Where MBAs Can & Can’t Negotiate Pay

The original Transparent MBA team. Pictured from left to right are Jeremy Selbst, Mitch Kirby, Alyssa Jaffee and Kevin Marvinac. Courtesy photo

The original Transparent MBA team. Pictured from left to right are Jeremy Selbst, Mitch Kirby, Alyssa Jaffee and Kevin Marvinac. Courtesy photo


At Michigan’s Ross School of Business, Damian Zikakis, the director of career services, says his office counsels MBAs to not even approach the situation like a negotiation. “The student should approach it as a conversation and not a negotiation,” Zikakis says, noting the power is in the hands of the employer. For example, he explains, in a used car or house negotiation, the buyer and the seller can give and take. “If you’re buying a car and the other person is selling a car, it’s kind of even,” he says, instructing to visualize two hands side-by-side.

“Because if you don’t buy that car, you’re going to buy the next one — it’s not that big of a deal. But in this case, the company is way up here,” Zikakis continues, raising one hand much higher than the other. “And you’re way down here. They’ve got the job and you want the job. There is more of a supply of MBAs out there they can go to.”

Not only that, but as Cornell’s Annie Marra says, this is often the first “real” conversation MBAs will be having with their likely employers, and niceness goes a long way. Marra says her office advises students to take a “conversational, non-threatening, non-aggressive” approach. Success often depends on the research and intentions behind the ask, she explains: She never instructs students to leverage one offer to gain a “few thousand dollars” from another company, for example. However, Marra says, if there is a significant difference between two offers and the lower offer is closer to a dream position, her office will “coach them on how to be honest and true in that conversation.”


Of course, as reflected in the TransparentMBA data and echoed by anecdotal B-school evidence, success — generally speaking — often comes down to circumstance, industry, and function. “Consulting firms and investment banks hire droves of MBAs every year,” Kevin Marvinac points out. “In most cases (they) have dedicated recruiting staff, and standardized salary bands.”

Marra puts major employers in the consulting, investment banking, and consumer products and goods industries in the “almost never” category of negotiation conversations. Sans a few boutique outliers, Marra says those industries — as well as government jobs — are “much less likely” to be the settings of successful negotiations.

Not only are negotiations unlikely for positions like “brand manager at Clorox, associate at Goldman Sachs, or analyst at McKinsey,” Mark Friedfeld says, negotiating for those types of positions could even be offensive. “If you try to negotiate those with no good reason why, you’re going to be frowned upon,” he says.


But there’s a flip-side to MBA-hungry industries and functions, Marvinac notes. One is company size. “Many roles listed as ‘business development,’ for example, come from smaller firms, where you may be recruited directly by the hiring manager or a broader HR contact,” he explains. “Here, negotiation is more likely because the precedent for established salary bands simply isn’t there.”

Also, as the data reflects, it often boils down to nontraditional MBA industries like tech companies or data science and analytics. “As an up-and-coming — and fashionable — MBA career, data science hires benefit from murkier understanding on the firms’ side of how much to pay,” Marvinac explains. “The same goes for product management.”

Marra likens it to wearing a three-piece suit. Negotiation conversations are welcomed “sometimes, always, and almost never.” While the almost never includes the aforementioned massive traditional firms, the “always” category includes positions where “MBAs are rarely selected.” Echoing Marvinac, Marra explains that “great opportunities” can be had for MBAs entering positions where established pay structures are not in place. In particular, she explains, Cornell Johnson MBAs have had repeated successful negotiations in healthcare and pharmaceuticals, human resources, manufacturing, real estate, tech, and telecom.

At Berkeley-Haas, where tech is increasingly becoming a popular option for MBAs, Friedfeld says having an elite and unique position often leads to successful negotiations. One example he gives is “joining Uber as a general manager in a new country,” noting the high potential for equity and stock options at both established and early-stage tech companies.


As for being taboo, the career services experts say to not think that way.

“We do encourage students, in general, to have those conversations with companies,” says Cynthia Saunders-Cheatham, executive director of Cornell Johnson’s Career Management Center, noting that sometimes students are hesitant or uncomfortable with the conversation. “In some cases, companies expect the conversation.”

Marra concurs that a “healthy percentage of students who are in the position to negotiate, do try to negotiate.” In salary increases alone, she says, it’s not uncommon in recent years for Cornell Johnson MBAs to negotiate a remarkable $20,000. “We have seen good movement in terms of the success they have had in their base salary increases,” Marra adds.

Friedfeld and Zikakis both say to think outside of the box, and outside of base compensations, when beginning a negotiation. Companies unwilling to negotiate salaries or bonuses often will negotiate intangibles like start dates, relocation allowances, or even the city in which the MBA will work.

Whatever the position, leave any indication of arrogance or wavering commitment at the door, Costa says. “For my first startup, I took a major pay cut. Because I had no experience. They were taking a chance on me as a former consultant,” she says. “Ionic is my third startup and the second in the same space.

“Don’t get greedy, but have the confidence if you have experience to back it up.”

The following data was provided exclusively by TransparentMBA. Visit and register at TransparentMBA for more MBA-specific job and career statistics. 

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