Cover Story

Negotiating your first professional salary can be tricky. Here’s some advice from experts and early career psychologists who have been there.

When Nadia Hasan, PhD, was in graduate school, she relied on her trusted mentors and professors to help her navigate the transition from student to professional. When she had questions about her dissertation, research or internship, they were there to guide her. But she found herself largely on her own when one issue came up: salary negotiations.

"It was really hard to talk to [mentors] about it," says Hasan, now a staff psychologist at Texas A&M University — Corpus Christi's student counseling center. "They said, 'I really don't know what to tell you, Nadia — I struggle with this, too.'"

Negotiating a salary is a delicate skill, and it can be even trickier for psychologists than for other professionals because many psychologists go into the profession for altruistic reasons — they want to help people. Asking for more money can feel discordant with those values, says David Shen-Miller, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Tennessee State University.

"But we all have to pay our bills, and we go through rigorous and extensive training," Shen-Miller says. "It is totally legitimate to expect to be paid a fair salary."

Hasan, Shen-Miller and other early career psychologists and negotiation experts offer their advice on salary negotiations.

Know what you're worth …

Before you begin any salary negotiation, do your research — know how much money people in similar positions are making.

Jim Hopkinson, author of the book "Salary Tutor: Learn the Salary Negotiation Secrets No One Ever Taught You," suggests checking out websites such as glassdoor.com and payscale.com, which post salary information provided by anonymous users at many companies and institutions. You can also find salary information by perusing job postings on websites like Monster.com and checking out the offered salary ranges, he suggests. Finally, he says, try old-fashioned networking — ask friends, family and other people you know in the field what they know about salaries.

For psychologists, APA's Center for Workforce Studies is another source of information. The center conducts a survey to gather faculty salaries in graduate departments of psychology, as well as occasional surveys of psychologists' salaries across the profession (the most recent dates from 2009).

Once you know the range of salaries in your field, think about what you can offer your employer to get into the higher end of that range, says Hasan. "Be confident," she says. "Think about why you're a good fit for the position as opposed to someone else."

For example, when she interviewed for a position as a full-time instructor at a school where the student body was 35 percent Hispanic, she emphasized her experience working at schools with diverse student bodies.

… then ask for it.

Everyone should negotiate, says Shen-Miller: "You have to ask," he says, "that's the most important thing." One 2011 study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, for example, found that people who negotiate their starting salaries earn $5,000 more, on average, than those who simply take the first offer, he says.

This advice sounds simple, but it can be hard to stick to it during the nerve-racking job search process. That's especially true for women, researchers have found, and the difference may contribute to the persistent wage gap between men and women — women still earn only 77 cents on the dollar compared with men. In psychology, the 2009 APA Doctorate Employment Survey found that women reported a median salary $8,000 lower than that of men.

It's particularly important to negotiate early in your career, says Hasan, because later promotions and salaries can be based on starting salary. Taking a low offer at your first job can follow you throughout your career.

Hasan didn't want to fall into that trap. So when she was negotiating her first salary, she looked up the average for the position — then asked for $5,000 more. And she got it. "The worst that can happen is they say no," she says.

In order to shore up your negotiation position, it helps to have other possibilities on the table, says Malia F. Mason, PhD, a psychologist who teaches negotiation strategies at Columbia University's business school. You will be in a much stronger position if you have alternatives, like another job offer (or two) pending. So if you're meeting with a potential employer in two weeks' time, she suggests, it's worth putting some effort during those two weeks into converting "potential alternatives" into "real alternatives."

"That involves some work," she says. "But it's hard to judge the deal on the table if you don't know what your options are."

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse

After you begin negotiations, an employer "might come back to you and say, 'Prove you deserve that salary,'" says Shen-Miller. "If you don't really feel you deserve it, that could undermine your position."

So before you start, think about your strengths and what you will bring to the job, he advises. Even better is to ask a friend to role-play with you and practice your negotiations aloud.

"Whenever you're negotiating a salary, your experience is usually less than the other person at the table — they do this all the time, you might do it once every five years." So whatever you can do to practice will help.

Hopkinson suggests asking your friend to throw many different scenarios at you. In some cases, for instance, employers might tell you the job's salary range early in the negotiating process, or even in the job advertisement. In other cases, though, they might ask you what salary you expect to receive.

It's better to get the employer to suggest a range first, Hopkinson says. "You can say, 'I've done my research and found that there's a pretty big range of what these positions pay. What kind of range did you have in mind?' he suggests. "If you just say '$50,000,' well, they might have been willing to pay $70,000, but you've already left that on the table."

Practicing these and other scenarios will let you respond confidently in the real negotiation situation.

Take your time

Once an employer has made you an offer, you may feel pressured to accept it on the spot. Don't, advises Mason: "It's OK to say 'I'm really excited about this, I need to think about this to see if it makes sense in light of my alternatives. Can I take some time to get back to you?"

In some cases, the extra time might even allow the hiring manager to find out if there's any flexibility to offer more money.

Think beyond the salary

If your potential employer can't offer you a higher salary, think about what else they can offer you, Shen-Miller advises. That might include vacation time, relocation expenses, a flexible schedule, licensure support, professional development funding and more. Shen-Miller says that one of his colleagues at a university, for example, was able to negotiate additional funds to develop his lab and for more training.

Something like that can benefit the company or institution as well as the employee, Mason says. For example, a company might not be able to offer you more money, but perhaps it would be willing to pay for training that would help your career and also increase your value to the company.

Hopkinson suggests including this type of negotiation in your practice interviews. Think about what's really important to you, he says. Do you want a flexible schedule that will let you spend more time with your family? A more impressive title that will look good on your resume when you apply for future jobs? Figure that out, then practice asking for it.

"You want to make this a win-win for everyone," Shen-Miller says. "It might not feel this way, but in some ways once they've offered you the job, you're in a position of power — they want you. So it's good to think creatively about how to make it work for everyone."

Mason agrees: "The negotiation process shouldn't be contentious," she says. "You want to be constantly reminding people how excited you are about the possibility of working with them."

Further resources

  • David Shen-Miller recommends the following books and articles to help you get the salary you deserve:

  • Babcock, L., & Laschever, S. (2003). Women don't ask: Negotiation and the gender divide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Bond, R. F. (2013). How to negotiate a killer job offer. World of Work Media. Available from www.amazon.com.

  • Galinsky, A. D., Maddux, W. W., Gilin, D., & White, J. B. (2008). Why it pays to get inside the head of your opponent. Psychological Science, 19, 378-384.

  • Marks, M., & Harold, C. (2011). Who asks and who receives in salary negotiation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 32, 371-394. doi: 10.1002/job.671

  • Messmer, M. (1998). Effective salary negotiation techniques. Management Accounting, 79(10), 12.

  • Pinkley, R. L., & Northcraft, G. B. (2000). Get paid what you're worth. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press.