Academics have a really interesting relationship with money. Many of us came up in graduate programs that have a strong social consciousness ethos and a healthy skepticism toward hyper-capitalism.
My social science and humanities PhDs totally understand what I’m saying here.
As a career coach, I work regularly with PhDs in science and engineering fields, too. While there’s not the same skepticism about money and earning above average salaries, those PhDs, like their social science and humanities counterparts, are often uniformed about the value of the dollar on their daily lives. This fraught relationship with money and lack of financial literacy has real consequences on your current and future life and livelihood. So as uncomfortable as it may be, it’s time to talk about money.
I mostly see this tension around money at two points in my career coaching work with PhDs: first, at the point of beginning the job search for nonfaculty careers and second, when negotiating a job offer for a faculty or nonfaculty job.
Money and the Nonfaculty Job Search
When making the transition from graduate school to work, it can be difficult to envision your life beyond the academy. Graduate students and postdocs are especially accustomed to living lean to stay within the budget of stipends, fellowships or student loans. So it may be unexpected when I ask my clients to consider their desired salary range, and to include it as a core component of their job search criteria.
Too often, PhD jobseekers compare salaries against their graduate student stipend or postdoc salary, saying, “I’ve been surviving off $20,000 (grad students) or $40,000 (postdocs), surely anything above that is more than enough to make my life work.” It’s important to understand the value of your skills in the market so that you can make informed estimations about a fair and competitive salary range you can command.
Your first salary often sets the pace for your future earning potential. Future employers may request your salary history as a way to determine the range they are willing to offer for the position under consideration.
Which brings me to Money and Negotiation.
You should (pretty much always) make a counteroffer, as long as you do so based on solid information and with professionalism. Salary is only one component of job offer negotiations, whether you are in a faculty or nonfaculty career. When considering whether to negotiate and on what points, take into account the total package offered. Compensation packages may include health benefits, retirement contributions, professional development funds, relocation assistance, stock options, bonuses, and other items that have significant monetary value, especially if you have to pay them out of pocket.
For example, if your professional growth is tied to your annual participation at a particular conference, determine the cost of attendance and ask yourself, “what is the impact of this money coming out of my personal pay? Is there value for my employer and our mission in my conference attendance or participation?” If there is mutual benefit to you and your employer, professional development funds or conference attendance funds may be a perfectly fine category to request in your negotiations.
Here are some points to help you determine your salary requirements and to evaluate a job offer:
Know what you need to live like the adult version of you. How does your grown up, professional self want to live? The you who likes healthy food, nice experiences for your spouses and children, and vacations with family and friends. Eventually you’ll get tired of Ikea furniture and living with roommates. Fast forward to six months into your new job and life to think about how your lifestyle will change and the cost associated with that lifestyle change. If you’re still unsure, look around at recent graduates and new professionals for an indication of the rhythm and demands of professional work and life.
Know the cost of living in the city and state where your new job will be located. Cost of living includes the cost of housing, insurances, vehicles or public transportation, utilities, food and extras like entertainment. Check out a cost of living calculator for more information.
Know the tools and support required for you to be successful in your job. If you are in a tenure track position, you may need research funds, conference or travel funds, professional development funds, research assistance, and more. Identify your top priorities and investigate the cost of these.
Investigate the salary range for this particular position in the industry and region where the company is based. Industry and location matter in nonfaculty careers as well. A data analyst working for the government would expect to earn less than a data analyst in the private sector, just as that same data analyst would most likely earn a higher salary in San Francisco, CA than in Charlotte, NC. Similarly, a faculty salary in the Northeast will most likely be higher than the salary of a comparable position in the Midwest, but so is the cost of living.
As a cultural anthropologist with a strong commitment to equity and justice, I understand that money may not be a comfortable subject to discuss. However, my goal is for graduate and PhD job seekers to realize purposeful work that pays well and that rewards the hard work, time, and effort that you have expended in becoming a leader and expert in your field.