Enhancing negotiation skills: a step-by-step guide for graduate students

The art of job-offer discussions is a skill that will serve scholars throughout an academic career. Here is what to consider and what to say at each stage of the process

Gaeun (Gwenn) Seo's avatar
3 Jan 2024
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After graduate training and a rigorous interview process, the finish line is in sight. The job offer(s) you’ve been waiting for have started to arrive. Congratulations!

At this point, the challenges of the job market might lead you to accept the position immediately and move on. Many candidates, especially women and people of colour, hesitate to negotiate the conditions of their employment. You might worry that the offer will be withdrawn, fear a backlash, want to avoid conflict or lack confidence in your negotiation skills.

Yet negotiation is a standard part of the job-offer process. In fact, most employers, whether in academia or industry, will expect some level of negotiation about remuneration, hours, location or start date. Moreover, this is an excellent opportunity to apply and enhance your negotiation skills. This isn’t just about getting a higher salary; it’s about making sure that the offer is aligned with your values and potential contributions.

This article offers step-by-step insights that help you build negotiation skills and the tools to navigate this critical stage with confidence.

The offer’s here: it’s time to harness your negotiation skills

When you receive an offer, the employer is showing they value your potential and are committed to you. Take a moment to celebrate this accomplishment, yet avoid the impulse to immediately accept the offer presented. This is the start of the negotiation process; remember that even a small increase on the initial offer, such as base salary, can have lasting effects on future earnings.

First, tell them you’re grateful and excited about the job offer – this will set a positive tone for discussions. Then, clarify a time frame for decision-making if the employer hasn’t specified a deadline for your response. This way, you can think over the offer without feeling rushed. If the offer has been made over the phone, request written details via email as well. A written offer will be a clear reference point as you strategise your negotiation approach and priorities.

Preparation to negotiate

Approach your negotiation preparation with a win-win mindset. Negotiation is a two-way communication to reach a mutually satisfying decision via strategic gives and takes. Consider the following tips to prepare your negotiation:

  1. Review the entire package. Review all aspects of the offer (such as flexibility in working hours, start date, location and growth opportunities) instead of fixating on one item (such as salary). If you receive a tenure-track faculty job offer, thoroughly review the entire start-up package or research funds, which might include graduate assistants, computing resources, research space or lab supplies. These aspects will be critical to building a solid foundation for your academic career.
  2. Know what is negotiable beyond the base salary, such as start date, bonuses, relocation assistance and professional development opportunities. For international graduate students and postdocs in the US, H-1B visa sponsorship and green card support can also be part of the negotiation conversation. What is negotiable can vary greatly depending on the sector (academia or industry, for example), the level of the position or the organisation’s size and policies. However, certain elements (such as health insurance or retirement plan provider, federal and state employment laws and mandatory company holidays) are generally non-negotiable.
  3. Base your priorities on what is most important to you professionally and personally. For example, for academic roles such as tenure-track faculty positions, consider the balance between research and teaching load, opportunities for research collaboration, conference and grant support, and dual-career support, especially for those with academic partners. If you are transitioning into industry, think about opportunities for professional growth and the potential for leading or being part of projects relevant to your research expertise for real-world applications, as well as work-life balance and location preferences. Avoid negotiating every term because you might be viewed as unreasonable and inflexible.
  4. Gather data to support your talking points and demonstrate that your requests are aligned with market value for your role and industry as well as the value you bring to the employer. The following resources will help your research:
    • Glassdoor, Indeed, Salary.com, PayScale.com, SalaryExpert, Levels.fyi and Comprehensive provide US salary data that’s tailored to industry, location, role and company specifics. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics also provides comprehensive pay and benefits insights.
    • Review average salary ranges for similar roles in the eight states with salary range transparency laws with consideration of the cost-of-living variations.
    • Examine your job description closely to identify reasons to ask for higher compensation (for example, having more professional experience than is required). Remember, your research and teaching experience during graduate school can often be considered relevant work experience if it contributes to your qualifications for the position.
  5. Prepare your script beforehand. Outline how you will present each talking point, along with the supporting evidence you have collected. While you may not need to use all your points, having them ready will help you to navigate the negotiation meeting with confidence.

If you are feeling stuck or need extra support, don’t hesitate to reach out to your university’s career services or to discuss your concerns with a mentor, faculty adviser or alumni.

How to manage the negotiation meeting

Set up a negotiation meeting via phone or video for an interactive and real-time dialogue to avoid the slow back and forth of email. This also prevents potential misunderstandings caused by written communications. Have this conversation at least two to three days before your offer deadline to give both you and the employer enough time to consider and update any proposed changes.

At the start of the meeting, express your gratitude and excitement about the offer to build a positive foundation for an effective negotiation. As you present each talking point, your tone should be collaborative, not demanding, as the goal is to find mutually beneficial outcomes. For example:

“Thank you again for the offer of the [XXX] position. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today. I am excited about joining [Company X], especially about the chance to work on the [Y project], as discussed during my interview. Before I accept the offer, there are several items I would like to go over with you. First, I would like to explore if there is any wiggle room to adjust the base salary because [provide your justification].”

Finally, request the updated offer in writing to ensure all agreed-upon points are included and accurate. To conclude the conversation, reiterate your excitement about the prospect of joining their team.

Negotiation can be empowering

Becoming comfortable with the negotiation process and honing your skills is essential for career progression. With thorough preparation and a collaborative, win-win mindset, you can turn negotiation into an empowering tool for self-advocacy and career advancement, setting a foundation for future professional negotiations and decision-making.

Gaeun (Gwenn) Seo is the director of graduate career development in the Career Center at Georgia Tech.

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