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I have recently received an offer from a group which pursues topics I find very motivating and whose equipment is above average for my field.

The salary offered is 50% of the German TV-L E13 salary, which I think is acceptable by academic standards. However, all other offers which I have received are 65% of TV-L E13, though all of these other groups pursue topics which to me are slightly less interesting. To give you a bit of background, 50% has been the standard for a long time, but since a couple of years ago most groups in my field are deciding to award their PhD employees 65%.

I am very motivated by my particular interests, and had the salary been equal for all offers I would have taken this one without question. Sadly, the situation being as it is, I am quite split. Additionally, the professor made it quite clear that I would also have to get involved in teaching (not all other groups were as forward about this) - which I do not mind in the slightest, but which I think would give cause for extra consideration when calculating a salary. Regarding the professor's interest, he seemed very keen to have me on board, but also very confident I would take his offer.

I would like to ask whether he could accommodate for 65%. But, since I am yet to decide, I would not like to lose the offer or put great strain on our future relationship if he refused.

The way I see it, academic culture treats monetary interest with a certain disdain, and I would like to ask you how I could best formulate my request.

FEEDBACK: I have followed the advice offered here, and stated in an email to my prospective PI that I had received better paid offers, and that I would ask him if he could increase the pay, though I am aware of how difficult this could be for him. He took some time to reply (which initially gave me cause to worry), but apparently now he managed to arrange for 65%. I would encourage any of you to follow the advice presented here; and do try to negotiate as long as you do it very respectfully!

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I don't feel qualified to give a full answer, but in the negotiation I would certainly mention that you have other offers at 65%, and that the 50% offer is your preferred project. However, that 15% difference (something like 350 euros per month after tax?) is a lot of money for a young person, especially if you have a partner or family. If the professor won't (or cannot) raise your salary, he should at least compassionately understand why you refused the offer. –  Moriarty Apr 5 at 6:27
    
Thanks for providing the feedback. Glad to hear it worked out well for you! –  Marc Claesen Apr 18 at 16:16

4 Answers 4

up vote 20 down vote accepted

One of the mods here is a professor in a german university, I think he is able to add a better answer or at least confirm or discard mine.

Some considerations:

  • As far as I know, many german PhD students, at least in CS, are actually employed full-time, which I assume means 100% TVL-E. In that sense, both 50% and 65% seem somewhat on the low side to me. At the very least, negotiating for 65% does not seem so unreasonable that it should offend anybody.
  • However, don't be too disappointed if your negotiations go nowhere. I have heard from multiple people that academic salaries are oftentimes entirely unnegotiable in Germany (though not always)
  • German PhD student salaries are internationally quite on the high side (also if you take costs of living into account), so even if you cannot negotiate, 50% might still be ok compared internationally. That being said, the question is always if the salary is enough for your standard of living / circumstances. If you have a partner and two kids, maybe 50% simply does not allow you to live. If you are alone and live in a dorm, maybe 50% is plenty.
  • In germany, some amount of teaching is usually part of the job. That the one professor told you this before is a good thing. However, there is teaching and there is teaching. I have certainly seen groups where teaching load could add up to about 75% of a PhD student's work time. This is obviously terrible (independent of money issues). The hard part is figuring out whether this is the case in your specific group. The best way is to ask one of the current PhD students.
  • Don't be too afraid that you may annoy your future professor. In my experience, the entire "academics frown upon money issues" is a bit of a show. The same professors who says such things at the same time have no quarrels at all negotiating their own contracts or department budgets. If your future professors gets annoyed by you mentioning that you have a number of better offers, you should likely go somewhere else anyway.

Now, for the actual negotiation, I would follow moriary's remark from the comment - simply mention (friendly and non-threatingly) that you are torn on accepting the offer, as you have counter-offers at 65%. As said, nobody should get annoyed by that. We are all adults, right?

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Re your 1st point: yes, Computer Science will typically pay 100% (because prospective Ph.D. students have attractive alternatives). But in other fields, e.g., Psychology, 50% is standard. This depends very much on the field. It would be helpful if the OP could indicate the field he is in. –  Stephan Kolassa Apr 5 at 8:30
    
I'm the mod you're thinking of, and the basic facts are correct. However, there are some additional issues here which make me think that the negotiations won't likely work out (see my answer for the full explanation, but it comes down to how PhD positions are funded). –  aeismail Apr 5 at 13:34
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This depends a lot on the field, in Chemistry and Biology 50-65% positions are the common case in Germany. 65% also seems to be a more recent development. –  Mad Scientist Apr 5 at 16:50
    
+1 for "academics frown upon money issues" –  hawk Apr 25 at 12:50

There are two fundamentally opposing issues here. One is that

You will not get a higher salary unless you negotiate.

while at the same time

The only way to avoid the messiness of failed negotiations is not to negotiate.

You have to be prepared for the possibility that negotiations will not go the way that you want. So, really, the question is if the extra pay is so important to you that you are willing to walk away from the position if things don't work out the way you want.

Funding for research groups in Germany can resemble a zero-sum game: faculty members get a fixed budget from the university, as well as a mostly set budget from funding agencies: they get a certain allotment of positions to fill, and get paid based on the salary needed to fund those positions. But what this means is that to give you the extra 15 percent of the position, they need to come up with the funding from somewhere. This may or may not have been budgeted for in the original proposal; if not, finding the money to do so can be quite difficult, particularly in non-science fields (where there may not be a large amount of third-party and industrial funding available).

Even if the funding comes from the so-called Planstelle (or university funding), the issue is fundamentally the same: giving you an extra 0.15 position means that there's that much less for somebody else. So 2.0 Planstelle positions could be used to hire four graduate students at 50 percent, or three graduate students at 65 percent.

Furthermore, some faculties may have guidelines on what faculty members can offer potential PhD students; it may be worthwhile to contact the person responsible for doctoral students at the department in question to see if this is the case here.

However, unless the group is rather large, I'm rather pessimistic of the ability of the advisor to increase the offer. (If he could have, he probably would have done so, already knowing the state of competition in the field.)

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All of this is correct. However, large groups that existed for some time tend to also have a "dirty little secret", an additional account which contains various leftovers accumulated from previous projects (my PhD advisor used to call this his war chest). This money can be used without all too many restrictions. Of course professors tend to be rather protective with this money, but ... I guess my point is that trying to negotiate is often not entirely without hope. –  xLeitix Apr 5 at 15:05
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I did mention large groups as being a caveat. Again, though, this tends to apply more to STEM fields than to humanities and social science fields. –  aeismail Apr 5 at 15:44

My 2 ct:

  • Who is funding the position? (I.e.: is the offer for a concrete project, funded by some funding agency)? If so, look up the funding agencies policies for PhD student funding (e.g. DFG recently changed the recommendation to 65%).

  • Anyways, I don't think it will hurt to ask whether 65% are possible. After all, that is now the DFG recommendation. So you are not asking for an outrageous amount of money.
    And, if they are not willing to increase the offer, they can easily tell you that this is not possible at the moment due to how positions are tied to projects or even that they don't do this in order not to have one highly paid student at the cost of some other student. (I've been in an institute where positions were more or less rotated among the PhD students in order to have roughly equal pay to everyone in the long run).

  • Are you asking for better wage without more work or are you asking for more money, possibly for more work, e.g. because you need to feed your family. Particularly the latter reason may be a good point to tell during the negotiation (depending on where the position is - noone will believe that you'd be able to survive at 65% wage in Munich if you cannot do with 50% in Leipzig).

  • There may be other ways to get more money, e.g. it may be possible to get paid the additional 15% if you are borrowed out to do teaching at some other institute for the respective amount of time. I've also been doing work contracts for university though my experience with (one) German university was that they took extremely long to pay (close to 6 months - seems rather usual: I've since heard that other universities have similarly bad reputation). However, this is IMHO only an option if you anyways think about running a free-lancing side-business - otherwise the burocracy will not be worth the hassle.

  • Consider also asking whether and when you can expect an increase to 65%.

Update ("soft" advise triggered by the OP's comments)

  • The comments look to me as if the moment for wage negotiation is already in the past:

    Prof: "[blabla] at the usual pay." Chimera: "... which I take to mean 65% TVL-13"

    Is the moment I'd have considered the point to open wage negotiations.

  • IMHO a vague offer like "usual pay" needs to be clarified into some hard number - so pinning that to something more concrete is not necessarily blurting out. After all, "usual pay" could be anywhere from 50 to 100% TVL-13 (and formerly even from 50% WHK upwards - but I don't know whether that is still done)

  • Maybe the most important point that comes to my mind now: Wage negotiation does not safe you from making up your mind about what you want. Quite the contrary: you need to know those beforehand, otherwise you'll have no footing for the negotiation.

  • In any case, having messed up these negotiations (assuming you could have gotten the interesting project and the higher wage which we don't know) is an experience for life. It may be good to settle your emotions by writing it off as "Lehrgeld". Yes, 10 000 € net difference over the 3 a hurts (that pain will make the lessons learned last...). On the other hand you're probably going to make more expensive decisions (and even mistakes) during your lifetime (e.g. buying once during our lifetime new car instead of a used one will easily cost you more).
    At some point the most expensive mistake will be to keep fretting about this possible mistake instead of looking forward and trying to have a better next negotiation.

  • I think there is a deep wisdom in the advise to practice job interviews and negotiations several times with jobs you are not really interested in getting before applying where you seriously want to go. Includes clarifying for yourself the lessons-learned (also by asking questions like this here).

  • 10 000 € hurt, but as others have menioned, larger important points aren't negotiable (e.g. how much time you'll spend for teaching)

  • or can be negotiated independently of the 50% vs. 65% question (e.g. your prof may be able to throw in helping you to get an international research stay etc.).

The remaining thoughts are my very personal point of view.

  • The unknown confounding factors ("Munich" vs. "Leipzig", family or not) are too large here to give much advise. Obviously, with a job offer in Munich and a family to feed I'd negotiate more (possibly to the point of trying to reopen negotiations) than as a single applying in Leipzig.

  • Personally, I'd say that the 15% are in general not sufficient "pain compensation" for me for taking an uninteresting position. Of course that wouldn't stop me from negotiating.
    But in order to weight this point you need to know that

  • My personal experience (Germany, Canada, Italy) underlines rather strongly that the wage : costs of basic living are extremely favorable in Germany compared to other countries. To the point where I think that with few exceptions, even for students money problems are usually (exceptions being feeding a family in Munich - you get the idea) rather on the side of expenses than on the side of generating income.
    But take that as a very personal thing - your priorities may vary: I'm aware that I happen to

    • have inexpensive hobbies (not very interested in cinema and pub tours and instead hiking, wild camping, biking and having the beer & wine at our own camp fire/BBQ - and I don't need the alps that urgently if I have the Sächsische Schweiz or the Thüringer Wald just a few km away; also not feeling an urgent need to get to the Andes or the Himalaya as there are large parts of Europe still unknown to me).
    • be quite good at repairing/renovating stuff
    • enjoy cooking our own meals with friends which also happens to be much cheaper than the pizza service and still cheaper than the mensa.
    • have studied in Dresden where rents were cheap, and now live in Jena which has crazy expensive rents compared to, say, Leipzig, which are however still low compared to about everywhere in former West-Germany. And to Italy (Trieste).

    Anyways these points gave me the independence even as a student to be rather free in the decision what job offer to take and to follow my interests.

To put it the other way round: my advise is to make up your mind also how much this kind of independence (which can tremendously help your negotiation position) is worth to you. If you make up your mind now, you'll be settled when the more important negotiations come after the PhD. If you find out that you are not the person who is willig or able to go that way, that is perfectly OK as well. But it will safe you a lot of pain to know and act accordingly.

(You asked for safe negotiations, not e.g. for successful negotiation or how to avoid basic mistakes during wage negotiation.)

(And, just to let you know @TheChimera, of course I've also messed up job interviews. I believe everyone does at least once in a while.)

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I don't know exactly where the money is coming from. He did not tell me when he made the offer. As he made the offer, 65% slipped my tongue, and he seemed surprised. Should I maybe send a link/reference to the dfg recommendation, or would that be too crass? –  TheChymera Apr 5 at 21:55
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@TheChymera: I would not send a link. That would have a Gschmäckle that he doesn't know his job. The DFG is important enough that we can safely expect every German professor to know their recommendation for PhD funding. I was thinking of a an oral negotiation (which allows more flexibility on both sides). If you already mentioned the 65%, you can maybe ask him why he was surprised by that. Although your comment sounds as if the negotiations had already taken place - renegotiating afterwards does sound weird to me and I'd expect low probability of success. –  cbeleites Apr 6 at 10:20
    
no, we didn't really negotiate, just that when he made the offer, he said "the usual pay" and for some reason i felt like blurting out "yeah, sure, 65% is ok". I felt a bit uncomfortable after that so i did not mention it again. –  TheChymera Apr 6 at 10:24

I agree with aeismail that negotiation is probably not going to work. He seems to know about universities; I work at a research centre from the Helmholtz group. At our research centre, some professors are already trying to get 65% for PhD researchers. But it is a matter which the board of directors decides once for the whole organisation, not something a single professor can decide for his/her chair. So, until the professors get the board to agree, it will be 50% for everybody.

You can still talk to the professor, the ones I know are reasonable and open in salary matters and I haven't experienced a hostile atmosphere in talks involving money/responsibility/tasks negotiations. But there is a very high chance that he has no say in the matter. Besides, it is rare for a professor to have to fill a position quickly; if you don't accept the position, they can just wait for the next good candidate (and there are enough of them). So, I am afraid you probably don't have many levers, even if the professor sympathizes with you and wants to work with you.

My advice is to try it (there isn't anything to lose), but don't get your hopes too high.

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