Gain Control Of Your Salary Negotiation With 7 Powerful Tips For PhDs

I grew up with 5 younger siblings; I thought I knew a thing or two about negotiating. 

Growing up, we had to negotiate about who got control of the remote.

As we got older we had to negotiate who would drive, or host holiday parties. 

When I started my PhD, I had to negotiate with my PI all the time about what should or shouldn’t go in the manuscript. 

So by the time I got a seat at the negotiating table I wasn’t too worried. I had so much negotiating power, I was valuable, well educated, and well trained. 

But I walked away from that table devastated. I had lost the offer and the job, forcing me to spiral back down the job search staircase. What did I do wrong?

While discussing my worries with my labmate she told me something I found profound. She told me, sometimes I could be a little aggressive. I was in the middle of a defensive comeback when I realized I was  doing it right then and there! 

Her comment really bothered me and provoked a great internal debate that changed the way I viewed salary negotiations. 

I had always been creating win-lose situations, constantly trying to put myself at the forefront, determined to beat the other person, to get myself the benefit. 

When I went into my next salary negotiation that was at the forefront of my mind. As I went through the process, I continuously asked myself, is this creating a win-lose situation or a win-win situation. Am I providing value that equates to the value I’m looking for. I came out of that salary negotiation with not only a job, but an offer $20,000 higher than the initial one. Throughout the process, I even got to know my future co-workers and managers to the point where I already felt a part of the team. 

Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid To Negotiate

By the time you reach the salary negotiating table you have a pretty good chance of getting the job. You’ve impressed the hiring manager, you’ve successfully navigated the entire interview process, and here you are, their number one candidate. But right at the end you are blind-sided by a lower than expected salary. 

Many PhDs decide not to negotiate. After all, you’ve already spent so much time getting to this point. You could say something wrong and end up back at the beginning. Having to start a job search all over again sounds tormenting, time consuming and not very profitable, but think of it from the other end. 

Your current job and salary depicts your future jobs and salaries. Your whole career trajectory will be diminished if you accept a lower salary, which will put you in a worse place for most of your career. 

It’s a well established fact that people are afraid to negotiate. When looking at higher education the numbers are depressing. A report by Harvard Business Review found that only 57% of highly educated men negotiate their salary; for highly educated women the number is only 7%. 

On the other side of the negotiating table sit the managers, the decision makers, what are they expecting? 70% of managers expect candidates to negotiate. So, while you might be scared to negotiate, they are disappointed you didn’t. You have to show your future employer that you know your value as one of the most highly educated people in the world. 

However, negotiations are a tricky dance with several steps to learn and perfect. Very few people know how to negotiate, this is especially true with PhDs. PhDs spend years finding solutions to scientific problems and never gain real world experience on salary negotiations. 

7 Powerful Strategies To Skyrocket your Starting Salary

PhDs are the most valuable employees. They are intelligent enough to learn and analyze highly technical data. PhDs are organized and determined enough to simultaneously manage multiple projects. They have the writing and comprehension skills to quickly summarize multiple highly technical papers into a single paragraph. PhDs are not only researchers they are writers, project managers, and collaborators. This means 1 PhD is equivalent to 2 or 3 other employees.  As a PhD, you are worth a lot in industry. 

But do you know how much? You’ve spent years being underpaid, basically everything slightly above minimum wage seems like an adequate salary after a PhD stipend or a postdoc’s compensation rate. 

You have the skills, what you lack is the knowledge and confidence. However, not knowing how to negotiate is no longer an excuse you can use. I will share with you the 7 powerful strategies to skyrocket your starting salary. In the end you’ll have a deeper understanding of the main strategies you can use during negotiations. 

1. The starting salary impacts your career trajectory considerably.

What were your starting and ending salaries?

What were your starting and ending job titles?

These are two questions hiring managers or recruiters may ask you. Of course, as a graduate student or postdoc who has never worked in industry, these questions won’t affect you much. But once you’re in industry, they will affect you. And the answers to these questions will determine your career trajectory.

The reason is simple: Your previous job titles and past salaries will be used as anchors to limit your future job offer.

Why would a new company offer you $150,000 to work as a high-level manager when you’re currently making $80,000 as a low-level manager? They won’t.

Instead, they’ll offer you a low- to mid-level management position for $85,000 and put the impetus on you to negotiate the offer higher. This is why it’s absolutely critical that you start your first job in industry at the highest possible job title and salary.

The rest of your career will follow the lead of whatever salary you settle on.

2. Anchor as high as possible before the first offer is made.

A University of Idaho study showed that making a joke about earning a million dollars influences employers to offer you a higher starting salary. In these experiments, industry job candidates requested salaries of a reasonable $29,000, an unreasonable $100,000, or a ridiculous $1 million.

The latter two requests were accompanied by a joking explanation such as, Just kidding—I know a million dollars isn’t possible but I thought I’d ask anyway!

Even though the heightened salary was known to be a joke, those who requested the absurd salary were offered salaries averaging 9% higher than those who requested a reasonable amount.

Psychological anchors work, even if they’re presented as a joke. The key here is to make a joke about an impossibly high salary prior to the employer’s initial offer.

3. Positivity goes a long way

Too many PhDs make the mistake of thinking that salary negotiations should be tense. It’s you versus them! Either they win or you win! Both parties can’t win. Can they?

Getting angry and tense does not strengthen your negotiating position – it weakens it. The worst thing you can do during a salary negotiation is try to get your way by acting firm, condescending, or annoying. We’ve all been on the receiving end of an argument with a person like this, it never resolves nicely and typically ends a relationship.

These foolish tactics will just make the other side either fight harder to get what they want or not want to work with you at all. A better strategy is to stay overly positive and polite. You should treat negotiations like networking.

Always be polite, especially by phone and email. You never know who else is on the call or who is being forwarded your emails. Never, at any time during a salary negotiation, decrease your enthusiasm for the job. Enthusiasm will not only keep the conversation coming back to you and the work you can do for the company. It will also inspire the other side to pay you more.

4. Always focus the conversation to the value you will bring to the company

There’s one cold hard truth that you should always keep in mind when negotiating your salary —the other side doesn’t care about you. They don’t care that you’ve been working 18-hour days in your lab for a principal investigator who treats you like an indentured servant.

In fact, they will use this against you to offer you a lower starting salary.They don’t care that you’re getting paid less than a librarian or custodian either. Instead, they care about the work you’re going to do for them. Never negotiate from a position of weakness.

Always bring the conversation back to your professional strengths and the overall value you’re offering to the position. Keep in mind that they have already decided you are the best fit for the position. And make everything you say about them, not you.

5. Don’t let them muddy the waters, stay focused on base salary 

Salary negotiations are not just about the salary. In most employment scenarios, in addition to a salary you also get a benefit package, which can include a signing bonus, vacation time, retirement plans, and healthcare for you and your family. These things are important and they are necessary to negotiate but only after you nail down your base salary. 

Unlike salary, benefit packages are pretty well known. There are incentives for companies to provide their employees with benefits. There are no such incentives for a company to pay you a higher base salary. A tactic that hiring managers and employers use to get you to aim lower on your base salary is to start talking about benefits early on. This creates what is known as muddy waters. It’s no longer clear how much you are getting or how much it is benefitting you. You may feel obligated to accept a lower salary if they give you additional vacation time. 

You need to avoid this as much as possible. Don’t allow them to muddy the waters. Simply ask them to ‘set aside’ the benefit package until you have agreed on a base salary. 

Once you have the salary negotiations set, it’s time to negotiate the benefits package. You want to negotiate the benefits package in the same way you negotiated the base salary: anchor high, stay positive, ask an open ended question and remind them of the value you add to the company. 

6. Ask open-ended questions

When you come back to the negotiating table after discussing it at home, you’re in a strong position to ask an open-ended question like…

I’m really excited about this offer, but after discussing it at home, I was wondering if there was anything more we could do in terms of salary?

The key here is to keep the question open-ended. Don’t say something like, I was wondering if we could agree on a slightly higher starting salary? Now, you’ve left them open to put the impetus back on you by saying, Yes, we could go a little higher, what did you have in mind?

Similarly, don’t say, I was wondering if we could go $5,000 higher in terms of the starting salary? When you do this, you leave it open for the other party to either quickly agree (which means you’ll never know how much money was actually on the table) or to meet you in the middle by saying, How about we settle halfway at $2,500 more?

A better strategy is to ask something open-ended like, Is there anything else you can do? This puts the impetus on them to propose a higher offer. Importantly, whenever possible, have these open-ended discussions in person or over the phone, not by email.

In fact, try to get as many people as possible joining the conversation. Push to do a quick conference call with the hiring manager and whoever else is part of the decision-making process. The more fully you can get the other party to engage in real-time, the better your chances of getting the salary offer increased.

7. Let the other side feel like they’ve won.

When you’re negotiating for a new job, time is always on your side. This is especially true if you’ve created leverage by going into the negotiation with more than one option. Your goal should be to get the other side to invest in you as much as possible.

You must get them to:

  • Send you as many emails as possible.
  • Talk with you on the phone as much as possible.
  • Involve as many people from the company as possible.

The more you get them invested, the more leverage you’ll have when the time comes to talk about your salary.  Encourage them to recruit you. 

Spending this time upfront will make the other side feel like they won when they finally get you to sign. Even if they had to increase their salary offer. This is another reason why asking open-ended questions is so important: They help the other side feel like they won.

Most importantly, as the negotiations draw to a close, don’t “go in for the kill.” Do NOT try to squeeze every last penny out of them. For example, if you find yourself negotiating for an extra 3 paid days off for a wedding in June, let it go…

Remember, you’re going to be working with the people you’re negotiating with. Let them feel like they won.

They’ll repay you by making your first few months at the job more positive, productive, and rewarding.

Concluding Remarks

So now you are equipped with the top salary negotiation tactics. No more excuses that you don’t know how to. A PhD is a valuable employee but employers need to know that you know your value. You have to understand your worth to know what you should expect, anchor high and be willing to make concessions, always return to your value, focus on the base salary first, be strategically vague with open ended questions, and always create win-win situations. 

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Sarah Smith, PhD
Sarah Smith, PhD

Sarah Smith, PhD, holds a degree in Biochemistry. A tireless science consultant at large, her rigorous pursuit of pristine labwork is unflinching. Yet Sarah’s keenest passion--guiding emergent academics into the business world--stems from personal experience with the transitional struggles she would have no PhD face alone.

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