In jobs: preparation and placement, PhD/Postdoc Blog

As academics, we often think of ourselves as people bad at negotiation or at least as having little practice—after all, we don’t negotiate our salaries, benefits, or work hours as graduate students or as post-docs. However, once we leave these roles we know we’re going to negotiate these items for our next jobs, whether that job is a faculty position at a university, a scientist in industry, or any of the other myriad of jobs. The prospect of having to negotiate salary and benefits for such positions can at first seem daunting, until you realize that you probably already have been negotiating, and can practice your negotiation skills even in your everyday life. For me, this realization happened during a seminar on negotiation given by our Ombuds office in conjunction with our office of Professional Development and Post-Doctoral Affairs at BU.

What is negotiation?

Think of negotiation as a problem-solving process in which two or more people attempt to reach an agreement. You’re often negotiating without necessarily realizing it as you work out with someone else what movie to see, who does what chores at home, who pays for a date. At work, negotiation might be over who writes what part of a report or manuscript, where to meet a collaborator, or whether the department pays for all of the expenses associated with a conference. I know I’ve navigated many of these conversations without thinking that what I was doing was negotiating. I think this in part because I viewed negotiations as something inherently distributive- i.e., a conversation with only one winner. In reality, a lot of negotiation is integrative- i.e., finding solutions that best meet the needs of everyone involved in the negotiation. Viewing negotiations in this way helps you highlight getting what you want in a way that also benefits the person you are negotiating with, which in the end makes everyone feel happier about what they agree on. For example, if you would like your department to pay for your conference fees, remind the department that you will be representing them to a large audience and can be acting as an ambassador at the meeting. Fundamentally, in this interaction, consider the ways in which you might engage with other parties in order to yield the best outcomes and understandings by thinking about how to get to what you both want.

So, going forward, how do we negotiate better?

Below, I will outline some concepts from the seminar I attended.

  1. Separate the people from the problem

Sometimes we get caught in the negative aspects of our relationship with someone or our fear of their power over us and so don’t negotiate. In order to overcome this issue, it becomes important to separate our feelings about a person from the problem we want to solve. Instead:

  • Come at the problem with active listening skills and curiosity; if someone says ‘no’ initially, try to find out why without being judgmental.
  • While negotiating, frame the issue in clear, neutral language and use “I statements” to explain your position.
  • If you find yourself getting too emotional, make an excuse to take a break and continue the conversation at a later time.
  1. Center your negotiation on interests, not positions

A position can be thought of as what you want, while interest is why you want it. Negotiating based on the “why” rather than the “what” allows you to identify shared interests and to conceive novel “what” solutions to the “why” question.

  • Shift the conversation away from a confrontational to a collaborative approach
  • Use open-ended questions and active listening to identify common interests
  • Invite ideas on the “what” to foster collaboration and involvement
  1. Invent options for mutual gain

This is an extension of point 2, but if you are willing to negotiate on what you get to satisfy your interests, you can more readily arrive to a mutually beneficial situation.

  • Brainstorm multiple mutually acceptable options – getting the other party involved in this step also can help them to feel that they are being heard and are actively involved in the decision-making process.
  • Before accepting any options, evaluate the options and their benefits to all parties
  1. Insist on objective decision criteria

As scientists, this one can be easy! Rather than going on instinct or how things have always been done, choose to make decisions based on scientific findings, professional standards, or previously outlined codes of conduct.

  • Use these objective standards to justify your preferred options or solutions
  • Use objective standards to protect yourself from unfair options
  1. Know your BATNA

BATNA stands for the Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement. This is what happens if you can’t agree during negotiation, and determines when you might want to exit a negotiation because you have a better option available.

  • Know what your BATNA is and if you can improve it
  • Know what the other party’s BATNA is
    • Knowing these two pieces of information can help you to reject an outcome that is worse than what you could get, and to accept better outcomes than might have otherwise been achieved.

Other points to remember:

  • Be well prepared. Know what you want, why you want it, what the other party wants, and what you bring to the table, and what alternatives on both sides are before you begin. This will help you to get to the best solution for all involved.
  • If you do have to walk away, do so amicably. This strategy leaves the door open for future negotiation. Remember that, often, walking away isn’t the end of the conversation.
  • If you hear ‘no’, gather more information to find out why and come to a mutually beneficial arrangement. Open-ended questions are a great tactic to employ at this point.
  • Practice negotiation on small things in your life without much consequence, like craft or antique fairs, making plans with friends. (see the “Negotiation Gym” link below) This can help build confidence for when negotiation will be crucial.
  • Pay attention to the timing of negotiation. If you’ve recently done well, it is a great time to negotiate for something you want.
  • If you can’t be in a collaborative situation, make your initial offer higher than what you intend to accept, but not unreasonable.


Are you feeling daunted by negotiation? Have you had a really great or terrible experience? Share your thoughts in the comments!


  • Getting To Yes -Negotiating Agreements Without Giving In
    Roger Fisher and William Ury
  • Women Don’t Ask
    Linda Babcock, Sara Laschever
  • Ask For It
    Linda Babcock, Sara Laschever
  • Negotiation Gym
Recent Posts
    pingbacks / trackbacks
    • […] Negotiation is something I do all the time, I just never thought of it that way until attending a workshop earlier in the year and reading up on it for the AWIS mentoring circle meeting I’m running later this month. I highly recommend the book “Ask for It” by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (2008). Some of the resources listed might be outdated, but the strategies are really useful, and having a formal language to think about how I negotiate is really helpful. Plus, there’s a lot of new terminologies that helps me formalize and better organize my approach to situations where negotiation will come up. […]

    Leave a Comment