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3 Ways To Avoid Disclosing Your Salary During A Job Interview

How to prevent disclosing your salary during a job interview
Written by: Gemma Paech, Ph.D.

After two postdocs at two different universities, I realized that I didn’t enjoy what I was doing anymore.

This wasn’t the academic career I had envisioned.

All I did was sit at a desk, alone, and work on my research, alone.

I had lost my passion and was seeing only a very limited future for myself in the academic world.

I sought advice from a prominent senior researcher in my field who is renowned for her ability to teach and mentor students and postdocs.

The first thing she told me when we met was to get a job outside of academia.

It hurt to hear this.

I saw academia as the only way to be successful as a PhD, and I thought she was telling me I wasn’t smart enough or good enough to succeed in academia.

In reality, she was telling me the opposite.

She was telling me that there are other, better, opportunities for me outside of academia.

She opened my eyes to the many opportunities available in industry and recommended a few of her connections that I should contact.

I took her advice and started to build my industry network.

I worked on my resume and cover letter and started applying for industry positions.

But there was one annoying question that kept cropping up in these applications:What is your current salary?”

I didn’t want to disclose this information because, as a postdoc, my salary was low.

Let’s be honest, it was pathetic.

I was worried that if I disclosed my current salary, a potential employer would give me a lowball salary offer.

I knew my value to their company was higher than what my low postdoc salary suggested.

But I didn’t know how to respond to this question.

Beyond that, it felt invasive and embarrassing.

So I did everything I could to deflect this question and avoid it entirely in future applications.

My current salary wasn’t relevant to the skills and value I would bring to my potential employer.

I deserved more than the low pay of an academic postdoc, and I was going to make sure I got a salary matched to my skill set.

The hiring manager works for the company and not in your best interest

Why You Don’t Need To Tell Prospective Employers Your Current Salary

From the hiring manager’s perspective, knowing a candidate’s salary history helps them determine whether the person is likely to accept the position or keep looking for another job.

If your salary history is known, the hiring manager can try to negotiate the best deal for both the potential employee and the employer.

But, we know that the hiring manager is working for the company, not you.

If a prospective employer knows you currently earn a low salary, they are more likely to offer you a low salary.

And in a way, that’s just good business.

Even if it feels unfair.

The potential for a lowball salary offer is increased for PhDs and postdocs, who have been receiving very low compensations for many years.

Disclosing your salary history puts you at risk of being undervalued.

According to a study by Georgetown University, holding an advanced degree increases your annual salary by an average of $20,500, compared to having just a bachelor’s degree.

Know your value as a PhD and don’t let the mistake of telling a prospective employer your current compensation limit your potential future earnings.

As reported in the Huffington Post, there is a movement to make the practice of asking for current salaries illegal, and some US cities and states have adopted this policy.

All of Massachusetts, as well as Philadelphia and New Orleans, have already made this practice illegal and New York City might pass the law shortly.

The main reason for this law is to reduce the gender wage gap.

However, this law also benefits PhDs and postdocs by ensuring that you are appropriately compensated based on your value to the company, and not what you have previously been earning.

In the future, more cities, states, and countries may make the practice of asking for a candidate’s current salary illegal.

But, for the time-being, you will probably be asked about your salary history.

So, how can you handle this question and avoid receiving a lowball salary offer?

The answer is simple… do not disclose your current or past salary to your potential employer, ever.

3 Ways To Avoid Disclosing Your Current Salary

As a PhD, you have a lot to offer industry, no matter what positions you decide to pursue.

You are worth a lot more than the low salaries or stipends that are offered to PhDs and postdocs in academia.

Do not trap yourself into a lowball offer by providing your current compensation.

Ensure your successful transition into a well-compensated industry position with these 3 strategies to avoid disclosing your current salary…

Do not use online job applications but instead use your network to find job leads

1. Choose networking over online application forms.

Online applications will almost always ask you for your current salary, or your desired salary.

To avoid this question, you need to avoid these forms.

As a smart PhD looking to get hired quickly, applying to jobs through online application forms should not be a part of your job search strategy.

A better approach is to network and build connections within the company, or companies, where you want to work.

Not only does this serve the purpose of avoiding the dreaded salary question, but it increases your chances of getting past the initial screening process.

Many online application forms filter out candidates based on the keywords in their resumes.

Often, this filtering is done using software, so your resume may be rejected before an actual person even looks at it.

By networking, you can email your resume directly to a person, dramatically increasing your chances of making it past the initial screening.

Networking also gives you access to unadvertised positions that you would have otherwise been completely unaware of.

However, networking is about relationship-building, and takes time.

If you are still earning your PhD, start networking while you are in graduate school.

This is the best route, since you are in the perfect position to give without asking.

But, if you forgot to network in graduate school, don’t worry. You can still harness the power of networking and find an industry career.

Research companies and positions you are interested in, find people who have those positions already, and set up informational interviews.

Look deep into your current network.

Let people know that you are looking for industry positions, but always provide value and invest the time to build relationships first.

With a solid industry network in place, you can secure job referrals from your connections and get your resume straight to the hiring manager.

No online applications, and no dreaded salary question.

Decline to provide your current salary and ask for a negotiation

2. Decline to disclose your current salary.

Even if you avoid online applications and get your resume directly into the hands of a hiring manager, you might still get asked about your salary at some point during the application process.

If this happens, whatever you do, do not disclose your salary history.

The hiring manager may be persistent in requesting this information.

You are under no obligation to tell a prospective employer your current salary.

However, it is important that you are polite when declining to give your salary information.

You cannot simply say “no” and leave it at that.

Rather, demonstrate that your salary history is not important because of the value you can offer the company.

Say that you’d rather not disclose your current salary, as you would like to have a fair negotiation based on your skills and what you have to offer the company.

You can be firm and say that your salary is personal and confidential information.

If you are a PhD student or postdoc, you can say that you receive a stipend or scholarship, which is not a salary.

Do not disclose the amount of your stipend or scholarship.

Make it clear that you haven’t had a salary before, and that a stipend or scholarship is different from a salary.

You may need to be persistent and firm.

If the hiring manager or interviewer keeps pressing you to provide your salary to a point where you no longer feel comfortable, consider walking away.

You may need to think hard about whether the company culture is a good fit for you.

Under no circumstances should you lie about your current compensation.

There might be some temptation to tell a ‘white lie’ and exaggerate your salary to avoid the risk of getting a low salary offer.

However, it is likely that you will be caught in this lie during a background check.

If a potential employer learns that you lied about your salary, they will question what else you have lied about and end the application process.

Throughout the discussion, remain firm and insist that your current salary is not relevant.

Keep bringing the conversation back to the value you can offer the company.

Not disclosing your current salary makes negotiating higher pay much easier

3. Interview the interviewer on salary range.

Another strategy to avoid disclosing your salary is to turn the question back onto the hiring manager or interviewer.

Don’t forget the importance of coming to your industry interview with your own set of questions.

If asked about your current salary, respond by interviewing the interviewer about salary range.

Ask your potential employer what the expected salary range is for the position.

Make them provide the first salary number.

If the position has been defined, the potential employer should already have a salary in mind and this should not be a secret.

If they refuse to tell you the salary range, they cannot expect you to disclose your current salary.

Once they provide a salary range, they may ask if this is in line with your expected compensation.

Again, this is a good place to be prepared with a deflection.

You aren’t ready to make a decision yet, you’re still gathering information, so don’t let them lock you down to a range that’s less than what you deserve.

State that you will consider all reasonable offers and do not commit to a specific salary range.

If you say “yes” at this early stage, it will make later salary negotiations harder for you.

If pushed into a corner, remember to use the phrase “I will consider all reasonable offers.”

Not disclosing your current salary will make negotiating a higher salary much easier once you have been offered the position.

At the end of the day, you are not obligated to disclose your current salary to hiring managers or potential employers. Remind your prospective employer that you will consider all reasonable offers, and demonstrate the value that you will bring to their company. Inform the interviewer that as a PhD or postdoc you received an academic stipend, which is not a salary. You may need to be persistent, but do not back down. Do not, under any circumstances, disclose your current salary or your expected salary. This will set you up to get the best offer possible.

To learn more about the 3 Ways To Avoid Disclosing Your Salary During A Job Interview, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Gemma Paech, Ph.D.

Gemma Paech, Ph.D.

Gemma has a PhD in Social Sciences specializing in sleep and circadian rhythms with a background in genetics and immunology. She is currently transitioning from academia into industry. She has experience in communicating science to lay audiences and believes in sharing scientific knowledge with the public. She is passionate about educating the public about the importance of sleep and the effects of sleep loss and disruption on general health and wellbeing to increase quality of life and work productivity. She is also committed to mentoring students across all demographics, helping them reach their full potential.
Gemma Paech, Ph.D.
  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    Gemma, these are awesome reminders about how to handle these kinds of interviews. Especially when you don’t have a salary history, this has got to be one of the most uncomfortable exchanges in any interview. You’ve given us some great verbiage to use to get through the process gracefully and effectively.

    • https://cheekyscientist.com/ Cheeky Scientist

      Good point, Matthew. Additionally, if you are negotiating an offer through HR (at least partially), that representative should expect these kinds of exchanges. Keep that in mind–though this might be new(er) for you, HR deals with these kinds of conversations often. Approaching gracefully, as you mention, should help both parties end up where they’d like to be.

  • Julian Holst

    Yes, this is good info to take into interviews. I’ve been networking on a pretty regular basis since I got my PhD. I’m optimistic about this, but the process can be grueling.

    • https://cheekyscientist.com/ Cheeky Scientist

      Keep at it, Julian. It is tough to make this transition, but it will be worth it.

  • Kathy Azalea

    I agree that networking has a lot of potential for getting a great position. It’s a little rough when you’re right in the middle of school and everything, but I guess the effort has to pay off at some point.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    I think I’m going to memorize this: “I will consider all reasonable offers.”

    • https://cheekyscientist.com/ Cheeky Scientist

      Great! Let us know how it works “in the field.”

  • Lucia Steinke

    What about those of us who work at a public university? One of the first things that pop up when you google our names is our salary.

    • https://cheekyscientist.com/ Cheeky Scientist

      Great question, Lucia! Most of the advice still stands here. Try to avoid providing a number if asked or keep it at a range, or interview the interviewee about salary range. Even if it is public, most employers are going to guess (rightly or wrongly) what you are making at your university job. Many industry jobs will include a salary range or grade, so your compensation should not be drastically lower. You can also find salary ranges for different types of jobs on websites like Glassdoor; these may not be company/position specific, but can give you a sense of the compensation you should earn. And networking will still be key. If an industry job comes with a significantly lower offer, you can cite these ranges as consistent with compensation for “X” role in your area. Additionally, If a potential employer finds your current or previous salary on a public website and tries to really lowball you, that might make me question the company/supervisor. Our advice on negotiating job offers is relevant here, too–some employers may try to lowball you, but budge easily when you negotiate. If they are lowballing you AND refuse to negotiate on any kind of job compensation, this may tell you something about the place of business.

  • Harvey Delano

    Let’s face it, there are probably going to be times when it’s not possible to conceal your salary, but at least we know what the logic is behind keeping it confidential if at all possible. And I really liked what you said about remaining firm and taking the point of view that current salary is not the whole story when it comes to your worth.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    The pertinent point is that no matter what your current salary, as PhDs with transferable skills, we need to value ourselves and convey with confidence that we add value to a company. I see far too many PhDs, especially the younger, newer ones, suffering from imposter syndrome and failing to make an easy transition out of starving student mode and into accomplished expert mode.

    • https://cheekyscientist.com/ Cheeky Scientist

      I really like that point, Carlie. Imposter syndrome can stick with PhDs even beyond academia (where is it so present).

  • Madeline Rosemary

    I suppose that what you have to do before going to a bunch of interviews is start Googling. Find out what’s in the normal range for the types of positions you’re interviewing for. In the past, it was incredibly hard to get good information on what to expect, especially if you were just starting out and didn’t know anyone in the field. But now, it’s much easier to at least get a rough idea.

    • https://cheekyscientist.com/ Cheeky Scientist

      Yes, Madeline! And as a PhD, you deserve to be paid well for your work and experience. A good business will recognize this and compensate you accordingly (most of the time!).

  • Shawn Lyons, PhD

    I did try some of the online application forms for a while, but they never seemed to pan out to anything. Networking is somewhat nerve wracking if you’re the quiet type, but you get used to it after a while, and it’s going to have a much better return on investment. This information is hard to come by as far as negotiating salaries. Thanks a lot, Gemma.

    • https://cheekyscientist.com/ Cheeky Scientist

      Great points, Shawn! Networking does seem to get easier the more you push yourself to try it.

  • Theo

    This makes a lot of sense. Will keep this in mind.

  • Sonja Luther

    Talking about money has always been a bit tricky for me, and I’ve read that most women have a harder time with negotiating salaries than me. But this gives me a lot of food for thought. I never would have thought of answering a question about salary by asking another question about salary range, for example. These tips are really good for anyone wanting to advance in their field, even if they don’t hold a PhD.