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'Everything Is a Negotiation'

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From salaries and start-up packages to authorship and equipment-sharing, panelists at a "women in science" talk held at the City University of New York this week stressed that negotiations play a central role throughout an academic researcher's career. The discussion, which was aimed at senior doctoral students, postdoctoral researchers, and junior faculty and moderated by CUNY's Vice Chancellor for Research Gillian Small, covered a range of topics — panelists shared their tips on everything from developing a negotiation style to the merits of asking about an institution's family-friendly policies during an interview.

In her keynote address, Maribel Vazquez reflected on what she has learned about negotiating during her career. Vazquez, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at City College of New York, said that she learned as an undergrad that one must "know the system" to navigate it, and while an intern-turned-employee at Intel, Vazquez said she found it beneficial to "meet the people who make the decisions." After completing a master's at MIT, Vazquez became a PhD student there before negotiating her way into a biomedical engineering lab at the Whitehead Institute, despite her lack of a biology background. For this, Vazquez said she "played to her strengths" by demonstrating how her experiences at Intel made her an ideal fit for the lab's needs. Then, in reflecting on negotiating her salary and start-up package as a new-hire assistant professor, Vazquez said she learned the value of doing her "homework" — that is, researching typical salaries and start-up packages for her field and tailoring them to her expertise. Overall, the she noted that throughout an academic research career, from the logistics of collaborations to service on committees, "everything is a negotiation."

Then, Mary Kern, associate professor of management at Baruch College, presented a somewhat formulaic approach to negotiations. The first step, she said, is to "identify the issues on the table." Next, one should identify their goals. Thirdly, Kern emphasized the importance of identifying alternatives to fall back on "if they say 'No.'" For her part, Vice Chancellor Small stressed the importance of negotiating one's needs earlier rather than once "you've committed to doing the work." She also noted that those who take an "OK, that'll be fine"-type approach early on in their negotiating often feel its ripple throughout their careers. "If you start out like that, it has repercussions throughout," Small said. "What's very critical is the step you come in at."

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Negotiating is a large part of CUNY Vice Chancellor of Labor Relations Pamela Silverblatt's career. Silverblatt, who oversees collective bargaining agreements as well as labor hearings and appeals, said that she has learned the importance of "developing a personal style" for negotiations. When asked how to remain calm during especially tough negotiations, Silverblatt said one must "learn to depersonalize." Then, when asked about the merits of issuing ultimatums, Silverblatt noted that 'take it or leave it'-type offers are more often than not detrimental to the discussion. "It's off-putting when someone perceives they are being given an ultimatum," she said.

Ruth Stark, a dean at City College, added that it's important to build a rationale for one's position during a negotiation. Putting that in writing can help, she added. For those tempted to lose their cool during negotiations, Stark suggested composing an e-mail — or two. When dealing with tense negotiations, it can help to "write it, vent it, then kill it," before re-writing that correspondence to "say something more constructive, more articulate," she said. Overall, Stark added, "most junior faculty do not ask for what they really need."

Now in her second year as an assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Dongming Cai shared straightforward advice from her experience as new faculty: "Come in really knowing what you want to do, and make sure it [the institution] has what you need," Cai said. She added that junior faculty would be remiss to think that the institution meeting their long-term needs is "just assumed."

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