Evaluating Salary

When you begin to evaluate the offered salary, be sure to do so with realistic expectations. Salary is affected by many factors including the state of the economy, the supply and demand of your particular skill set, the industry, the type of employer, geographic location and the cost of living, and your education and experience.

Don't evaluate salary solely on dollar amount. A comprehensive benefits package can add 30-40% to your base salary. Health care premiums, retirement contributions, personal time off, profit-sharing, bonuses and educational assistance should all be taken into consideration. You should also consider your future earnings potential. Even if a salary seems low now, future bonuses, commissions or increases can add up very quickly.

Why salary is not the only factor to consider

Many new college graduates, and even a number of seasoned job seekers, are often tempted to evaluate job offers on the basis of salary alone: the higher the salary, the better the offer - right? Not necessarily.

When evaluating job offers, you should take care to consider all aspects of the offer and all forms of compensation. Think in terms of total compensation, rather than just base salary. Wages may only constitute 60 to 70 percent of your total compensation with some employers, although for others it can be closer to 90 percent. A $45,000 salary with one company may be equivalent to a $40,000 salary with another if certain benefits are not offered.

What are some of the other factors to consider when weighing total compensation? One of the primary factors is employee benefits, such as health care plans and 401K or other investment/retirement plans. Employers may offer other benefits or forms of compensation that should be taken into consideration before jumping into a discussion about base salary. Some of these might include:

  • Stock Options
  • Tuition Reimbursement
  • Professional Memberships
  • Sign-on Bonus
  • Relocation Reimbursement
  • Free Parking
  • Additional Vacation Days

You may be gathering a great deal of this information throughout the interviewing process, or it might all come to the table once you receive a job offer. Be certain that before you engage in negotiating any one factor (i.e., base salary), you have evaluated the total package. Your current salary can be a strong determiner of what your next salary will be; consequently, consideration of base salary is important. The bottom line, however, is that it should not be the sole determining factor when weighing an offer.


Where do I get information about salaries?

Prior to any job interview, do your homework. For someone who is about to receive a bachelor's degree, what is the typical salary average and range for the type of position you are considering? How do salaries for the same type of job vary with geographic location? When evaluating salary figures, investigate comparable jobs and job titles, with companies that are in the same geographic region. A market research analyst job in Chicago or San Francisco might pay $37,000; the same job in Cincinnati, Ohio might pay $33,000 - but based on cost of living, which is the better salary? Be certain you also consider the complete compensation package (i.e., benefits) and not just base salary.

There are a number of resources to help you identify entry-level salary averages and ranges:

BrainTrack - A list of in-depth career profiles as well as degree and wage statistics for over 400 occupations that commonly require college or university education.

NACE Salary Calculator Center - The National Association of Colleges and Employers offers the most accurate compensation data available.

NACE Salary Survey - A complete report is only available in print, in the Career Services library. The National Association of Colleges and Employers produces a national salary survey on a quarterly basis, which is frequently acknowledged as one of the best sources of entry-level salary information.

MonsterTRAK Salary.com - A popular salary calculator that provides up-to-date salary ranges based on job category, job title, and location - in just a few clicks.

Wall Street Journal - College Journal
- This outstanding web site includes salary information, career and industry profiles, and a variety of other tools for college students seeking employment.

Bureau of Labor Statistics Wages, Earnings, & Benefits - The BLS provides extensive national, regional, and state salary information, as well as information about other employment trends throughout the country. Links include: Wages by Area and Occupation, Earnings by Industry, State and County Wages, and National Compensation Data.

Salaryexpert.com - Offers basic salary reports for free or more detailed reports for a fee. You can also get cost of living reports.

Salary.com - Offers a salary wizard, a benefits wizard, and cost of living analysis. This site also offers lots of articles on salary negotiation and tips on getting raises during a performance review.

Occupational Outlook Handbook 

ACI Net Wages & Trends

 Magazines - Several magazines, such as Working Woman and Business Weekly, often produce annual issues examining employment and salary trends in the past year.

Trade Associations - Professional associations (e.g., National Association of Broadcasters, The American Federation of Teachers) often prepare salary surveys, examine employment trends, and compile lists of employers within their field or industry. Use the National Trade and Professional Association Directory in the Career Services library to help you identify associations in your field of interest.

Talk to alumni - Most of us are taught, "It's rude to ask an individual about his or her salary." While this is mostly true, the topic is not completely forbidden - it is really a matter of delivery. As you network with and talk to alumni about their careers, to help you assess your level of interest in that field, it is legitimate for you to ask about salary in the following ways:

"I'm seeking a position as an editorial assistant in a LA publishing house. I expect a salary between $25,000 and $30,000. Is that reasonable?"

"What's the typical salary range for an editorial assistant position in a LA publishing house?"

These questions are neither personal nor invasive. Rather, you are asking for ranges or more generalized information about the nature of the position, which you are seeking. The worst that can happen, when asking salary questions this way, is that someone may simply decline to offer the information.

Cost of Living Comparisons - To help answer the question, "If I was offered $35,000 in Atlanta for a marketing job, what would be a comparable salary for the same job in San Francisco?" Use the following sites to get a rough estimate (keep in mind that these are only estimators and not necessarily 100 percent accurate).

HomeStore.com's Salary Calculator

Monster's Salary Comparison Calculator

How do I figure out what I am worth?

Your "worth" depends on a number of factors, perhaps most on how much experience and responsibility you have for the type of position you want.

Many employers hire new college graduates because of the potential they bring to the position: good communication skills, excellent critical thinking and analytical ability, teamwork and leadership skills, and the like. One company may offer all new hires (for the same position) the same salary, in which case salary may ultimately not be negotiable; another company, however, might offer some candidates more or less than others, based on past experiences, the nature of the degree they have, and so forth. You will not usually be able to tell, however, who is offering what and why! Consequently, you should go into every interview with a range already in mind, so that if salary questions arise you will be prepared to deal with them.

For some positions or companies, having related experiences (whether from internships, volunteer work, or extracurricular activities) might lead to a slightly higher salary than for someone with no internship experience. This may not always be the case, but if you have additional experience you can at least make an argument for a better overall compensation package by citing examples of the skills you developed as a result. A good habit to develop is to document your performance (from past or current jobs, experiences). Keep a list of your achievements; write them down and answer the following questions:

  • What did you do?
  • How did you do it?
  • What did you enjoy about it?
  • Who benefited from what you did?
  • How were you recognized and rewarded?

Don't expect too much. In a tight job market, many employers can and will stand their ground. After considering the overall compensation package being offered, you might then decide (if it is important to you in order to accept the offer) to negotiate on other benefits.

When should salary be discussed? How?

Before entering into any discussion or negotiation, you should have an idea of what is acceptable to you; evaluate all factors/components of an offer and not just the salary. What is the overall compensation package being offered? What is the absolute minimum salary you would accept? What salary would you like to have? The range from the minimum you will accept to the number you are most hoping for is your "acceptance range."

If a salary offer is made within your acceptance range, that doesn't mean you will not negotiate; it simply offers you some assurance that you have gotten an offer you expected.

If a salary is not within your acceptance range, but the other benefits are much better than expected, do you still need to negotiate?

Having considered questions like these ahead of time or during the final stages of the interview process, along with having conducted research using the resources above, should be good preparation for entering into salary discussions.

Try to hold off a discussion of salary for as long as possible during the interview process - focus your energy on getting them to want you. Once you receive an offer, you know they want to hire you, which is the ideal point in which to engage in any negotiations. If compensation comes up during the interview process, before an offer is extended, be sure the interviewer is the one that raises the topic. Salary is certainly a factor for everyone to consider in the job search, and may determine whether or not you will accept an offer; additionally, you will be considering other components of the offer, not just salary. But you want to get the offer first!

During the interview process, your interviewer might ask, "Tell me, what salary are you expecting?" The best initial strategy is to turn the question back to the interviewer. You might say:

"I expect to be fairly compensated for my work. I feel confident that if we determine I'm the right person for the job, we can reach an agreement."

"I expect the standard amount appropriate for my education and experience."

"If it is acceptable to you, I would prefer giving you a specific answer after learning more about the position and your organization."

If the interviewer responds, "We really need to have a clear idea of what you expect," you might then ask, "What is the salary range for this position?" At this point the interviewer will typically share what they already know to be the most likely salary range for the position, "The range is from $30,000 to $35,000." At this point, you have a basis to start your negotiation. In response you could say, "Yes, I'm within your range." Or, you might state, "Yes, that's near what I was expecting. I'm thinking in terms of $35,000 to $40,000."

If being pushed to provide salary expectations by an employer who will not first tell you what the salary range for the position is (which is a rare occurrence), you may provide information based upon your research. Use ranges; never state one number (e.g., "I am hoping to receive $40,000.").

How negotiable is salary?

Contrary to what many experts say, not everything is negotiable. Most employers have more flexibility that they are willing to admit, but it can vary with the economic times, the salary structure within the company, and other factors. Once you receive an offer, it is fair to ask the employer, "How much flexibility do you have to discuss ____?" You may be satisfied with the salary, but have questions about other factors that are negotiable (e.g., start date, sign-on bonus amount, availability of relocation expenses).

If an employer offers you a salary slightly lower than your expectations, FIRST be sure to evaluate the entire offer before making a final decision about whether the salary is in fact too low. If you DO decide to negotiate the salary, you must use supporting evidence to make an argument for why you are worth more. For example:

"As the Treasurer of [my student organization], I initiated a new fund-raising drive that brought in over $10,000 and provided the establishment of a new $500 scholarship to our 'Outstanding New Member.' As such, I have proven my fundraising capabilities and feel particularly well prepared to be highly successful in your development office."

Be certain you engage in negotiations on factors that are truly important to you; now is not the time to "nickel and dime" an employer just because your salary expectations were not met. Identify ahead of time the few factors you wish to negotiate; once that discussion is resolved, make your decision (don't try to enter into additional negotiations for other things if your initial expectations are not met).

Once again, some of the other factors to consider (which may already be a part of the employee benefits package, and may be negotiable) when evaluating the entire offer are: getting your first preference in geographic location, stock options, tuition reimbursement plans, professional memberships, professional development seminars, subscriptions to publications, relocation reimbursement, early salary/performance review, and additional vacation days.

What should I write in cover letters when employers request a "salary history or expectations"?

A salary history is more often something requested from more experienced candidates and is less typical for entry-level positions. Nevertheless, it is a tool used to screen OUT applicants. If applicants set salary expectations too high, they can be quickly ruled out as too expensive. If expectations are set too low, the employer might wonder why the candidate is not already receiving a better salary and might question their real worth.

One strategy is to send nothing, given the above scenarios. Another strategy is to acknowledge the request with somewhat vague information, essentially stalling the discussion until the interview, or at least providing a range. For example:

"I will consider any offer that represents the standard amount appropriate for my education and experience."

"The most recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers states that an entry level position in advertising, for candidates like myself with a Bachelor's degree, is between $28,000 and $38,000, and that's the range I am in."

Factors Beyond Salary

The Organization: Do you believe in what they do? People often underestimate the importance of the fit of their own personal values to those of their employers. But your values will be a determinant in your potential for professional happiness and success. You should clarify what is important to you and what is important to the company; some areas to consider include:

  • Professional development and opportunities for continued training
  • Assistance with continued education
  • Quality of life
  • Mentorship programs
  • Job security
  • Stability of the organization
  • Opportunities for advancement
  • Geographic location
  • Travel opportunities
  • Corporate culture
  • A diverse workforce
  • Company size

The Job: What will your day-to-day responsibilities be like? How challenged do you want to be? Even if all other factors are exactly what you are looking for and the salary is impressive, you won't enjoy yourself if the daily job functions are not what you want to be doing. In job satisfaction surveys, employees often rank enjoying their job as more important than salary.

The Environment: What is the atmosphere of the organization like? Will you be able to get along with your colleagues? What office space will you be working out of? Do you feel at ease with the supervisor? Is the organization in a city or in a suburban or rural area? Will you be close to the people/things you want to be close to? These are all questions you can ask yourself and weigh the answers according to what is most important to you.


Other Helpful Links