How I negotiated for an extra week (and a half!) of vacation at my first post-PhD research job
8 min read
My vacation time wasn’t well-defined during my PhD. My first real job after was the complete opposite. It was a major mental adjustment. Keep reading to know what to expect when taking that leap and strategies to get better than the standard deal.
What to expect for vacation time in the USA after your PhD:
Paid time off (PTO) for a starting PhD scientist in industry:
When I started my first post-PhD job in research and development as a scientist for a mid-sized semiconductor company, I was given the standard 10 days’ paid time off, plus the 9 national holidays. The company gave me one extra day of PTO per year of work. After five years of toil, you’ll be rewarded with a *staggering* (sarcasm) 15 days of vacation.
Some companies are worse. They bump you up from 10 to 15 days only after 5 full years, meaning you don’t get the incremental gains in years 1-4. Some of my graduate school friends were lucky enough to start at 3 weeks, but that's the maximum paid time off you should expect. Compare this to most European companies that start you at 4-6 weeks! Our company maximum is 6 weeks (30 days) of vacation time. This is typical for the industry, though some may go to 8 weeks.
On the standard pace, it would take you 20 years of work at this company to reach the maximum 6 weeks! Each company also has different rules on “rolling over” vacation time. Typically you can only “keep” up to one week, which forces you to take vacation at non-ideal times and prevents you from saving it up for one long vacation.
Nearly doubling my vacation time:
I’m ecstatic to report that, after two years of my first job with 10-11 vacation days, I was recently bumped up to 19 days of paid vacation (almost 4 weeks!). That’s more than most of my co-workers and even my boss. Now I’m planning an 18-day trip backpacking Bulgaria (12 days PTO) in September and a 21-day trip around Spain and Morocco in February (15 days PTO).
So how do you beat the system? How do you get the time you need to be happy?
5 Strategies for Negotiating More Vacation Time After Your PhD
1. Be valuable
This is the #1 key and there’s no way around this. If your manager sees you as a valuable employee they can’t afford to lose, they will do whatever it takes to keep you contributing and keep you happy. Good managers will make accommodations for their top talent. If you have a poor manager, you should start looking elsewhere. You can bring value to your company in many ways. Become the in-house expert at something. Or master the skills of juggling many fast-moving projects. Create value in a way that if you quit, your boss and co-workers would struggle for many months (or years) to replace you.
2. Make your priorities known early and often
Following #1 – A good manager will try to reward their top talent with lucrative raises, stock options and annual bonuses because that’s the status quo and that’s how they may perceive value. But if you’re young, not supporting a family and making $100k already, maybe you are happy with your salary and miserable thinking about your time off. Let them know early and often where your priorities lie.
After you’ve established your value, ask them if extra vacation is ever awarded as an annual bonus. That will be the first signal as to how much you value vacation time. Tell them about your travels or all the trips you’re planning and places on your list.
If it’s not about travel for you, tell them about the time off you need to spend with your family, taking care of loved ones or doing your favorite hobbies. Don’t complain about your salary if time off is your goal.
I personally made the point that I’m not asking for additional paid time off just to sit at home and not work. I made it clear that I want to travel to far-away places because that’s my passion, and I’ll work as hard as it takes to gain that extra vacation time. This buys you empathy and avoids painting you as “lazy” for asking for more personal time.
3. Ask persistently (and don’t wait for your annual review)
Ask all year. Don’t wait for your annual review. By the time you have your review, the budget and raises have already been worked out and approved in the background. Managers are busy and wrapped up in their own world of problems invisible to you. Bring it up at least every 2-3 months.
If you get some traction, check in every few months to get an update and make sure they keep taking actions to make it happen for you. It may not be an easy adjustment in the system HR uses and there may be budgetary aspects to work out. This is not a “demand more vacation until they magically grant it”.
Many managers don’t have this power and have to work with other departments on your behalf. Recognize that it takes them valuable time and effort, and make it known that you truly appreciate them fighting for you.
4. Make comparisons to other companies in your field
Ask your friends and former colleagues at other companies in a similar industry. How much vacation do they get? Is it structured differently? How do they gain more days each year? How many?
Companies regularly change their benefits and compensation packages to “keep up with market conditions.” Basically this means “we need to make good offers to get the people we actually want.” You can use this phrasing if talking to those making these decisions.
In a 1:1 check-in, I personally told my boss’ boss’ boss that “10 days’ vacation is just not competitive with what my grad school friends are getting and what I can get at other companies if I left.” He nodded admittedly and agreed that they needed to improve their standards. In the end, he was the final approval level I needed for the change to take effect. Don’t be afraid to stick your neck out and let them know your problems if it’s genuinely something you value and may cause you to look elsewhere.
5. Find ways to work outside the system
On your way to making it official, think creatively about how you can earn more time off or save yourself vacation days to use elsewhere. Here are some quick pointers:
Make up for days off
I was on a Sunday-Thursday work schedule, which isn’t uncommon in a manufacturing R&D environment. My five weddings a year would have eaten into my PTO on those Sundays, but my manager usually agreed to let me work the following Friday to make up for missing Sunday, conserving that vacation day. The following 1-day weekend isn’t ideal, but it helps demonstrate how much you value your vacation days.
Tag vacation onto work travel
Do you ever travel for work? Is it a destination you’d like to take vacation? If you can string a vacation onto a work trip, you save yourself a day of PTO on travel and maybe even a plane ticket! Just make sure to clear the timing and flights well ahead of time so you don’t get stuck footing the bill for the return flight.
Work on holidays
What happens if you work on Labor Day? On New Years’ Day? If you offer to put in a full day on a typical holiday, do you gain yourself a vacation day to use later? This is our company policy. Even if it’s not policy, it’s worth asking. There could be an unmet need you could address on that day and the managers just don’t want to ask anyone to work on their holiday. If you work that day, log your productivity by the hour (in case of any questions), send plenty of high-visibility emails and make sure you’re actually providing value. If it doesn’t appear valuable after the first try, they may not let you do it again.
How I personally negotiated an extra week and a half of vacation at my first PhD research job:
If you’re interested in the play-by-play, here’s how my story went:
My 1-year review:
I went into my 1st-year 1:1 review fully prepared to negotiate with guns blazing on getting more vacation time, even if it costs me a chunk of my salary or annual raise. After going over my review form, I was given a good raise and extra stock options. I then brought up the idea of exchanging some of my raise for extra vacation days, but it was too late. Everything had already been budgeted and approved. There was no wiggle room. If you want to negotiate, it needs to be ongoing throughout the year. However, I did get positive responses from both managers that they “will ask HR” and “see what they can do in the future.”
I made it clear to them that I needed more vacation one way or another. If it comes out of my raise, so be it. If it comes out of my salary, I’m still on board. If you run the numbers, a 2% salary cut could be traded for an extra week of vacation. I told them I would take a salary cut up to the 6-week company vacation maximum, roughly a 9% reduction. That was the dagger that conveyed to them just how important this was to me.
Getting your boss to negotiate with HR:
My boss then went to his regularly-scheduled HR appointment and told our assigned rep “I have an employee who wants more vacation time than our standard system grants. Can we do that?” The HR rep said: “I don’t know. No one has ever asked that before.” My reaction to hearing that: “WHAT? No one has ever asked for more vacation in the history of this company?” It’s OK to have different priorities than your co-workers. Their meeting ended with a promise of figuring out how to do it.
I continued to ask every month or two. The answer meandered from possible to probable and took different forms. At first they said I could exchange salary. Then they said I could only exchange bonus. Then they said it might not be possible! About a month before the review period started, my boss called me in and said they’ve worked it out. He didn’t give me an exact number but assured me it would be a substantial increase.
My 2nd-year review:
Finally, my 1:1 annual review. I hear that I’ve been granted an additional 7 days’ vacation on top of the 12 days I would typically have this year! Almost 4 weeks! My boss later relayed to me that HR originally suggested a 3-5 day increase. Knowing my passion for travel and where my values lay, he told them that’s not good enough. Persistently conveying my values and my passions seems to have paid off.
How much it cost me:
In the end, do you know how much salary I traded for vacation?None.My willingness for that exchange emphasized the value I placed on vacation time and they decided to award extra vacation based on my value as an employee. My 2ndyear raise was the same as my 1styear. But this year I can go travel the world for nearly twice as long. Bon voyage!
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