Skip navigation
Graduate Matters

Negotiation: A skill that can transform your graduate school experience and beyond

The word often provokes fear, but it doesn’t have to be that way.


Pursuing a graduate degree can be an exciting as well as a daunting experience. That’s why it is important to ensure that you are stepping into an environment that encourages you to achieve your goals, both personally and professionally. While graduate school is recognized for instilling specific technical knowledge, many of the lifelong skills that people take away are in the “soft” and transferable class (read this post on transferable skills). Imagine juggling a research project along with community engagements, sometimes even an internship, and (gasp) a social life! In order for such a balance to exist, you need to periodically negotiate with yourself, the principal investigator (PI) or thesis supervisor, and other individuals.

Negotiation (see this blog on negotiation) often provokes fear. We’re here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s start by simply calling it “communication.” The process of negotiation is all about communicating with the other party to understand and support each other’s expectations. Throughout graduate school and beyond, negotiation is an important skill that propels individuals to advance past the status quo and to capitalize on opportunities.

Negotiations can take place throughout the graduate school journey. For example, even prior to starting out on a research team, many students participate in a two-way interview with a prospective PI. This is an opportunity for students and PIs to discuss supervision style, frequency of routine meetings, TA-ships, financial compensations, etc. It is very important to come to this initial meeting well prepared. Understand your own expectations for your future supervisor, as well as for your work environment. Prior to the meeting, ask yourself: “How often do I want to meet with my future PI? What kind of mentoring style would help me become an independent scientist? How often am I willing to come to the lab during weekends/holidays? What do I want to improve on other than my research skills (e.g., writing papers/grants, managing projects, mentoring students)?” If you already know that a prospective PI has a hands-off approach to mentorship, but feel that you’ll need more guidance as you start out on your graduate school journey, you can ask to schedule routine meetings that will eventually decrease in frequency as you mature as a graduate student.

Negotiations can have a significant influence on the shape of your graduate school and future paths. When one of us started in our graduate program, our supervisor strongly encouraged us to pursue a specific research question that, while interesting, did not seem feasible to address within the scope of a doctorate degree. We worked to understand the level of background information available, what it would take to achieve a significant finding, and the potential pitfalls of pursuing such a question. In the end, we presented a case to the supervisor, after which it was agreed that it was in everyone’s best interest to go in another direction.

You may wonder during your graduate school experience if you have time for extracurricular activities, about the level of work-life balance you’d like to have, and about opportunities to attend conferences that interest you. One prime example of this is when students wish to visit another lab to learn a new skill, or to undertake an internship (e.g., Mitacs programs, pharmaceutical industry internships). We found that more often than not, this desire to be involved with exchanges, fellowships, or internships is typically discussed quite early in the course of a graduate program, especially as more and more individuals consider a career in the industry. However, if you’re considering a similar internship and have not had a prior conversation with your supervisor, bring it up at your next meeting and clearly outline your reasoning (how you and the lab could both benefit), action plan, and time management strategy.

There are many other important instances we’ve identified that involve some level of negotiation as a graduate student. These include negotiating your funding offer (if your department/faculty doesn’t have a harmonized stipend, read this article for some pointers), authorship on publications, supervision of junior students, exit strategy and timeline, project milestones, and expectations for post-defence. In certain cases, students may receive a job offer before they graduate, making it crucial to communicate reasonable deadlines for completing the degree. Discuss your vision early and clearly.

If, unfortunately, you’re unable to amicably arrive at a resolution, try reaching out to an independent third-party member such as your graduate committee, advisory team, or coordinator. Typically, these faculty/staff members serve as ad hoc counsellors, resources, and advisers who can help address issues ranging from research direction to career paths to conflicts in the lab.

Never be afraid to communicate your needs and expectations. For every negotiation (graduate school and beyond) come prepared, state your reasoning, and be professional. People are not mind readers, so be humble but unapologetic in asking for what you want and need!

Tell us how you are communicating your needs in graduate school in the comment box below.

Ceryl Tan & E. Idil Temel
Ceryl Tan graduated with her PhD from the department of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto and now works as an associate consultant at IQVIA, a multinational provider of biopharmaceutical development and commercial services. Idil Temel just defended her thesis in January 2023 from the department of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto and currently works as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Hospital for Sick Children.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to fill out a quick survey