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Salary questions and negotiating

Guidance for students to be well-informed and prepared to consider salary conversations in your job search and consideration of offers.

Responding to questions about your salary expectations 

Don't be taken by surprise!

It is possible that a prospective employer may ask you to give a salary requirement or preference. This question is appropriate for experienced people with a salary history. For a student being hired directly out of college or a graduate program, the question can be awkward. But don't be unprepared. There are several ways you can respond:

  • It is perfectly acceptable to say "negotiable."
  • You could suggest a range to the employer. Do your salary research first using salary information sources.
  • If you state a salary request, tell the employer the sources of information you used. This backs up your request with hard data — not just your gut instinct or rumors.
  • If you ask for a salary well above average, justify your request. State what in your background and experience qualifies you. Can you be just as productive as other employees earning that salary?
  • You can also ask the employer questions that might advance the goal of having a cordial and professional conversation on this topic, such as, "how do you determine salary offers for your new hires?"
  • Consider the value of other forms of compensation and benefits in making your comparisons between offers. Consider vacation and sick leave, retirement plans (starting to invest when you are young has huge payoffs later), signing bonus, moving allowance, frequency and basis of salary increases over time, etc.
  • Some employers might offer signing bonuses or provide other funds that would help you with initial costs of moving and obtaining housing. Of course those amounts would not be part of your base salary on which increases would be based. You might ask the employer how often and on what criteria employees are evaluated and given salary increases.
  • Most students who seek advice on comparing two salary offers are doing so because the position with the lower salary is the one the student really desires, and they want to be sure they are making the best decision. Consider the value and importance of your happiness in the job and fit with the organizational culture, and weigh that in your decision-making.

Negotiating salary

Some employers do not negotiate salary with graduating students. Some do. If an employer makes you a salary offer, and you are interested in the position, but believe you may have a reason to request a higher salary, do the following:

First, prepare a case based on facts. Facts could include:

  • Another higher salary offer you've received. Be prepared to show evidence of that salary, such as your offer letter. You are not required to show that, but you could be asked; if you decline to show that evidence, that might be interpreted negatively. The employer with whom you're negotiating may want proof of the other offer.
  • Comparison of the salaries relative to cost of living. Research using salary information sources.
  • Your own background and qualifications. If you are asking for an above-average salary, are you above average in your credentials?

Next, if you have a strong case to ask for a higher salary than was offered, present your case:

  • Ask the employer, in a tactful and diplomatic way, if the salary offer is open to negotiation. Convey to the employer that you are truly interested in the job. Don't sound as though you are just shopping for the best salary.
  • If the employer says no, accept the answer gracefully. You can weigh the options you have.
  • Be prepared for the possibility that the employer still may not change the salary offer.
  • Consider whether other benefits, such as a moving allowance or stock options, could be negotiated to bring the job offer package to an agreeable place.
  • Present your case tactfully, so if the employer doesn't change the salary offer, you can still accept the original salary offer if you choose.

CareerSpots video tips on negotiating an offer. Recruiters explain the importance of salary research before you respond to questions about salary.

Role-play demo and discussion of salary negotiation. The following is an excellent video, with a role-play demo and discussion of salary negotiation. It is not adversarial; the demeanor of the participants is calm, professional, and conversational, with both demonstrating good listening skills. It uses an example of a candidate with some experience, but the principles of the conduct and advice are applicable to any job candidate. Length: 14:25.