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5 Negotiation Missteps That Eat Up PhD Salaries


Contributing Author: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Early on in my industry career, I did my research on salary negotiation. I knew there were things to look out for: suspicious behavior or comments from the employer that would raise red flags.

But I didn’t actually think I’d have to deal with any of this.

I thought if I followed the rules of salary negotiation, the employer would appreciate my strength of character. Shouldn’t an employer appreciate an assertive PhD who knows their value?

Many employers do, but this one did not…

Here’s what happened. I was contacted by a recruiter for a position at a startup. My on-site interview went smoothly, and the company offered me the job within a week. I communicated with the company’s leadership and encouraged them to send me their salary offer to consider.

They did, and I did not like what I saw.

The offer was simply too low for someone with my experience and credentials. Somehow, there had been a miscommunication between the company and the recruiter.

I had expected about $15K–$20K more than what they offered.

In response, I contacted the hiring manager. Without naming a number, I told him politely but firmly that this offer was lower than what I had expected.

He quickly insisted that I tell him my current salary.

In a previous conversation, he had promised to offer me the best compensation package that the company could provide. In fact, during the interview, he had told me very clearly that he did not want to negotiate a low salary. I reminded the hiring manager of our prior discussion, but he continued to insist that I just reveal my salary outright.

Now, it seemed like the company was being dishonest – I was seeing a huge red flag.

I told him I wasn’t comfortable revealing my current salary while we discussed my future pay. The hiring manager retracted the job offer and ended the negotiation. They moved forward with another candidate without even telling the recruiter. I had to tell the recruiter because she didn’t know what had happened…

The whole experience revealed that this company was unprofessional.

Soon after, I was offered a job with far better compensation by another company. I know I made the right choice by refusing to compromise.

How Employers View Salary Negotiation

Employers expect you to negotiate your salary. This is a normal part of a job offer, and if you don’t negotiate, you are losing out on large amounts of money. According to CareerBuilder, 52% of employers stated that the first offer they give a candidate is lower than they are willing to pay.

Employers leave room for you to negotiate – that’s how industry works.

And you must negotiate even if the first offer exceeds your expectations.

Your fears of the employer turning down your request are misplaced. According to Jobvite, 68% of employers increased the starting salary for candidates who negotiated. This means that if you ask for a higher salary, chances are, you are going to get it. But you are responsible for asking. And you have to do it the right way.

5 Mistakes That Allow Employers To Pay You A Low Salary

Once you reach the job offer/negotiation stage of your job search, you have already done a lot of work. Your networking has paid off, and you got your resume into the hands of a hiring manager.

Your well-constructed resume allowed you to get to the phone screen.

Your practice and preparation made that phone screen a success, and you earned an on-site interview. The extensive research you did about the company resulted in a successful site visit.

Now that you have a job offer, what do you do?

How can you make sure you get paid what you are worth? A lot of PhDs are uncertain  – they don’t know how to handle salary negotiations.

They make serious mistakes and end up with a low salary.

Learning about these 5 frustrating mistakes will save you from being one of those PhDs.

Mistake#1: You said “yes” before you got a written job offer.

Throughout the interview process, employers might ask you if a certain salary is acceptable. They might ask, If I offered you $X right now, would you take it?

These are just negotiation tactics.

You need to be prepared to handle them without committing too early. You should only start discussing salary once you have a written offer.

When they ask you questions about a possible salary range, you need to deflect.

You can do this by saying, I’m willing to consider all reasonable offers. You can also deflect by saying something like, I’m not sure what a normal salary is for this position at your company, so I defer to your expertise.

And remember: Don’t get annoyed.

Questions are part of the interview process – you need to show you can negotiate calmly. Don’t get annoyed or frustrated by these questions. They are a part of the interview process, and you need to show employers that you can handle negotiation calmly.

Mistake #2: You let fear control your choices.

If this is your first time negotiating a salary, you are going to be nervous. That’s totally okay.

What’s not okay is letting that fear control your decisions.

If you allow fear to control you, you will end up with a lower salary. That’s what happens when fear takes over – don’t let it. Instead, leverage your fear. Think of it as beneficial, not detrimental.

Be courageous.

Here are a few things that will help with being brave:

  1. Remember that employers expect you to negotiate.
  2. Pursue multiple job opportunities to create leverage.
  3. Do your research and learn the average salary for your target position.

Many PhDs are afraid that if they negotiate, the employer will retract the job offer. This is pretty unlikely.

Since employers expect negotiation, they probably have a counter offer ready before you even ask.

Remember, you are worth a salary much higher than what you have been paid in academia. Don’t listen to impostor syndrome.

Face you fear of negotiation and get paid what you are worth

Mistake #3: You revealed your current salary.

It happened to me, and it will probably happen to you. The employer is running a business, so they need to cut costs wherever possible. Your salary is one of the places they will try to cut those costs – it’s nothing personal.

The employer wants you to commit to a specific number and anchor your salary low.

Just as with Mistake #1, you should deflect the question if a recruiter or hiring manager asks about your current pay. But sometimes, they might be persistent. They might really want to know your current salary – maybe they will make things uncomfortable with how persistent they are. The solution to this problem depends on whether this is your first industry position.

If this is your first industry position, you should highlight that your academic pay is not a salary.

You did not make a salary in academia, you received a stipend or were reimbursed via grant. It’s very important that you make this distinction. If you are pressed for your salary, you can say, In my academic position, I didn’t make a salary. I was given a stipend by the university. For this role, I am open to all reasonable offers. I am very excited about the opportunity to work here and will defer to your expertise in the matter of salary.

If you are already working in industry, you need to be more transparent.

Your potential employer can simply call up your current/previous employer and ask about your salary directly. In this situation, you actually can reveal your current salary.

The important thing to do here is frame your current salary as compensation for a different role.

Quote the average salary of the positions you are applying for, and say that you are looking for a salary improvement to justify leaving (or having already left) your other job. These strategies will help you maintain a position of power in the negotiation.

Mistake #4: You were antagonistic and unprofessional toward the employer.

You will ruin a negotiation if you can’t keep calm and remain positive throughout the whole process.

You must maintain the utmost professionalism at all times.

Remember, you want to make your negotiation a win-win situation because these people are your future colleagues. No matter what, stay focused on the positives.

Always bring the conversation back to what you will bring to the company.

Never say things like, I can’t live on that or present ultimatums like, I can only accept this position if you meet my salary expectations. Phrases like that place you and the employer on opposite sides, making the negotiation a competition – or worse, an argument.

When negotiating, use language that conveys you are working together – use the word “we” instead of “I” where possible.

If the salary they offer is too low, say, Thank you for the offer, but I was really hoping for more than that. What can we do? Hold your ground and remember your value, but be very positive and polite.

Mistake #5: You cut negotiations short.

So many PhDs think negotiations end once the salary has been decided.

This seems logical, but it’s wrong.

You are right to negotiate your base salary first. Base salary is the most important part of your compensation package. It deserves the most attention, but it is not the only part of a negotiation.

After settling on a base salary, you can focus on the other benefits the company offers.

Choose what is most important for your situation. For example, if you have a family, negotiating your healthcare package might be a top priority. If you are moving, your relocation package might be important to negotiate.

In addition to base salary, you might be able to negotiate:

  • A signing bonus
  • A yearly bonus
  • Healthcare
  • A relocation package
  • A corporate apartment
  • Stock options 
  • Vacation time

It takes focus and determination to see a negotiation all the way through…But it will be worth it in the long run. As a recap, let’s quickly run through all the mistakes to avoid in salary negotiations. Mistake#1: You said “yes” before you got a written job offer. Mistake #2: You let fear control your choices. Mistake #3: You revealed your current salary.  Mistake #4: You were antagonistic and unprofessional toward the employer. Mistake #5: You cut negotiations short. 

There you have it – the 5 mistakes that cost valuable PhDs a ton of annual income. Prepare for negotiations with these in mind, and be ready to avoid them.

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Isaiah Hankel


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