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3 Negotiation Strategies PhDs Don’t Know About But Should Be Using In Industry Interviews

Contributing Author: Amy Beaird, Ph.D.

Let me start by saying this upfront: I did it!

I accepted a role as a Chemical Engineer at a great start-up.

It’s incredibly exciting, because this is the transition I’ve been waiting to make ever since earning my PhD in Chemical Engineering.

There is a little something you may find dismaying, though…

I got my PhD 8 years ago.

If I had learned about job negotiation sooner, I probably wouldn’t have waited so long.

Of course, if you take the right negotiation strategies to heart, you can avoid suffering a similar fate.

Before starting my dream job, I actually received 2 job offers.

This gave me some wiggle room in my negotiation process, and sometimes, a little is all you need.

So here’s the basic outline of what went down.

I interviewed for my ideal engineering position with Company One.

Next, I interviewed with Company Two for the role of Senior Licensing Associate.

The benefits for the second position were definitely better, but my heart was really with the engineering job.

Then things got a little complicated.

I got an offer for the Associate position, so I reached out to Company One and told them about it.

I asked them for an update on their timeline, and Company One sent me an offer that evening.

All of a sudden, I was floating in amazing job offers, so that’s when I knew it was time to do a little negotiating!

I asked Company One for an additional $5K per year.

This can be scary, and — trust me — I was feeling nervous.

What I didn’t expect was that they would make this concession pretty easily.

The next day, I got an updated offer for my dream job with the extra $5K I asked for.

Now, this wasn’t a split-second process — negotiation can take a little time.

And I didn’t just go in blind either.

I had to learn the ropes first, and put all that negotiation know-how to work.

But you know what?

I am proof that good negotiation tactics actually work!

What PhDs Lose By Not Negotiating Their Industry Salary

What do PhDs have to lose by avoiding salary negotiations?

To be blunt, and even a little obvious, the answer is money.

Lots of it.

According to a survey by Jobvite, 84% of negotiators enjoyed higher pay than the baseline offers they were given when they accepted the job.

What’s more, only 29% negotiated at all.

But consider that about a fifth of those who negotiated received 11-15% higher pay than the baseline offers.

So if it’s not clear by now, negotiations are a pretty big deal, and this sentiment is firmly backed by statistics.

For those who don’t negotiate, another survey by Payscale identified these 2 reasons as being among the most commonly given:

  • I’m uncomfortable negotiating salary — 28%
  • I didn’t want to be perceived as pushy — 19%

Considering how hard you have worked to earn your PhD, should you be willing to lose out on significant sums of money because you feel uncomfortable?

Absolutely not.

The 3 Most Important Negotiation Strategies For PhDs

Yes, it’s true that a lot of PhDs may be horrified by the idea of negotiating.

For some, negotiation can come off as a negative stereotype, like haggling over the price of goods at a bazaar or trying to convince a bank robber to let the hostages go.

But the truth is that if you’re a PhD who shies away from negotiating, you are missing out big time.

Negotiations are not offensive to industry employers, and they will not cast you in a bad light.

On the contrary, negotiations are standard practice, and they represent 2 parties with overlapping interests coming together to find a practical outcome.

If you confidently negotiate using these 3 key strategies, you are playing to win.

1. Actually ask what the employer wants.

During negotiations, it’s often the case that both parties are still unaware of what they’re negotiating for.

It never hurts to ask questions and get a feel for that end goal.

People can’t read your mind, and you can’t read anyone else’s.

Think about how many times you get into simple daily negotiations with people: power struggles with your advisor, compromising with a spouse, coordinating with coworkers, etc.

You get in these arguments, but what if you just stopped and asked, “What do you actually want out of this?”

You could apply this when you’re negotiating for a salary.

Ask your new employer, “What do you want out of this position?” or “What does the perfect candidate look like to you?

They’re going to give you a bunch of answers, and then you can use those answers in the negotiation by saying, “I’m going to deliver on exactly what you want.”

By doing this, you’re ensuring that it’s going to be a win-win scenario.

Negotiation needs to be a win-win.

Don’t waste anyone’s time with assumptions that completely miss the company’s needs.

Let’s say you’re negotiating for a position as an engineer with a new company. You can ask, “What relationship would you like to have with your ideal engineer?”

The answer may not be what you think.

By asking first, you may discover that your basic ideas about the other party are wrong. They may have needs or expectations you never considered.

It sounds simple, but it’s profound. You don’t know until you ask.

So ask those questions.

2. Make room with open-ended questions.

Open-ended questions are very important in negotiations.

One common example of when you should be asking open-ended questions is when an employer mentions a salary cap.

A lot of PhDs go through interviews or negotiations in which they’re told that there’s a salary cap, bar, or a band.

Whatever it’s called, what the employer wants to communicate is this:

  • Don’t bother asking for more money
  • We are in control
  • You’re going to play by our rules

They’re saying that this position will never be worth more than what is currently on offer, and that salary negotiations would be “impossible” for this position.

This is just a negotiation strategy.

In this case, the employer is appealing to a higher authority: some magical salary cap that someone invented.

It’s not the employer’s cap, it’s handed down from this “authority.”

Does that sound very authoritative to you?

So let’s say you get hit with some lame salary cap tactic, or maybe your offer comes at a lower salary than you expected.

Here’s what you do: Ask an open-ended question about the salary cap.

A question such as, “Is there anything more you can do in terms of salary?”

As you ask your open-ended question, you want to ally with your new employer.

That’s right, like it’s you and them against this imaginary higher authority.

If they appeal to a higher authority, you can use it. You could say something like:

“I have a series of unique skills and experiences that apply directly to this position. So technically, it would make sense for me to be paid a little above the salary cap. Is there a way we can work together to find a solution here?”

With a statement like this, you communicate that you’re no mere candidate. You’re a special asset their newest asset.

Not only that, but you’re on board with them. A part of the team. Who wouldn’t want to work with such a valuable, agreeable employee?

You can also say something like:

“I have a Ph.D. My studies and background represent a lot of hard work and experience in the field. Could we adapt my new position at the company? Make it a senior position, or something similar, that would allow us to coordinate toward increasing the salary?”

By going this route, you change the rules of the game, framing the job offer as an entirely new position that is tailored to your personal credentials.

You rely on your new employer’s sense of fairness and urge them to pay what you deserve.

All while representing yourself as a confident team member.

3. Elevate your value by leveraging other job offers.

Too many talented PhDs fall into one of the oldest traps in the book.

They put all their eggs in one basket.

It can be really enticing to put everything into that one job opportunity — the big one.

But it rarely pays to leave yourself unarmed like this, and you’re much better off playing the field.

Make sure that you pursue every reasonable avenue by applying for as many desirable jobs as you can manage.

This way, you can give yourself some honest leverage in the form of competing job offers, or even just interviews:

“So I like what I’ve seen at Company X so far, but I’m also in negotiations with Company Y. They are ready to offer me $5-10K more than what’s on offer here. Is there any room above the salary you’re offering? I’d prefer to work here, but an improved salary is very important to me.”

Now these potential employers know they’re working with a hot commodity – a valuable asset to their team.

Just the basic awareness that other companies see value in your credentials can improve your image in the minds of potential employers.

Make sure you’re putting these 3 strategies to work as you push toward that higher salary, or whatever it is that you’re trying to achieve. Communicate clearly and lay the foundations. Actually ask what the employer wants. Don’t waste anyone’s time by negotiating in vague territory. Make room with open-ended questions and present yourself as a team player. Ally with your new employers and make it clear that you’re on the same team, looking to answer these open-ended questions together. If possible, always elevate your value by leveraging other job offers. Just one other viable option is all you need in order to orchestrate a little healthy competition.

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Amy Beaird, Ph.D.

Amy Beaird, Ph.D.

Amy Beaird, Ph.D., currently works in chemical engineering. She is an entrepreneurial innovator at the intersection of business, science, and humanity. A sharp hunter of critical details, she is a passionate team builder who thrives behind the scenes. For Amy, operational efficiency is the name of the game - but people and empathy always come first on her list.
Amy Beaird, Ph.D.