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5 Ways PhDs Ruin Salary Negotiations And End Up Getting Paid Less Than They Are Worth

Contributing Author: Don Nelsen, Ph.D.

I’m happy to share with you that I’ve successfully transitioned into my first role as an industry scientist!

I’ll try to be concise with my story, but no promises.

When I began the process of looking around for jobs I polished my LinkedIn profile, made a resume that was flexible enough and targeted enough to be quite easily tailored, and started inviting people into my network.

I went from a few dozen LinkedIn connections to over 500, and made an effort to make those connections meaningful.

I started actively using every avenue available to get hired.

I put out resumes, I applied online, I leveraged my network to express interest in companies and positions, and I found recruiting agencies to which I tailored communications regarding specific openings.

Take away point #1: jump in and get started, finding a job IS a full time job.

Not too long after, I had an onsite interview for a leadership role in a well-established company in my geographic region.

I used all the CSA materials available to tailor my talk, and perfect my interview answers, focusing on transferable skills rather than the irrelevant details of my area of specialty.

I like telling stories (as you can probably tell), so with just a little structure added to my natural inclination I was able to knock my half-day of interviews out of the park (in my opinion anyway)!

I sent a thank you email, and followed up a week later.

I didn’t wait to hear back though; I kept working on getting a job.

Take away point #2: don’t wait to hear back about a job offer. Go get the next opportunity so you aren’t spending all your time worrying over the last one!

I was contacted by a recruiter for another leadership position at a young company.

I was interviewed and again prepared using CSA materials.

I knocked it out of the park and the company came back to offer me the job within a week!

Unfortunately, there was miscommunication between the company and the recruiter, and they were hesitant about salary requirements.

I communicated with company leadership and encouraged them to send me their offer to consider.

They were very insistent that I tell them my current salary, even though in a previous conversation they said they would offer me the best compensation package that they could, and that they did not want to negotiate a low salary.

I refused to give my academic salary, based on that previous conversation, because I felt the company was being dishonest and that I should stick to my sense of professional ethics.

Our negotiations ended abruptly, and they moved forward with another candidate, without communicating with the recruiter, which to me was another sign that I made the right choice.

Take away point #3: stick to your sense of professionalism and ethics. If a company is giving you signals that they may not be a good fit for you, pay attention.

A few months later, the company that I originally interviewed with reached out to me again with a job opportunity.

I negotiated my salary with the Hiring Manager, and we settled on a great compensation package, win-win!

What Employers Think About Salary Negotiation

Employers expect you to negotiate your salary.

This is a normal part of a job offer and if you don’t negotiate you are losing out on earning thousands of dollars more every year.

CareerBuilder reported that 52% of employers stated that the first offer they give candidates is a lower salary than they are willing to pay.

They are leaving room for you to negotiate.

But, if you just accept the low salary they initially offer you, you will never know what they actually would have been willing to pay you.

You must remember your value.

Plus, your fears of the employer turning down your request are actually misplaced.

The majority of job candidates who ask for a salary increase are given the increase.

According to Jobvite, 68% of employers increased the starting salary for those candidates who asked.

However, you have to make the ask and you have to do it the right way.

5 Ways PhDs Ruin Salary Negotiations And Get Paid Less Than They Are Worth

Once you reach the job offer and negotiation stage of your job search, you have already done a lot of work.

Your networking paid off and you got your resume into the hands of a hiring manager.

Your well constructed resume scored you a phone screen.

The practice and preparation you did for your phone screen earned you a site visit interview.

The extensive research you did about the company resulted in a successful site visit.

And now you have a job offer. What do you do now?

How can you make sure you get paid what you are worth?

So many PhDs are uncertain about how to handle salary negotiations and end up with a less than ideal outcome.

Prepare yourself for a successful salary negotiation by learning from these 5 frustrating mistakes PhDs often make during a salary negotiation…

1. Giving a verbal ‘yes’ before receiving a written offer.

All throughout the interviewing process the employer has the opportunity to get you to agree to a certain salary.

They might ask you if a certain salary or salary range is acceptable or say if I offered you x amount right now, would you take it?

These are just negotiating tactics.

And you need to be prepared to handle them without committing to a specific salary way to early.

You shouldn’t commit or agree to any specific salary until you have a written agreement.

So, when you are asked questions that try to get you to accept a certain salary you should have a few methods for deflecting these questions ready.

To deflect the questions you can say, “I’m willing to consider all reasonable offers.”

You want to keep the ball in their court, so to speak, until you have a written offer.

Another way to deflect is to lean into your inexperience.

You can say something like, “Oh, I’m not sure what a normal salary is for your company for this position, so I defer to your expertise.”

Always stay excited and don’t get annoyed or frustrated by these questions.

They are a part of the interview process you need to show them that you can handle these types of questions and conversations calmly.

2. Letting fear control your choices.

Yes, if this is your first time negotiating a salary you are going to be nervous.

It’s normal and it’s okay.

What’s not okay is letting that fear control your actions and decision making.

All that will happen if you allow yourself to be controlled by the fear that you will end up getting paid a lower salary than you deserve.

So, instead, be courageous.

A few things that will help with being brave are:

  1. Remember that negotiating is expected of you.
  2. Pursue multiple job opportunities at once to create leverage.
  3. Do your research so you are confident in what is a good salary for your target position.

Many PhDs are fearful that if they negotiate the employer will retract the job offer and they will be left with nothing.

First of all, in all likelihood this is not going to happen.

Employers expect you to negotiate and they are ready for you to as for more money, they probably even have their counter offer ready before you even ask.

Remember you are worth a salary much higher than what you are being paid in academia, so face your fear of negotiation had get paid what you are worth.

3. Telling the employer your current salary.

This is another tactic that an employer will use to get you to commit to a specific number and anchor your salary low.

You can use the same strategies outlined in point number one above to deflect questions about your current salary.

But sometimes an employer might be persistent and really want to know your current salary.

The way to deal with this situation is different if this is your first industry position or if you are moving into a new position in industry.

If this is your first industry position the biggest thing you need to remember is to not let them call your academic pay a salary.

You did not make a salary in academia, you made a stipend or you were reimbursed for your work via a grant.

it’s very important that you make this distinction.

So, if you are pressed for your salary you can say, “Well, in my academic position I didn’t make a salary but instead was given a stipend by the university. For this role, I am open to all reasonable offers. I am very excited about the opportunity to work here and will defer to your expertise for what is a reasonable offer.”

If you are already in an industry position, and you are asked about your salary then you need to be more transparent.

Your potential employer can just call up your current or previous employer and find out your salary if they want to, so in this situation you can tell them your current salary.

But, the important thing to do here is to reframe the salary so that it’s clear that your previous salary is for a different role and that you expect a higher salary in this new position.

To reframe the salary, follow up telling them your current salary by quoting the average salary for the position you are applying for or by stating that you are looking for an non-incremental change in your salary in order to justify leaving your current position where you have already built up great connections.

These strategies will help you maintain a position of power in the negotiations.

4. Being defensive and too aggressive.

This is the number one way to ruin a negotiation – being defensive or aggressive.

You must maintain the utmost professionalism at all times.

Be super, super polite.

Remember, you want to make your negotiation a win-win situation because these people are your future colleagues.

No matter what, stay focused on the positives and bring the conversation back to what you will bring to the company.

Never say things like, ‘I can’t live on that” or present ultimatums like, “I can only accept this position if you meet my salary expectations”.

Phrases like that place you and the employer on opposite sides, when, in fact, you are on the same side.

So, when negotiating use language that conveys you are working together, use the word ‘we’.

If the salary they offer is too low, say, “Thank you for the offer, I was really hoping for more than that, what can we do?”.

Hold your ground and remember your value, but be very positive and polite throughout.

5. Stopping your negotiations early.

So many PhDs think the negotiations end once the salary has been decided, but this is wrong.

You are right that you should negotiate your base salary first.

Base salary is the most important part of your compensation package and deserves the most attention, but it is not the only part of a negotiation.

Once you have settled on a base salary you can focus on the other benefits that the company is offering you.

Choose what is most important for your situation.

For example, if you have a family negotiating your healthcare package might be a top priority or if you are moving negotiation your relocation package might be the number one thing for you.

It takes focus and determination to see a negotiation though it’s entirety.

It will take time and lots of communication but it will be worth it.

Depending on the company, a few of the things you might be able to negotiate in addition to base salary are: signing bonus, yearly bonus, healthcare, relocation package, corporate apartment, stock options and vacation time.

Negotiations are a normal part of getting hired. You may not like it and you may be scared, but you need to learn how to negotiate so that you can get paid a salary that fits your education level. Don’t mess up your salary negotiations by giving a verbal ‘yes’ before receiving a written offer, letting fear control your choices, telling the employer your current salary, being defensive or too aggressive, or stopping negotiations early. Avoid these common mistakes and you will set yourself up for a successful salary negotiation.

To learn more about the 5 Ways PhDs Ruin Salary Negotiations And End Up Getting Paid Less Than They Are Worth, 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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Don Nelsen, Ph.D.

Don Nelsen, Ph.D.

Don is a Research Scientist III Viracor Eurofins Clinical Diagnostics. He is a biologist with over a decade of experience developing, optimizing, and carrying out research in the field and the lab. His professional development has taken him all the way from being a sailor on the decks of a US Navy destroyer to a PhD researcher and instructor in biological research labs all over the world.
Don Nelsen, Ph.D.