How to Negotiate Your Salary in Higher Ed

Picture of a boardroom table at a college campus

by Elizabeth Suárez, author of The Art of Getting Everything: How to Negotiate for What You Want and More

What Holds Us Back from Negotiating

As a negotiation coach who has worked with clients across a variety of higher education institutions, I have often seen a level of hesitation by some clients to negotiate a job offer, compensation package, or project. The hesitation doesn’t come from a lack of skills. Instead, it is generated by the fear of not knowing how to approach the negotiation.

Why the fear? Let’s face it, how many of us wake up in the morning ready to negotiate? My guess is not many. Many of us might have not had opportunities to practice negotiation on a frequent basis. Additionally, we live in a polarized world, one in which one-sided negotiation has become the norm. Many no longer feel comfortable discussing difficult topics with those who have a different perspective. Unfortunately, this often leads to a hesitation to negotiate, especially when it’s time to ask for a raise, additional resources, or a promotion.

The 3P Approach to Negotiation

Overcoming this fear in a higher-ed environment takes preparation, perspective, and practice.

Consider the example of one of my recent coaching clients, a tenured professor seeking to advance her career into university administration. Recently her institution, a top nationally-ranked research university, opened a deanship position. My client had the experience and first-hand knowledge to be seriously considered for the opportunity. After a grueling interview process, she was offered the job…along with an underwhelming compensation package. Although it would have been a step up from her previous salary, the offer was almost 45% below the average pay of her colleagues.

Some professionals in her position would prefer to avoid negotiation. Often, the individual is excited about the offer and fearful that if they ask for more, then the offer might be rescinded. However, it’s important to remember that the offer has been extended to you because you are their chosen candidate. There is always room to negotiate! By failing to negotiate, you run the real risk of leaving money (and other compensation and resources that you need) on the table.

Fortunately, instead of simply feeling flattered by the hire and accepting on the spot, the tenured professor in my example engaged in what I term the 3P exercise (preparation, perspective, practice) to evaluate the offer and assist with her decision.

1. Preparation

Preparation is the critical first step when approaching a negotiation. Without proper planning, you run the risk of sabotaging the negotiation process. The candidate for the deanship in this example took the time to research not just the position being offered but equivalent positions across the university. She realized that by asking for a higher salary, she would get closer to the average compensation of other deans at the institution.

Moreover, she didn’t limit herself to just considering monetary compensation. She took the time to understand and communicate how her request would be beneficial for the institution. She analyzed what else she needed (professional development, additional staff, etc.) to ensure that she would hit the ground running immediately, and these non-monetary resources became part of what she negotiated for. During her preparation, she identified the exact details of how she was going to operate in her new position, what resources she needed to be successful, and how the outcomes would stand to benefit the college.

2. Perspective

You have been offered a job. You and the other party are both happy about the offer. However, you have a different view when it comes to monetary compensation and other items included in the offer. It is time to determine what is informing the other party’s perspective. You need to understand both 1) how your skills, knowledge, and experience rose to the top of the list to become the number one candidate in the search, and 2) why the other party offered this exact compensation package.

So how can you prepare yourself to better understand their perspective? Some questions to ask yourself at this point might include:

  • What are the needs and wants of the other party at this moment in time?
  • Why is the other party so interested in me for this position?
  • What do I bring to the table that makes the other party believe I’m the individual who can make a difference in the college?

You can guess intelligently at the answers to these questions through the exercise of arguing and defending the other side. Imagine acting as the other party’s defense attorney in order to figure out their needs and wants.

My client was able to answer two of these questions quite comfortably. When one of the three questions proved difficult, I encouraged her to seek input from colleagues she trusted in her college. She could also seek advice from mentors both within and outside the institution. These external voices can often provide an objective perspective on the situation.

3. Practice

You have prepared the case you want to make, and you have taken the time to explore the other party’s perspective. Now you still need to practice what you are going to communicate in this negotiation. Practice will help you work through any discomforts you may have about asking for more money and additional benefits or resources. You will also become more at ease speaking the words needed to reach the agreement you seek.

My client practiced with me, but I also encouraged her to seek help from a mentor, adviser, or close friend to role-play the upcoming conversation.  Through role-playing, my client was able to practice active listening and practice making “the ask” more comfortably. The role-play also helped her better anticipate and respond more favorably to potential surprises and pushback during the exchange.

Managing the 3 Ps can help you better navigate any negotiation. They are tools that guide you through the process of asking for what you want, while better understanding how everyone involved can benefit from the outcome.

In the end, thanks to her commitment to this approach, my client received everything she asked for: better compensation, more benefits, and additional administrative support. She has been able to hit the ground running in her new position, and is more confident now in her ability to enter other negotiations in the future as her position and career evolve.

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