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Basic Negotiation Tactics for Grad Students

Tips on negotiating one's first job offer out of graduate school.

December 15, 2014

Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at microbematters.org, kdshives.com, and on Twitter @KDShives.

Graduate school is the final stage before entering professional employment, yet many graduates lack the negotiation skills necessary for the impending job search. As a result, many recent graduates take the very first offer they get out of school without negotiating their salary or terms of employment, which can lead to an individual being underpaid for their work. Unfortunately, our future pay is often a product of what we are currently paid, so that failing to negotiate for a higher salary initially (even as simple as $5000 more a year) can compound over a lifetime of work to a loss equivalent to $500,000.

With that in mind, here are some basic tactics you should know going into salary negotiations as a recent graduate.

1. Postpone salary negotiation until after you get offered the job if at all possible. It’s important to enter into negotiations on the understanding that you are the employer’s desired candidate for the job. If pressured early on to give a number (such as during an on-campus interview), it is acceptable to say something along the lines of “I expect to be compensated at a rate comparable to others working in this capacity” and save the hard numbers until you have a job offer.

2. Come prepared with the relevant information. Graduate students know how to conduct research, so use those hard-won skills in your job search! Take the time to find out what the pay range is for that particular position so that you will know if you are being offered reasonable compensation.

3. Don’t give the first number. It is always advisable to let your potential employer state the first number. Either you will be surprised with how high the offer is (graduate student stipends can warp what looks like “reasonable pay”) or be presented with a lower offer that you have prepared a counter offer for (See #2).

If truly pressed for a number, you can cite the pay range for the position and direct the conversation back to the specific duties of that position and ask for the employer to state a number based on their view of the position; or you could say something along the lines of “I believe that you are in a much better position to determine the value that this work will bring to the company.” Either way, the goal is to direct the focus back to the potential employer so that they state the number first, allowing you to determine what kind of counter offer to make.

4. Have a counter offer in mind before negotiations start. Know how much you want (plus your bottom line) and be prepared to ask for slightly more than what you want in order to leave room for compromise. If you want 10% more, ask for 20% so the compromise between the initial offer and your counter offer is what you want.

5. Don’t stop at the salary. Once you get the salary settled, don’t forget about the other parts of the employment package. Vacation days, stock options, health insurance policies, moving expenses, signing bonuses, even a company car (if you’re at the right kind of company) can all be negotiated.

Three Common Mistakes and How Not to Make Them:

1. Taking the very first offer. Oh, the temptation to take the very first job offered out of graduate school! Many employers are hoping to get you as cheap as possible and expect some form of negotiation of the initial offer. If you’re not sure, 10% is a safe bet that you can ask for without offending your potential employer.

2. Only negotiating salary. It’s easy to focus on the numbers, but sometimes there is very little play in how much an employer can pay you. This can be due to many reasons (budgetary considerations, salary caps, etc.), but there is much more to look at during the negotiation process. Other considerations can include the scope of duties associated with the position, the schedule for salary increases, benefits, and vacation days. If an employer wants to hire you but is limited on how much they can pay, it is quite possible that you can put together a more attractive offer if you negotiate on these other often overlooked items.

3. Bringing in personal issues. Almost all of us have some sort of student debt; after 6 to 10+ years in higher education, it’s pretty much unavoidable. However, do not cite personal issues such as student debt as the reason for higher pay; it is extremely important to keep the negotiation centered upon what you are bringing to the potential job and why this qualifies you for your proposed salary, not why you need the money.

With these basic tips in mind (and the common mistakes to avoid), you will be in a good position to negotiate with your first employer out of graduate school and start what will hopefully be a productive and mutually rewarding relationship.

If you have negotiated your salary after leaving graduate school, how was the experience and what did you learn? Please share in the comments section below.

[Image courtesy Flickr user BrentO, used under Creative Commons license]


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