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5 Ways PhDs Control Salary Negotiations With A Win-Win Attitude

Contributing Author: Sarah Smith, PhD

No job offers, no network connections, and definitely no industry experience.

For 2 months after graduation, I was utterly without prospects.

Sitting around with my degree in hand (which was feeling heavier all the time), I was waiting for life to happen to me.

It seems ridiculous now, but as a PhD, I came out of my studies thinking I was some kind of industry employer magnet.

I thought that if I just filled out a few applications, employers would be pushing each other out of the way in the struggle to hire me first.

I probably don’t have to tell you that this lame strategy of waiting around did not work.

Finally, enough was enough.

I knew nothing good would come my way unless I pulled the lever and shifted the tracks of life in my direction.

So I went against a lifetime of natural instincts and became as sociable as I could.

I networked like a madwoman and reached out to literally hundreds of people over a period of 8 months.

I conducted dozens of informational interviews and carefully built connections in multiple biotech companies.

Laying the groundwork for my industry transition was exhausting.

I still haven’t forgotten all those sleepless nights I spent obsessing over networking sessions with business contacts – the words I’d used, the clothes I’d worn.

Am I doing any of this right, or just making a fool of myself? 

What if I never succeed – what if I wasted years of my life on a degree that takes me exactly nowhere?

But that was before I got hit by a cascade of interviews.

All at once, it was like companies were trying to find a spot in my schedule!

I won’t go into detail about the interviews themselves, but believe me when I say that, by now, I have a fair bit of experience in this department!

Long-story-short, I ended up with job offers to spare, which was completely surreal.

But for a quiet, reserved scholar like myself, the toughest part had finally arrived: negotiations.

Before going into detail, I want PhD readers to appreciate that you can negotiate – and you can do it well.

Looking back, I can’t imagine not negotiating my salary.

Why You’re Missing A Huge Opportunity By Not Negotiating

Negotiations are the final–and often the most stressful–part of any job search process.

You want to earn a salary that makes you feel valued.

The company wants to stay within their budget.

This is so nerve racking for some people that most new hires don’t even attempt negotiations.

A survey by Robert Half found that these non-negotiators account for 61% of respondents.

The majority of people are missing out on thousands of extra dollars that they could earn by asking a few simple questions.

Don’t be one of those people.

Your fear of negotiating is not founded in anything of real substance.

According to the National Society Of Collegiate Scholars, 80% of those who negotiated their salary were successful.

And 74% of hiring managers reported that they have room to increase the starting salary by 5-10% during negotiations…

Put 2-and-2 together here: Most companies offer new hires 5-10% less money than what is possible!

Are you seriously going to leave all that money behind?

5 Ways PhDs Use Shared Goals To Build Relationships And Negotiate Strong Starting Salaries.

Like it or not, in industry, you are expected to negotiate your starting salary. 

And as a PhD, you are worthy of a paycheck that makes you feel valued.

But negotiation is not a win-lose situation – that’s the first thing PhDs need to realize. 

Good negotiating is a kind of mutually beneficial diplomacy.

There is definitely a bit of competition throughout the process, but you should approach it like you’re a diplomat negotiating a peaceable outcome with an allied foreign nation.

You and your employer represent 2 different teams who want to build a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Now that you have the offer, you’re partners in this business.

Heading into negotiations with a win-win attitude is not merely recommended – it’s categorically essential.

Including multiple dialogue suggestions, here are 5 clear steps PhDs can take to confidently negotiate an industry salary that makes everyone happy.

1. Maintain the competitive advantage – let the employer list the 1st number.

If you had to guess, at what stage would you guess negotiations begin?

PhDs don’t usually understand that negotiations have actually begun way before you receive a written job offer.

In fact, once the company has identified you as a viable candidate, you can consider negotiations initiated.

There is only 1 tactic that you should employ before you get a written offer: Avoid giving the first number.

Whoever gives the first hard number gives away the competitive advantage.

The organization will try to get you to give that advantage away.

Don’t do it!

There are many ways you can dodge this question while maintaining a positive and excited tone.

A recruiter or hiring manager might ask you things like:


  • “What salary would you expect from this position?” 
  • “What are your expectations in terms of salary?”
  • “What would it take for you to come on board?” 


Here are a few phrases you can use to respond to that sort of question:


  • “I’m sure this won’t be a problem for us, so long as you can make me a competitive offer.”
  • “I’m happy to talk about that, but salary isn’t my primary concern. What I’d really like is to learn more about the opportunity and the people I’ll be working with. Can we come back to the salary question later?
  • “I’m really excited about this opportunity! I’ll consider all reasonable offers.”
  • “I’m open to a wide range of offers, so I don’t think this will be a problem for us. Who’s responsible for salary decisions?”


Are you getting the idea?

The recruiter or hiring manager might ask about your current salary as a slightly sneaky way to acquire the advantage over you.

Deflect the inquiry with a phrase like one of these:


  • “My previous work is in a different industry and is not really relevant to this position. Plus, I am very interested in this opportunity, the people I will meet, and where this could lead in five years. I’m sure salary will not be an issue for us.”
  • “My earnings in academia aren’t really relevant. That was a very different situation! What interests me is competitive compensation, which I’m sure won’t be a problem for us.”
  • “In academia, I actually didn’t earn a salary. I  but rather received a stipend, so it’s not relevant in this context. And as long as I am compensated competitively I am not going to be unhappy. Salary is not going to be a problem for us.”


If you do make the mistake of telling the recruiter or hiring manager a salary number, remember that it’s not over yet.

Be honest and tell them that, based on new information, you think the compensation needs to be adjusted.

Use the following scripts as a baseline for that scenario:


  • “I have more information now than I did before, and I think that, considering the nature of this position, a higher salary would be more appropriate.”
  • “I spoke prematurely during our first meeting. Now that I’ve looked into the position and compared it with similar roles, I think that the salary may need to be revised.

2. Repeatedly display your excitement and show employers you’re on their team.

An organization expects you to fight for what you are worth, but that doesn’t strictly mean you’re competing with them.

You’ll probably receive this written offer by email, but it’s better to negotiate over the phone or in person.

Write something like:

“Thank you so much for the offer. I am very excited about this position! I’d like to go through the offer currently on the table so that I can understand it better. Can we set up a meeting or phone call?”

Always remain positive, thankful, and excited.

Remember, this is a win-win situation – you’re going to get a high-paying job, and they are going to hire an amazing candidate.

Once you’re having an actual verbal conversation, there are key phrases you can use to negotiate a higher salary without being too aggressive.

Practice these baseline dialogues before the real negotiation if you want to sound confident and self-assured:


You: “I’m so excited! This job aligns perfectly with my background. But I was really hoping for more than the initial offer – what can we do?”

Hiring manager: “What were you hoping for?”

You: “What’s possible?”

Alternatively, the hiring manager may try to make it about company policy:

You: “Thank you very much for the offer! I’m excited to come onboard and start working with the team, but I was really hoping for a higher salary – what can we do?”

Hiring manager: “We have set pay scales, so we don’t do negotiation. It’s company policy”

You: “Alright, I understand your policy. Under what circumstances have you previously raised an initial offer?”

Hiring manager: “Under some exceptional circumstances.”

You: “Okay, then perhaps we can discuss the difference between me and those candidates who you raised the initial offer for and see if the value I will bring to the organization warrants having the kind of salary offer that they received. I know this position is a great fit for me and I am excited to bring my expertise in xyz to the organization.”


During negotiations, keep your excitement in the forefront of your mind – always bring the conversation back to your excitement to come onboard.

As much as you can, use plural pronouns like “we” and “us” instead of the singular “I” and “me.”  

This conveys a sense of alliance during the negotiation.

You are not in opposition to the hiring manager.

You’re on the same team, and the goal is to find a salary that makes everyone happy.

Focus on the value that you’ll add and talk about what a great fit you’ll be.

3. After pinning down a base salary, turn the conversation to your signing bonus.

The most important part of your negotiation is settling on a base salary.

Once you have accomplished this, you can move on to negotiating your signing bonus.

Bringing up a signing bonus is not greedy – it’s purely standard practice.

While negotiating your signing bonus, your informational interviews or other connections at the company could come in handy.

Ask the hiring manager about company policy for signing bonuses and what you might expect to receive for your own bonus:


  • “I really appreciate this! Thanks for going to bat for me. Can we also discuss what my signing bonus will look like?”
  • “Fantastic! I’m excited to move forward and start my work at the company. Can we discuss my signing bonus too?


Here you will apply the same strategies you used in the base salary negotiation.

Ask the hiring manager open-ended questions and avoid giving the first number.

4. Don’t forget to cover available options in stock and equity.

Stock options are an excellent way to begin growing your financial wealth.

Unfortunately, most PhDs don’t understand stock options or equity.

They feel intimidated when asking about these things, but remember that fear is no reason to miss out on the money you deserve!

Do you want to lose out on the extra wealth you could accrue in exchange for performing an identical volume of work?

First, you need to learn about stock options.

You are a PhD – you can learn anything, and you can learn it quickly.

Do some research and use the data to ask good questions about the stock options and/or equity that you’re being offered.

It’s okay to ask for a breakdown of these benefits from the human resources department.

You could say:


  • “Can you help me understand the available options for equity participation?”
  • “It’s fantastic that this offer includes stock options – can you help me understand these options further?”


Asking for clarification actually shows that you are confidently inquisitive – that you seek guidance when you don’t know something.

You’re demonstrating that you aren’t the type of employee who will waste company time and money doing something the wrong way because you’re too scared to look stupid with a question.

Gaining equity into the company you work for is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

Never pass it up just because you don’t understand the process!

5. Finish up the negotiations by exploring your negotiation package.

Sometimes, the right job requires that you uproot yourself and relocate to someplace new.

This is very normal, and if you end up having to relocate, the final point of negotiation will be the moving expenses incurred.

Your relocation package could be a lump sum of money for simple coverage of moving expenses, but it might also include the ability to stay at a corporate apartment for the first few months of the job.

This allows you to settle into the new position and location without the stress of immediately finding a place to live.

Ask about available options using some of these scripts as a baseline:


  • “What options do you provide for relocation allowance?”
  • “I’d like to discuss a relocation allowance. What does the company usually offer in terms of relocation packages?”
  • “Can you get me [XX] days/months in a corporate apartment? That way, I can dig right into the work without the distraction of finding a place to live. I want to focus on adapting to the work first and foremost!”

As with the other points of negotiation, open-ended questions are best – especially when you’re not sure what to expect.

You don’t want to ask for 30 days in a corporate apartment when they might be willing to give you 6 months!

Lastly, if you don’t need to relocate or you don’t have many belongings to move, you may want to see if these funds can be reallocated into a larger signing bonus.

By hitting all 5 of these points during salary negotiations, you’re covering all your bases and showing the employer you are not just an academic – you’re a consummate professional. First, maintain the competitive advantage – let the employer list the 1st number; repeatedly display your excitement and show employers you’re on their team; after pinning down a base salary, turn the conversation to your signing bonus; don’t forget to cover available options in stock and equity; and finish up the negotiations by exploring your negotiation package.

Sarah Smith, PhD


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