help us (“I’m going to work as a doctor”). Asking for a job description, though, can help you shape your job so that your work life is as fulfilling as possible.

Next post: The second thing you should ask for.

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