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Negotiate A Higher Salary Using Precise Numbers And Open-Ended Questions 

“I did everything I could to negotiate, Isaiah, but they told me the salary wasn’t negotiable.” 

A job seeker told me this recently. 

Ohhh, they told you that? 

Was it written into law by congress? 

I didn’t say that of course, but I hear statements like it all the time after people get hired. 

While I’m happy they’re hired, it always makes me both sad and frustrated because I know that they could have negotiated and been paid more–more for themselves but also for their families, their futures, their legacies, on and on. 

The problem is of course–negotiation is hard. 

It’s much easier to accept the false reality that there was nothing we could have done to increase our salary. 

It gives us an escape from the responsibility we have to get paid our full value. 

Not only is negotiation hard, but it’s a constant in every job search. 

In fact, very often, negotiation during a job search starts when you upload your resume to a job portal… 

What To Do When A Job Portal Asks For Your “Desired Salary”

“When I uploaded my resume I had to put in my desired salary. 

I tried to leave it empty or put zeros but it wouldn’t let me. 

So, I entered the same salary range that was on the job posting. 

Do you think it’s okay?” 

I was asked this by a job seeker recently too and my answer might surprise you. 

I said it probably was NOT okay. 


Because when you’re uploading a resume, no one knows you. 

You’re about to be screened by an AI bot whose sole purpose is to screen out as many job candidates as possible. 

What if there are 100 other people who apply that enter a slightly lower range and have the same skills as you? 

You’re screened out? 

Today’s AI is advanced and can be guided by boolean functions like accept the top 10 candidates who have these keywords but who also entered salaries below the listed salary range. 

The problem is you don’t get to explain your value here. 

You just get discarded. 

I recommend listing a range that is 10% lower than the listed range on the job posting, if there is one, or 20% lower than the average you can find online for that role in that city if there is not a listed range. 

This is the only way to be sure you’re not being excluded simply because of how you answered this salary question. You can always negotiate a higher salary later by simply saying something to the effect of “Now that I’ve learned fully about the role and had a chance to do my research, and talk about it at home, I’d like to see if we can move those numbers up a bit.” 

Of course, recruiters and hiring managers will never suggest you do this because they just want to paint you into a corner to accept a lower offer (read more on this at the end of this article). 

The key overall is understanding that the “desired salary” field isn’t just a formality; it’s a crucial part of your application that can significantly influence the hiring process. Your response can either open the door to further discussions or prematurely end your candidacy if it’s far from what the employer is willing to offer. 

Therefore, it’s essential to approach this question with a thoughtful strategy. To that end, the foundation of a well-considered “desired salary” is thorough research. Utilize resources like PayScale, and LinkedIn Salary to gather information on the average salary for the position in your area, taking into account factors like experience level, industry, and location. 

This research will arm you with the data needed to back up your salary expectations. In terms of strategy, it’s worth mentioning of course that when possible, you want to defer the question. 

Using terms like “Negotiable” in the desired salary box can buy you time until you can discuss compensation in more detail later in the hiring process. This tactic allows you to first demonstrate your value and learn more about the job’s responsibilities, making you better equipped to negotiate. 

If deflection isn’t an option, consider offering a salary range instead of a specific number. This range should be based on your market research, your qualifications, and your salary history, aiming to initiate negotiations from a position of flexibility and openness. 

The bottom of your range should be 10-20% lower than the listed range or the range you discovered doing your own research, respectively, not lower though. Overall, remember that when you’re uploading your resume you’re very early in the process so stay flexible. 

Salary is just one component of your total compensation. Benefits such as health insurance, retirement plans, bonuses, and work-life balance perks can be equally important. 

Be prepared to discuss these aspects of the compensation package in conjunction with salary, especially if you’re flexible on the base salary in exchange for other benefits.

Why Rounding Numbers Destroys Your Negotiation Strategy

“They offered me $117,00, Isaiah. I came back with $130,000 but then only moved up their number to $119,000. 

Why? What should I do?” 

I have conversations like this all the time with PhDs and other highly educated job seekers who should know the power and importance of being precise. 

After all, if you have an advanced degree, odds are you’ve been trained on p-values, n-values, t-tests and doing our research in triplicates or one-hundred-cates (shout out to never ending negative data). Yet, when it comes to job searching, we round. Nowhere is this more apparent than on our resumes, the starting place of every salary negotiation. 

Your resume will be passed around from the moment you submit it, after each interview you have, and it will be reviewed right before you’re given your final offer. 

What are they checking for? …Value. Your value. 

And writing “over 10” or “10+” is an immediate indicator of laziness and low value. Now, top this off with verbally negotiating, or negotiating by email, using rounded numbers too, and you’re going to be seen as amateaur and far below your real value. 

The reason that we tend to round our numbers is not just laziness though, it’s fear. It’s imposter syndrome. 

We think “I can’t remember how many projects I did so instead of breaking it down to how many I did per week or per month on a specific topic and getting the most precise number I can, I’ll just round it.” Or, “I’m not sure how to negotiate and I didn’t really do the math on what I need or want to make down to the nearest $1,000 so I’ll just round it.” 

Going back to the example at the start of my story, a counteroffer of $131,500, instead of $130,000, carries an air of authority and specificity that the latter rounded figure lacks. This precision suggests that the number was derived from a detailed calculation or assessment, thereby implying thoroughness and diligence on the part of the negotiator. 

In contrast, rounded numbers might be perceived as arbitrary or plucked from thin air, weakening your position. This perception isn’t just superficial; it has a tangible psychological impact on how negotiations unfold and is backed by extensive research and peer-review. 

The power of precision goes beyond just salary negotiations. One study found in Psychological Science involving real estate negotiations, found that listings with more precise prices tended to sell at higher prices than those with rounded prices. 

This effect was attributed to the perception that precise prices reflected a deeper knowledge of the market, thereby influencing the negotiation process in favor of the seller. 

When faced with a precise figure, the other party is more likely to assume that you have a strong understanding of the value of what’s being negotiated. This can lead them to question their own assumptions and calculations, making them more likely to concede to your precise figure rather than pushing for a rounded counteroffer. 

In salary negotiations specifically, citing a specific desired salary such as $157,250 rather than $160,000 can signal to employers that you have thoroughly researched industry standards and understand your worth. While the strategy of using precise numbers is compelling, don’t overdo it. Overusing precision or applying it in contexts where it doesn’t make sense can potentially backfire, coming across as pedantic or inauthentic. 

For example, don’t put 9.75 projects on your resume or ask for a $157,252.25 salary. As with any negotiation tactic, the key is to use precision judiciously, ensuring it aligns with the broader context and dynamics of the negotiation at hand. 

11 Strategic Negotiation Questions To Ask Employers

The core of effective salary negotiation centers on the importance of open communication and strategic questioning. 

Salary negotiation is not just about stating your desired number; it’s about engaging in a dialogue that uncovers the most competitive offer a company can extend. 

This approach requires preparation, research, and, most importantly, the courage to ask the right questions at the right time. Word choice here is crucial, as is how you frame your questions. For example, you will likely face pressure from today’s employers to pay you less given the job market is firmly on their side right now. 

You can either accept this and not negotiate (please, don’t do that), feel offended, diminished, frustrated or depressed by it (please, don’t do that either), or you can master the art of crafting and using the effective negotiation scripts. 

For example, if a recruiter or hiring manager suggests the range for a job is $120,000 to $160,000, you could simply and casually ask, “Can you tell me what skills and experiences separate the $120,000 candidate from the $160,000 candidate?” 

Just like that, you can see how one question can reframe the entire conversation. If the interviewer gives you a number like $130,000 and asks if you would be comfortable with it, you could ask another simple, albeit more open ended question such as “Is this the best you can do?”. 

This short, yet powerful question challenges the employer to reconsider their offer, pushing them to reveal if there is any flexibility in the budget. It’s a direct approach that cuts to the heart of the negotiation, encouraging transparency and potentially leading to a better offer. 

Another great question during the hiring process is  “Can I get the same salary as someone else with my experience and education?”. 

This question cleverly shifts the focus from what you want to what is fair and equitable. It leverages the company’s standards and practices against itself, advocating for parity and fairness in compensation. It’s particularly effective because it taps into the employer’s sense of justice and their desire to maintain a positive company image.

 Asking “How did you calculate this offer?” provides transparency into the employer’s valuation process, allowing for a more informed negotiation stance. Another impactful question is, “What is the salary range for this position within the company?” 

This question can reveal internal pay scales and ensure that the offer is competitive and fair. Additionally, inquiring “Can we discuss other compensation elements like bonuses, stock options, or flexible working arrangements?” shifts the focus to the total compensation package, potentially leading to a more comprehensive and satisfying offer. 

“Is there room for salary growth and performance reviews in the future?” probes the potential for future earnings, aligning long-term career growth with immediate compensation concerns. 

Lastly, “How does this offer compare with industry standards for similar roles?” encourages the employer to benchmark the offer against the market, ensuring it’s competitive. 

By asking “What can I do to contribute to the company’s success that would justify the top end of the salary range for this role?” candidates position themselves as proactive and results-oriented, appealing to the employer’s desire for impactful contributions. 

If the employer asks you an open-ended question such as “What are your salary expectations?” ​you can respond with a question such as “What’s possible?” or “What do you think my value is to the organization?” 

These questions not only serve to potentially increase the salary offer but also to deepen the candidate’s understanding of the employer’s valuation and compensation strategy. This strategic approach to salary negotiation, grounded in recent articles and expert advice, underscores the importance of preparation, transparency, and mutual benefit in the negotiation process. 

When To Ignore Recruiters & Hiring Manager Advice On Negotiation

Never forget that hiring managers and recruiters work for a company, not you, and any advice they give you online or otherwise is directed at helping them screen you out faster and better, not to help you get hired. 

Never forget also that today’s ATS and AI screening tools, and the gatekeepers themselves, are screening tools, not selection tools. Especially early in the hiring funnel, the bots and humans are trying to screen out as many candidates as possible. This screening out process is one of the less-discussed aspects of recruitment advice. 

By setting certain standards and expectations—be they related to resume format, interview etiquette, or even specific qualifications—recruiters can efficiently narrow down the pool of applicants. 

For instance, advice that emphasizes the importance of a particular software skill or industry certification may lead less-experienced candidates to self-select out of the application process, believing themselves to be underqualified. 

While this may expedite the hiring process for the company, it doesn’t necessarily serve the best interests of the job seeker. Another critical oversight in following recruiter advice too closely is the assumption that one size fits all. Job seekers are diverse, each with unique backgrounds, experiences, and aspirations. 

Advice that might be beneficial for one candidate could be entirely irrelevant—or even detrimental—to another. 

The insistence on conforming to a specific mold can stifle individuality and discourage candidates from showcasing the unique qualities that could make them stand out in a crowded job market. 

This is not to say that all advice from hiring managers and recruiters should be disregarded. 

Many offer invaluable insights drawn from years of experience in the field. However, job seekers should engage with this advice critically, weighing its relevance and applicability to their own circumstances. 

The best approach is to seek multiple perspectives, especially from those who advocate only for you, the job seeker. In addition to hiring managers and recruiters, consult industry professionals, mentors, and peers to get a well-rounded view. 

Be sure to also assess your strengths, weaknesses, and career objectives. Use this understanding to filter advice and determine what aligns with your goals. 

Finally, be willing to experiment and adapt. Be open to trying different approaches and strategies. The job market is dynamic, and what works for one role or company might not work for another.

The journey of negotiating a higher salary begins long before the actual conversation takes place. It starts with understanding the importance of not just the numbers you present but how you present them. Rounding numbers might seem like a simplification, but it often undercuts the value you bring to the table. Instead, precise figures suggest careful consideration and understanding of your worth. Coupled with strategic questions that challenge the status quo, such as inquiring about the best possible offer or the rationale behind a proposed figure, you place yourself in a position of strength. These tactics are not about confrontation but about opening a dialogue that explores the value you offer and the mutual benefits of a fair compensation package. In navigating these conversations, it’s crucial to remember that negotiation is not a one-off event but a critical skill that evolves with each experience, enriching your professional journey and ensuring that you are not just seen but duly compensated for the value you bring to any role.

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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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