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The art of negotiating a better salary

Andy Tay
PhD student in bioengineering at UCLA

Naturejobs career expo journalism competition winner Andy Tay

Negotiation is a powerful skill. And, whilst graduate education arms you with technical credentials for a career, it often misses out training for soft skills like negotiation. An ability to negotiate effectively can convince your counterparts to care for your interests, allowing you to maximise personal gains such as pay or career development.

Build the discussion

Graduate education has trained you to provide definite and confident answers to research questions, but beware of flaunting this when asked about an expected salary. If you do, you’ll kill the room for negotiation. Rather than giving a number straight away, try posing questions back to the interviewers by asking them the expected salary range for the job, and explain that you would like to evaluate the whole package, such as health benefits and time off. Deflect questions in moderation, though, so you can avoid frustrating the interviewers and coming across as an overly undecided applicant.

Do your research

If you do sense frustration from the interviewers, you should be prepared to tell them your expected salary. This is where your research skills come in. The more you know about the job and its associated compensation, the stronger your position will be. Make use of websites such as glassdoor.com or salary.com to research and compare compensations across different jobs, responsibilities and locations. Show the interviewers that you’re knowledgeable of the market, and how you expect your offer to deviate from the average.

Online information on salary typically comes from users of the websites and you may find minimal information on jobs which are too specific. Don’t worry. If there’s not much to see, ask your network to help you get a rough figure. You can also ask the interviewers how your expected salary compares with other members in the institution, and to help you understand how their salaries are determined.

Explain your interests

Congratulations, you’ve been offered a job! The bad news is the interviewers made a lower-than-expected offer. It’s upsetting but you can still turn the tables. Tell them why you were expecting a higher salary – after all, you want to be fairly compensated, and you’re willing to shoulder more responsibility. Through this conversation, you’re also creating opportunities for discussion, and learning how the institution evaluates the value of its workers.

As an example, imagine that you’re being offered less money than what you need to purchase good microscopes as a new assistant professor. Do not directly ask for more money. Simply let your department know that you need access to high quality imaging for your research, and ask them where you can access microscopes of comparable standard if you can’t own them.

Suggest alternatives

One of the most powerful techniques in negotiation is to offer credible alternatives. This shows that you are a problem solver, can sympathise with your employers, and are willing to keep the conversation moving. Let’s say that you’ve decided to take up a job offer despite its lower salary, as the job market is competitive and you truly enjoy all other aspects of the role. To increase your salary, you can work with representatives from the HR department on early performance reviews to understand the value you’re generating for the institution. In doing so, you’re preparing yourself for success and increasing your chances of a pay increase in the near future.

Most graduate students spend their time in research laboratories and have limited experience negotiating salary and job offers. But you need to admit that negotiating is the art of convincing others to prioritise your interests. Utilise online resources, arrange mock interviews with colleagues and career centres, and develop your personal style for negotiation now!


Article credit: Nature.com

ndy is a PhD student in the bioengineering department of the University of California, Los Angeles.

His research focuses on the evolution of magnetotactic bacteria and biophysics of neurons. In his free time, Andy enjoys using the gym and writing.

You can find Andy on LinkedIn and Google Scholar.