Careers

Four Compensation Tips to Keep in Mind During Your Job Search

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After finishing my graduate degree, all I wanted was that first job. And following months of sending in applications and interviewing, I had my first offer and immediately said “yes.” When I learned what my salary would be, I only thought about finally earning a paycheck. I had no clue what kind of pay to expect or whether it reflected the average in the field. And the thought of negotiating never even crossed my mind! I was simply thrilled to finally secure my first real job.

Wherever you are in your career journey, don’t be like first-time-job-hunter me.


When you begin exploring your career options, you may consider several variables, including location, work environment and target industries. One variable that job hunters often do not pay much attention to is compensation. The students I meet fall into one of two categories: Those who claim that pay is not a top reason when picking their careers and those who pick careers for their high earning potential. Neither spends much time researching the topic. Below, check out four tips on how to successfully approach compensation in your job search.

1. Conduct Research, Gather Information

“The most successful salary negotiations are the result of a process that begins when the job search begins,” says Karen Chopra, a career counselor and therapist in private practice and former trade negotiator in the Office of the US Trade Representative. Whether you are starting your career journey, looking to transition into a new field or thinking of moving upward with your current employer, you want to research salary as soon as you decide it is time for the next step. The earlier you start your research, the better idea you will have of the average salaries in your field and position, which may help you avoid disappointment in the future.

Education level, years of experience, geographical location and industry all have an impact on pay expectations. Conducting comprehensive research will help you identify a range that reflects your background and experience. Money may not be a primary motivator for you, but compensation is not just about salary and you want to be informed before you take your next career step. Chopra encourages her clients “to capture and record any scraps of salary information that are out there” as they research their industry and desired functions. She also advises them to consider questions such as “What’s the salary range for this position?” and “What salary range should I be looking at, based on my qualifications and experiences?” as they network and conduct informational interviews. The more people you speak to, the more data points you will have to make an educated decision on your range.

2. Consider the Entire Compensation Package, Not Just Salary

“Leading organizations now understand that a personalized, agile, holistic rewards system is essential to attracting, motivating and developing talent,” states the most recent Global Human Capital Trends report released by Deloitte. The report identifies new rewards as one of ten future workforce trends, and although not all companies are there yet, employee compensation packages often include more than a base salary. As a job seeker, you need to consider all the benefits that can help you say “yes” to an opportunity.

Job searches can take months and you may become desperate enough to tell yourself that you simply want a job, regardless of how much it pays. I hear that a lot in my work. You cannot adjust your expectations, however, if you do not know what your expectations are. After conducting salary research, reflect on the possible benefits you could get -- sick leave, paid vacation, flexible work schedule, telecommuting options, continued education -- and identify priorities. Based on your current lifestyle and preferences, which benefits are important to you? For instance, as a learner, I value continued education and appreciate that my current employer offers tuition remission as a benefit. Whatever your needs, you want to be clear about them as you embark on your job search.

3. Don’t Talk Salary Until It’s Time 

Once you make it to an interview, you may be eager to please interviewers by answering all of their questions. However, you are by no means obligated to respond to questions about your previous salary, and employers do not need the information if they are prepared to pay you competitively. In fact, as PayScale points out, there is an effort in several states to prohibit employers from asking candidates about salary history.

To successfully evade salary inquiries during the interview process, you may want to become familiar with the following three-step process Chopra has established:

1. Decline to answer the specific question on salary.

2. Answer the more general question ("Can we afford you?")

3. Ask a question unrelated to the topic of salary. For instance, when asked about your previous salary, you could say, “This is personal information I prefer not to disclose. Based on my research, I know that Company X offers competitive salaries and I’m certain that if all else falls into place, salary won’t be an issue. Do you mind sharing a bit more about how performance is evaluated in this organization?”

4. Become a Master Negotiator

If you have received an offer, congratulations! The months of research, networking and interviews have paid off, and in your excitement, you may be tempted to accept immediately. I get it. I’ve been there. But keep in mind that the offer is not the last step in the process. Show your excitement and gratitude but avoid accepting right away. “The right thing to say when a salary number hits the table is, ‘That’s good to know, thank you,’” Chopra says. Be sure to have the written offer in your hands and review the entire benefits package with a trusted mentor before responding. Confirm with HR that you can give them an answer within 48 hours and then spend the time preparing to negotiate.

The offer indicates that the employer wants to hire you. Rely on the research you conducted and prepare a counteroffer. Consider your lifestyle and priorities as you evaluate the benefits package. Perhaps you are willing to accept a lower salary if you are allowed a flexible schedule with the option to work from home. When it’s time to negotiate, do so “in real time -- usually over the phone, occasionally face-to-face,” Chopra advises. And “always ask for more money, even if you are happy with the offer.” The counteroffer needs to be reasonable and within the market rate for your background and experience.

As with any other topic in career development, my final advice is to practice, practice and practice. Having an idea of what you need to say is not the same as actually saying it. You want to go through the motions of expressing your responses verbally, on your own or with a friend or mentor, so that you sound confident and prepared when discussing salary.

Helpful Resources:

  1. Payscale
  2. Money Girl Podcast
  3. Glassdoor