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Tips for salary negotiations post-PhD.

Academic and PhD positions are known for relatively low pay alongside reduced opportunities for salary negotiations. After finishing your PhD, this can be an unfamiliar topic. This post breaks down the best tips for salary negotiations.

During your PhD, salary bumps, pay rises, or even the possibility to engage in salary negotiations is rare if not impossible. This is typical for academia and public sector careers more generally. It’s important to keep this in mind as non-profit organisations, some aspects of health care, and government sectors may create some barriers to reaching your post-PhD salary goals – but then again this may be acceptable if these careers provide you with a better work-life balance or sense of purpose and impact. However, if you move away from academia and towards more profit-driven businesses (like all, if not most businesses) there’s more scope for salary negotiations either at the first initial interview or after a period of time once you’re more settled.

Salary negotiations in and of themselves are uncomfortable and if you’ve spent a lot, if not all, your time in academia, you’ve likely had very little practice. First and foremost, it’s extremely unlikely for any organisation to simply offer you a pay rise if you’re not raising it as a concern, as they have no reason to address it. Certainly, some companies will offer pay rises or bonuses (yes, they exist) at particular intervals in the calendar year on along your career progression – but again this is less related to negotiating your actual salary or what’s sometimes referred to as your ‘base pay’. The general rule of thumb when it comes to pay rises or salary negotiations is that it’s always easier to achieve this when you move externally. The advice covered below is framed particularly towards salary negotiations within your organisation, but a lot of the content can be applied to external moves too.

First and foremost, salary negotiations are an uncomfortable experience – that’s normal. Through practice, they eventually become easier and you’re able to fine tune your negotiating strategy. Before we even begin to prepare for the interview it’s important that you focus on leaving as much of your concerns at the door as possible. Salary negotiations can stir up a lot of negative feelings and possibly some self-criticism. Those thoughts of, ‘I’m not good enough’, or ‘I’m going to lose my job’, or guilt related worries if you’re working for a mission driven or non-profit organisation (as more emphasis is placed on changing the world and having an impact) can emerge. In short, the first thing you want to do is identify your personal triggers or soft spots. These are likely to come out during the salary negotiation and if left unchecked will derail your chances of success. A strong part of salary negotiations is managing your emotions, as well as leaving any negative thoughts outside the room.

Still thinking about your emotions, it’s important to also spend some time thinking about how they come out. If you feel guilty for starting a salary negotiation conversation, you’re likely to buffer against this when you open the conversation. Phases like, ‘I feel guilty for asking but…’, or ‘I know it’s not all about money but…’, will set the tone that what you’re asking for is unreasonable or unheard of. You present a counter argument to the salary negotiation before you’ve even finished speaking. Understanding what your concerns are, thinking about how they show up, and spending some time to practice phrasing and how you present information is integral to the negotiation. The request needs to feel as justified and appropriate as possible, not the opposite.

Following this, you want to be sure that you’ve done your homework. Having a comprehensive understanding of your role, industry and company pay structure can really help. Knowing what typical salary bands are for your role across a range of companies helps benchmark and give you a frame of reference around the figure you’re negotiating. One of the best ways to check this is through Glassdoor as they collect salary information for all jobs (Glassdoor users need to anonymously submit this information to activate their account)

Building on from the industry benchmarks or pay ‘norms’ it’s time to explore internally. This means finding out, or at least enquiring what your colleagues or other members of staff in similar roles earn. Again, this can be done through Glassdoor, or you could reach out to your human resources (HR) or people team (because people aren’t just a “resource”) – you might not get specifics, but you can enquire about the average pay band for that role and try and figure out where you sit within that band.

Once you’ve left your emotional triggers at the door and you’re happy with your homework it’s time to begin preparing for the salary negotiation itself. Firstly, you’ll need to identify who the key influencers are – this includes the person who will ultimately approve of the pay increase. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be in the room when you have the salary negotiation, but if you’re able to get them there all the better. If you can’t however, then you want to make sure you’re speaking with the most appropriate channels or the people who are as close to that key decision maker as possible. This can help formalise the process too and reduce the chances of you getting verbal agreement and then someone changing their minds later.

When opening the conversation, the goal should be to position it as a win-win. A win for you, and a win for your employer. Salary negotiations can cause conflict, but the aim is to try and minimise and reduce as much friction as possible. If you start the conversation in a way that already gets your employer or boss to see you as the enemy, you’ll have more work to do. Phrases like, ‘I know I shouldn’t be asking this but…’ or ‘I think it’s unfair that….’ immediately put the other person on the defensive – this is what we want to avoid. Openers like, ‘I love working here and am really committed to giving 110%….’ or ‘Loyalty is really important to me and being able to support my colleagues is what I want to continue on doing…’ can help make this a less bumpy ride.

A big part of these phrases relates to your organisation’s values. It’s recommended that ahead of time you think about what your employer’s/boss’s/organisation’s values are. What do they care about? What are their objectives? What are they trying to achieve in the short and long term? Having a better understanding of enables you to use phrases or comments that speak to these values. Again, you want your employer to feel like they’re on the same team as you – if you both share values it can help make the salary negotiation easier.

Be careful though, don’t assume that you know unless you’ve done your homework ahead of time – sometimes it’s good to just ask ‘what’s the most important thing to you?’. Likewise, don’t assume your employer or boss knows what you do on a day-to-day, you might be killing the job doing two people’s amount of work, but they might not be fully aware or be able to comprehend what that actually looks like. Be sure to mention this, bring up the rational facts. This information alongside pay bands and what your organisation pay norms are can really help here.

The next step is the part most people forget. Once you’ve made your ask and you’ve laid your cards out on the table – stop talking. You need to allow the other person time to respond and provide you with a decision, rambling on about why you need a pay rise isn’t going to do you any favours. Be rationale, assertive, concise, and positive.

That’s everything covered really! The rest is purely trial and error. You have to practice salary negotiations and negotiations in general. Getting a ‘no’ can be scary, and again can trigger those negative emotions we might already have, such as feeling unappreciated, guilty, not worthy, etc – but if you never dare to ask, you can most certainly guarantee your situation will never change.


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