Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dear Cloud: Handling Salary Negotiations

It is time for the next installment of my occasional "Ask Cloud" series.  This question is about a tough issue that I struggle with as well, so I really hope you guys weigh in with more advice for my correspondent.

Here is the question:

"Many people in industry, including the people with whom I did the contract work, and some family members, have told me that I should "always ask for more money". What is your perspective on this? And if you agree, do you have advice about how to do this? Does asking for more money impact your working relationship with the manager? And does one have to have a competing offer in order for asking for a higher salary?

I got my PhD in December and I just accepted a position as an industry postdoc. I didn't end up asking for more money, but immediately after pushing accept I felt like a bit of a sucker and thinking that maybe I should have. "
As I said, I struggle with this. It is very, very tangled up in gender- women in general don't ask for more money or ask for less than the men do. We are conditioned to try to make people happy, etc., etc. But- as I discuss (OK, rant about) in this old post- this is not an area in which women can just "be more like men" and expect to get the same results. We are penalized when we are seen as too aggressive.

But it is also true that the fact that we don't negotiate as much on our starting salaries contributes to the pay gap. Raises are almost uniformly given as a percentage of your pay, so if you start at a lower number than a male peer, you'll still end up making less money even if you get the exact same merit increases. Also, it is true that everyone expects people to negotiate when they are being hired, so it is your best opportunity to try to directly maximize your pay.

What to do? Well, I haven't really figured that one out. One piece of advice I picked up in Lean In was to frame the negotiation as a problem you need to work together to solve, thereby neatly sidestepping the perception of being aggressive. That strikes me as a good strategy, but I have not yet had the opportunity to try it out. 

Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office, by Lois Frankel, also has some good tips on handling negotiations- along with a lot of other good tips and things to think about for ambitious women, so it is definitely worth a read.

But... you've already accepted the position, without negotiating. Stop feeling bad about that. There are lots of reasons you didn't negotiate, some good, some probably not so good. But it is done. You can read resources and do some role playing practice with a friend to get ready for next time, but for now, just let it go and concentrate on getting the most out of your postdoc. An industry postdoc is a great way to break into industry, but only if at the end of it, your more established colleagues will say things like "she really understands how industry works" and "she made useful contributions to projects." I know someone who contacted a friend or an informal reference on a postdoc who had worked with him, and heard "he's smart enough, but he treated this postdoc like an extension of his academic career." That candidate did not get the job. I'm not 100% sure what constituted treating the industry postdoc as an extension of the academic career, but I suspect it was focusing too much on getting publications and not enough on helping to advance the company's goals.
On the flip side, I know someone else who was hired on the strength of the fact that the colleagues she worked with during her industry postdoc thought she brought unique skills to their projects and really helped to advance them.

So, I say stop worrying about your salary in this postdoc. No one gets these tough gender minefields right every time, and you actually picked a pretty good one to flub. Everyone knows that postdocs are paid less than equivalent regular positions, so you essentially get to "reset" your salary when you land your first non-postdoc position.  Switch your focus now to learning as much as you can about how your chosen industry works and finding ways to help contribute to projects, so that people will see you as someone who "gets it." Also read Frankel's book and try to stamp out a bad habit or two. As Frankel says in her book, you don't have to be perfect at overcoming the detrimental conditioning we get as girls to benefit. Every little bit helps. The book is a quick read, and is divided into short sections, so you can squeeze it in when you have the time. Some of the advice isn't all that relevant for my particular industry, but most of it is fairly universal.

OK, readers- what other advice do you have for our correspondent? Any stellar negotiators out there want to give us all some advice? Anyone do an industrial postdoc and have words of wisdom on how to get the most out of it?

On rereading my post I realized I failed to directly answer the questions. Sorry- it has been that sort of week and I am apparently having some sort of bad karma with this post. Earlier I posted an incomplete version without realizing it. Here are the direct answers that are hiding in the rest of the post:

1. Yes, you should generally negotiate a job offer. It doesn't have to be on salary- if you're thrilled with the salary but want more time off, you can try to negotiate that, although a lot of companies have policies they won't change in that area.

2. Yes, it can impact how your manager views you, and research shows that this is more problematic for women (see the linked post in the post). That is why it is such a tricky area. And here's the really sucky thing- it can impact how your manager views you if you DON'T negotiate, too. This is a true minefield.

3. You don't have to have a competing offer, although that gives you a stronger negotiating position. You just have to have a reason you're asking for more money (or whatever) and a knowledge of what you'll accept and what you'll walk away from.  Also- be careful playing two companies off of each other. It really, really pisses people off to think they are just being used to get more money from your current company. That creates bad will, and can come back to bite you, particularly if you are working in an industry with a small world vibe- like drug discovery.

And in case it isn't clear from my main answer, I have personally flubbed this many times, so much so that I have a pattern of getting hired in and then getting a big raise in my first review. My current job is the first time this hasn't happened- this may be because if I compare my salary to what my HR contacts tell me is average for my sort of position, I'm a little above. So don't sweat it. You can recover from this one.

Readers- rescue me and give some good advice!


  1. Anonymous7:09 AM

    I don't know about industry post-docs, but many academic post-docs have non-negotiable salaries... they're line items in grants. To get them topped up you would have to do something in addition, like teach. In any case, a post-doc salary shouldn't affect your regular salary nor should an internship salary affect your regular salary. These are special training positions.

    So focus your salary negotiation thoughts for the next job.

    On average, starting salaries for new grads are about the same by gender these days (controlling for industry, occupation etc.), at least in tech fields. The money slippage occurs in each part of the pipeline up. So it isn't just your first salary that you have to negotiate, it's all of your raises as well. And there are a lot of books to help with that. Common advice is to make sure you ask about reviews, that you ask about raises, that you keep up with industry trends, and that you keep your resume polished. And you should bring it up in terms of the value that you bring to the company.

    My little sister just found out via glass-door that she's being seriously underpaid for her position in her field in her city at her (large) company (and this is common after the first few years of automatic large raises at the big company). The easiest way for her to get her salary bid up would be to get an outside offer from a competitor. In fact, her roommate's friend did exactly that and their company offered to literally DOUBLE her salary. But by that point the roommate's friend felt like she wasn't valued and left. Instead, my sister has brought her concerns to the hiring manager and that's trickling up, but I suspect they may lose her eventually... if they don't pay her a huge premium she's going to eventually leave to do something more fulfilling.

    1. I had this same experience when I worked for a consulting engineering firm between 2004-2007. We had some awful, awful pay negotiations in the context of a highly competitive for talent job market. Y'know, like hearing from a HR email that was 'accidentally' circulated that my pay was only slightly more than a grads, my boss being paid only slightly more than me despite *much* more responsibility and a really combative work environment. My pay did double in three years (my boss, who was driving his own hard bargain on his pay raises said you've gotta make hay while the sunshines) but I ended up hating the work environment and left.

      I eventually took a (temporary) $20k pay cut to switch technical fields. My job in Australia was then in a very unionised environment, so the broader pay-scales pay increases were negotiated by my union with merit based movement up the pay scales. This means you effectively get two pay rises a year until you max out the pay-scale for a particular level (one a merit based advance, the other a % increase of the same level). I'm just at that point now so will need to look for new job at a higher 'level' to keep moving ahead. Alternatively, if you sit at the top of the pay scale, you can get merit based 'bonuses'. In hindsight, I think I did pretty well out of the switch and pay cut because my union negotiated three years worth of raises at the height of the boom while a lot of the people I worked with ended up on 4 day weeks (or made redundant) in the GFC and mining downturn.

      In New Zealand, I took another pay cut for a job here - but that's because there is a big wage difference between NZ and Australia. I did try negotiating and ended up with a bit more money offered after completing a trial period. But the pay difference really re-inforced to me why so many New Zealanders move to Australia!

  2. You don't always have to negotiate. I had this conversation with my husband recently -- who has to negotiate project prices all the time. I had a reserve price in my head for what I wanted to be paid for a certain project, and the people I was negotiating with came out of the gate with a number that was about 15% higher than that. I didn't ask for more, and then asked my husband later if he thought I should have. His take? Life is not a Moroccan bazaar. The point of haggling is to get a number you're happy with, not to haggle. And it's true -- if they'd come out with a number 15% lower, obviously I would have asked for more.

    1. Yes, this is the attitude I go in with (getting to a number I'm happy with). To me the money isn't important, but salary is a mark of my value to my company. Thinking of it this way (in rational terms instead of emotional ones) has helped me become a better negotiator for salary because I can always present reasons why I am valuable to the company, and my pay should reflect what I bring to the company. I earn higher than average for my position, men and women included.

  3. I went to a seminar held at my university for female postdocs called WAGE which was led by Evelyn F. Murphy, author of Getting Even: Why Women Don't Get Paid Like Men and What To Do About It. The seminar focused on salary negotiations and the unique challenges women face. Their website is pretty helpful:
    and there's also a book (but I haven't read it yet).

  4. Alexicographer9:32 AM

    First off, I agree that "first post doc" is not necessarily the right, or even a possible, time to negotiate, and also that one's pay at that point is likely not a good predictor of subsequent pay. So I wouldn't worry too much about that stuff.

    That said, I work at an R01 academic institution and don't necessarily agree with NicoleandMaggie above, either. We officially have fixed post-doc "rate," but it is really just a floor -- contingent, of course, on a blend of competition and resources. So no, not every post-doc can or will get more, but one who is in demand (has other offers and/or specialized skills or abilities) likely will, either because the PI will move funds around in the grant budget or because the PI has access to other funds that can be used to augment the funds available through the grant (also, not all academic post-doc positions are grant funded).

    And funds (in academe, what I know about) can also come in once a post-doc is in place as an honorarium or supplemental payment (the post-doc does extra work for a different unit on campus), through consulting (the PI takes on consulting work for units outside campus and/or passes such opportunities along to the post-doc), plus, may be made available (even after the fact, that is, after the post-doc is in place) to fund travel or training.

    In terms of thinking about negotiating NOW, asking for funds to cover costs to attend a professional meeting or pursue a short ad-hoc training would be considered entirely normal in my world (and many such training opportunities pop up in summertime, as faculty take on extramural work and students have the opportunity to travel away from their home institutions). That's not to say such requests would routinely be met with a "yes," and even where they are it might be partial support with the post-doc expected to come up with the rest, but even if they're not, they demonstrate an interest in learning/advancing that is generally well received (and could lead to better recommendations and so forth down the road). That said, I have no clue how such things would be perceived in industry, so probably best to get advice from one or more people in that world before deploying such a request.

  5. I think in general it's good to negotiate your salary. Unless you've done extensive salary research, the company is probably NOT offering its highest salary and has wiggle. In my current job, I negotiated my salary so I got a higher start than the original listed salary. I know many of my colleagues did not do that, and it makes a difference in the long run!

    I actually did my negotiation via email and was very professional/factual about it, so that probably helped me avoid the gender minefield. In person, this may be harder. In either case, stick to facts and What you bring to the table. You can mention your previous salary if it were higher BUT that should not be the main point as you're trying to leave your previous employer anyway. I once helped a friend in her email negotiations. The first 2 paragraphs were about how she made more at her old job and the last paragraph talked about her extensive experience (i.e. what she brings to the company) that would justify a higher starting salary. I told her to flip it, and she got the higher starting salary.

    And yes, if you can't get a higher salary, you can always negotiate for tuition, education, more vacation time, etc...

    As you can tell, I really believe in negotiating!

  6. zenmoo12:53 AM

    Ha, my captcha was ycleanin

  7. Anonymous12:18 PM

    I was also, technically, unsuccessful in my salary negotiation. I did however negotiate being hired as a Scientist for a Post-doc position. I was contacted by the company's HR after a contact passed on my CV. I hadn't seen the job listing (I probably wouldn't have applied for an industrial post-doc having completed an academic one).

    During the interview, I just said, "I am not interested in doing a second post-doc and won't accept if offered that position. If you can find another candidate with 10 years of research experience in this area, you can hire him/her."

    So, they offered me a Scientist position (which is significantly higher salary than post-doc) but wouldn't budge on the salary. I asked, I told them my target. The HR guy tried a bunch of BS guilt-trip tactics on me, but I persisted.

    It didn't hurt anything that I negotiated with the HR or played hardball. I don't work for the HR guy.

    When negotiating, just imagine you are giving advice to someone in that position, and follow that advice- even if you have to adopt a much more confident persona.

    PS- All the women scientists I've spoken to had similar experiences with other HR reps (all men). Trying to make them feel bad about negotiating. Stuff like, "If money is your main motivator, perhaps this isn't the company for you." And other BS. Ignore it. It's their job to get you for the lowest price.


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.