Heather Nester // University of Cincinnati
Nicolette Moya // Northwestern University
Maya Gosztyla // University of California San Diego
While it is becoming more well known that candidates should negotiate their job offers, this idea has not translated to students’ pursuing graduate programs. In the world of academia, the option to negotiate your graduate school package is rarely discussed and plagued by fears associated with imposter syndrome. With rising student loan debt breaking $1.5 trillion (Friedman, 2019), students pursuing graduate degrees should be negotiating more than ever before. This article provides advice, outlines a process, and highlights success stories from students that have recently been successful negotiating their graduate school package.
Introduction: Failing To Negotiate
It is common practice that a career advisor will inform clients that they should negotiate their salary any time they receive a job offer. Many universities offer tips, guides, and advising appointments on how students can go about this nerve-wracking process for the first time. Workshops, listservs, and a multitude of resources are provided specifically to target this need.
Even with this advice, many individuals, especially women, do not end up negotiating their salary or job offer. Only 39% of job candidates negotiated for a higher salary when they received their last job offer. The pay gap widens when you look at the discrepancies of salaries between men and women. The increased disparity between men and women who negotiate for a higher salary, 46% and 34% respectively, highlights the lack of negotiation trend (Maruer, 2018). Over their lifetimes, these individuals who do not negotiate their starting salaries are potentially leaving $1 million on the table throughout their career (Ferrante, 2018). When one fails to negotiate the starting salary, the compound percent increases over the course of your career will not equate to as much as if you had negotiated from the starting point and earned a higher starting salary.
Unless one happens to speak to the right advisor, what we fail to discuss in academia is the significant impact negotiating your graduate school package can have on your future. Studies have been completed that look at the salary dollars left behind but think about the impact a higher scholarship package or fellowship appointment that pays more money can have on your finances. The average graduate school debt in the United States by discipline, seen in Table 1 below, depicts the high cost of obtaining a graduate degree (Carter, 2019). This highlights the importance that fighting for a better financial aid package is crucial.
Similarly, when people must negotiate for a job offer, 20% of students struggle with imposter syndrome. This can deter prospective candidates from negotiating their stipends (Gaetano, 2019). Those combating imposter syndrome typically have an inability to believe their success, skills, or knowledge has been legitimately achieved and is enough to warrant merit. Often, students are unaware of the process, as well as the resources available to them throughout this process.
The mindset that institutions have all the power is common and applicants must remember that they hold power as the potentially interested applicant. For the past eight years, college enrollments have decreased in the United States (Fain, 2019). According to the National Association of Colleges and University Business Officers (NACUBO), tuition discounting is at an all-time high (i.e., at nearly 50%), in part, to entice more students to enroll at an institution (Skibell, 2016). For example, although the published tuition cost could be $32,000 for an institution the student pays less than $15,000, on average. Thus, colleges are looking to maintain enrollment in their programs and might be more flexible over certain aspects of the offer. Candidates can bring immense value and perspective to the program and should believe in the skills and experiences that got them this far.
Step 1: Understanding What You Want
Whether for graduate school or a career, the first step to negotiation is understanding what one wants and needs to survive. The student needs to have a clear understanding of this to be confident in their future negotiations. Three categories of questions the prospective student can ask includes:
- What are your must-haves: What do you absolutely need to have to survive? What is the cost of living in the area your graduate school is located? Do you have transportation to campus, or is that something you need to negotiate for? What is the minimum stipend you can accept based on your financial needs? Do you have any geographical boundaries? Do you have any accessibility accommodations to request? Can you negotiate for any familial obligations you may have?
- What are your walkaways — be honest: Reflect on what aspects are non-negotiable to you. What can you not live with if certain priorities are not met?
- What are your trade-offs: What aspects of the offer are you willing to trade for? Are you willing to trade a lower scholarship or a housing stipend? Reflect on what you can live with.
Step 2: Evaluating Your Offers
The second step is focused on data collection and fully understanding all aspects of the offer(s) you receive. At this stage, if you have multiple offers, you can begin to compile relevant information into a spreadsheet to compare them. By narrowing down your top choices, you know what universities you want to focus your negotiating energy on. If you are primarily focusing on one university, you can still fully evaluate the offer and evaluate if it meets your minimums to be successful.
Network with Current Graduate Students
One of the most important things you need to do is talk with current graduate students at each institution you are interested in. Whether you met them during a campus visit, you find their email on a department website, or you utilize online forums like TheGradCafe.com, you need to connect with others who can help you. You are not expected to complete graduate school alone, so you should not approach the beginning of the process by yourself either.
If you are familiar with typical offers that have been awarded to other graduate students, it gives you a base to build your case. If your scholarship offer is a few thousand dollars less compared to current students, you know there might be some wiggle room to negotiate. You might learn through conversations that there are different tiers of offers based on test scores, GPA, et cetera that you did not know existed. Some current students might share important values the program has that you can use in your negotiation. Whatever is shared with you is information you did not have before.
After you have gathered all the information you can about typical offers the university provides, their values, tiers of offers, et cetera you can prepare your case. At this stage, you can analyze if you are being offered a fair package compared to others in the program. If something is off, or you feel you can negotiate up, refer to your must-haves and trade-offs. What aspects of the offer do you minimally need increased and what aspects are you a bit more flexible on? At the end of the day, identify your ideal outcome, as well as the minimum outcome you would be comfortable receiving before walking away, from each institution.
Understanding College Rankings
Think back to when you first started to identify graduate programs you were interested in. At some point, you probably looked up the program rankings for each one to see how they compared. This is valuable information when you want to negotiate your offers.
For example, if you received an offer from two universities ranked in the top 10 for a specific program you can use that to your advantage. By highlighting that you have offers from competitive institutions, you can show you are a sought-after candidate. If the recruitment team is aware that you have multiple offers on the table, they might be more willing to negotiate with you. Institutions are partly ranked by how competitive the applicants are that enroll in their programs (Morse, 2019). Thus, if you are sought after by multiple institutions and institutions know it, it is likely that each institution is going to want you to select its offer.
At this stage, you should keep in mind if anything on your application was well above the average of each program as well. If your grade point average (GPA) is significantly higher than the program average, that is significant. Remember, you have just as much decision-making power at this stage as the institution.
Step 3: I Have Gathered My Information. Who Do I Talk To?
At this point you have navigated through the hardest part of the process. You have: (a) applied to the programs you are interested in, (b) reflected on what is important to you, (c) networked with current students and faculty members, and (d) narrowed down your list to programs you are genuinely excited to attend. The next step is “the ask,” the part that people are generally nervous to do. Keep in mind that the worst thing the institution can say is “No, we are not willing or capable to negotiate your offer.”
Program Director or Advisor
Before your message to negotiate, keep in mind the audience you will be working with. Some might be quick to assume they should reach out to faculty members because they typically have a very strong voice and influence up to this stage. However, the individual faculty members are typically not in charge of the finances or scholarships. While they might be powerful advocates and play a role, most of the time they will not have the final say in this area.
The Program Director or Advisor will be the person you want to start your negotiating conversation with. They will have the best understanding of departmental finances, what is available, and what they can reasonably offer you as a candidate.
Drafting Your Language
Your personality will impact how you choose to negotiate. Use the avenue that you are most comfortable with to let your confidence shine through. Some people will be more comfortable negotiating in person during their interview, while others will be more comfortable reaching out through email. Both are perfectly acceptable, provided you have done your research before the interaction.
Keep in mind that if you are enrolled in an institution, you do not have to craft your query alone. Every university should have a career center that has advisors that can help you through this process and create a query with you. You can also reach out to a mentor, if you have one you trust, to ask their advice about your negotiation wording and process. Having another set of eyes, especially from professionals that have been through graduate school, can help build your confidence and fight against any imposter syndrome you might experience.
Next is a censored example that Nicolette Moya (article co-author) used to successfully negotiate her graduate offer through email.
I hope that this email finds you well!
I wanted to let you know that I am seriously considering accepting the offer to attend [YOUR INSTITUTION] and the [SPECIFIC PROGRAM] for graduate school. The program, campus, and location are all incredible, and perfectly align with my criteria in selecting a graduate school!
However, I wanted to let you know that while I am excited at the opportunity to attend [YOUR INSTITUTION], the [COMPETITIVE INSTITUTION] — who I am also considering for graduate school — is offering me an additional scholarship on top of the stipend to attend their program.
I was wondering if there was any possibility that the NUIN program could offer me any additional support to attend? If so, I am certain I will choose [YOUR INSTITUTION] to complete my graduate studies.
Thank you so much, I appreciate your time and consideration.
Moya used a formal and thoughtful voice to express that she was appreciative of the opportunity to attend a great institution, yet also made it clear that she was considering a competing institution that was offering her a better package deal. Using this type of language indicates a level of respect and desire to attend the institution, while also explaining that there is a real possibility that she could instead choose to attend the institution that was offering her a better deal.
Maya Gosztyla (article co-author) had a different experience. Here is a censored example of her email to the Program Director.
Hello [Program Director],
Thank you so much for this offer! I was really impressed by the program during my interview weekend and I definitely think it could be a great fit for me. My only concern is the cost of living, since I’ve received similar stipend offers from several other programs in much cheaper cities. However, I’ve read that some students at [YOUR INSTITUTION] can be eligible for priority status that lets them live in graduate housing longer than 2 years. I was wondering if this might be an option for me?
A note from Gosztyla: “I knew from talking to current students that the stipend and benefits package for this program is one of the highest at the university and as a result, few, if any, students are offered a higher amount. Instead of asking for a higher stipend, I asked to be nominated for priority housing status. At this university, graduate students are only allowed to live in subsidized housing for two years, but priority status allows you to live there for the entirety of your PhD. The apartments cost easily $1000 per month less than they would if they had not been subsidized, so this program can save you significant money over the long-term. I also knew from speaking to current graduate students that you are much more likely to be nominated for this program if you ask for it directly. The program director asked me to wait a couple of weeks while they considered and filed all the requisite paperwork, and then I received the good news that I had been offered priority housing.”
Bringing It All Together: Advice From Successful Negotiations
Nicolette Moya, Northwestern University, Interdepartmental Neuroscience (article co-author)
Advice for students:
Talk to graduate students during interviews to get an idea about how much they were offered by the program. If they say they were offered an additional scholarship, that can give you insight as to how much more support the institution can provide on top of the stipend.
My advice is to just do it–ask respectfully, and the worst they can say is no. But if you never ask, the answer is already no.
Maya Gosztyla, University of California San Diego, Biomedical Sciences (article co-author)
Advice for students:
The internet is a wonderful place for learning about graduate admissions and the negotiation process. I personally used Reddit, particularly the r/gradadmissions subreddit, for answers to a lot of my questions and discussions on these topics. Another great resource is podcasts. My two favorites on this topic are “Personal Finance for PhDs” and “Hello PhD.” They both discuss graduate stipend negotiation in a few of their episodes.
My main advice for negotiation is not to be in a rush. Most programs in the United States will not ask you to accept an offer before April 15, so do not feel like they are going to rescind your offer if you do not accept right away. Take some time to consider whether this program is the right fit for you and take a hard look at how your financial situation will be impacted if you accept the offer. Do not just compare the raw dollar amounts: cost of living is a huge factor in how far your stipend will go. You can search online to find cost of living calculators or ask current students in the program. If you find that your other offer is more generous after factoring in the cost of living (particularly if it is from a school of similar prestige), mention this in your negotiations.
Be patient and calm while negotiating. Remember, they want you to join their program! You are an asset. Even if they are not able to increase your stipend or provide other benefits like priority housing, there is no harm in simply asking.
Additional Advice from Successful Students
- Prateek Srivastava negotiated a fully funded Master’s (MSC) in International Politics to the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.
- Focused on scholarships and grants associated with the program, especially research scholarships
- Spoke directly with the department about opportunities at each university
- Reached out through email and phone at most institutions
- Advice: Narrow your list of schools and focus on what is important to you (research, study programs, professors, past students’ employment rate, scholarships, location, et cetera.). Researching the schools and locations are key.
- Nichelle Lyle negotiated an increase to their graduate program at the University of Cincinnati in Business Marketing and Anthropology.
- Reached out through email and in-person conversations with the Program Advisor and Director of Graduate Studies
- Advice: Understand that you have the power to negotiate and give yourself time to think about the offer. Understand the graduate school process before you start applying so you know your options. Start early.
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