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During my doctoral program, I gained a range of skills and experiences that I draw on today as a graduate career coach at the University of Utah. When I started my current job, the aspect I felt least prepared for was teaching students to negotiate compensation.
The most important thing I’ve learned is that the basis for a successful negotiation is research and reflection. It’s about making a case for your value to the employer -- showing how you will excel at meeting the specific needs they’ve expressed based on your accomplishments and skills. You can determine your target range using salary and cost-of-living research tools like Payscale, Salary.com, Glassdoor and NerdWallet, as well as your professional network. Make it clear how a win for you (in terms of your compensation) is also a win for your employer (in terms of their needs). You can get an excellent introductory course free from the American Association of University Women and a range of postgrad financial advice (free and paid) from Personal Finance for PhDs.
But there’s more to it than that. Communication can always throw us curveballs, and many of us already feel off balance when money is involved. Seeking to improve my own knowledge and ability to inform students, I took an unscientific poll of my colleagues’ and friends’ negotiation stories and strategies. I got a mix of clear, pragmatic advice along with evidence of systemic problems requiring different solutions. Everyone can learn to negotiate better, but institutional leaders may need to advocate on behalf of job seekers and junior colleagues to advance equity in compensation.
First, the pragmatic advice.
A former department chair at Syracuse University addressed the common fear of asking for too much money: “I have never known a university to retract a job offer just because the candidate asks for too much. They will simply say no, but the offer will remain on the table because the university has invested far too much time and money in getting the search to this point to abandon it.” As in the wider job market, any amount you can justify in terms of the value you bring is worth putting on the table and will usually not compromise the job offer.
Multiple colleagues in graduate career coaching offered a counterintuitive suggestion: become comfortable with silence. You do not have to take it as cue to revise your offer down. Instead, you can hold firm, politely restate your case for the compensation you deserve and choose your next move without giving any ground. “Silence itself can be used as a tactic,” a colleague reminded me. Sometimes it’s strategic, she added, to “just sit with it and give the other person the chance to take their time to answer, since the ball is in their court. Simply, silence is not a reason that you should be giving ground. Even though one can feel the pressure to fill the air with talk, don't. Silence in negotiation shows confidence. Silence and listening and showing openness to listening is powerful.” (In this excellent podcast episode, Cheeky Scientist CEO Isaiah Hankel walks through a number of negotiation scripts designed to counter many other conversational tactics hiring managers may employ.)
A recent STEM postdoc recommended job seekers keep in mind the full range of what’s negotiable -- not just salary but also many types of benefits, including relocation assistance. A fellow career coach reminded me that work schedules are sometimes negotiable, as well, citing a friend who negotiated a four-day workweek by arguing that extra time off would aid her creative work for her employer.
Several colleagues recommended that if you have multiple offers, you can make careful use of this fact to strengthen your negotiating position. The same STEM postdoc advised, “When you have more than one offer, use that in your advantage when negotiating salary/benefits/relocation. I was able to negotiate location and salary with my employer at the time based on the fact that I had received an offer to move to a different organization.”
Dorothy Rogers, chair of the religion department at Montclair State University, told me that in faculty hiring, “If you have two offers, let both parties know (even which institutions are competing for you), and if the salary is way lower at one of them, let them know that, too. Sometimes knowing another institution is competing for you will: a) speed up decision making and b) increase the money being offered (if possible, depending on institution). Remember,” she added, “never to inflate or exaggerate other offers.”
A new faculty member provided a particularly vivid picture of how they leveraged multiple offers: “One of the strategies I used in the second negotiation phone call was that at the beginning, I started by talking about how I really like my current institution and that I knew [the hiring manager] knew I was also interviewing there. I spent a few minutes describing my attachment to it (during which time I think he was probably anticipating that I was about to turn down the position). Then I ended by saying that I’d be willing to ‘discontinue discussions with my current institution’ if we were able to come to an agreement on the final sticking points of salary and start-up funding. I think that set the stage for him to be more willing to be flexible.”
When I spoke with Dinuka Gunaratne, career education strategy and communication specialist at the University of Waterloo, and Calvin Chan, a recent biology Ph.D. who now works as a career adviser at Waterloo, they told me how they worked together to help Calvin navigate multiple offers at Waterloo and elsewhere. Dinuka and Calvin also pointed out that, in some negotiations, money may not be the highest priority. Calvin might have made more in another role, but he was very interested in working with the team and culture he already knew at Waterloo.
Similarly, Dinuka told me, a job seeker might accept a lower-paying offer if it will allow them to explore a particular career path they value. On this path, he advised, you can negotiate for mentorship and professional development resources -- for experiences that add value to your professional profile and open up desired career paths. “Understand the big picture,” he said. “Know how to negotiate for the future rather than now.” These value judgments can become part of your BATNA (“best alternative to a negotiated agreement”), the minimum level of compensation you will accept for a job, below which you will decline the offer. “Also remember, the process is what matters, not the outcome,” Dinuka said. Accepting a salary somewhat lower than you asked for is not a failure if you decide the job will serve your values and strengthen your career in other important ways.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Dinuka how he learned to negotiate. “As a person of color,” he said, “I always got the underhand … By necessity, I said, ‘No more.’ If I’m going to bring value, I need to communicate that. I need to try.”
Tackling Systemic Problems
But one shouldn’t need to be as strategic and determined as Dinuka to be paid equitably. It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect folks to overcome systemic problems solely through individual efforts. Caroline Levine, chair of the department of literatures in English at Cornell University, wrote to me, “I was trying to think about negotiating strategies, and I realized that I often feel that women really have no good way to do this -- ask for more, and you're considered pushy and entitled; don't ask, and you don't get raises. As chair, I do a lot of negotiating for others, and that's one place where I think more work has to happen. People with power should be advocating for pay equity for women and BIPOC colleagues. So maybe this is more of a collective problem than an individual strategy question?”
Caroline gave a specific example of how she’s done this in her role as chair: “Negotiating works differently on different campuses,” she wrote, “but in my college at Cornell, the chair can make a case to the dean that a particular faculty member is underpaid and deserves a ‘special merit’ raise. I looked over all of our colleagues' records of publication, teaching, and service and made the case that two faculty of color were underpaid given their accomplishments. The dean agreed to raise their salaries in that year’s merit cycle.”
My colleague Anna Renzetti, an assistant director in the career and professional development center at the University of Utah, shared a similar account. She negotiated with leadership to secure higher pay for our graphic designer and a leader among our student workers. Officewide projects provided opportunities to expand staff members’ roles and advocate for higher compensation for them. The question guiding Anna’s efforts was, “How can we support and advocate for each other?” She hopes they will pay it forward and help create a “chain reaction of women supporting women,” stepping out of their comfort zones to advocate for themselves and then others.
It’s important to note that in both Caroline’s and Anna’s stories, their own commitment to advocating for others’ pay may not have been sufficient to make it happen. Individual efforts will only go so far. In both cases, leaders further up the hierarchy had to agree to the changes. Caroline pointed me to a tweet from the journalist and author Stefanie O’Connell Rodriguez, who wrote, “Can we start saying ‘ambition penalty’ instead of ‘confidence gap’ when we talk about women and girls? It’s not so much a fear of speaking up, negotiating, asserting oneself, etc. at issue, but the reprisal for doing so. This distinction clarifies where the need for change lies.” O’Connell Rodriguez’s website links to copious research suggesting that this is true -- it’s important to teach our students and junior colleagues to be skilled negotiators, but that alone will not end pay inequities. Potent cultural barriers still stand in the way, and those who hold significant power in institutions need to actively seek out ways to use it on behalf of those who don’t.