Money, Money, Money: Optimizing Your Situation in the Job Market

With a title like this one, this should be a popular column. After all, what is there--besides our drives to eat and to reproduce--that is on our minds as much as money? What is behind most of the major decisions that we make in both our personal and business lives? Money!

Some of my career-related columns over the years have discussed issues of money in the form of salary surveys. Although salary surveys are interesting, they are a good example of why money is hard to write about. This subject is difficult because every reader has a somewhat different perspective on the topic. Different kinds of companies, different geographical regions and costs of living, and a host of other specifics make many salary surveys unusable for the average person. Because of this, I'd rather write about the way that money works in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. My column this month will touch on many topics related to this important subject. If you are not currently in the job market, then treat this article as a "clip and save." Print it and keep it for just that time when you need this advice about maximizing your salary situation.

How Money Affects the Process of Getting Your First Position

You may not be there yet, but someday (soon, we hope!) you will be discussing the terms of a job offer with a new employer. This is an exciting, but somewhat scary, part of the job-seeking process. And there are some definite rules about how to manage the "money side" of your job-seeking efforts.

You may have heard that old admonition that you shouldn't bring up money in the interview, that you are supposed to let the company bring it up. This is indeed good advice. Many an interviewing postdoc has been shot down by a human resources manager who took offense at the crude manner that salary figured into the conversation. On the other hand, many applicants who know this still feel totally shocked when the question "What are your salary expectations?" comes at them out of the blue. How can you avoid this sudden surprise and the resulting stress of answering such an important question? It's simple: Be prepared for it and listen well.

General Guidelines for the Salary Question

1) Listen for buying signals--It is possible to listen for clues, so that you know when you are getting close and a job offer discussion may be right around the corner. Listen carefully to the questions you are asked, and note the way they are asked. For example, the question "How much notice would you need to give your adviser in order to leave?" is a surefire indicator that a salary discussion is right around the corner. In contrast, the question, "What are your present earnings?" can simply be a part of the corporate information-gathering process. Use your intuition here, based in part on how early this question comes up in the conversation.

2) Manage the application form effectively--Many companies will send you an application form to fill out and bring with you to the interview. In some cases, you will spend the first hour of the day in H/R filling out this paperwork. And almost universally, the application form has some questions related to salary and salary expectations. While there is nothing wrong with filling in the section related to "Present Earnings," it is important to note that there are two types of questions asked about money, and one of them can be dangerous (read on).

3) Questions come in two flavors--Companies have different ways that they will ask you about money. Just as in the application form, you will be asked about your present salary, and anyone who tries to run from this question is usually making a mistake. You must answer this, making certain that you clarify all the details of the base salary and benefits. (Don't be concerned about low postdoctoral wages, as companies do not base their offers on these.) The second type of question, however, is risky to answer. This is the "What are your salary expectations?" query. It is dangerous because responding with an off-the-cuff response can dramatically affect your offer (or your chances for an offer).

4) He who speaks first loses--When asked about salary expectations, any number you give is almost certain to be too low or too high. It would be highly unusual to state the exact number that the interviewer has in mind. That's why it is always best to postpone this one as long as possible. Some successful negotiators reply less specifically, commenting that they expect to be paid at "the competitive range of others in your employ who have similar qualifications." This often leads to a discussion of the job's salary range, eventually making it much easier and safer for you to respond with your expectations.

5) Two types of companies--Some companies like to negotiate, and it is possible to increase your offer in a variety of ways. I've started a forum thread on Next Wave this month about this topic, and please feel free to post your specific situations there. But a larger percentage of the companies you will talk to have a "first offer, best offer" philosophy. A major pharmaceutical company, for example, will already have 100 others with similar qualifications working for them. You will be made a fair offer that puts you in the same range as their other employees. Today's H/R departments across large companies and small have enough information available to them about salaries that they generally make a very scientific process of it. Rarely do you find someone trying to "snag a bargain" with a lowball offer.

6) The stock/salary combination--In biotechnology companies, you will often be discussing the terms of an offer that includes both base salary and stock options. Although few companies will purposely try to lowball you on the salary, many of the smaller companies will overemphasize the stock options in order to accommodate a somewhat lower wage scale. You need to determine in advance if you are OK with the balance of these two, and often there is some room to negotiate the split between them. Perhaps you might earn a somewhat larger base salary by offering to exchange that for fewer options.

Common Q&A's About Money

While writing this column, I was in San Diego for a meeting of the San Diego Pharmaceutical Forum, a mix of scientists from many locations in both academia and industry. After presenting a workshop, I was invited to be part of a panel discussion that took questions from an audience of more than 150 people. As always, we had a significant number of comments about money in some form or another. Here are some of those that seemed to be of interest to the readers of Next Wave:

Q: I've just returned from a first interview with a biotech company that I'd like to work for. After meeting several people in very short sessions, I went out to lunch with the hiring manager and one of the first questions that she asked me was about my current salary. I was shocked, because it seemed too early for a salary discussion. Does this mean that the company could have decided to extend me an offer?

A. Scientists are analytical types. A scientist in a hiring manager role is often simply gathering information that will later be scanned to determine if you are a "fit" for the job at hand. Often, this includes salary information. Although I certainly hope that you are about to receive an offer, most likely this was simply a hiring manager who was ticking off the various requirements of the job, and she needed to ascertain if you were in the ballpark of their position's salary range. Don't forget to use this informal discussion (as long as they brought it up and not you) to ask for their salary range. This will help you later if you do get asked about your salary expectations.

Q. How do you know if a company has a "first offer, best offer" philosophy, or if they are one that would like to negotiate? I feel uncomfortable with the whole process of negotiation, and yet I would feel bad accepting an offer if I felt that I could have done something to improve it.

A. Generally, a company that wants to negotiate a job offer with you will give you some early indicators of this, by asking questions that allow for your feedback. For example, "We've been considering a range of $45,000 to $50,000 for this position. Does that seem to fit within your expectations?" The company that intends to make their best offer first will generally just drop an offer in the mail.

It's possible to have some kind of point negotiated in almost every instance, however. You may not be able to add 1 nickel to the salary offer of a "first offer, best offer" company, but there could still be some kind of change that is made in the offer based upon your needs. These companies are not cold, heartless entities. If you have an issue related to the start date, for example, discuss it with the hiring manager and get it worked out. As you eventually get more and more experience to offer, you'll have additional leverage with companies at offer time.

Q. How do I find out what range of salary to use when they ask me for my expectations? I know that I should avoid this question as long as I can, but at some point I may have to answer with some numbers.

A. This is an area in which you will have to do some personal research. Good sources of information are more likely to be past graduates of the same department than pie-in-the-sky surveys of industrial scientists. (Those can be quite deceiving.) Watch very carefully that you don't use such a tight range that you undervalue or overvalue yourself, and make certain to adjust those ranges based upon the location and cost of living. An excellent site to adjust salaries based on these changing costs is the Homefair salary calculator.

The problem with numbers is that companies always remember the lowest number in any range that you give them, and oddly, candidates always remember only the highest number in the range of salary given to them by H/R. An odd paradox.

Q. How do you ask for something more, or for a change in what they have offered you?

A. The number one rule of negotiations of this sort is to be friendly and enthusiastic. Don't try to be a hardball negotiator, because it will backfire. Instead, show your positive appreciation of the offer that you have been given and keep your conversation focused on being part of their team. In other words, always negotiate from their side of the desk. This doesn't mean that you physically move to their side of the room, but you must project the impression that you are already a part of their team. Don't hurt the fragile relationship you have with your prospective new boss. Instead, tell him or her how excited you are to be coming onboard, and ask them to help you solve some issue that you need to take care of in order to make it work for both of you.

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