Salary Negotiation Guide for Career Starters

How do you know if you’re a career starter? Do you…

  • Have less than three years of professional experience?
  • Have a recent degree or certificate from a program without prior experience in that field?
  • Feel nervous about the prospect of negotiating since you lack extensive experience?

Negotiating salaries as a career starter can be intimidating. This guide will help you successfully navigate your next salary negotiation. In this guide, we will teach you to: 

  1. Understand your market value. 
  2. Identify your career values and non-negotiables. 
  3. Answer “what are your salary requirements?” and other difficult screening questions.
  4. Evaluate an offer. 
  5. Prepare for a negotiation conversation.

Table of Contents

  • Why Should You Negotiate?
  • Preparing for Salary Negotiation Conversations
  • Your Ideal Salary and Offer Package
  • Evaluating the Offer and Preparing for Negotiation
  • Your Turn!

Why Should You Negotiate?

Many career starters feel uncomfortable negotiating salaries because they don’t think they have valuable experience to offer and that they should be grateful for any amount offered. This mindset can be harmful initially because you earn less in your starting role, but it’s also detrimental in the long term. Raises are typically calculated by percentage, so your starting salary is critical to your long-term salary growth within an organization. 

Negotiating salary (when possible) is an art paramount for career development. Here are a few reasons we urge you to practice negotiating:

  • For employers, it can be a long, arduous process to find the right candidate. When they decide to make an offer, they’re hoping that their search is over. They’ll be disappointed if you walk away. 
  • If you’ve gotten an offer, you’ve beaten out other candidates through the application and interview processes. 
  • You have negotiation power because they want you to say yes. They want to find terms that work for both of you. 
  • There are aspects of your past that made you a great fit for this role. You can use those elements as leverage.    

Preparing for Salary Negotiation Conversations

A successful salary negotiation is often the result of preparation. The following steps will help you shape your negotiation strategy from an early stage in the application process.

Identify Your Career Values

  • Consider the specifics of what you’re looking for in this career. 
    • For instance, is it important that your role have a specific career ladder so you can advance with support? 
  • Identify your non-negotiables and trade-offs to identify how well an offer suits your needs and desires. 
    • What aspects of the job are non-negotiable? Is it crucial that your position is remote? That you have stock/equity options? 

Know Your Market Value

  • Conduct market research during the application/interview process so you’re ready for any salary-related questions that come up before you have an offer in hand. 
  • Failing to research ahead of time may mean you ask for too little or demand too much—both can hurt you in the negotiation process. 
  • When considering your market value, consult online tools using the following three points:  
    • Industry
    • Job title
    • Location 

Recommended Resources to Research Compensation: 

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

A helpful place to start and can serve as one key data point, but stats are aggregated across the United States and may not be tailored to your location.. 

Glassdoor.com

Glassdoor’s Know Your Worth tool provides a personalized calculator based on your location, title, and years of experience. 

You may be able to access company-specific data by using Glassdoor’s search tool to find salary information. 

Payscale.com: 

Payscale’s compensation tool similarly aggregates data from users to provide a personalized estimate of your market value based on location, years of experience, title, etc. 

Once you’ve done your research, complete the activity below. 

Your Ideal Salary and Offer Package

Here’s a template you can use to start researching and developing your ideal salary and offer package. 

NOTE: This guide is “view only,” so simply save a copy of the template or download it so you can edit and adapt it. 

Salary and Offer Package Guide

Answering “What is your expected salary?” and Other Screening Questions

  • Ideally, you won’t discuss salary until you have an offer in hand; this is when your negotiation power is highest. 
  • However, sometimes recruiters and hiring managers ask about salary expectations in screening interviews or in the application itself. 
  • Employers want to know if they can afford you so providing a number that’s too low can hurt you later in the negotiation process, but offering a number too high may price you out. 
  • If you find yourself in either of these positions, consider using the following language to guide you through the interaction: 

“What are your salary requirements?” 

Until you know the full details of the compensation package (benefits, etc.) don’t suggest a number. Instead, share your research and try to glean more information from them. 

Sample Answers: 

  • “I really like what I’ve heard so far and am potentially interested in becoming a member of your team. I would be excited to bring my skills in XYZ. May I ask what range you have in mind? 
  • “I’m excited about the position and look forward to taking a big step forward in my career. I would love to learn more about the specifics of the role before sharing a number.”
  • If the recruiter or hiring manager is persistent about a number, consider the following language: “Considering the requirements in the job description and my research, it seems that acceptable salaries for this role range between $XX,000 and $XX,000. I am flexible and willing to negotiate within this range depending on additional benefits and advancement opportunities. Does this meet your expectations?” 

If you do your research and practice your responses, you will feel more confident and help the recruiter advocate for you.

Evaluating the Offer and Preparing for Negotiation

What’s in an Offer Letter? 

Keep the full compensation package in mind when evaluating your offer. Companies/organizations will typically offer you some combination of the benefits in the list below. Consider these when developing your strategy as there are many ways to negotiate beyond base salary. 

  • Base pay—total salary and cadence of paychecks. 
  • Bonus pay—guaranteed amount with a specific timeline or discretionary based on team or company performance. 
  • Paid time off (PTO) – amount of time you can take off fully paid. (Clarify whether this needs to be earned over time, or is immediately granted upon hire.) 
  • Fringe benefits—health insurance, retirement savings, life insurance. Most letters will not include this. Ask the employer for additional information. 
  • Stock and equity—stock options. What is the vesting schedule? How long do you need to be an employee to be fully vested? What happens if you leave before?
  • Tuition reimbursement or loan repayment
  • Professional development opportunities
  • Paid sick time 
  • Extended parental leave
  • Flexible work hours 
  • Remote options
  • Equipment and transportation (Computer, internet compensation, gas, money toward public transportation, etc.)
  • Parking 
  • Childcare options
  • Start date 
  • Signing bonus
  • Relocation bonus

Evaluate an Offer 

Once you have a strong grasp of what’s in your offer letter (and what is not!), it’s time to ask, “Is this job the right fit for me?” Does it align with my non-negotiables? What are the trade-offs? Answer the following questions to gut check what is most important to you: 

  • Am I being offered fair market value in my base pay? 
  • Is the compensation package sufficient for my lifestyle? 
  • Do the benefits (health, dental, retirement, etc.) meet my needs? 
  • Can I comfortably complete the travel/commute required of me? 
  • Will this role help me advance in my career path? 
  • Do I like the company/organization culture? 
  • Does this role and/or organization align with my career values? 
  • Do I like the people I will be working with? Co-workers? Supervisor? 
  • Do I feel excited and/or ready to take on the responsibilities of this role?

Develop a Negotiation Strategy 

  1. List clarifying questions.
  2. Identify priority elements to negotiate based on your career values. 
  3. Know your business case. 
  4. Identify your walk-away number. 
  5. Practice counter negotiation.

TIP: Always go into a negotiation with your “walk-away” number. No matter how desperate you are to land a job, you need to be sure it provides what you need to sustain your lifestyle. Identify your “walk-away” number before the conversation and stick to it. 

What is negotiable? 

When developing your negotiation strategy, be sure to think beyond base pay. While you certainly want to ask for higher pay, prepare for the possibility that it’s not possible since salary is often tied to a specific budget line item or grant allocation. 

Certain aspects of a compensation package are typically more flexible than others, and sometimes they are even more valuable than base pay. Ideally, all of the items we listed earlier are negotiable, but keep the following in mind as you draft your thoughts: 

  • Flexible work arrangements. (Maybe you’re doubling your commute or your salary is lower). Could you work from home one to two days per week? 
  • Additional vacation time or flexibility for pre-planned vacations 
  • Tuition reimbursement 
  • Professional dues 
  • Conference attendance 
  • A one-time sign-on bonus 
  • Relocation assistance. Can you be compensated for moving closer? 

Knowing which aspects of an offer are more negotiable than others is important. Use the following model to develop a strong business case for negotiating.

Prepare for a Negotiation Conversation

You will only get one shot to negotiate your offer so preparation is key! The most effective strategies to confidently communicate your worth are:

  • Make a business case 
  • Identify your ask  
  • Practice! 

Make a Business Case: Confidently convey your value by highlighting your skills and qualifications. This will support your counter and justify your ask for the hiring manager. 

Reflection: What are the top three traits/skills the organization is seeking? How do you meet these requirements? Reflect on projects, internships, or volunteer experience, as well as accomplishments from your program of study that you can elaborate on.

TIP: While you may not have extensive experience, the industry knowledge you’ve acquired in your program is valuable. And don’t forget that your location is a crucial consideration in negotiations as well. Certain cities have higher costs of living that should be accounted for.

Develop Your Ask: Identify your range and walk-away number. Then list three priority benefits in order of importance to negotiate along with salary. For example: 

Desired range (based on market-value research): $62,000 to $69,000

Top three benefits: ability to work from home, paid vacation days, professional development allowance

Can base salary or bonus be increased? 

“I’m really excited to work here and believe my skill set matches well with what you’re looking for. I appreciate the $60,000 salary, but I was looking for a position in the $69,000 range. Could we explore a salary of 69,000 for this position? 

TIP: If there isn’t quite enough room in the budget to meet your ask, follow up with additional benefit requests to make up for lost salary. We recommend having three benefits “asks” at the ready. If they don’t accept one, ask about the others: 

“I understand that the best you can do is $64,000. If you can do $64,000 in addition to [the ability to work from home two days per week/one extra week of paid vacation/professional development allowance], then I would be happy to accept.”

TIP: Silence is golden. If you’re negotiating your compensation verbally, a moment of silence can be a powerful negotiating tool as well as a strategy for collecting your thoughts. About 15-30 seconds of silence can help you get what you want. 

Sample Script:

Recruiter: We are so excited to offer you the project coordinator role! This role has an annual salary of $50,000 a year with potential for a bonus of $5,000 during our annual review process. We cover 100% of health, vision, and dental insurance, and all employees start with three weeks paid time off with an additional 12 U.S. holidays off per year. There’s potential for conference-fee reimbursement, and our learning and development team offers a variety of courses to keep you current on new technologies. Finally, we have a discounted employee stock purchase plan that you can participate in twice a year after your first six months. How does that sound to you? 

You: Wow, that is great news. Thank you so much! I’m thrilled to receive the offer and have the opportunity to join such an innovative company. I do want to revisit the base salary. I know you mentioned $50,000. I’ve done some research and, considering my background in business and my project management professional certification, I would be more comfortable settling somewhere between $55,000 and $60,000 a year as a base salary. I believe this range also reflects the current market in Kansas City.

Recruiter: The team will be very happy to hear that you’re intrigued by the offer! However, I’m not authorized to increase the salary to that range due to budget restrictions. 

You: I definitely understand budget constraints. I am very excited by the kinds of projects the team has coming up. Can we explore a way that we can bridge the gap by looking at other parts of the offer that are negotiable? 

Recruiter: That’s great to hear. What I can do is raise the base salary to $55,000 with the same bonus potential. How does that sound? 

You: That could potentially work. I’m also interested in professional development opportunities that were mentioned. Is that something that could be added as guaranteed compensation vs. just potential? Learning is really important to me and I know this team is all about keeping up to speed on new tech. 

Recruiter: You’re right. I know this manager well and they would likely agree to something like a guaranteed reimbursement for a certain number of courses or conferences. Let me get back to you on that. 

You: That sounds good. Thanks for looking into it. I do have one other question about the flexibility of working from home. Given that I live outside the city and want to devote as much time as possible to the role itself, is there a possibility to work from home a certain number of days per week? 

Recruiter: That’s a great question, and this team does have a policy on that. Again, let me check on the parameters and get back to you. From what I remember, they do allow a day or two per week but let me confirm that in addition to the learning reimbursement piece. If I can confirm those pieces, does the $55,000 base salary and $5,000 potential bonus work for you?  

You: Yes, that sounds great. When do you think you’d be able to find that out? 

Recruiter: I believe that I can get back to you in the next few days. The hiring manager gets back from vacation this week, so that may delay the process a little bit. I will keep you posted though. 

You: Sounds good. Thanks again for your time and for checking on those final pieces for me. I am thrilled about this opportunity. 

Recruiter: Of course. Looking forward to getting those answers and getting you started as soon as possible. Once we confirm the final offer, I will be in touch with a start date but it’ll likely be two weeks from when you sign the offer.  
You: Sounds good. Thanks again and have a good week.

You’ve done a great job negotiating! You managed to increase the base salary to the bottom of your range and you also got a verbal offer for several other key items, like professional development and remote work. 

Your Turn!

It’s time to take everything we’ve discussed and make your own script. Review the Salary and Offer Package Guide and the items that make up an offer to determine what your negotiation components will be. 

Of course, this will look different for everyone depending on individual circumstances. However, this guide and template should help you determine how you want to frame your negotiation when the time comes.

Customizable Script

Recruiter: [Makes offer and shares salary.] 

You: Thank you so much [NAME]. I’m thrilled to hear you want to offer me the [POSITION NAME] role and am really excited about the idea of joining [COMPANY NAME]. I do want to revisit the [NUMBER] salary you discussed. My research shows that, with my [EDUCATIONAL BACKGROUND]in [CITY NAME], the range is closer to [NUMBER – NUMBER SALARY RANGE YOU WANT]. Is that something you think [COMPANY NAME] could meet?

Recruiter: I do think we could adjust to an offer of about [NUMBER IN THE MIDDLE / LOWER END OF RANGE YOU SHARED]. How does that sound?

You: That sounds good – I appreciate that. If we’re not able to reach [NUMBER], I’d also love to revisit some of the other benefits you shared in our earlier discussion. I know that [COMPANY NAME] offers a competitive healthcare package and HSA plan. I was also wondering whether there’s a way to adjust the [EXISTING COMPANY POLICY REGARDING ANY PERK OR BENEFIT – WORK SCHEDULE, VACATION TIME, ETC] to allow me [INCREASE OR ADJUSTMENT TO CURRENT OFFERING] upon signing the offer? Additionally, I reviewed the [EXISTING COMPANY POLICY REGARDING ANY PERK OR BENEFIT – WORK SCHEDULE, VACATION TIME, ETC] and wondered if [COMPANY NAME] might consider letting me [INCREASE OR ADJUSTMENT TO CURRENT OFFERING] as part of the offer package?

Recruiter: Thanks for those questions! I need to run them by the hiring manager. Would you be able to share them in an email so I can forward it along?

You: Absolutely! I was actually going to ask you the same – would you be willing to send me an email with my offer so I can review it in full? I’d be happy to reply back with my questions and am really hoping we can find a middle ground. Again, I’m excited about the possibility! 

Recruiter: Absolutely. We’re thrilled too! I’ll send you that email within the next few hours and am looking forward to your reply.

Once you’ve received the written offer, you’ll be able to study it fully and see what you  want to ask about tweaking. It might seem stressful, but really, this is the fun part! Remember, do your research, focus on your non-negotiables, and just do it! The worst thing that can happen is the employer says no.

Watch it in Action!

Let’s watch a video of a role play between a recruiter and a prospective employee in action.


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