Running start… to a great career

Welcome to a new monthly column geared toward early career psychologists (ECP) working in practice settings. "Running start…to a great career" features topics typically not covered in graduate school and includes tips and advice from psychologists.

Negotiating Your First Salary

Erlanger Turner, PhD “Nerve-wracking” is how Erlanger "Earl" Turner, PhD, describes the process of negotiating his first salary — or in his case, not negotiating. “I got caught up in just wanting a job, especially given that I have loans to pay back,” admits Turner.

However, the consequences of not negotiating can be dire, says Turner, now an assistant psychology professor at the University of Houston-Downtown. “For one, you’re not getting paid what you’re worth,” he says. “Plus, your starting salary determines future increases.”

Most training programs don’t teach negotiation skills, Turner says. He and other psychologists share what they wish they had known going into the process:

  • Vaile Wright, PhD Do your homework. Research salaries for similar positions, says Vaile Wright, PhD, director of research and special projects in APA’s Practice Directorate. Ask colleagues how much they’re getting paid. Check APA’s salary surveys, Bureau of Labor Statistics, physician compensation reports and similar resources. Federal and state employers often have set pay scales based on education and years of experience. Also, check free resources like GuideStar for financial information on nonprofit organizations which are required by the IRS to make their tax returns public.
  • Practice negotiating. Read articles on negotiation in the business literature, says Jared Skillings, PhD, chief of behavioral medicine at Spectrum Health System in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ask a mentor or more seasoned colleague for tips. If you’re anxious, try role-playing various scenarios.
  • Jared Skillings, PhD Make employers go first. Try not to reveal your salary requirements unless you absolutely have to, says Skillings. “You’re immediately putting yourself in a weak negotiating position,” he says, adding that insisting you throw out the first number reveals something about the organizational culture. “It feels tricky, not collaborative,” he says.
  • Ask if there’s “wiggle room.” Be assertive, not aggressive, says Wright. “If you’re too aggressive, you come across as more invested in the salary than committed to the organization,” she says. Be aware of salary trends for the position by geographic region and level of experience to help you negotiate. Also, provide a salary range instead of a specific number. For example, say your salary range is $70,000 to $80,000. This lets a prospective employer know what your minimum salary requirement is and provides room for negotiation on both ends.
  • Think beyond money. Of course you need to pay your bills, but quality of life matters, too. You might be willing to trade a lower salary for intangible benefits like the collegiality of your future colleagues or getting a job close to family, says Turner. Also, while benefits like vacation time and health care may be set, he adds, everything else is on the table, including moving expenses, license renewal fees, conference travel expenses, continuing education costs, professional membership fees — even bonuses for exceeding certain goals.
  • Get it in writing. “It’s either on paper, or it doesn’t count,” says Skillings. Leadership changes happen frequently, he says, and new leaders may not honor a promise agreed to with a handshake.
  • Take a few days to decide. “If you’re disappointed or angry, let those feelings set for a few days so your response isn’t excessively emotional and you can be very matter-of-fact,” says Skillings. Even if you get exactly what you want, he adds, sleep on it a few nights.

Most important, speak up. “Psychologists are often uncomfortable talking about money,” says Wright. “We need to get past that.”