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You’re a PhD Who Revealed Your Salary. You Won’t Like What Happens Next…

nervous PhD revealing salary on phone

Your salary should always remain a secret from interviewers and potential employers. Contributing author Sarah Smith, PhD, explains why… And how PhDs can deflect questions about their current salary.

After 2 postdocs at 2 different universities, I realized something…

I didn’t enjoy what I was doing anymore.

The academic career wasn’t what I had envisioned.

All I did was sit at a desk and work on my research in isolation.

I had lost my passion – my future in academia was painfully limited.

So at a networking event, I took a deep breath and awkwardly introduced myself to a prominent senior researcher in my field.

This is embarrassing, but… 

I was so flustered that I told her everything upfront.

I explained how desperate I was – how I felt trapped in my lab.

I’m a scientist, but apparently, I’m still human.

In front of this stranger I’d never met, years of quiet struggling were suddenly pouring out.

 She looked at me like I was trying to start a fire with two sticks in the rain.

Get a job outside of academia…

That’s what she told me.

If you’re a PhD like me, then you know: It hurts to hear this.

I thought academia was the only way to be successful as a PhD.

Was she telling me I wasn’t smart enough to succeed in academia?

In reality, she was telling me the opposite.

She was telling me that I deserved better than being miserable in academia.

She recommended a few of her connections and gave me their contact info (which was a huge favor from a stranger).

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

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

But there was one annoying question that kept cropping up in these applications: 

What is your current salary?

You probably know exactly why I didn’t want to disclose this information…

My salary was worse than a librarian’s.

And I was applying for real industry jobs paying upwards of $70K per year.

Listing my little postdoc salary looked ridiculous on a job application of this caliber.

I was worried that if I were to disclose my income, a potential employer might “lowball” me and offer way less than I deserved.

I knew my value to their company was higher than this, but I still didn’t know how to respond to the current-salary question.

I did everything I could to deflect this question and avoid it in the applications I filled out.

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.

Why Potential Employers Don’t Need To Know Your Current Salary

From the hiring manager’s perspective, knowing a candidate’s salary history is helpful.

It allows them to determine whether the person is likely to accept the position or keep looking for another job.

If they know your salary history, the hiring manager can try to negotiate the best deal for everyone involved…

But a hiring manager is working for the company – not for you.

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

In a way, that’s just good business.

Even if it feels unfair.

It is common for PhDs and postdocs to receive “lowball” salary offers.

We have been receiving low compensation for many years, and disclosing our salary history puts us at risk of being undervalued.

Yet according to Georgetown University, holding an advanced degree increases your annual salary by an average of $20,500.

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.

So how can you avoid receiving a lowball salary offer?

The answer is simple… 

Never disclose your current or past salary to a potential employer.


3 Ways PhDs Can Avoid Disclosing Their Current Salary

As a PhD, you have a lot to offer industry, no matter what position 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 revealing your current compensation.

There are certain ways—effective ways—to dodge the salary question throughout the application-interview process.

Here are 3 strategies that ensure your successful transition into a well-compensated industry position…


1. Stop using online applications and start networking instead.

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

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

As a smart PhD, applying to jobs through online application forms should rarely be a part of your job-search strategy.

Instead, you should network and build connections within your target companies.

Not only does this skip right over the dreaded salary question, but it increases your chances of getting past the initial screening process.

90% of fortune 500 companies use Applicant Tracking Software (ATS), which filter out candidates based on the keywords in their resumes.

This software rejects most resumes before an actual person even looks at them.

By networking and generating referrals, you can email your resume directly to the hiring manager.

This will dramatically increase your chances of making it past the initial screening.

Plus, you don’t have to answer uncomfortable questions to submit your application…

Just send your resume along with your cover letter. 

You should start networking now, even if your defense is still some years down the road.

Actually, networking while in graduate school 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 that interest you.

Find people who work at these companies and positions, and set up informational interviews with them.

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

A solid industry network yields job referrals from your connections.

That is how industry works, and you need to work within this system to get what you want.

2. Redirect interview conversations to the value that you will add to the company.

Of course, even if you get straight to the hiring manager, the problem is not solved.

During an interview, they may still ask you about your salary.

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

True, the hiring manager may be persistent in requesting this information.

This can be uncomfortable – a high-pressure situation.

But remember that you are not obligated to tell a hiring manager or recruiter about your salary history.

So stand firm and decline.

That said, you cannot simply say “no” and leave it at that.

You need to demonstrate that your salary history is not relevant to the value you can offer the company.

Explain 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.

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

But 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 about this.

If the hiring interviewer keeps pressing you to provide your salary, and you feel uncomfortable, it’s okay to politely end the interview and walk away.

You may need to think hard about whether the company culture is a good fit for you – if they make you uncomfortable, that is generally not a good sign.

Another important thing to note:

Under no circumstances should you lie about your current compensation.

You may be tempted to tell a “white lie” and exaggerate your salary to avoid getting a low offer.

However, you will almost certainly get 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.

In that case, it is virtually guaranteed that you won’t get the job.

Remain firm and insist that your current salary is not relevant without giving a number.

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

PhD rememebring not to "reveal your salary"

3. Be ready to ask your own salary questions.

Finally, you can turn the question back onto the hiring manager or interviewer.

You will prepare your own set of questions before the interview anyway  – this should be one of them.

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

Ask them about the expected salary range 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 – this should not be a secret.

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

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

This is another good place to employ a deflection.

You aren’t ready to make a decision about your salary yet.

You’re still gathering information. 

Don’t let them lock you down to a range that’s less than what you deserve.

Explain 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.

Don’t do that to yourself.

This may be uncomfortable, but you’ve worked too hard to let this conversation derail your progress.

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

Or you can try, As long as the company can make a competitive offer, salary won’t be a problem for us.

Negotiating a higher salary once you have been offered the position, is much easier if you stayed strong and did not disclose a number during the hiring process.

So if you want to protect your own salary, there is no way around it: You will have to dodge the salary question. One way to do this is to stop using online applications and start networking instead. During conversations with your potential employer, redirect interview conversations to the value that you will add to the company. And be ready to ask your own salary questions.

To learn more about industry onboarding for PhDs, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the waitlist for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

Cheeky Scientist Association for PhDs

Sarah Smith, PhD


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