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Use Your PhD To Negotiate Confidently (Even If You’re Scared To Lose The Job Offer)

Written by: Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

When I signed my first industry contract, I thought I was getting a great deal.

My salary was several times more than I what I earned as a PhD student, it was more than the postdocs in my lab earned, and I got a signing bonus!

I was overjoyed with how much they were going to pay me!

But, this elation was short-lived.

One evening, after I had accepted the offer, I was discussing my excitement with a friend.

But, when I told my friend my salary, he went silent and then said, “That’s way too low.”


But, it’s so much higher that what I made in graduate school, and I got a signing bonus!

I didn’t believe my friend at first.

But, he was right.

The recruiter had used common negotiation tactics on me — and they worked.

The recruiter I was working with had told me that he was offering me the maximum salary he was allowed.

And, I believed him.

Rookie mistake.

Later, I learned there is no “max salary” — if a company wants to hire you, they will pay you what you want to earn.

And, focusing my attention on the signing bonus was a way to distract me from the low base salary — also called “muddying the waters”.

I didn’t ask for anything more because I assumed it wasn’t possible, which is exactly what the recruiter wanted me to think.

When I was ready to move on to my next industry position, I remembered my first experience with salary negotiation, — I was not going to get played again.

And, you don’t have to either, by learning how to negotiate using a win-win attitude and a few simple strategies.

Why Failing To Negotiate Is The Worst Mistake You Will Make In Your Job Search

Negotiating your salary is just another part of the hiring process.

You shouldn’t think of it as optional, because it is something that the organization hiring you expects you to do.

The initial offer an organization has given you is lower than what they are willing to pay you.

They expect you to negotiate.

By failing to negotiate, you will lose out on thousands of dollars.

According to Glassdoor, on average, by not negotiating you are missing out on $7,528, or a 13.3% increase in your stating salary.

Over time, missing out on this initial salary increase will cost you hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

An economist from Carnegie Mellon University told NPR that when graduate students don’t negotiate their initial salary, they are missing out on $1 million to $1.5 million dollar over the course of their career.

Asking a simple question could earn you more than a million dollars! So, why don’t people do it?

Recently reported by CNBC, only 39% of people negotiate their salary.

The majority of people do not negotiate — whether it’s because they are scared or don’t know how, these people are missing out big time.

Negotiating is just a skill you need to learn and then practice.

3 Strategies You Can Use To Negotiate A Higher Salary While Maintaining A Win-Win Attitude

Negotiating (especially for the first time) is stressful.

But, it’s important that your stress does not negatively impact your attitude during the negotiations.

Because, staying positive and excited is how you can make the negotiation a win-win situation.

To maintain the right attitude, it’s essential that you prepare.

So, here are the top 3 strategy preparations you need to make in order to be assertive, and yet nice, in your salary negotiations…

1. Know your “walk away” number because it is the only thing that drives your negotiations.

A “walk away” number is very tough for many PhDs to identify and then stick to.

But, it is the basis for your entire negotiation strategy.

You need to know your value and have a clear salary number that is your bottom line.

Don’t share this walk away number with your employer, but rather, use it to guide your decision-making.

As PhDs leaving academia, even a low industry salary will likely be higher than what you were making in academia.

But remember, you are a highly educated expert, and you are worth a high paying salary.

The walk away number will be different for everyone, depending on where you live, the positions you are looking at, your lifestyle, etc.

The important thing is to take the time to work through the math and figure out what salary is acceptable to you.

So, what is your walk away number?

2. Always deflect, avoid, and dodge giving the first number.

Salary negotiations have begun as soon as the company has identified you as a viable candidate.

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

But, there is only one tactic that you should use before you get a written offer, and that is to avoid giving the first number.

The person who gives the first hard number gives away the competitive advantage.

So, the organization is going to try and get you to give the first number — 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, “What salary would you expect from this position?” or “What would it take to get you on board with us?” or “What are your salary expectations?”

Here are a few phrases you can use to respond to those types of questions:

1. “Salary is not my first concern. I’m much more interested in learning more about the opportunity and the people I’ll be working with. Can we come back to this later?”

2. “I’m very excited about this opportunity, so of course I’ll consider all reasonable offers.”

3. “I’m sure this won’t be a problem for us, as long as you can make a competitive offer.”

4. “I’m open to a wide range of salaries. I’m sure this won’t be an issue for us. By the way, who is responsible for making those decisions?”

Another way the recruiter or hiring manager might try to get you to give the first number is to ask about your current salary.

Again, you don’t want to tell them this number.

Use a phrase like the ones below to deflect the inquiry:

5. “Well, what I was earning in academia is not really relevant. That was a very different situation. Instead, I am interested in earning competitive compensation for this particular position, which I’m sure won’t be a problem for us.”

6. “In academia I actually didn’t earn a salary, 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.”

7. “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 5 years. I’m sure salary will not be an issue for us.”

Also, realize that if you do make the mistake of telling the recruiter or hiring manager a salary number, there is still a way to negotiate.

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

Use the following scripts as a guide for how to approach the conversation.

8. “Well, I believe I spoke prematurely in 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.”

9. “Well, I have more information now than I did before, and I think that considering this position, a higher salary is more appropriate.”

3. Maintain a positive outlook, but be persistent to increase your starting salary.

Once you have a written offer, it’s time to negotiate, starting with the base salary.

An organization expects you to negotiate — they expect you to fight for what you are worth.

You will probably receive this written offer by email, but when negotiating, it’s better to do this over the phone or in person.

You could write:

10. “Thank you so much for the offer. I am very excited about this position. I’d like to go through the offer so 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 are going to get a high-paying job and they are going to hire an amazing candidate.

Once you are on the phone, or in a meeting, there are key phrases you can use to negotiate a higher salary without being too aggressive or negative.

You will want to practice using these phrases before you are in the real negotiation.

Here are a few sample dialogues for how the negotiation might go and what you can say each step of the way.

11. You: “I’m so excited, this is fantastic, and this job aligns perfectly with my
background. But, I was really hoping for more than that. What can we do?”

Hiring manager: “What were you hoping for?”

You: “What’s possible?”

12. You: “Thank you very much for the offer. I am very excited to join the company 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 and don’t usually negotiate.”

You: “Okay, great — I understand your policy. Under what circumstances in the past have you 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.”

13. You: “ I am so excited to join the company and start working with the team, but I was really hoping for more. What can we do?”

Hiring manager: “This is the best offer that I am able to make.”

You: “Okay, thank you, I understand. Who would we need to bring into the conversation in order to raise the initial offer?”

The theme with these negotiations is to always bring the conversation back to your excitement to join the organization and to use we/us instead I/me as often as possible.

You are not in opposition to the recruiter or hiring manager.

You are on the same team, and finding a salary that everyone is happy with is the goal.

Focus on the value that you will add, talk about how great the company seems to you, and how you will be a great fit.

You are expected to negotiate your salary. It is something that you should do, and that an organization is expecting you to do. If you don’t negotiate, you will lose out on thousands (if not millions) of dollars over your career. But, you don’t have to be a jerk to negotiate a high salary. In fact, being positive and excited is key to a successful negotiation. In order to get the best salary possible, you need to know your “walk away” number, because it gives your negotiations power, it gives you strategies to deflect, avoid and dodge giving the first number, and enables strategies that will increase your starting salary. If you understand the strategies to maintain a win-win attitude throughout your negotiation, you will be able to increase your starting salary.

To learn more about how to Use Your PhD To Negotiate Confidently (Even If You’re Scared To Lose The Job Offer), 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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Isaiah Hankel

Chief Executive Officer at Cheeky Scientist
Isaiah Hankel holds a PhD in Anatomy and Cell Biology. An expert in the biotechnology industry, he specializes in helping other PhDs transition into cutting-edge industry career tracks.

Isaiah believes--from personal experience--that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life, it’s a clear sign that you need to make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.

Isaiah is an internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant, CEO of Cheeky Scientist, and author of the straight-talk bestsellers Black Hole Focus and The Science of Intelligent Achievement.
Isaiah Hankel


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