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Salary Negotiations for Scientists in the New Economy

A sk Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article and my most recent article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!

Q:     Dear Dr. Clemmons:

I recently received an offer for employment from a biotechnology company located on the West Coast and I must say that I was a bit disappointed with the initial salary as stated in the offer letter. What can I do to get a larger salary without appearing greedy? Is it wise for a person in my shoes (i.e., fresh out of graduate school) to even negotiate an offer? I feel as if I have spent so many years in school in order to be able to make more money, but now I see that this may have been a flawed strategy. Please tell me what you would do under these circumstances. I have loans to pay off, a family to support, and years of delayed gratification to justify! Sincerely, --Need More Money for My Expertise

Dear Need More Money for My Expertise:

Believe me, I feel your pain. You have spent all of these years in school thinking that your advanced degree would allow you to make enough money to justify the many years of hard work and delayed gratification, only to find out all is not as it seems! I have both good news and bad news for you. The bad news is in today's economy, receiving an offer that is below par is a common occurrence. It is an employer's job market right now and you might be experiencing the effects of a bad economy for the first time. On the other hand, the good news is that you might be able to improve your situation with this company if you play your cards right.

Since you did not tell me what your field of study is, I cannot really tell you what to expect in terms of salary. However, I believe job offer negotiations are expected occurrences for someone in your shoes. You should prepare to succinctly state your case and be able to quickly answer any counterpoints the company may bring up so that you can get closer to the salary range you deserve.

Everything is negotiable

A good place for ballpark salary figures is the Web site Salary.Com. Keep in mind the numbers they present are not always 100% correct in terms of what you will get because there are many other factors to consider, but I do believe this research should give you an idea of what a person with your skills should expect in today's market.

Also, realize everything is negotiable in terms of job offers. If you can't get more money, perhaps you can ask for more stock options and/or vacation days or a flexible work schedule so that you can spend more time with your family. Another perk worth asking for is a "bump up the ladder" in terms of your job title. This is very important because your next job title and pay may depend on what you got at the last company. You need to keep yourself as far up on the totem pole as possible so that you get what you're worth. I firmly believe that many prospective employees get the shaft during salary negotiations simply because they do not ask for what they want. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you get just by asking!

Another thing you may try is to ask the company whether or not you can get an expedited review of your performance within the first 6 months, or 90 days. This will allow you to gain eligibility for a raise much sooner once they see the value that you add to the firm. If you believe this is a possibility, then ask for this arrangement in writing because once you join the company, your boss may forget that he/she ever agreed to such a thing.

Another factor to keep in mind is that there are many highly trained scientists and engineers looking for jobs right now, so you need to realize that one job offer that is below par is better than no offer at all. In a capitalistic society like America, it matters. Jobs come and go as the economy swings in different directions, and companies have to have an incentive to hire.

What this means for you is that you may have to take a slightly lower salary at first just to get your foot in the door. That may entice the company to hire you when it would be cheaper to go without. However, once you prove your worth you should expect a nice raise if the company is financially able give you this incentive. If the company has the means, but doesn't raise your salary, then just look for another job at a company that has the means to gladly pay you for your expertise and hard-working attitude.

Mobility is the norm

The days when a person could expect to work for the same company for most of their career are long gone. Our generation has to consider that employee/employer loyalty is a thing of the past. It is very common for people to now change jobs an average of five to eight times over the course of their lifetime, and even change careers several times altogether [see the article " Going Mobile? Jobs in the New Economy"]. Therefore, don't feel bad if you eventually have to move on. Sometimes, you have to move on in order to move up.

In addition, you must understand the easy availability of foreigners in the scientific and engineering workforce has had the effect of depressing wages for American citizens. I am simply telling you an economic truth here. This is not a value judgment. Foreign talent (i.e., those usually in the U.S. on H1-B Visas) will accept much lower wages just to stay in the country. Employers always have the upper hand in this situation because without sponsorship, foreign workers must return to their home country.

Well, how does this affect you, you may ask? Basically, why would a company pay you premium dollars when they can simply recruit a highly educated worker who is in the country with a green card? For most companies, the cheaper the labor, the better. Furthermore, the widespread perception that foreign workers labor harder and perform much better than Americans could spell trouble for you. Again, I must say that you are lucky to have any job offer the way things are in today's economy. Just keep this in perspective and keep it real. Sometimes, it is not all about you.

Simply put, the way you should approach your next round of negotiations is to let the company know exactly what you bring to the table and how you will be able to make an immediate contribution to the organization. Tell them that you would like to see an initial salary that is commensurate with your vast array of skills and qualifications and then see what they say. You have nothing to lose if the negotiations are handled properly (which goes back to politics and other nontechnical skills that you must possess in order to be successful). There are many resources out there that discuss how to negotiate and you should definitely bone up on your skills before talking to anyone regarding the offer.

The best piece of advice I can give you regarding this situation is to be calm, cool, and collected. Do not seem desperate and definitely do not accept the first offer they put in front of your face. Let me know how everything works out! You will do fine.

--Dr. Clemmons

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