Five tips to help you strike a fair deal


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Finding your overlapping needs and desires overlap is a good start in a negotiation

As a scientist, you often have to make a case for a higher salary, adequate research facilities or a better work-life balance. Negotiation ‘is a critical skill that comes with professional life in general – it’s not just for people in business or law,’ says Richard Shell, author of Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, US. ‘When you’re negotiating, you’re trading things, getting the things that are scarce, and getting your fair share of them.’ To increase your chances of success, try some of the following approaches.

Know your worth

Many people make the mistake of not negotiating a higher salary or a start-up fund because they don’t know if it’s possible. Joseph Provost, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of San Diego, US, says it’s essential for new recruits to investigate salary ranges for the position offered to them so they can try to strike a fair deal. You can find this information online, from colleagues, or through networking at national meetings. Keeping the organisation’s professional interests in mind is also essential. ‘The successful faculty are not the smartest or most creative ones,’ says Provost. ‘It is the ones whose expectations professionally match closely to that of the department and institution.’ Proposing a humongous budget for expensive instruments isn’t feasible if the department only expects a little research from you.

Prepare to be uncomfortable

It requires courage to start a negotiation. ‘A lot of people are afraid to hear no – it makes them feel bad or as if they’ve done something wrong,’ says Brooke Hirsch, senior practice manager at Actalent, a company that helps organisations staff or outsource science and engineering projects. But you lose out in the long run if you let fear take over. ‘You just have to be comfortable with hearing no, because if you don’t ask, you will never get it,’ Hirsch says. For example, if a relatively new lab member has contributed to an experiment, they may feel uncomfortable asking for authorship on the paper. ‘Don’t be afraid to ask for these things because they carry a lot of weight,’ says Amy Williams, a geochemist at the University of Florida, US. ‘The worst they’ll say is no.’

Be the negotiating type

Shell suggests starting with little, low-stake issues in your personal life to build your negotiation muscle. Did you receive poor service from an online retailer, or is your mobile network provider not offering you their best deal? ‘Instead of just going “who cares?” use it as an opportunity to practice [negotiating],’ suggests Shell. ‘If you practice on a little negotiation and do it thoughtfully, you can learn a lot about the next big one that you might face and your responses and intuitions.’ Start to think of yourself as someone who negotiates, Shell adds. To ace an individual negotiation, write down possible scenarios that may come up and think of your responses to them. Before Williams went in to negotiate her salary with her current employer, she practiced her lines with her partner, who role-played a dean.

Adopt a collaborative mindset

When an issue impacts multiple departments and colleagues, team up with others and negotiate collectively, suggests Priyadarshini Chakrabarti Basu, assistant professor of pollinator health and apiculture at Mississippi State University, US. She also points out that your rapport with others will matter. ‘When you have an established relationship with your co-workers, you have so many people who are willing to work with you or help you out,’ Basu says. It’s best to have a collaborative approach toward the people on the other side of the negotiation too. Hear them out and understand their limitations – maybe they cannot meet your needs. If you work at a university, you may benefit from maintaining cordial ties with administrative officers because you’ll often need to go to them for your needs. You’re likely to express yourself better during negotiations if you’re familiar with them, Basu adds.

Flip your reference point

Alberto Perez, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Florida, US, says that it often helps to consider the benefits to the other people involved in the negotiation. ‘If you want “a”, the other person wants “b” … you can make the pie bigger if you find something that involves a and b,’ he says. If you need an obscenely expensive instrument, be prepared to think about how that may benefit the department or other colleagues. During job interviews, be ready to show how you will add value to your prospective employer. ‘Too many times, you’re just trying to show “this is what I’ve done, and this is what I want to do”,’ says Provost. ‘They’re [thinking] what will this person look like 10 years from now? Will they be collaborative? Will they be part of the team?’ Provost says they will root for you if they get excited about you.