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Think you can’t negotiate your job offer or postdoc position? Think again

“I’m pleased to offer you the position.”

It’s exciting to hear those words. But your work doesn’t stop there. Before accepting a job offer—whether in academia, industry, or elsewhere—you need to negotiate with your prospective employer to make sure you get the best deal possible for yourself.

That may sound foreign or uncomfortable for early-career researchers, particularly those who are going into postdoc positions and may not feel that they have much leverage. But it can—and should—be done. Last week, at the National Postdoctoral Association’s annual meeting in Orlando, Florida, negotiation expert Joshua Weiss gave a plenary address entitled “Negotiation with an Imbalance of Power” about how to get what you want and need.

Science Careers spoke with Weiss—a senior fellow of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School who, among other roles, also offers negotiation trainings through his consulting company—about his suggestions for approaching negotiation. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What holds early-career researchers back from negotiating, in your experience?

A: As I understand it, a lot of postdocs are really worried that it’s bad practice to negotiate. They tend to view power in an absolute sense. In other words, “The PI [principal investigator] has all the power; I have none of it because they’re the ones hiring me.” People tend to not understand the value they’re bringing to the table.

People also tend to focus on worst-case scenarios—to think that they’ll lose the postdoc, or harm the relationship, if they negotiate. But when you’re in that situation, it’s important to remember that they made an offer to you. They’re sitting with you for a reason. They’re not sitting with the other 50 candidates; they’re sitting with you. We tend not to remind ourselves of those things, to remind ourselves of our own worth.

Q: What are your key tips for negotiating?

A: Most people have not thought strategically about negotiation. It’s one of those realms where people seem to imagine they can just intuit their way through it—they’ll just sort of figure it out. That approach doesn't work well because negotiation—like most things in life—requires preparation.

The first step is trying to figure out what is it that you’re trying to achieve in a negotiation. I find that a lot of people are very unclear about that. When coaching I’ll say, “How would you measure success? How would you know success if you saw it?”

Beyond dollars and cents, it’s important to think about what else you might ask for that would have value for you. Sometimes a PI’s hands might be tied on how much salary they can offer you. You’ll want to probe that in your discussions. If that’s the case, you’ll want to be prepared with other things that are of value to you that you can negotiate for.

For instance, can you ask for flexible hours or an ability to telecommute? Can you ask for more money for research? I would counsel people to think broadly about all their interests, needs, and objectives and bring those into the conversation during the salary negotiation.

It’s a little bit like preparing to play chess. You’re clear on what it is you want to try to achieve, but you’re flexible on how to get there.

Q: How can you convince the other person to see your point of view?

A: Most people tend to think, very logically, that I’m going to lay out a case from A to B to C. But there are a number of different ways of trying to persuade people and different things that appeal to folks. I often encourage people to think about how they can create not only a logical case, but also an emotional one. Can you use stories? Can you figure out a concern that the PI has and speak to that? Can you play to the PI’s ego—to, you know, massage that in a useful manner?

The art of negotiation is letting the other person have your way—to make them think that this is what they’ve always wanted to do all along, when in fact it really meets your needs as best as possible. That’s why it’s important to think strategically about how to be persuasive.

To practice this, I advocate to folks that they should have a negotiating buddy, somebody that they can bounce ideas off of and say, “If I were to say this, what do you think would happen?” Sometimes your buddy will say, “You’re not going to say it that way, are you?” It forces you to refine the way you’re approaching the situation and the way you’re trying to persuade the other person.

Q: You mentioned that postdocs often feel like they don’t have enough power to negotiate. What can they do to feel more confident?

A: There’s a concept in negotiation called your BATNA, which is your “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.” Basically, what it means is: What will you do if you don’t reach a negotiated agreement? It’s helpful to cultivate alternatives, if you can—another postdoc offer, for instance—so that you’re not negotiating with all of your eggs in one basket. The less you need a negotiated deal, the more power you have.

You should also analyze the timing elements of a position before negotiating. If you know, for example, that a PI needs to get somebody in the door soon, then that gives you some power.

Another thing you can do is take charge and set the agenda yourself. You could say: “I want to talk about salary. I want to talk about resources available. I want to talk about lab time.” It’s helpful to put everything on the table at the outset because if they set the agenda, they might say, “Let’s talk about salary and we’ll worry about all those other things later.”

The problem with leaving those things for later is that some of those things may not come to pass. The best time to negotiate all of those things is upfront before there’s a deal. Because once they’ve got you in the fold, then they can tell you their expectations for lab time—and that might not work well for you. But what are you going to do at that point? You’re already committed.

Q: Are there any other big pitfalls to avoid when negotiating?

A: One of the biggest mistakes is that people try to go in with a concrete plan. When things go awry and the other person takes the conversation down another road that they weren’t even considering, they get flustered and start to give away things because they don’t know what to do.

Your mindset matters a lot in negotiation. People sometimes engage in self-defeating behavior—in thinking that they have to confront the other person, to forcefully push in a certain direction—because they want to take a stand. But it’s not very effective because you have to remember that you want to keep the other side open and willing to hear what it is you’re saying—to hear your concerns. And most people don’t do that well if they perceive themselves being boxed into a corner—or blamed or pushed.

The reality is that the other person is somebody that you need to work with and that you want a positive relationship with. So, someone doesn’t have to win and someone doesn’t have to lose in these conversations.

In my mind, the best negotiations are focused around creativity and problem solving—in seeing what’s in front of you as a problem to be solved and also seeing that the other person isn’t your enemy. You’re basically problem-solving partners in the endeavor. You have issues that need to be addressed. But the reality is you need them to say yes, just like they need you to say yes.