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How To Ditch Your Imposter Syndrome And Negotiate The Pay You Are Worth As A PhD

Contributing Author: Jeanette McConnell Ph.D.

When I finished my PhD I was completely spent.

I wasn’t sure what to do.

I had spent all this time preparing for a career in academia but realized shortly before I finished that was not the path for me.

But what else could I do?

I felt useless and like I had very little value.

I got a job at a coffee shop so I could pay my rent.

But every time I saw a job opening that sounded interesting to me, I thought to myself, “You aren’t qualified for that.”

It happened over and over again.

My imposter syndrome was so severe, that I had a PhD in chemistry but whenever a job about chemistry was open I felt like I didn’t have the skills they needed in an employee.

Looking back now I see how ridiculous this is.

I have a PhD in chemistry!

I am qualified for the roles that interest me.

But I could not see this at the time, I was consumed by imposter syndrome.

When I got my first job (that wasn’t at a coffee shop) after my PhD I immediately accepted the offer.

I feared they would discover at any moment that I was a fraud and would rescind the offer.

That was never going to happen.

What did happen is that I was paid less than what was possible.

I was being underpaid.

My fear and imposter syndrome left me in a position where I was being paid less than what was fair.

Once I realized this, I was frustrated.

But I knew that I was going to learn from this experience so that it didn’t happen again.

I also want to share this with other PhDs so they don’t make the same mistakes I did.

I want you to be able to overcome your imposter feelings and negotiate a salary that makes you feel valued.

What You Will Gain By Negotiating Your Salary

You may feel awkward about negotiating your salary.

Just hoping that the company will offer you a fair salary and go with that.

Sure, the salary you are offered in industry is going to be much higher than what you were making in academia, but this doesn’t mean it’s as high as it should be.

Many companies want to pay you as little as possible.

This doesn’t mean they don’t value you, but a company is always focused on the bottom line and every dollar spent is an investment.

According to a report by Robert Half, 70% of hiring managers do not expect the job candidate to take the first salary offer.

They expect you to negotiate.

So that means they are offering you less than what is possible.

The same survey found that 55% of candidates are negotiating their salary.

Are you?

The market is currently a candidate driven market, meaning that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the unemployment rate continues to fall, currently at just 3.7% and talent is in short supply.

Employers are competing over the talented employees (you!) which means that you have leverage when negotiating.

You just need to move past the thoughts that you are not worth a higher salary and negotiate.

How To Overcome Imposter Syndrome And Negotiate Confidently

You feel nervous.

Scared.

Anxious.

These are just a few of the emotions that many PhDs experience alongside the thought of negotiating.

But this is unnecessary.

Negotiating is a normal part of your job search.

Employers expect you to negotiate and you are worthy of a salary that you think is fair.

Don’t let your imposter syndrome lower your salary.

This will impact you for your entire career.

Learn how you can ditch that imposter syndrome and negotiate the salary you are worth as a PhD…

1. Dig into the data.

The data doesn’t lie.

Dig in and do some research to see what people with your education level, in your area, in your position of interest are making.

You are worth that number.

It’s going to be much higher than what you are making in academia but that doesn’t mean that you are unworthy of that amount.

It will probably take some time for you to wrap your head around how underpaid you have been in academia.

That’s okay.

But, don’t let your current situation or desperation keep you from earning a salary you deserve.

As a PhD using data to objectively reach a conclusion is something you know how to do better than most.

Use this to your advantage.

Once you receive an offer from your potential employer compare it to the salary amount that you researched.

How does it compare?

If the salary is lower than you were expecting, don’t get defensive, be objective and use the data to support your argument.

Ask open ended questions and highlight the specific value that you will bring to the organization.

Wait for them to give the first number.

But when the time comes for your counter offer, use the data you have about comparable salaries.

Mention that according to the research you have done on similar roles in the area, the average salary is $XX, then ask, what can we do to get the offer closer to that number?

This way even if you are feeling like an imposter, you are using the objective data to demonstrate your worth.

This is what people in that role make.

So it is what you should be making as well.

2. Do informational interviews.

If you are feeling as though you are not qualified for industry or that you are lucky someone is even offering you a job, you need to set up some informational interviews.

Specifically, set up meetings with other PhDs who have made the switch to industry.

Ask them about their journey.

Find out how they felt when they were first searching for job.

You will see that you are not alone.

But most importantly, by talking with others who have been where you are, you will learn how you can make the mental shift required to succeed in industry.

Ask the other person about their transition and what was key for them being able to make the switch.

What was it that helped them see themselves as a valuable employee?

Remember, the person you are meeting with was once exactly where you are.

You too are a valuable addition to industry.

You will bring value to an organization.

Use these meetings as an opportunity to see what other PhDs, like you, are able to accomplish in industry.

You can accomplish similar things.

And you are worthy of a salary to match those accomplishments.

Plus, by being so genuine and open with the other person, you will be able to foster a strong relationship with them.

This is the beginning of your growing industry network which will only make you even more valuable in industry.

3. Outline the value that you will bring.

Before you go into a job interview, and especially before negotiating, make a list or outline of why you are the perfect fit for the role.

What is it about you that makes you the right choice?

Start with your technical skills as this is usually easier for us as PhDs.

Which of your expert technical skills are important to the role and how will you use them to achieve a result for the company?

This is just a list for you, so don’t worry about writing it perfectly.

Just jot down the technical skills you have that the company is looking for and how those skills would help you have a positive impact on the company.

Next do the same for your transferable skills.

What transferable skills are key for the position?

Write them down.

Then think about how you would use each of those skills to improve the company or organization where you would like to work.

This list will be different depending on your skills and the position.

Once you are done, look back over the list.

Those are the reasons the company will be excited about hiring you, that is the value that you will bring.

When going into negotiations there are 2 things you should do with this information.

The first is commit it to your memory and hold onto that value.

Knowing that you are a valuable addition to the company will come across as confidence which will favorably influence your salary negotiations.

The second is to reiterate these value points when asking open ended questions and making your counter offer.

It is the reason they should pay you more.

4. Get a ‘that’s right’ out of your interviewers.

Negotiations start the moment that you communication with a company begins.

As soon as you interact with the company they are assessing your value.

How much are you worth?

They are deciding how much to offer you based on how you act in your interviews.

One thing that you can do to dramatically increase the initial starting number is to get a ‘that’s right’ out of your interviewers.

This saying comes from Chris Voss, a former FBI negotiator and salary negotiation expert.

It means that you need to relate to the interviewers.

You need to show that you understand their position.

One way to do this is to identify with the worry they are having about hiring someone new.

You could say:

“I understand that you all are under a lot of pressure. You have good people inside your company but, you’re a little worried that you’re going to bring somebody else in and be disappointed. You want to take your company to the next level and you want people that are committed to taking you to the next level. Employees that are not selfish and not just looking out for themselves at all. You want people that are saying to themselves how do we get to the next level?”

After you say something like this, the interviewers will be nodding in agreement, thinking or saying out loud “That’s right.”

You have successfully place yourself and the employer on the same side.

You are now on the same team.

This means it will be easy to make the negotiations win-win because you have already aligned yourself as a team member.

Throughout all your interaction with the company pay close attention to when you are getting those head nods or ‘that’s right’ responses.

When those things happen you are on the right track and are speaking about things that matter to the company.

Remember these moments.

And then leverage those important topics when reiterating the value that you will bring to the company.

5. Be excited and focused on your future at the company.

Never waiver in your excitement and commitment to the position.

During those negotiations you might feel frustrated that they have offered you a certain salary or that it’s taking too long.

Never let that influence how you are presenting yourself to the company.

Always be positive, excited and future focused.

Before picking up the phone remind yourself about why you are excited for this role and what it is that drew you to the position.

Then, with that mindset go into the negotiations.

It will not help you to set ultimatums or to be aggressive.

Just stay positive and excited.

Say things like, “I’m very excited for this opportunity and know I will be a great fit because of xyz. I was hoping for a bit more in terms of salary. What can we do?”

NEVER say “That salary is too low for me. I need to make at least xyz”

Do you see the difference in those statements?

One is focused on the bigger picture, on the company and on the future, the other is focused just on yourself and what you want.

The way to negotiation success is with the former.

Even if they company is not able to meet your salary requirements and you choose to walk away – stay positive and future focused.

Thank them for considering you, thank them for their time and mentioned your excitement of the possibility of something in the future.

Never close a door.

Salary negotiations are a part of every job search. Even if you don’t negotiate, you better believe that the company who hired you was negotiating. You just didn’t realize it. Because negotiations begin as soon as you interact with a company. Often imposter syndrome keeps PhDs from owning their value and negotiating the salary they deserve. To ditch this imposter feeling dig into the data, do informational interviews, outline the value that you will bring, get a ‘that’s right’ out of your interviewers, and be excited and focused on your future at the company.

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Jeanette McConnell, PhD

Jeanette McConnell, PhD

Jeanette is a chemistry PhD turned science communication enthusiast. During her PhD she realized that her favorite part about research wasn’t actually doing research, but rather talking and writing about it. So, she has channeled her passion for discovery into teaching and writing about science. When she isn’t talking someone’s ear off about her latest scientific obsession, you’ll find her on the soccer field or reading a good sci-fi novel.
Jeanette McConnell, PhD