Tips from a Talent Expert: Compensation Negotiation for Job Seekers Breaking Into Biotech

Less than six months ago life sciences job seekers were in the driver’s seat when it came to commanding strong compensation and benefits packages. The economic slowdown, high inflation and general market volatility caused by the ripple effects of the pandemic and other global events has changed the game. 

Biotech is facing a temporary slowdown, which has caused layoffs and greater competition in the job market, relegating more power to the employer when it comes to negotiating the details of a job offer. 

Does this mean that a recent graduate, a postdoc or a professional making a career change can no longer negotiate with a potential employer?

Absolutely not. It’s just a bit more challenging and requires more courage and leg work.

With more candidates in the market, job seekers face stronger competition, perhaps even from more experienced life sciences professionals that have been struggling to find employment that matches their experience level and have turned to taking any available opportunity. In addition to facing a larger pool of job candidates, recent graduates, postdocs and those making a career transition also must address their general lack of experience in the field. 

Seems like a daunting task to not only find a good life sciences job but to also negotiate your way to the compensation package that your education, internships and performance merit. Yes, it’s a challenge, but it is still possible to engage in and win a negotiation with an employer.

“As an early career professional or industry veteran, it is important to know the market value for your skill set/experience going into your job search. Compensation transparency has made some significant strides recently, but we are still a long way from complete transparency from employers,” stated Jeff Caskey, Recruiting Manager at Workforce Genetics.

“Talking about money is often thought of as taboo, but when it comes to your job search it is a major component. Be confident in these discussions and make sure you are always prepared to have this conversation,” he added.

Here’s how job seekers can break into biotech and give themselves the best shot at receiving an offer that meets or exceeds their salary and compensation goals. 


Understand What You’re Negotiating

For entry level job seekers, or those transitioning into the life sciences, it’s critical to understand the difference between salary and compensation when it comes to negotiating an employment agreement.

This might sound obvious, but that’s not necessarily true for those inexperienced in negotiations. 

Salary is your base pay whereas compensation includes your salary, 401K matches, Long Term Incentives (LTI), annual bonuses, commissions and paid time off (PTO), among other possible items. In some cases a total compensation package could also include tuition reimbursement, profit sharing plans, childcare costs and gym memberships.

It’s important for job seekers to remember much of your total compensation package can be negotiated. It’s also important to be aware of where a job candidate sits in the proverbial pecking order; as an inexperienced candidate, there might be less leverage to negotiate LTI or bonuses, for example. The more experienced candidates have more power in this regard. 

That said, knowing the difference between base salary and total compensation will allow a job seeker to negotiate more skillfully and with more agility. In other words, do pre-interview research and be prepared to ask questions of the hiring manager—at the appropriate inflection point in the process—to understand the whole compensation picture for a given job opportunity.


Speaking of Research: Do Your Homework on Salary/Compensation Ranges for a Job

Attempting to negotiate a better salary and/or compensation package without doing your own research will lead to a failed negotiation and, quite frankly, looking bad in front of a potential employer. 

A job seeker can easily research salary information about the life sciences industry online using free resources such as Indeed Salaries, The Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Glassdoor, to name just a few resources. (Some of these research sites are free, some require data input and some greater access features could require payment/membership.) It might be a bit more of a challenge to find accurate data pertaining to total compensation, though with some digging that can be had as well.

The point is this: a job candidate cannot negotiate salary and/or compensation without the right data about salary and compensation ranges for specific life sciences positions and experience levels.

“A lot of job seekers are only focused on the base salary when negotiating/discussing compensation with employers. Base salary is very important, but it is critical to ask questions regarding the entire compensation packages. Does the 401k match have a vesting schedule? What are the premiums for health insurance? If provided a sign on or relocation package, do you have to repay that if you were to leave before a certain date? All of these factors play into the total compensation equation. You could leave money on the table or walk away from strong total comp packages if you don’t take the time to understand these components,” said Jeff.

“Equally important is knowing your market value. Outside of the typical job boards and salary websites, Recruiters are a great resource to understand the market. Reach out to recruiters in your network and ask them if they’d be willing to share information on market values based on your experience/skill set. Typically, agency recruiters work with several different companies in a particular industry/geographic area and can provide real world intel.” 

Job candidates need to do their homework, be armed with accurate data, and need to be ready to use this data to show that they’ve prepared for the interview (this will impress the hiring manager) and that they’re highly informed about what the market says about their value to an employer.


Negotiate with Confidence, Not Bravado

Through strong research and being armed with accurate information, an entry level job seeker or a career transition candidate can negotiate with confidence. 

That said, it’s natural for job seekers that lack experience to shy away from going after what they want. When an offer comes in, it’s easy for inexperienced job seekers to give in to the sense of relief that the job hunt might be over.  This can lead a candidate to accepting the first or any offer that comes their way.

Resist the easy path and it could pay real dividends. 

Don’t be afraid of losing an opportunity because of negotiating with confidence and in good faith. Other opportunities will arise and job seekers, even those without much experience in the industry, need to negotiate from a position of confidence, meaning they are prepared with data and are okay with walking away from an offer that doesn’t meet them somewhere in the middle. 

It’s okay to negotiate if one does it respectfully and with transparency. It’s not okay to negotiate in an over confident way or with unwarranted bravado, especially as an entry level candidate or someone coming into the life sciences field from another industry.

Jeff adds, “Companies do not usually rescind an offer to a candidate because they want to negotiate. Most seasoned professionals typically negotiate job offers because there is usually some flexibility on the part of the employer.   That being said, you need to be consistent in what you are asking for. If you shared that your desired salary is X in the beginning of a hiring process and then asked for 30% more at the offer stage, that is a bad look. Unless something is different about the job than originally discussed, you want to remain consistent as much as possible. When negotiating, don’t just throw out a number either. Back it up with justification for asking for that compensation. i.e. Value you bring, competing job offers, market value for your experience, etc. “

Nothing will turn a hiring manager off faster than a candidate who is overconfident and has inflated their worth. 

Know the salary and compensation data for a job opportunity. Engage negotiation with the big picture in mind and do so respectfully. A candidate that goes after that dream job offer with humility and knowledge will likely land in the middle, which is better than taking any old offer that comes one’s way. 


Know When to Negotiate

The first interview is not the time to engage in a salary/compensation discussion. A hiring manager might ask a candidate for a salary range in a screening interview or first formal interview. Or they might present the salary range in the job description or offer it up without asking a candidate first.

It’s critical for entry level candidates to remember the following when it comes to early salary questions and when to start actual negotiations:

  • A candidate should never bring up salary in the early stages of the interview process
  • If a hiring manager asks for a salary range, be respectful but non committal; if possible, be vague and attempt to put this question back in the hiring manager’s court by being open, i.e. “My salary is negotiable”
  • If boxed into a corner by a hiring manager, or if the application requires a form input for a salary range, here’s where the pre-interview research comes in: respond in a way that provides wiggle room and offers a salary/compensation range that accurately mirrors market value
  • Start earnest negotiations at the appropriate time, which is after a written offer is provided by an employer that outlines salary and compensation details


Be Ready to Compromise

As an entry level job candidate or perhaps a career changer, it’s unlikely that one will get everything they want in an offer. That’s just reality. 

A job candidate needs to be ready to meet in the middle with an employer, but it’s also critical that a candidate understands where the middle is before the interview process begins.

In addition, a job candidate needs to keep the big picture in mind. For example, an employer might not offer a higher base salary yet they present a candidate ample opportunity for professional growth in a short period of time. Or maybe they offer a great bonus package and if a candidate bets on themselves to perform that lower salary could be offset by the other compensation opportunities in the offer like stock incentives, commissions or bonuses. 

The point here is that candidates should make an informed ask of an employer. Entry level candidates should negotiate, even if they are inexperienced. Done in a research-based, respectful and a compromise-focused way, even entry level candidates and those new to the life sciences industry can negotiate with employers effectively.

After all, if one doesn’t ask, the answer is always no.