I remember the first time I got an offer for a position in the pharmaceutical industry. I was so blown away by the salary ($36,000—what an incredible offer!) that I didn’t think about anything else.
I’ve often kicked myself for not recognizing that there was money left on the table. I didn’t have the experience to realize that I could have gotten a higher salary, or perhaps a few more vacation days, if I had simply asked for it. My exposure to the working world was limited to academic and government laboratory summer positions, where being paid was more of an afterthought. The concept of negotiating was completely foreign to me.
When do we learn to negotiate? It often starts in childhood, when we test the boundaries of our parents’ rules, negotiating how late we can stay up after our usual bedtime and how much of our homework we have to do before we can go out and play. We soon learn that we can bargain with our friends about money, perhaps over a game of Monopoly or a particularly prized toy or sports memorabilia.
I am generally tongue tied when it comes to asking for what I want, so I marvel at those who have mastered the art of negotiation. In my job, I work with a chemical buyer—someone whose role is to purchase many metric tons of solvents, starting materials, and catalysts. After a lifetime of working in her parents’ convenience store, she has developed a real knack for negotiation. I am amazed at her ability to volley prices and volumes back and forth, using only words to get salespeople to offer their best prices. I’ve also listened in as she prepped for a salary-negotiation conversation with her bosses. She pointed out her skills and how she improved the company’s financial position, noting that with the savings she earned the company, a 5 or 10% raise would not be out of line.
What can we learn from my friend, the chemical buyer? Understanding how to frame an argument for a raise is important. Rather than just stating, “I would like more money,” it’s important to use salary as a logical reward for work well done. Start a running list of your accomplishments, and use those where you made a key contribution and created value—financial and otherwise—for your employer to justify your request.
It’s also important to understand your value to the job market as a potential employee. If you are a new graduate, talk to alumni who are working at companies you’re interested in applying to. Although people are often unwilling to divulge their exact salaries, they may be willing to share or confirm salary ranges for their positions.
If you’re further along in your career, you could apply for positions at other companies to get a sense of your potential value on the market. Just be aware that if you present this number to your employer during salary negotiations, you are implicitly announcing your willingness to leave if salary demands are not met.
Organizations like the American Chemical Society also offer salary resources. If you look up the latest ACS salary survey, you’ll find that the median salary for US members in industry is $120,000. ACS also has a Salary Calculator that allows you to search for salaries by industry subsector, company size, and region (ACS publishes C&EN).
Why do we care about salary? Because this number is incredibly important to our physical needs. Like it or not, our salaries define the boundaries of our lifestyles. These numbers can dictate where we live, what we eat, and the future of our children. If you have a bigger salary, you have more options.
At the same time, these numbers do not define who we are as chemists or as people. They cannot possibly reflect with any accuracy the lives we have changed through the products we have invented or the students we have inspired.
Still, it’s important to learn how to negotiate, and not just for a better salary but for all the things you want in your life. The next time you accept a job offer, take a lesson from me. Don’t just take the first number that employers slide across the table. Do your research so that you can be your best advocate.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.