4 Painful Ways PhDs Rob Themselves During Salary Negotiations

If you asked any PhD in industry what the most uncomfortable part of their interview process was, I guarantee you most would say the salary negotiation.

And it makes sense – money is uncomfortable to talk about, no matter the situation.

But it’s especially uncomfortable for PhDs. It’s alien territory.

You’ve never had to advocate your worth – at least not in terms of monetary compensation.

So, when preparing for your interviews, you need to get prepared.

Walking into an interview with a negotiation plan will not only calm your nerves, but it will also result an outcome that will enhance your quality of life for years to come.

One Cheeky Scientist member shares their negotiation success story:

“I got my first verbal offer today (yay!!) from a startup with a base salary at least 20k less than my ‘expected’ target.

The Hiring Manager called for the offer and mentioned that he wanted to know how I feel about it. I said that will review the written offer and get back to them.

I was able to negotiate and get the base raised by 15K. This was my first negotiation and first job offer in the USA, and I think I nailed it.

Thanks to CSA and all of you!”

Why Negotiations Pay Off When Done Correctly

Let’s face it – negotiation is painful.

It puts you in the hot seat – you’re not only forced to place value on your skills, but you’re also led to believe that the employer doesn’t like people that negotiate.

But this isn’t true.

In fact, 9 in 10 employers are open to negotiating salary.

And in most cases, those who negotiate come out winning.

A recent poll found that 85% of Americans – and 87% of professionals ages 25 to 35 – who negotiated their salary or other benefits (or both) got at least some of what they ask for.

Yet sadly, most potential employees don’t negotiate at all.

In fact, according to an annual ZipRecruiter Job Seeker Survey, only 36% of job candidates negotiate their starting salary.

Among those who don’t negotiate, many report feeling uncomfortable because they don’t want to come across as pushy.

Don’t let these fears take control.

You’ve worked hard to earn your PhD and you should be fairly compensated for your expertise.

4 Negotiation Tactics That Guarantee A Low Salary Offer

Salary negotiations are key to getting paid your worth.

Yet sadly, many PhDs enter this stage of a job offer extremely ill-equipped.

After all, like you, they’ve spent the better part of a decade just happy to get paid at all.  

To negotiate effectively you must know your value.

How you handle salary negotiations will not only determine whether you move from offer to an actual job, but it will also determine how much you get paid.

For a successful salary negotiation, you should avoid these 4 critical, and often costly, mistakes.

1. Not setting a walkaway number before negotiations

In their job search, most PhDs are hyper-focused on simply getting hired. They’re so desperate for a job that they fail to consider what’s best for them.

This also applies to salary.

Subconsciously, many PhDs know they’ll take whatever salary is offered to them.

But doing this not only makes you look desperate, it also allows employers to low-ball you on your starting salary.

So, before you engage with an employer – whether it be through a phone screen or an in-person interview – establish your walkaway number.

As the name suggests, this is the lowest salary you’re willing to accept – anything lower and you’ll walk away.

The best way to determine this number is to do some market research.

Investigate what people in similar roles make on average. You should also have a good understanding of what the top salaries for the position in your location.

This will give you a reasonable range to work with.

The reason you should establish your walkaway number sooner rather than later is because of something called intensity matching.

Once you start engaging with employers, building a rapport and establishing professional relationships with them, you’re invested.

And the more emotionally invested you are in a company, the more you’re willing to compromise on the financial side.

That’s why it’s important to set this number in your head before you start engaging with the company on a personal level.

2. Allowing employees to muddy the waters during negotiations

Employers have a number of negotiation tactics up their sleeve.

One popular one is muddying the waters. That’s when employers attempt to trade apples for oranges.

It goes like this: You state your salary expectations, and in response, the employer claims there’s no wiggle room with salary, however, they can offer you a higher signing bonus, a relocation stipend, more vacation time, or some other perk.

The employer is giving you something of lesser value in exchange for you conceding something of higher value – your salary.

Many PhDs make the mistake of letting this happen. And again, it often comes back to desperation.

They want the job so badly that they become a bobble head – just nodding and agreeing to whatever the employer lays on the table.

Don’t let this happen.

Your salary – whether it’s annual, monthly, or hourly – is a recurring benefit.

And it’s one that compounds on itself over time. The more you make to start, the more you’re going to make in the long run.

Perks, on the other hand, are one and done. They’ll only benefit you once.

To combat this tactic, respond by saying “I really appreciate the offer, but I’d like to set aside everything but salary right now. The salary is what’s going to determine whether I can afford to take this position”.

Think of the negotiation process as a sequence of events. The order should be based on value – the most valuable benefits should be negotiated first.

The first part of negotiation should be salary. Then, once you and the employer have agreed on a number, then (and only then) should you start to consider other benefits.

The next most valuable benefits are the signing bonus and relocation stipend (if applicable). Then, you have paid time off and other perks such as a company vehicle (if you travel for your job).

Some companies even have corporate housing that they can offer while you search for a place to live.

Follow this order and you’ll get the most value out of the negotiation process.

3. Providing the first numbers

Another ploy that employers loving to use is the verbal offer.

This often happens before you’re officially in the negotiation stage. Which is why so many PhDs are caught off guard.

During an interview, the employer may do one of three things.

They may outright ask you what your salary expectations are; they may say “If I gave you an offer of XYZ right now, would you take it?”; or they may ask you what you’re making in your current position.

Don’t fall for this.

They’re trying to get you to agree verbally to a salary – and trust me, it isn’t going to be the best they can offer.

Giving the first number, or agreeing to their first number, can also take you out of the running.

In some cases, managers have a number in mind, and if a candidate asks for that amount, they’re automatically disqualified.

And you won’t have any idea what that no-go salary is. That’s because it’s not based on market research; it’s based on internal budgets.

So, if you’re asked about salary, divert.

If you’re asked to provide a number, say “I am open to all reasonable offers”.

If, in response, they ask you what you consider a reasonable offer, punt it back by saying “You’ve employed many people in this type of position – I will defer to your expertise”.

If you’re asked if you would take an offer of XYZ, you can say “I really appreciate the offer. However, I’d love to see it on paper. That way, I can discuss this at home”.

By saying you want to take the numbers home, you’re appealing to a higher power.

Home could mean your spouse and kids, your dog, or your house plant. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it will sound like you’re not the only person making the decision.

If you’re asked about your current salary, emphasize that your current salary is not a reflection of what you should be making in your new position.

If you’re still in grad school, remind them that what you make is a stipend and not a salary; if you’re already working in industry, make it clear that your current position is not the same role.

In all of these scenarios, the key is to not commit.

Show appreciation, be professional, yet be firm about not providing the first numbers.

4. Not playing the long game during the counteroffer

Let’s say that you’ve succeeded in getting the employer to put down the first salary numbers.


But make no mistake – negotiation is far from over. You must now consider your counteroffer game plan.

And now is not the time to rush; nor is it the time to show your emotions.

When employers provide their initial offer, remain neutral. You don’t want to appear overly eager. Another tactic is to flinch – act surprised by the initial offer.

Say “I appreciate the offer; however, the numbers don’t look quite right. Is there anything more we can do in terms of salary?”

Open-ended questions like this allow you to see how much money is really on the table. The company may offer you $90,000, but really, they can pay you up to $150,000 annually.

You can also be a little more specific.

For example, you could say, “I appreciate the offer. I’m very excited about this position and I feel like I can bring substantial value to the company. I was really hoping for XYZ – is there anything we can do to reach that number?”

The number you include here could either be a bracket or a specific number. However, a bracket is a safer bet.

It shows them that you’re willing to work with them and allows them a little wiggle room.

If they offer $90,000, but you’d really like to be making $100,000, you could say “I was hoping to make somewhere between $90,000 and $110,000. Is there anything we can do to increase the salary?”

That way, once you meet in the middle, you’re at your target salary.  

Another surprisingly effective tactic is to throw out a ridiculous number. A study conducted by the University of Idaho studied the impact of this technique.

When participants were asked about salary, one group didn’t negotiate at all, one group jokingly said they wanted to make $250,000, and the last group jokingly said they wanted $1 million.

And you know which group ended up with the highest starting salary? It was the group that asked for $1 million.

This tactic is called anchoring high, or psychological anchoring.

The salary expectation may be a joke, but it instills a number in the employer’s head. The same tactic is used by many sales companies and stores.

Companies will set an arbitrarily high price on a product, and then slash that price down to what it should cost.

This appeals to consumers because they think they’re getting a deal despite the fact that they’re not saving any money.

Overall, the counteroffer shouldn’t be taken lightly. Take your time, remain focused and logical, and you’ll come a winner in the end.

Concluding Remarks

Salary negotiations are painful, which is why many PhDs avoid them. But doing this will cost you. You’ll not only start at a lower salary, but you’ll lose out on thousands over the course of your career. And for those that do negotiate, many make some pretty glaring mistakes. For one, many PhDs don’t set a walkaway number – the lowest salary you’re willing to take before walking away. Secondly, many PhDs allow employers to muddy the waters by letting them offer less valuable benefits in place of a better salary. Another common mistake is providing the first numbers. By revealing your salary expectations, you’re not able to see how much money is really on the table. And lastly, many PhDs rush with a counteroffer. They’re overly eager – even desperate – and it shows. To get the salary you deserve, go into negotiations with a game plan. It will pay off in the end.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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