"You're one tough negotiator," concedes the car salesman to comic strip character Dilbert, after 4 hours of haggling. Negotiations can be tough, especially when you're negotiating a job offer and not bartering over your latest sport-utility vehicle purchase. But with realistic expectations and reasonable requests, you can improve your chances of reaching acceptable agreements as long as you communicate well: In addition to proving your scientific expertise, you need to exhibit sharp social skills, composure, and professionalism to seal a deal.

Whether you're a fresh Ph.D. searching for a lab in which to do a postdoc, or you're trying to land a junior faculty position and create your own lab, negotiations are crucial in developing your scientific career. Reaching satisfying compromises with the head of a lab or the department chair requires first-rate communication and social skills. Professional bargaining, for example, could win you promises of more start-up funds, additional space, or extra equipment. At the postdoctoral level, good negotiating may mean you wind up taking away part (or all!) of your project when it's time to leave. But negotiating doesn't start and end at interviews: Interacting with an employer, department chair, or lab director takes place throughout your research career.

Shrinking violets step up to bat

There's no place in science for shrinking violets: Carving out a research career means taking a stand and defending controversial data, selling your ideas, developing collaborations, and negotiating with present and future employers. Professional as well as experimental pitfalls confront researchers, so knowing how to construct persuasive, level-headed arguments can help steer you through potentially tumultuous discussions: working out the terms of a postdoctoral package, for example, or negotiating the start-up conditions of junior faculty posts. "Good negotiations mean good interaction skills," says Keith Yamamoto, chair of cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco. And although it pays for graduates and postdocs to be reserved and cautious during negotiations, timidity and apprehension do not contribute toward building sound deals or agreements.

Now you're talking …

"It is really critical to define your needs," advised Yamamoto, speaking in a panel session on Negotiation Strategies at the American Society for Cell Biology's annual meeting held in Washington, D.C., last month. "It is crucial that you get started efficiently," he says, referring to postdocs interviewing for junior faculty spots. The best way to do that and ensure you get started at a "reasonable trajectory" is to simply "express your needs and interests," suggests Joan Brugge, a professor of cell biology at Harvard Medical School in Boston and fellow panelist. She adds that your discussions should develop and unfold naturally, because she feels that "when you take a position, the other person digs in to their position, and it's very unlikely you're going to find a common road" to settle a deal.

"In all negotiations, it's really about understanding the other person's point of view," reveals David Botstein, chair of the department of genetics at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who also spoke at the meeting. "You have to have substantive arguments that you know that from their point of view are going to work." Botstein clarifies that "it's not personal, never personal--it's always about being professional: You take the professional high road, and you'll never go wrong."

"Even more important than explaining to the NIH or the funding agency how you're going to get [your research] done, you have to explain to your department how you're going to get it done," spelled out Botstein during the meeting. Shrinking violets will have to learn to toughen up, state their case, and justify what they need and why: "If there isn't a 37°C room, you're going to have to figure that out and go there and say, 'I need a 37°C room.' "

Negotiation shopping lists

"Castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually," strummed Jimi Hendrix back in the late '60s. Similarly, even today, grand research plans with weak foundations will deteriorate as negotiations progress. "What you need to do is sit down and think about what it is you really need for your program to get off the ground," advises Yamamoto. Thinking on your feet without such a list can result in ineffective discussions: "You may find that the stuff that is down on the table looks good and sounds nice but in fact are not things you really need," he points out. "Prioritize your list--especially the deal-breaker issues" that are vital to your success.

Leaving a postdoctoral position can be a wrenching experience if similar lists of expectations and "deal-breakers" have not been discussed early on. What a postdoc takes when leaving a lab, for example, is often a source of conflict. In those cases, "the postdoc and adviser must discuss who is going to use lab resources and how credit is to be attributed," says Jon Dantzig, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "If the postdoc is afraid to have the conversation, that means it is more important to do it, not less. It is differences in expectations and failure to communicate that causes most problems," relates Dantzig, who wrote a guide highlighting the ins and outs of landing an academic job.

Time flies--Where're my lab supplies?

Somewhere on these priority lists should be "The Timetable": When interviewing for and negotiating a junior faculty spot or a postdoc position, "the timetable would be one of the things that you agree on," reveals Eva Nogales, an assistant professor at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. It helps outline the expectations of both parties and ensures that the department or lab "will be able to do as they promised by the deadline," she explains. "Get it in writing," adds Botstein, who advises that "after the handshake," negotiators should exchange letters and ensure that everyone agrees on the same "reality."

You must exert prudence, however, before dashing off to the mailbox every other day, advises Yamamoto: "You should wait until you're far downstream in the negotiations" before penning notes and letters to current or future employers confirming negotiation details. "You have to know when to do these things."

The show must go on ... and on ... and on ...

"This is going to be only the first" set of negotiations, reminds Nogales, who completed the society's Negotiation Strategies panel. She points out that the interviews are only the tip of the communication iceberg. "You're going to have talks with your chairman all the time, so you have to feel comfortable" during those discussions, the molecular biologist says.

"Ain't wastin' time no more"

Feeling comfortable means not being pressured to secure a job offer before speaking with your boss. Because outside offers represent "validation of the ideas," they can be a powerful bargaining gambit, says Botstein. But job offers shouldn't be a prerequisite to talks or discussions: "You're supposed to be communicating with your chairman," explains Brugge. "Your chairman doesn't want you to waste your time going out to get a job offer" before approaching them, she clarifies. If you feel it is time to review your position, then make an appointment with your boss, draw up your priority list, be professional, and clearly explain what it is you'd like to discuss.

"I have an offer from another company that will pay 15% more," declares Dilbert, the cartoon cubicle worker looking for a 10% raise. "I'll give you 20% if you stay," offers his boss. So Dilbert walked out of those discussions with double what he was originally seeking. "Good news!" he exclaims to his band of colleagues: "The secret company policy is to reward disloyalty!" Perhaps not what the boss intended, but a good reminder that negotiations are always a two-way process: Whichever side of the desk you find yourself negotiating, be clear, be rational, and be precise, or you could walk away with more than you bargained for!