Published on January 26, 2021

By Nancy Barr, PhD, and Robert Lyons, Technical and Management Consultant.

A common question of engineering students nearing graduation involves negotiating. They want to know whether it’s okay to negotiate when they receive a job offer, how to negotiate without offending, i.e., losing out on the job, and when to stop negotiating. We’ll share our perspective on these points in this article, and add a few pointers on negotiating to get your ideas heard once you’ve landed that job.

Negotiation involves the cornerstone of effective communication: understanding your audience.

Negotiation involves the cornerstone of effective communication: understanding your audience. Engineering students about to graduate sometimes fail to recognize what they bring to a company. Hiring is expensive and time-consuming so once a company has made you an offer, it means that the company sees great growth potential in you. They are hiring you for your fresh perspective, your passion for the field, or even a particular skill you’ve mastered, e.g., an ME who can work magic with Python or an EE who has a knack for understanding systems engineering.

Regardless of the reason for selecting you, generally, hiring managers expect you to come back with a counteroffer when they present their initial offer. Below are some tips for preparing that counteroffer:

  • Read the company’s offer thoroughly and ensure you understand all the language presented. This is where a trusted faculty member, parent, or advisor can help. Do some research on the salary range for similar positions at similar-sized companies in similar locations. While it’s tempting to just focus on salary when you are just starting out and facing student loan payments, also look at leave policies and health and retirement benefits.
  • The hiring manager may have room to negotiate on three aspects – salary, education benefits, and annual leave (some companies have strict timelines for leave eligibility). Think about your five-year plan. If you suspect you might want to pursue an advanced degree (always a great idea!), prepare to give up a few thousand dollars in salary for an employer-paid degree.
  • Prepare a written counter offer in which you are explicit about the points you accept as written and the points you are countering. Always be professional in your language and state how the company will benefit from your employment. Do not mention that you have other offers (even if you do). Few companies will enter a bidding war for a newly-minted engineer.

Meetings are where much of an organization’s work is done, and it takes the best minds in the group to resolve the critical issues.

Once you’ve landed that job, you will find yourself in meetings where ideas, problems, and plans are being discussed. Meetings are where much of an organization’s work is done, and it takes the best minds in the group to resolve the critical issues. As a new member of the group you may not realize that your recent educational experiences with leading edge technologies and problem solving methods equip you with insights that no one else can provide. You may find that you have a perspective relevant to the discussion but, being a newcomer, might be hesitant to share that perspective. This tendency to stay out of the discussion is often a symptom of “awe for authority”, thinking that the senior people in the meeting are not interested in what you have to say. First, keep in mind that the company hired you to be an engineer, not a potted plant. They expect you to contribute. That said, you can go about speaking up in two different ways. One will earn you respect, the other could garner eye rolls and condemnation. 

Before speaking up, make sure you understand the players and the team culture. Who is in charge of meetings? How are meetings conducted, i.e., does everyone share their ideas freely, or do they wait to be called upon?  How long do people speak on average? Once you have a sense of when and how much to say, present your perspective respectfully, especially if you are countering something already discussed or decided. Recognize that you are a newcomer and need to provide evidence that your perspective is valid. Keep your comment short and to the point and focus on concepts, not people. For example, instead of saying, “Bob is wrong about X,” a better approach would be, “I agree that X presents one path. Have you considered Y, which would provide more durability with just a slight increase in cost?”

Finally, listen carefully to the responses. Maybe they have considered Y, but are open to looking at that option again if you can make the case. Maybe they haven’t and this is an opportunity for you to do some research and make an important contribution to the project. If your idea is declined for good reason, let it go and find another way to contribute. The point is to learn when you are negotiating from a position of strength and when it’s best to step back.

Dr. Nancy Barr developed a multi-faceted engineering communications program in the Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics Department at Michigan Technological University. Her current research focuses on equity and inclusion issues in engineering management and portfolio assessment practices. A former newspaper reporter and editor and the author of the Page One mystery trilogy and an award-winning short story, Barr currently serves as secretary to the IEEE Professional Communication Society Board of Governors and as Campus Representative for the ASEE North Midwest Section.

Bob Lyons thought he’d be doing math, physics and electrical engineering right out of graduate school, so he only took one technical writing class; big mistake! He’s been paying for that mistake for the past 50ish years, learning to understand, avoid or fix failures to communicate between and among small and large groups of people charged with solving militarily and industrially critical problems.