Category : PROspective

Advocating for yourself is a skill we rarely talk about or teach and yet you need to do just that when you negotiate a job contract, ask for a promotion, or get the appropriate placement in authorship for a paper or poster. 

Self-advocacy is a dance between being appropriately confident and respectful. It requires a thoughtful amount of introspection about the gifts you bring to the situation and what you do not have to offer (perhaps yet)  as well as a very clear sense of why you want what you are advocating for in each situation. While self-advocacy makes many of us cringe, there are some standard preparations that can ease the conversations.

Advocating for a promotion or new position demands that we are able to clearly and cogently champion our accomplishments while not being braggadocios. This can be particularly difficult for women. While not promoting stereotypical gender traits, research has consistently found that women do not self-promote well and that when they do, they are not seen as favorably as men who do.

Actually, it turns out that most of us are often much better advocates for others. When I was in graduate school, I applied for a teaching scholarship and was competing against a good friend of mine. Our department chair asked us to write our own drafts for the letters of recommendation. Due to a family emergency, my friend was not able to write hers in time, so I offered to write it for her rather than have her not apply. After she was awarded the scholarship, my chair met with me and said her letter of support had sealed the deal. By giving him a substantially more explicit draft letter of why she was a great teacher, I had advocated for her in a way I did not advocate for myself. It was a tough lesson to learn and one that data supports. We are often better at “other-advocating” than self-advocating – in part because we often tend to over-value other people’s achievements. Supporting others is a fabulous, but we must also learn to negotiate and promote our own accomplishments and needs.

Much of the self-advocacy in job negotiations is about salary, and while that can feel awkward, research will help you find the range of salary opportunities and then you should advocate for where your list of accomplishments fit in that range (be sure to fight the gender gap!). I also urge my mentees to consider negotiating for conference attendance, authorship opportunities, and other non-salary forms of compensation. In my research group, we set up authorship guidelines in advance for every study and work within these guidelines. While academia has been legendary for younger colleagues doing the work and getting minimal or no credit, this is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Clear conversations in advance can ease hard conversations later.

There are a few keys that go a long way towards a successful conversation when you are advocating for a promotion, new position, authorship, raise, etc., as found in this article.

  1. The first is being very reflective about why you think you should be given this opportunity. What do you want to contribute and what have you already done that makes you a good choice?  
  2. Then, set up a meeting to speak directly with the person who can best assist you and be sure to make your reason for the meeting known. You are going to come to the meeting prepared and you want them to be as well.
  3. Clearly express your ask and provide examples of your work that supports this ask. 
  4. And then, here is the part most articles don’t dwell on, listen. Listen to the feedback you are being given.

Ultimately, the answer might be ‘no’ and more self-advocacy won’t change that. However, this is not necessarily an indication of failure. First, the reality of budgets, organizational structures, and professional conventions might not fall in your favor – and these might be simply out of your control. Secondly, the act of prioritizing your goals and asking for them directly (and appropriately!) will give you a lot of credibility with your superiors. The next time an opportunity presents itself, they’ll have your priorities in mind and they’ll understand that you’re motivated and ambitious. 

On the other hand, if you are told you have asked for the promotion too soon or do not have the qualifications for the open position, your next decision is a fork in the road. You can use this information as a platform to ask for mentorship and guidance, or you can assume they are making a mistake. Both will get you on their radar but the first is more likely to make them your champion. 

At the end of the day, the dance of self-advocacy is tricky, but when you have done good work, you should be willing to ask for the appropriate recognition.  

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