So, it’s finally happened! You have managed to be picked out of the vast ocean of applicants for a graduate position, you have braved the first round of interviews, the second (and maybe even the third) one and now the hiring manager has called you with the happy news: You’ve got the job, they will send you the contract in the mail and if you have any questions, just ask them. If not, you can just sign it and send it back.
Chances are high that you’re just going to sign it and feel a huge weight being lifted off your shoulders. Surveys have shown that in the youngest generation of job-seekers less than 40% will actually try and negotiate their salary or any other terms of their employment contract. There may be several reasons for that. First of all, there is a general understanding that a university degree or even a half decent grade are not a blank check to a secure job anymore. Second, as a new graduate, it’s a little difficult to be self-confident about the unique little snowflake that you are while you know there are several thousand people out there with exactly the same education and experience on their CVs. And third, negotiating is hard. We all want meaning and fulfillment in our jobs, and just asking for more money or vacation days somehow feels very 1980’s.
Still, even as a rookie in the job market it is a good idea to negotiate the terms of your first employment, be it monetary or otherwise. The most obvious reason for this is that your subsequent pay raises are usually a function of your first salary: when you negotiate a raise it will be as a percentage of your present pay. But even in a situation where the starting salary is a non-negotiable, its pays off to ask about other benefits - for example, monthly train passes when you have to commute, discounts on fitness club memberships or book grants for student workers. We have put together a small guide on how to negotiate as a graduate student.
# Get your priorities straight
There is one thing you can (and should) do before even getting a job offer: Figure out your own bottom-line. Behind the numbers on your paycheck and legal gibber about working hours in your contract there is actually one loaded question for you: What is important to you? What is essential to you in life and how much does it cost? Based on these considerations, you can establish how much you are willing to take on in order to get it - and, vice versa, how far you are willing to deviate from your ideal working terms. All of this, you need to do because you need to know what you are actually negotiating for.
# Learn to talk about money
Considering that most job markets follow predominantly capitalist rules, it is still astounding how little we are used to talking about money. Asking friends or even family about their salaries is considered a taboo and breaking it is associated with bragging, jealousy, impoliteness and inappropriate curiosity. Therefore, having a serious talk about money may go against the cultural norms that you were brought up with. As a result, even the most educated college majors may draw a blank when it comes to estimating appropriate starting salaries - or whom to ask about it.
Employment surveys on the internet can give you a rough idea about the level of salaries in certain positions. If you want to dig deeper, think about who you know. There may be those one or two friends in your life that you always have considered a bit too frank for their own good - but they are the ones who will not hesitate to talk about money. If you feel fidgety about asking someone straight out about how much money they are making or which additional perks they are getting, you can try a more subtle tactic and disguise your question. You could ask others, for example, “What do you think I should look out for before signing my working contract?” or “How did you figure out if you wanted to take the job offer?”
# Start with the interview
The reason you need to do all this research is that you might get asked during the job interview about the salary and special terms of employment you envision. Employers love that question because it makes the assessment of a candidate a lot easier. Make no mistake, this question is a biggy. They are asking no less than for you to assess your own value - not as a person, but as an employee. It can tell if you can reflect on your own skills and if you are going to be satisfied with the role they have designed. It’s tricky because you are still trying to convince them to hire you: You wanna be humble, but not meek, and you want to come across as self-confident, but not as an arrogant fool who is obsessed with money. Therefore, you shouldn’t ask for the minimum amount that is paid for the position or in the industry, but also not a number that is way too high. Aim for the middle and try to assess from the reaction whether you’re in the ballpark. It’s also okay to name a range as long as it is not too big. It is also a good idea to give a reason why you chose this number, where you can refer to your research and use the opportunity to highlight your specific skills. (By the way, “It’s for that Porsche I have been eyeing” doesn’t qualify as a reason).
# Take your time to make up your mind
Now that you finally got that long-desired job offer in your hands, especially graduates may feel pressured to accept it right away. After all, human resources can snatch it away from you just as quickly, right? It may be in theory, but most hiring managers concede that they will not retract a job offer only because a candidate says he needs a little time to think about it. Of course, you should be gracious: Thank them for the offer and tell them that you are very excited about this opportunity, but that you would like a couple of days to mull things over. Remember to take the time that you need, but not longer. Two to three days is usually an acceptable timeframe, more than a week is, generally speaking, a bit excessive.
# Build your case
The key to negotiating is that you have to convince the employer that you’re worth of what you’re asking for. As a new hire right out of university you are at a disadvantage here because you have no track record to corroborate your arguments. Still, you need to remember that you obviously have essential skills that they were looking for, otherwise, they wouldn’t want to hire you. Even though it may feel like a job interview all over again, you really need to highlight those skills and qualities that will add value to their company. Also, it is a good move not to start a contract negotiation with asking for more money right away. Start with something that is easier to talk about. A good starting point is the opportunities to sign up for additional pension schemes or insurance programs. These vary between employers and countries, but it is valuable information and it will give you something to talk about that is less threatening than the issue of money.
# Be realistic about what you are asking
There is no need to be exceptionally humble. Though negotiating a salary and employment contract terms may be a dauntingly big deal for a job-seeker, what it boils down to is a business transaction. You are getting money in return for providing your skills. Therefore, you should perform a reality check on your negotiation goals. Keep in mind that average pay raises for employees range between 1 and 3 percent, so asking for a 20 percent markup on the offered salary would be pushing it a little too hard. Also, don’t ask for too many changes in the contract. Pick the one or maximum two issues that are most important to you. Even as there is a high chance that you won’t necessarily get a higher salary, surveys have shown that those people who bother to negotiate an offer were successful at altering other terms in their contract, such as paid holiday, working time schedules or options and bonuses.
# Prepare for ‘no’
The best laid plans are not going to help you when your employer-to-be is not willing to negotiate. Hence, you have to mentally prepare for the fact that all you will be getting is a big whopping “No”. Also, you need to know what your reaction to that response will be. This is why knowing your own bottom-line is so important: It gives you a sense of orientation about if you can take the “No” in stride and sign anyway or if you should actually refuse the job offer, after all.
The prospect of negotiations can actually make your stomach clench, not matter where you are in career. Still, it is good to remember Madonna’s saying that “many people are afraid of asking for what they want. That’s why they don’t get what they want.” Ultimately, a negotiation - even a failed one - may be better than toiling away at a job that you feel unfairly rewarded for without ever telling anyone. Because that would just be frustrating for both the employer and you.