Weighing in on everything from avocados to Zimbabwe

Weighing in on everything from avocados to Zimbabwe

Negotiating a Statistical Career, Part 1: A JSM Panel Discussion

posted by Leila Z. on ,

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One the highlights of the 2014 Joint Statistical Meetings in Boston for me was attending a panel discussion on negotiation in a statistical career, from the initial job offer to negotiating leave and even retirement terms. While I am getting wonderful training in the theory and applications of (bio)statistics as part of my PhD program at the University of Washington, practical advice such as this is less common. The session was sponsored by the Joint Committee on Women in the Mathematical Sciences, among others, and though the advice given was applicable to all, the panel especially addressed issues of interest to women, who historically do less negotiating than men (to their professional detriment). 

The panel was moderated by Paula Roberson (PR), professor and chair of the biostatistics department at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and the panelists were:

  • Nandini Kannan (NK), professor of statistics at the University of Texas at San Antonio and past/future program director at the National Science Foundation
  • David Madigan (DM), professor of statistics, executive vice president, and dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University
  • Nancy Reid (NR), University professor of statistics at the University of Toronto
  • Kelly Zou (KZ), director of statistics and statistics lead in market research at Pfizer
The morning began with a discussion of effective and ineffective negotiation techniques during the initial recruitment process. Here is a brief summary of the panel's dos and don'ts:

  • Know the market. The ASA publishes surveys of salaries by sector every couple of years; these can help you get an idea of what salaries might be reasonable for someone with your experience (though location and cost of living should also be considered). Salaries in the academic arena will also differ by the type of institution (a large research institution may have more flexibility in salary than a teaching-focused college, for example) or by the kind of department (biostatistics vs. statistics vs. mathematics, etc.). Talking to friends who have gone through the process recently may be helpful; recruiters will likewise know the market well and can give you an indication of the prevailing winds. In evaluating salary offers, especially in industry, keep in mind that compensation may be a mix of base salary, bonuses, and stock options.    
  • Think outside the box. Although it is often the focus, salary is not the only dimension worth considering. At academic institutions, the department's hands may be tied with respect to salary, but the department chair may have more flexibility with respect to physical space, teaching load, summer support, and/or startup packages. Even in government or industry, there may be non-monetary benefits such as telecommuting that can make a job more attractive.   
  • Ask for what you think you deserve. Women especially tend to feel that negotiating will reflect badly on them, but it is expected, not adversarial. As NR explained, negotiating is really "a friendly exercise that is better for both of you". And it's OK to walk away from the offer if necessary.
  • Realize you won't necessarily get everything you ask for. But you definitely won't get what you don't ask for. 
  • Bring up the terms of a competing offer, where applicable. There is nothing inappropriate about this, and it can be a powerful tool (or a "reinforcement of your value", as DM said). Especially in university settings, there can be a staggering range in salaries -- at least a factor of two between the highest and lowest paid at the same level of responsibility! DM attributes this to both differences in negotiation at the outset, and to retention packages later in one's career. Bringing up another offer will be most effective when the jobs are similar in terms of location, desirability, and responsibilities. 
  • Jump at the first offer. It smacks of desperation, and can indicate that you don't really know your own worth.
  • Come with a "laundry list". Or be completely inflexible in negotiating.
  • Negotiate against yourself. NR recommends resisting the temptation to jump to the end of negotiations ("Give me a number.") because of discomfort with the process of negotiation. Don't hand over your power immediately, and don't try to imagine what's going on in the other person's head ("can they afford this?", "who will teach this class if I don't?") - that's not your job in the negotiation process! 
  • Take a job that will make you miserable. No matter the salary. 
The panel also addressed a number of specific situations later in one's career in which negotiation techniques might be needed, but I'll save these for another post. 

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the American Statistical Association or the panelists. Some comments and questions have been summarized for content; I have tried to do this faithfully -- to the best of my ability -- but make no promises.

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