It's time to teach graduate students and postdocs how to negotiate

It’s time to start reframing the “difficult conversations” around career issues that Ph.D. students and postdocs are having with their advisors and PIs as “negotiations”. And then we need to start teaching trainees how to negotiate.

The reframing isn’t to minimize the fact that the conversation is, in fact difficult, and there are some great articles about what makes the conversation difficult here at ACSB, here, and here,

These conversations can be difficult (which in OCPD we define as any interaction where you believe you need to tell someone something you’re pretty sure they don’t want to hear, yet you need to tell them anyway). But the fact that it’s “difficult” doesn’t seem as relevant as signaling that there is a particular type of approach that one will need to take – which is to negotiate. We like William Ury’s definition:

Negotiation is a “back and forth communication designed to reach an agreement when you and the other side have some interests that are shared and others that are opposed.”

William Ury, Getting To Yes

And the fact is that since research mentors have mentoring, supervisory and educational responsibilities towards trainees, and a research mentor’s productivity is in part dependent on the productivity of their trainee, there will be times that student/postdoc will have goals or interests which, if not opposed, are not clearly aligned with the research mentors. Students/postdocs might want to pursue an internship and a research mentor may have concerns about trainees meeting their productivity expectations (for the sake of a grant, etc.)

Negotiating with your supervisor will always require prep and strategy is not the same as conversing with your mentor. There may be limits on what a student or postdoc is willing to disclose about things they would freely share with a mentor: career ambivalence, career goals that deviate from what the PI considers acceptable. Therefore, prepping for and having that ‘conversation’ will be, as the Latin origin for the word “negotiation” states, “Not Leisure“. Also known as “work”.

Click on the image to check out the presentation blurb and woskshop slides

From the workshop evaluations, what students and postdocs appreciated most was the space to think about their career goals, strategize and prep for the conversation, and the chance to practice language that they felt would resonate with their PI.

Unsurprisingly, many postdocs wanted to practice further, particularly with conversations around independence. For them, we offered follow up career counseling appointments.