Intelligent, Powerful Salary Negotiations For PhDs In 5 Simple Steps

Contributing Author: Marios Tsatsos, PhD

After my interview, I got a call from the HR department. This was the big phone call – the one about money. I had interviewed well, and the person from HR was calling to let me know he was about to meet with the hiring manager. Hopefully, he said, there would be an offer for me after they met. It was time for the negotiation. 

Then he asked about salary… 

I didn’t want to give the first number, so I deflected his question with a joke. It worked, and the representative mentioned the first salary number. I was excited – the number he gave was close to my highest expectations.

I  said, Okay, and told him that once he had a written offer for me, we could go from there. I waited for the next call, trying to keep myself busy while I knew they were discussing my interview performance.

A couple of hours later, the representative called back and confirmed the offer we’d talked about earlier, with a salary of 5K more than the first number we’d talked about – plus a 10% annual bonus and non-monetary benefits! I had been stuck in a postdoc for so long that this was almost unbelievable…

And if I hadn’t entered negotiation with the right mindset, I could have ended up with something far lower.

I could have anchored myself to an inferior starting salary by giving the first number. There is no doubt in my mind that this small effort made a big impact on my new job.

How Refusing To Negotiate Harms Your Salary

There’s no harm in asking. You’ve probably heard this saying before, and it’s true. But more importantly, the opposite is also true…

There is harm in NOT asking.

After you get an industry job offer, if you’re too afraid to ask for a higher salary, it could cost you more than a million dollars throughout your career. A Houston Chronicle poll of over 800 people found that only 31% of respondents always negotiate their salary after receiving a job offer. This is down from 37% just a year earlier. It gets worse—20% of respondents said they NEVER negotiate salary.

Similarly, a report by Harvard Business Review found that only 57% of highly educated men negotiate their salary. The report also found that only 7% of highly educated women negotiate their salary. Why are so many people afraid to negotiate?

The problem is that most people, especially PhDs, don’t know how to negotiate salary.

And whether or not you understand how negotiating works, it is being used against you. This is especially true when you’re applying for an industry job, interviewing, or looking for a promotion.

People who don’t understand how negotiation works or why it’s important refuse to do it. Even considering how harmful this is to your career, it’s understandable. Negotiation can be nerve-racking. But that’s not an excuse.Negotiation can push your career forward.

5 Negotiation Strategies That Will Boost Your Salary

You may feel nervous. Scared. Anxious. Many PhDs experience similar feelings when it comes to negotiation. You’ve been told for so long that you’re hardly worth anything in academia.

You’ve been told that ambition is wrong, and that good little postdocs stay at the academic bench doing intensive research for next-to-no compensation.

But I’m telling you now, you are better than that. You deserve more than that. 

Your skills go far beyond what your advisor probably told you about yourself. Negotiation is a normal part of the job search experience, and you are not an exception to this rule. Sometimes you need to fight, just a little, for your worth.

Employers expect you to negotiate, and you are losing important opportunities if you ignore this.

Don’t let imposter syndrome or other fears lower your salary. This will impact you for your entire career.

Use this guide to salary negotiation for PhDs and show up prepared to fight for your high level of worth.

1. Gain the higher ground in your negotiation by lining up multiple offers

Imagine you and someone you don’t know are part of a simple experiment. As part of the experiment, researchers give you $100 and ask you to give a proportion of the money to the other person. If the second person accepts your offer, both of you keep the portions you allocated. If the second person rejects your offer, neither of you keeps anything.

The only rule in this study is that you get to make just a single offer. The power over dividing up the money is solely in your hands, and the power over keeping the money is solely in the other person’s hands. What would you offer?

If you are like most people, you’d offer $37. Decades of research, summarized nicely in this article, show that this is what the average person offers. The same research shows that if the second person receives less than $30, then on average, they will reject the offer.

If you think about it, this is ridiculous. The rational thing to do would be for the first person to offer $50 and the second person to accept it and for both to walk away happy and richer. But this doesn’t happen.

Why?

Because the second person sees the offering party as having more leverage. Even though both parties have the same leverage.

In any negotiation, options are levers – whoever has more options (and therefore is less reliant on any one option) wins.

In most hiring situations, the interviewing party seems to have all the power. They seem to have all the power because they’re holding the money. They’re interviewing multiple candidates and reserving their offer for only one of these candidates.

The only way to put yourself in the driver’s seat of any hiring situation is to create more options for yourself – this means going after multiple job opportunities at once.

The more companies you have interested in you, the more any company will be interested in you. This strategy is often referred to as “pre-selection” or “social proof.” Never go to an interview unless you have other interviews lined up. 

The goal is not to brag about all the other employers interested in you… The goal is to put yourself into a position of psychological power. The other side of the table can always tell if you have options.

If you’re confident in yourself because you have other options, they’ll know it. If you’re desperate because you only have one option, they’ll know it too.

2. Make the other side start the negotiation first

Any reasonable offer will be considered. 

This is what you say when asked how much you expect to earn.

It may seem counterintuitive, but you should always gently pressure hiring managers and recruiters into giving you the first salary offer.

Just make sure you anchor really high before encouraging them to give you an offer. There are 3 reasons for this…
You don’t want to exclude yourself from consideration. Many hiring managers and recruiters are given specific instructions not to consider people who ask for more than the company’s initial offer.

By coercing the other party into giving you the first offer, you put yourself in a great position to bracket your counteroffer and then to split the difference later.

The first person to bring up money in a relationship always looks selfish. This is true in any relationship; it’s human nature. The only way to avoid seeming greedy is to subtly urge them to make the first offer.

3. Ask for more than you expect, but back it up with research

Once you’ve anchored the other side really high and gently encouraged them to make a first offer (and maybe even a second offer), it’s your turn to ask. The key here is to ask for more than you’re willing to accept. The biggest reason for doing this is simple: You just might get what you ask for.

But there are other reasons too…

Asking for more than you expect increases the chances of getting the salary you want without looking greedy.

It also helps you make the other side feel like they won. By asking for more than you’re willing to settle on, you give yourself space to make concessions. Let’s say a company offers you $80,000 per year and you were really hoping for $90,000 year, which is about 12.5% higher.

Under these circumstances, you should ask for $100,000. By asking for $100,000, you make room for the other side to meet you in the middle and offer you the $90,000 you were hoping for.
This technique is called bracketing. Human beings love to split the difference when negotiating because it seems fair.

But humans also love doing things for a reason. So, you should always express the reason WHY you’re asking for a higher salary. The simplest way to do this is to research the highest salaries for the position you’re interested in. All you have to do is go to Salary.com, PayScale.com, Glassdoor.com, or similar websites to find an URL you can reference.

Don’t make the mistake of not giving a reason for your counter-offers. If you don’t provide a reason, the other side will assume the reason is that you’re a greedy jerk.

4. Secure the base salary first – then negotiate other benefits

Most middle-sized and big companies offer a benefits package. Many of these companies get tax write-offs for perks like company cars. Most of these companies are also required to offer you healthcare benefits and vacation packages.

However, they get nothing for giving you a bigger paycheck. As a result, they want you to focus on negotiating your benefits instead of a higher salary

Don’t let hiring managers and recruiters muddy the waters by negotiating your salary and benefit package simultaneously.

Instead, ask them to “set aside” the benefits package until you come to an agreement on the base salary. Once you’ve secured your salary, you can start negotiating a better benefits package.

You may not be able to convince an industry employer to sign with a new healthcare provider just for you… But you can get them to increase your signing bonus or give you an extra two weeks of vacation.

5. Appeal to a “higher authority” and buy time for yourself

Can I take two days to discuss this at home? This is what you should say whenever you receive a job offer. Hiring managers will often appeal to a higher authority as the reason they cannot pay you more.

They will say there’s a salary cap, or they have to talk to the department manager or HR to get approval. This is just a negotiating tactic. The good news is, you can use this tactic as well.

Again, just say something like, “Thank you for the offer. Let me discuss it at home and get back to you in two days.” It doesn’t matter if you live at home alone with nothing more than a plant or if you are married with 10 kids. You can always ask to “discuss it at home.”

The hiring manager is NOT going to ask you, Who are you going to discuss it with? That would be far too personal. By keeping the higher authority vague, you make it nearly impossible for the other person to pinpoint who is making the salary decisions on your behalf.

Concluding Remarks

As you approach negotiation, remember that your starting salary impacts your career trajectory considerably. As negotiation begins, start strong and gain the higher ground by lining up multiple offers. Make the other side give the first salary offer. Negotiation is a multi-step process, but secure the base salary first – then negotiate other benefits. If you’re feeling pressured, you can always appeal to a “higher authority” and buy time for yourself. Following this quick guide for salary negotiations will surely give you confidence and power within your next salary negotiation. 

To learn more about negotiations at the PhD level, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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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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