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Working Hard for the Money: The Importance of Salary Negotiation

Do you love your job so much you’re willing to do it for free? Are you happy making less than you’re worth? Or less than equally qualified colleagues? Or, the worst, less than they are willing to pay you?

Your salary is a fundamental consideration of your professional life. Negotiating your starting pay and asking for raises are critical factors in choosing what position to take and feeling valued at your job.

Be Prepared to Negotiate

Whether you’re starting a new job or vying for promotion, you should always be negotiating. The reality is that only about 20% of people always negotiate their salaries while up to 40% never do. The largest reason for the lack of negotiation is fear. Fear of seeming demanding or ‘coming on too strong’ or of losing the offer. Negotiating may be scary, but it’s much worse not doing it.

I want to take a moment to point out that women, in particular, may need to pay attention to this advice. Studies show that less than 10% of women even attempt to negotiate their salary, while almost 60% of men do. Those who negotiated, regardless of gender, increased their salary by over 7%.1 This may not sound like much, but in our salary bracket, that can equate to millions in a lifetime of pay, additional raises, and retirement earnings. Also, the gender pay gap is real—research has shown that it’s at least partly because women don’t ask.

However, no matter your gender, if it’s your first post-graduate position or your third, even if you’ve successfully negotiated before, there is always more to learn. Here are some tips to get you prepared to negotiate.

1. Know Your Value

If you’re going to get the pay you deserve, it’s vitally important to know the average salary for your position in a specific geographic area. You can search a site like Medscape; they do a yearly salary survey broken down by specialty, region, and years in practice – but not by job type, such as academic. (AAMC and AGMA also have physician salary data, but there is a fee associated unless you have a contact who can get you access). You can reference institutional salary sites—all public universities list salaries for every employee. However, use caution as a few include only the base salary, not total compensation. You may also engage physician-specific contract lawyers as they may have the numbers for recent hires in your area – this worked well for me in my first position. Additionally, if you are comfortable asking those in your professional circle, their salaries may be directly correlated information to utilize.

2. Organize Your Thoughts

Have your data ready before each of your first interviews (you never know when they may ask about your expectations) and have a basic script of what you will say. Practice in front of a mirror or with a friend until you’re comfortable having the conversation.

If your interviewer asks about salary and you’re not prepared to answer, like me the first time, you can reply, “I’m not sure, what do you have in mind? What is the salary range for your recent hires?” Another response is, “I’m not sure what the current salary range is for someone at my level with my subspecialty training. I’ll look into it and get back to you”. I linked them into one longer response that showed I might not know, but I was willing to hear what they had to say or figure out what would be fair. Approaches may vary based on how recently they have hired someone at your level—if it’s been a decade or more, they may have no clue what the current salary rate is for a pathologist.

3. Pick the Top of the Range

As you’re doing your research, you’ll likely come up with a range that can vary. It can be tempting to ask for something in the middle, but instead, you should ask for something toward the top. I did this with my first contract, and I prefaced it by saying, “Based on my research, the starting salary for my level and with my qualifications was X.” For the record, they choked on their saliva after my statement, probably because they hadn’t hired anyone in several decades. I followed up with how I was willing to negotiate, even with my research findings. In the end, I came out with a higher offered salary than all of my personal friends in my state – though I didn’t take the job. Also, your potential employer will almost certainly try to negotiate down, so leave yourself some wiggle room to end up with a salary you are happy with.

Stating an exact salary, such as $180,000 (a standard salary for starting out of training) will help you end up near where you want. If you give a range, your potential employer will immediately start at the lower number for an offer. One psychological approach is to give a range where you want the lower number—be careful with this approach as they may be scared off by the higher number.

A good tactic is to keep the discussion focused on what your market value is rather than ‘what you want.’ This is especially true if you have a highly sought after subspecialty or expertise; or are willing to take on less desirable parts of the job. You need to get fair market value for what you bring to the table realizing that the employer may just want to get the ‘least expensive’ person.

4. Prioritize Your Requests

We’ve been talking salary here, but remember that benefits such as vacation time, professional funds, healthcare (including family premiums, HSAs), and even possibly a signing bonus may also be negotiated. A high family insurance premium that is covered by your employer can add a lot to the total compensation package depending on your particular situation. Prepare a rank-ordered list by importance of benefit(s) and if they say they can’t budge on the first, try asking for other concessions instead.

5. Don’t Be Pushy or Make Threats

You ideally want to work or keep working with this person, so it’s important to keep the conversation positive. You need to be confident without seeming demanding, strong without being pushy. Never threaten with other job offers or interviews. If they ask, you can share as you feel comfortable, but you should not be the one to bring up other choices you may have.

Tips for Negotiating a Pay Raise

1. Set the Meeting for Thursday and Drink Some Caffeine

Studies show that people are more likely to get a raise if they ask on a Thursday. Also, drinking caffeine before your meeting makes many people more resistant to persuasion, meaning you may have an easier time holding your ground during negotiations. Note you should not use this technique if you don’t drink caffeine! You want to stand your ground, not shake and ramble.

2. Power Up and Walk with Confidence

Before you go into the negotiation, try using a power pose—stand tall with your hands on your hips, your chin and chest raised proudly, and your feet firm on the ground. By exuding confidence, you can positively influence your negotiation and reduce the stress hormone cortisol. Studies are inconclusive about its effectiveness, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Walk into the room standing strong with good posture and looking forward. How you enter the room can dictate the rest of the interaction. Slumping through a doorway with a scowl on your face isn’t very inspiring.

3. Be Prepared to Show What You Can Do

Before you start talking numbers, talk about what you’ve done and—more importantly—what you can do. Prepare a list of your accomplishments and be ready to present them. Consider providing a printed copy for your boss to reference while you summarize your achievements. Highlight anything that is above and beyond or professionally impressive. Be prepared with a few thoughts on what you’re excited to take on going forward—whether that’s freeing up some of your senior colleague's bandwidth by taking more responsibilities or proposing a new idea of your own.

Don’t forget to think about what the other person’s thoughts and interests are and try to figure out what their mindset will be. If your group just lost a big contract, now is not the time to ask your boss for more money. If you hear them complain a lot about a specific duty, offer to take some of that on for them, without mentioning how you noticed they don’t like it.

Listening to the other party before and during a negotiation is vitally important. By really paying attention to what the other person needs and says, you can incorporate their wishes into finding a solution that makes you both happy.

4. Try Thinking About Someone Else

In your preparations, think about how asking for a raise will positively impact those around you: your boss, colleagues, future hires, the pathology group. Research shows that people negotiate better when they think they are doing it for someone else—that this will help others as well. This technique holds especially true for women.

5. Final Tip: Don’t Be Afraid to Counter or Hear No

You may be afraid of rejection, but remember, a negotiation technically doesn’t begin until someone says, “No.” It’s important to understand that the no is part of the process and depending on how it’s relayed, could be the starting point of your salary negotiations. It may not mean the conversation is over, and be prepared to counter with a slightly lower offer or a different type of compensation: vacation, CME time, or educational funds. However, be prepared to qualify how these benefits will help you work better for your organization.


1Babcock, Linda and Laschever, Sara. Women Don't Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation--and Positive Strategies for Change. Bantam Dell, New York, New York. 2007.

Dr. Riddle recently joined Ruffolo, Hooper, and Associates, a medical practice consisting of board-certified pathologists based primarily at Tampa General Hospital. Previously, she was laboratory medical director and the sole staff pathologist for a cancer center in Northeast Alabama. Prior to that, she was faculty at UTHSC San Antonio, where she was actively involved in resident/fellow/medical student training. She trained at the UFCOM, Gainesville, AP/CP at Moffitt Cancer Center/USF, Tampa, and did Bone/Soft Tissue with an additional focus in GI/Liver and Derm at UPenn. She currently sits on committees and councils for the College of American Pathologists, AMA, USCAP, and DPA.