Transferable Skills: Negotiation

By Maria Genco

A 2017 survey found that many researchers feel they lack formal training in a variety of transferable skills. At Addgene, we've set out to fill this gap by highlighting that researchers learn many transferable skills while working in the lab and by offering advice on areas where you might need some help. Today in our transferable skills guide: Negotiation.

As a grad student, I thought that “negotiation” was something that I would mainly do over the price of a used car. Later, as I applied for jobs, I knew I should negotiate my salary after receiving an offer but even as I did (successfully!), the process felt unnatural and intimidating. I felt unprepared. Mainly, I thought of negotiation as something done not by people wearing a lab coat, but instead by people wearing business suits discussing multimillion dollar contracts behind closed doors.

A group of people in business suits negotiating
Fig. 1: The mythical land of negotiations. 


You negotiate everyday

What I didn’t realize was how much I was constantly negotiating, every day. As a grad student, I was negotiating with my PI on how to spend my grant money (Can I attend this conference?) and with my lab mates on which lab jobs needed to be done (Who is responsible for making the running buffer this week?). Scientists negotiate all the time over everything from which experiment to do next to how much data is necessary before submitting a manuscript. In fact, how many of you have negotiated over the order of authorship for a manuscript?

And that’s only in your scientific life! I’m certain that you also negotiate with friends, partners, and/or children about everything from what you’re going to eat for dinner (frozen chicken fingers or Ethiopian?) to where you are going on vacation (New York City or Hawaii?).

So how can you approach improving this transferable skill?

Negotiation as a zero sum game

A chess board with the white queen standing and the black king turned on its side

Some people think about negotiation as a zero sum game - that is, if I get what I want, that means you don’t. In this mindset, one of us wins, the other loses. Although this approach to negotiation is the most straightforward, it can mean that everyone leaves disappointed (we’ve all won an argument but felt bad afterwards). Or worse, sometimes there’s no agreement at all and everyone leaves unhappy.


Negotiation as a creative problem-solving process

Two abstract-stylized people talking with question marks and lightbulbs over their heads.Although at first glance it may appear that there has to be a winner and a loser when negotiating, what if we instead approached it as a creative problem-solving exercise? Asking questions like the below can help you understand the perspective of all persons involved and be used as a guide to point you toward a creative solution where everyone wins.

  • What are the underlying reasons for this person’s request?
    • Your colleague is if someone can feed their cells this weekend - why? Do they have an important plans?
  • What is most important to each person?
    • Someone has to be the first author but another author can present the work at the next big conference - Is one of those options more important to you and why?
  • What are their expectations/needs and how are they different from mine?
    • What equipment purchases do we prioritize in a lab with both electrophysiologists and molecular biologists?
  • What is their perception of me and my position?
    • Why is the 6th year grad student frustrated that the brand new grad student keeps using the machine?

Let’s walk through a more specific example. Perhaps you and your lab mate are negotiating for a specific time slot on the confocal microscope. You’re trying to get better images for a paper and she’s trying to get some data for an upcoming conference deadline. Instead of arguing over who gets the spot (a zero sum result - someone doesn’t collect their data), ask why you both want this time and what your needs actually are:

  • Maybe you only need 15 minutes of the two hour time slot, so she can take the rest of the time to collect her data.
  • Perhaps you both have an issue with childcare timing pickup. Whoever takes the earlier slot agrees to pick up both children while the other person uses an available after-hours time slot. 
  • You were hoping that your lab mate would have time to make comments on your manuscript. If you give her this slot, she’ll have extra time next week (after her deadline) to help you. Her feedback on your manuscript is more important to you than collecting your images this week.

Even though three examples depend on many specific details about the individuals, each example provides a scenario where both people get something valuable. Importantly, as the third example shows, the ultimate resolution can involve ideas not related to the actual data collection task but still be beneficial to both. 

Coming up with creative solutions where everyone wins can initially feel more difficult because of the need to be thoughtful about what is most important to each person. It can especially be difficult to think creatively when you are in the middle of a frustrating situation. Asking for opinions from a neutral third party can be a useful strategy to help get unstuck and move closer to an innovative resolution. Creative negotiation can also decrease or entirely eliminate the feeling of conflict many of us associate with negotiating (check out more about conflict resolution).

How to develop negotiation skills

You can easily work on this transferable skill without any formal training or coursework. First, you have to develop an awareness of when you are negotiating. Then take a moment before, during, or after a negotiation to think about the situation, your reaction, and the outcome. How did the negotiation turn out for all parties? What strategies could you have used to improve the outcome? Use everyday situations to practice and hone your skills. This practice will make negotiating feel more natural. Creative negotiation skills will help you strengthen relationships with your colleagues and supervisors and lead to you being remembered as a person who tries to find solutions that benefit everyone. Even if I “lose” a negotiation, I will view the “winner” positively if they tried to understand my position and to find a creative win-win solution.

What does professional negotiation look like?

In professional settings, creative negotiation skills are key to maintaining and growing relationships with your colleagues within and outside of your organization. In my non-academic roles, some examples of negotiation have been:

  • A job offer conflicts with a pre-planned vacation I’m looking forward to. How can I negotiate my starting date with the company so they know I’m excited while still being able to take my vacation?
  • I want to learn more about a different area of the company. How can I negotiate with my manager to gain experience in the area I want to explore while also ensuring that my work gets completed?
  • I want my company to pay for me to attend a conference. How can I negotiate to show the company that investing in me is also beneficial to them?
  • I have an idea on how to improve my current workflow but I need help from another person/team at the company. How do I negotiate with the person/team for help? What can I offer them to make it a win-win situation instead of just extra work for them?
  • As a business development analyst, I negotiate with global organizations that partner with Addgene. What are the most important issues for our partners and how can Addgene work with them to ensure we create a win-win situation? Learning about and respecting cultural differences is a crucial part of understanding what is important to people so that you can approach negotiations creatively with people from anywhere in the world.

Whether you are serving on academic committees as a tenured professor or signing contracts when working for a business development team, negotiation is a key transferable skill that can help you get more of what you want and can also strengthen your relationships with others who know that working with you will benefit them too.

Ed's note: Salary negotiations will be covered separately in a future post.  



Additional resources on the Addgene blog

Resources on


Topics: Science Careers, Transferable Skills

Leave a Comment

Sharing science just got easier... Subscribe to our blog