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How To Masterfully Deflect Salary Questions During Your Next Interview

Deflect salary question till you receive a written offer.

PhDs don’t like to negotiate.

As PhDs, we want things to be pretty cut and dry, we don’t like to play games, and salary negotiation resembles a game where you never really know where you stand.

It is an uncomfortable process that can affect you physiologically, so it’s normal to try to avoid it.

But here’s the thing. Negotiation is not a game. It’s actually a transferable skill. Deal making is a transferable skill that you will use on a daily basis once you get hired.

Networking and deal making are the two most important transferable skills for your career progression in industry. Those who master these two skills rise to the top faster.

However, since negotiation is an uncomfortable process, many PhDs would rather avoid it. 

They justify themselves, saying that the negotiation strategies don’t work.

I could not negotiate that offer, they had a salary cap and wouldn’t budge. 

I had to give them a number, otherwise they couldn’t move forward with the hiring process, and I would have lost the opportunity. 

I hear this from PhDs all the time. But here’s the thing: these are negotiation strategies that employers will use on job candidates. Those arguments are not set in stone. 

Everything is negotiable.

But you have to take the time to learn. To move away from what’s comfortable. If you want to be a successful negotiator, you can’t just learn the theory. You have to practice until you’re comfortable dealing with salary questions.  

Here is what one of the members of the Cheeky Scientist association had to say after transitioning into an industry role.

I’m super excited to tell you about my industry transition success story. After going through the training modules and transition plan I realised that I’m extremely data and results driven and that a scientist position doing research in drug discovery and development was where I should focus my efforts. There were several rounds of interview. Four days after the site visit I received the offer. It was very competitive and within the market range. The company will also sponsor my visa. I negotiated the package based on my qualifications and relocation needs, resulting in a 5% increase in base salary, 10% signing bonus and a later start date. I have signed the agreement and am in the process of pre-employment screening, visa application and relocation logistics. One of the major things I have taken away from this process is: Always negotiate!

When To Negotiate And When To Deflect Salary

You should only negotiate once you have a written offer. 

You have probably heard this many times before. And it is true, deflect till you get your offer. Any number that you give before having a written offer in hand will hurt you. 

But this doesn’t mean that your potential employer won’t try to bring up negotiation much early in the hiring process. 

You will have to deal with salary questions from the moment you submit your resume up to the last round of interviews of the site visit.

And you should deflect all those questions – not give a definitive answer – until you get that written offer.

This is also pretty standard. But most PhDs don’t really understand what deflection looks like until they start interviewing.

You probably know that if they ask for your expected salary, you deflect salary question and should say you will consider any reasonable offer. But what are you going to say when they push back and ask you what you think it’s reasonable?

You might have to deflect salary questions dozens of times during a single interview round. All of this while staying calm and professional.

If you are not ready for this process, you will cave and give a number. Or even be so terrified that they decide to shut down the whole hiring process.

Failing to navigate negotiation attempts early in the interview process is devastating to your income and career.

deflect salary

Mastering Early Stage Negotiation Strategies To Deflect Salary

During every interaction with a potential employer, you should focus on building a case for why you are the best candidate for the open position. Thus, increasing your value in the eyes of the employer.

Until the company decides to present you with an offer, you have no leverage. You build that leverage by focusing on the position and what you bring to the table, and by deflecting salary questions that can only hurt you.

Remember, you might have to deflect salary questions dozens of times before you get to see that coveted written offer. 

If you’re not comfortable with continuously deflecting salary, you will never be paid what you’re worth. So, how do you stay calm and professional while navigating the early salary questions?

First, you need to have the reassurance that this company is not your only option. Options are levers. The more options you have, the less pressed you will feel to succeed at any particular interview process, and the calmer you will be while navigating the uncomfortable parts and deflecting salary.

Interview at several places at the same time and have several job leads. If you don’t have that, you will start any interview process in a weak position.

Second, you need to practice negotiation situations to avoid getting blindsided. 

6 Strategies For Deflecting Verbal Negotiations During Your Interview

Due to a lack of behavioral practice, PhDs tend to forget how to deflect salary questions and start getting tense. 

So, I came up with the acronym DAPPER to help you remember the strategies you can use as you navigate the deflection process.

Let’s take a look at what each of the letters means.

deflect salary

1. Defer, Defer, Defer

The first letter of the acronym is ‘D’ for differ, which is what we have been talking about all along. 

When you get a salary question, you should first try to defer by changing the focus of the conversation. 

Try to move away from the salary and focus on things you want to know instead; the experiences, the position, the team.

Here is an example script of how to deflect a salary question:

“I’m sure you have a range of compensation that you’re working with, but I think it is premature to get into details before you’re sure that you want my services and before I’m sure there’s a good match between my skills and interests and what your organization has to offer. When you’re ready to make an offer, I’ll be eager to discuss the details, but until then, I’d rather concentrate on what the position entails, the kind of performance that’s required, how I might get my first promotion and that sort of thing.” 

2. Answer With A Question

The ‘A’ in DAPPER stands for ‘Answer with a question.’ Whatever they ask you, you don’t have to give a straight answer, you can just ask another question.

You see people do this all the time during high stake debates, on TV or otherwise. It might be frustrating, but it is a successful strategy.

So, if the employer tells you: “I really need to know what salary you’d accept before we move forward with the interview.”

You can say: “Salary is not my first concern. I’m much more interested in learning more about the opportunity and the people who will be my future colleagues. Can we come back to this later?”

3. Play Dumb

The first ‘P’ stands for ‘Play Dumb.’ Don’t take this the wrong way. Of course, as a PhD you are not a dumb person. 

But, at the same time, you should stop posturing yourself like you know everything there is to know about every part of your job search because it can hurt you. 

And in this case in particular, you don’t have anywhere near the experience that the interviewer does. 

So, you should be playing dumb because you’re actually ignorant in this area and you can use that to you advantage. 

If the employer asks you what you consider to be a reasonable offer, you can say: “Well, you know this would be my first industry position, I don’t really know what the numbers look like. You know this industry and this role better than I do, could you maybe let me know what salary ranges you are working with?”

4. Ask “What’s Possible?”

The second ‘P’ stands for possibilities. 

You might come to a point in the interview where you feel like you are boxed in a corner. Either you give the interviewer a number and move to the next round, or you don’t and everything is taken away from you.

When you come to that point, you need to take a deep breath and remember that there are other options. There are always other options. So, don’t be afraid to ask ‘What’s possible?” This is such a powerful question to ask. 

Is it possible for the interviewer to give you a number and for you to tell what makes sense in order for the interview to continue?

You can also ask about a past scenario by saying “I completely understand that you want to get a number. But I was wondering, has there been a time where you moved forward with the interview without getting a number first?

It is possible that they will admit to having made an exception before. In that case, you can say “If you made an exception for them, do you think we can make an exception here? I think I have the skills and experience that would warrant such an exception.”

5. Easy Does It

The ‘E’ in DAPPER stands for ‘Easy does it.’

When you feel tension building up during an interview, you might want to release the tension by any means necessary. 

But that’s the game here. It’s about creating tension and checking if the other person has the professional awareness to release that tension themselves, instead of letting the tension build up and make them feel trapped. 

So, when you feel the tension. Just say “Easy Does It.” Nobody can force you to do anything. 

You have plenty of other options, you know you know the value you can bring to this company.

It’s very unlikely that an interviewer will shut everything down if you stay calm and professional.

deflect salary

6. Reframe

The last letter of the acronym is for ‘Reframe.’ You can reframe all kinds of questions. 

For example, by asking the employer, “What do you think I’m worth?” You change the focus from salary to the value that you bring to the company and restart the conversation on other terms.

Concluding Remarks

You should only negotiate once you get a written job offer, but that doesn’t mean that negotiations only start when you get the written agreement. Employers will start negotiating very early in the interview process. You have to be ready to deflect salary questions dozens of times as you progress through the interview rounds. The best way to deflect salary questions is to create offers and to practice so you can stay calm and professional. Use the acronym DAPPER to remember the strategies you can use during the deflection process: differ, answer with a question, play dumb, possibilities, easy does it, and reframe. Following the strategies will ensure that you get paid what you’re worth once you secure your target industry position.

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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