Negotiation Strategies for Scientists II: Making the Counter Offer


In this second installment of Negotiation Strategies for Scientists, we will feature advice provided at a FASEB Career Center session led by Dr. Debra Behrens of the University of California, Berkeley.


When you propose a counter offer, the employer’s main concern is…

  1. your experience/education level.
  2. salary equity within the organization.
  3. the market-value of your position.
  4. how much s/he wants you to say yes.
  5. whether you will need to relocate/commute a great distance.


Answer: C

It is important to know your market value!

When making a job offer, Dr. Behrens stated that employers consider all of the above options, but the position’s market value is the most important. Employers consider the internal salary structure of the organization, compensation for similar positions in the industry, and what the market will bear given the supply and demand for labor.

When the dreamed-for job offer arrives, how do you go about making your counter offer? First, ask if this is a firm offer and for an email or fax of the terms. Then, ask for a time frame for your reply. This typically ranges from a few days to a week, which underscores the importance of doing your research early. You can also ask if the position is negotiable. While most employers expect you to negotiate, it may make you feel more confident to know for certain that a counter offer is acceptable.

Your counter offer is typically made over the phone, or if you are lucky, in person. Use email as a last resort, as this form of communication does not allow you to capture the emotional context of the speaker or allow for immediate clarification. Talk to your future colleagues about what is negotiable and what you should be asking for, and select one or two key issues to negotiate before calling. Leverage those requests by reminding your prospective employer of your strengths and how you can meet needs within the organization or department. Dr. Behrens encouraged maintaining a win-win perspective in which together, you and the employer approach the job offer as a problem solving process. If you have developed a rapport with your potential employer, working together toward the same objective of fair compensation will facilitate the process.

Dr. Behrens advised job seekers to anticipate the challenges that may occur in response to their counter offer and outlined the steps of win-win negotiation, also known as interest-based negotiation, as outlined by Fisher & Ury in the book, “Getting to Yes.

  1. Separate the people from the problem. Do not take disagreements as personal attacks. Focus on the facts, not the emotions associated with them. You can handle people problems by identifying different perceptions and looking at the issue from the other party’s side. Acknowledging the emotions of the other party and trying to be understanding of their feelings can do a lot to develop trust. Establishing clear communication and a common understanding of the facts at hand are also key to separating people from the problem.
  2. Focus on interests, not positions. In other words, identify the interests, needs, and concerns of the other party rather than viewing them as an adversary. When you come to a conflict, you can then work together to find a solution rather than digging in to your position.
  3. Generate many options. Brainstorm possible compromises with which you could be satisfied, so that you have options if your first suggestion is not feasible.
  4. Use objective standards. If asking for a higher than typical salary for your position, establish with your prospective employer the circumstances in which they could meet your counter offer.

At an Impasse

If your counter offer is not positively received, Dr. Behrens gave the following tips. Clarify the facts of the situation, issues at hand, and the players affecting the decision-making process. Explore and generate options using the possibilities that you brainstormed earlier. When searching for options, move to the positive with the other party by asking questions to better understand why certain terms of the counter offer cannot be met, and under what circumstances they could be achieved. Remember to be enthusiastic, polite, and professional during the process. The world of scientific research can be quite small, and you never know the interactions you may have in the future.

Dr. Behrens provided examples of common mistakes she has observed in people negotiating job offers. One is accepting the offer too quickly, without taking the necessary time to digest the terms of the offer and determine whether it is appropriate for you. Another frequent mistake is not knowing what you want in an offer. If you have not taken the time to establish what is important to you for your research productivity and quality of life, how are you to know if the job offer will set you up for success? Similarly, not preparing adequately for the negotiation is another common error. For example, if you have been observant during your interview and identified the needs of the department or organization, you can use that knowledge during the negotiation process. In Dr. Behrens’ perspective, preparation for the offer negotiation requires just as much attention as the job search itself.

 Remember that your prospective employer may not have the authorization to grant your request and may need to communicate with upper level administrators. Once you have agreed on terms, make sure that the new offer is documented. Cover your bases by reviewing any verbal agreements that were not on the printed offer in an email to the employer with a summary of the negotiations. That way your terms have been documented, since not all departmental and division level items are written in the offer letter. Finally, remember that it is not real until it’s in writing on letterhead.

Dr. Behrens likened learning to negotiate to ice-skating. You you fall down a lot at first, but once you learn it appears easy. With these tips in mind, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. I like the advice given in Nora Roberts’ book, Tears of the Moon:

“Girl, if you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer’s always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.”


Author: ilovebraaains

I am a neuroscientist using zebrafish to study mechanisms of neuroregeneration.

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