Steps Graduate Students Can Take to Prepare for Salary Negotiations

Negotiating a compensation package can bring its own set of unique challenges to the already demanding task of applying for jobs while also being a graduate student. Regardless of whether you are applying to a position within or beyond academia, negotiation is a pivotal step in the process. Rather than waiting until you receive a job offer to start strategizing, you should start preparing now how you will handle this situation before you apply for jobs. 

During a recent workshop on negotiation, Dr. Andrew Green, Associate Director of Graduate Students and Ph.D. Counselor at UC Berkeley’s Career Center, shared that negotiating a starting compensation package is a critical step during the job application process because it will determine your earnings for the following years and can potentially affect your salary in future jobs. Therefore, it is extremely important to negotiate the highest salary base possible. 

It is increasingly common for potential employers to ask job applicants about salary expectations early in the application and interview process. Waiting until an interview to prepare for negotiations can put you at a disadvantage. While the particulars of negotiating a compensation package depends on the specific sector (e.g., academia, private sector, government, or nonprofit), GradPro has identified three general tips that are relevant to negotiating regardless of the sector. 

Tip #1: Develop a nuanced understanding of a compensation package.

A compensation package is not only composed of hourly wages or a salary base, and it is therefore important to adopt a nuanced view of compensation for the negotiation process. Other components of compensation include, but are not limited to, (a) relocation funds or housing incentives; (b) research, seed funds, or travel funds; (c) professional development funds; (d) vacation benefits; (e) annual bonus or sign-on bonuses; (f) equity (e.g., values of shares); (g) health insurance; and (h) retirement incentives. Each of these elements of compensation is something you can consider trying to negotiate. The relevance of these other non-salary components will vary depending on your needs and priorities. In some situations, employers may not have the ability to offer a higher salary, due to union contracts or other constraints, but they may have more flexibility with other components of your compensation. Also keep in mind that you can try to negotiate a reclassification of a position title or level, which could have impacts on a salary range an employer can offer you.

Tip #2: Understand your market value.

It is difficult to craft an appropriate negotiation plan without understanding your market value salary for a given position. A market-value salary is primarily determined by the specifics of a position and what the going market rate is for someone who will fulfill the job requirements and functions of the position. Your market value salary can also depend on a variety of factors including the type of industry you will be employed in (e.g., public vs. private), your own level of education (e.g., master’s or a Ph.D.), years of relevant work experience, and cost of living in the geographic area where you will be working. To prepare for negotiations, it is important to have a good sense of the market value salary of a position so that you do not unknowingly accept a lower salary than necessary. This is one of the key reasons you should not agree to a salary or share your preferred salary with a potential employer early in the job search process or during a first interview, as it is important to have the time to learn more about the position through the interview process and research its going market value salary. Luckily, there are also several tools that can help you determine an appropriate market value salary given your expertise, needs, and priorities. 

For those interested in pursuing a position within California’s public sector, Transparent California allows you to view salary records for municipal, county, or state-wide positions, including those as public colleges and universities.  For those interested in pursuing an academic position, the Chronicle of Higher Education, which you can access for free through the UC Berkeley Library, allows you to view salaries for professors at four-year institutions throughout the country. The Chronicle of Higher Education also allows you to view salaries for non-instructional positions within higher education in areas such as (a) business and financial operations; (b) computer, engineering, and science; (c) librarians, curators, archivists, and other education services; and (d) management and office and administrative support positions. For those interested in working in industry, Glassdoor can help you identify salary ranges. You can gauge average salaries throughout the country for different types of occupations using the Occupational Outlook Handbook, a resource compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Relatedly, be sure to inform yourself about relevant pay disclosure laws that may be put in place in your state and/or county and can be a valuable source of information on market rate salaries. Once you have a better understanding of the average salary range for an individual working in a similar position in that geographic area, with a similar level of education and years of work experience, you will have a better sense of  your market value salary.

Tip #3: Wait to engage in dialogue about negotiations until you are fully prepared.

By now you might be wondering what a negotiation scenario looks like in real-time. Negotiation is not a one-time event but rather an iterative process. At the 2023 annual Beyond Academia Conference, Nicole Bannon, the Negotiations Lead at Rora, stated that job negotiating often entails a dynamic dialogue with multiple key participants, including job applicants, job recruiters, managers, and human-resource staff, among others. Bannon added that it is common for job recruiters to extract as much information as possible from job seekers and for prospective employees to make a rush decision once they are presented with an offer. 

Rushing the process or surprising a job candidate with early questions about the salary they prefer or will accept is a strategy used to benefit the employer, as prospective employees typically do not have enough information to assess their market value salary and will over or underestimate the going rate for the position. Therefore, Bannon advises job seekers to delay giving definitive answers about whether you will accept an offer and avoid answering questions about salary preferences as much as possible. You can consider turning questions about salary back on an interviewer, and say that you prefer not to share your salary expectations until you hear what salary range they are offering and have had time to reflect on the offer.  If presented with an initial compensation package, Bannon encourages responding to an initial compensation offer by showing gratitude, staying neutral, and not disclosing too much information to job recruiters about what salary you would accept. Instead, Bannon encourages job seekers to learn more about the specifics of the position and the different parts of the compensation package, and to ask for additional time to consider the offer. Once you have researched the going market value salary for the position, are ready to negotiate, and ideally, have secured competing job offers, then reach out to the recruiter to move forward.

For more suggestions on what to say during job offer negotiations, see the suggestions and examples shared by Rora in this article.

Negotiating is an ongoing process for which job seekers are often underprepared. While it can be a daunting task, the Career Center and GradPro are here to help you through this process. If you are currently applying for jobs and would like additional support on strategies for negotiation, schedule a one-on-one appointment with Dr. Debra Behrens or Dr. Andrew Green, Ph.D. Counselors at the Career Center, or meet with a Professional Development Liaison. You can also tap into the negotiation resources offered in the Professor Is In blog posts.

Martha Ortega Mendoza is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Berkeley School of Education and self-identifies as a first-generation student who comes from a working-class background. Martha’s doctoral research seeks to document and uplift the voices of undocumented graduate students. Currently, Martha serves as a Professional Development Liaison (PDL) at GradPro.