Negotiating for scientists

Published August 01 2018

Debra Behrens, a Ph.D. counselor at the University of California, Berkeley, says negotiation is not just a skill for getting what we want in job offers but for use in our daily lives.Courtesy of Debra Behrens Debra Behrens is a Ph.D. counselor at the University of California, Berkeley, where she addresses the career concerns of graduate students, postdocs and international scholars in the sciences. She specializes in career change, negotiation, dual-career issues, cross-cultural interview skills and international job search strategies.

After completing a Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Behrens taught in the graduate counseling program at California State University.

Behrens presented a session on negotiation strategies for scientists at the 2018 American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Annual Meeting in San Diego.

To start the session and get a feeling about participants’ perceptions, Behrens asked the audience what words came to mind when they thought about negotiating the salary for a dream job. The responses spanned a continuum from “stressed” to “confident.” This was a nice ice breaker into a topic that many of us probably don’t think about very often. We may only become aware of our reactions when faced with a real-life situation, so this exercise helped identify our feelings about a hypothetical negotiation.

After the session, I talked further with Behrens about the topic of negotiation. The following is an edited summary of the session and our conversation.

Why is negotiation important?

Negotiation is not only for job offers. We all engage in negotiation in our daily lives on both personal and professional matters ranging from high stakes to smaller issues. Being an effective negotiator allows you to develop, maintain and improve relationships. Life is a series of negotiations, so learning how to negotiate effectively can be useful in a variety of ways.

What is negotiable and what is not?

In a job offer, items that are negotiable are often resources, such as lab equipment and office space, and conditions related to work–life balance, such as the ability to work remotely and the amount of time off or vacation you can ask for. Other negotiables relate to job title or assignment, salary, benefits and perks of the job. Even before getting to the on-the-job issues, you can negotiate your start date and moving expenses. Non-negotiables are items such as insurance benefits and retirement as well as anything governed by employment law or an organization’s structure.

What factors should one think about when negotiating salary?

Preparation is a key element, and a surprising number of candidates don’t prepare adequately for negotiation. You should know the market value of the position and look for salary ranges in comparable organizations, and you should factor in the region or local area of the job and the type of organization you are negotiating with (academic, nonprofit, industry, etc.).

When negotiating a salary for your dream job, remember that you are in a good position because the employer wants to bring you on board and you want to accept the offer. You share the same goal. You’re simply trying to arrive at agreement on the terms and conditions. Some candidates worry that an employer might retract the offer if they ask for more money, but they should move forward and consider that shared goal.

How can you use negotiation to your advantage?

You should begin thinking of negotiation as early as the job interview. Use that discussion to gather information pertinent to asking for more money and benefits. What you learn in the interview can inform how you present your case. For instance, if you learn that the company is expanding its science, technology, engineering and mathematics partnerships with local school districts, you might leverage your background in science outreach and your teaching-assistant training.

Or, if you have specialized skills or a unique combination of experience and knowledge, it also might be possible to leverage this background in negotiating the job offer. The key is to demonstrate the value of your expertise or experience to the employer.

The start date also sometimes can be leveraged in the negotiation. In some situations, the employer urgently needs to fill the position by a certain date, and the candidate might be able to leverage this to their advantage.

Negotiation is an interaction, so think of it in terms of creating a win–win situation as opposed to an adversarial one. Think about options during the negotiating process, and ask reasonable questions that generate options or show possibilities (for example, you could say, “I know you can’t pay for x, but how about y instead?”). Help your prospective employer think creatively and focus on the substantive outcome that will benefit both parties.

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How can you alleviate negotiation-related concerns?

Think in terms of why it’s important to negotiate. View the negotiation process as an interactive dialogue rather than a static exchange. Be willing to ask exploratory questions such as “Would it be feasible to …?” or “Under what circumstances might you consider …?” When you ask for a salary or benefits, you are defining what you need in order to be effective on the job. That mindset can help focus the conversation with the employer on your needs. If you have the resources you need to be successful on the job, you will be better able to meet the employer’s needs. Remember that everyone feels some anxiety about negotiating, and with practice your skills will improve.

What’s your advice for what not to do?

Don’t underestimate the power of a positive attitude. Thank the employer for the offer and express your enthusiasm for the position.

Negotiation mistakes include being unable to demonstrate what you bring to the table and being unprepared to counter arguments. Also, don’t limit your focus to salary, but rather consider the overall compensation package. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself and ask for what you want and need in the job. Remain honest during the negotiation process, and be truthful about your current or previous salary.

Why is negotiating more difficult for women?

Many people are hesitant to negotiate. This is often their first important discussion in a job, so it naturally will come with some anxiety. Most women negotiate less often than men.

One study showed that salaries of men who recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon were 7.6 percent, or almost $4,000, higher on average than those of female MBAs from the same program. Only 7 percent of women attempted to negotiate, whereas 57 percent of their male counterparts asked for more money. This may be due to the fact that women simply accept their employer’s salary offer. Other possible factors are sociocultural issues or the fear of appearing to be concerned only with money or being perceived as too aggressive.

What are broader considerations for negotiation?

Negotiation is different in every job search. One candidate might value flexible work hours or the option of telecommuting while another might be interested in support for professional development or moving expenses. You should bring up perks or negotiables that are important to you. That helps the employer understand what you value most. By organizing your priorities, you can allocate enough time to discuss those at the top of the list.

Before a negotiation meeting, you should devote adequate time to preparation. You need to identify the deal breakers and the areas you are willing to be flexible on, and you should consider quality-of-life factors in terms of what will make you happy and productive on the job.

Do you have a story of successful negotiation?

I knew a candidate who was negotiating for an academic position and was able to leverage a competing offer from another employer during the process. Not only was she successful in negotiating her desired salary, budget and relocation expenses, but the negotiation also yielded a lecturer position for her spouse, who also was seeking an academic job. The couple had discussed their priorities and decided that living apart would not be an option if they received job offers in different locations. They had a commuter marriage in the early years of their relationship and were not willing to make that sacrifice again.

The candidate demonstrated her value by emphasizing her relevant experience in teaching and mentoring. She also benefited from the lucky timing of the competing offer and being candid with the employer about her deal breaker. Another key factor was that she mentioned early in the negotiation process that she was part of a dual-career couple and also was seeking a position for her spouse. Candidates who hesitate to make a request can lose out, because later in the process the resources and opportunities may no longer be available. If you need something, don’t hesitate to negotiate.

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Adriana Bankston Adriana Bankston is associate director of fundraising and strategic initiatives at Future of Research, a nonprofit organization with a mission to champion, engage and empower early-career scientists with evidence-based resources to improve the scientific research endeavor. She can be reached via LinkedIn or on Twitter.