A reader writes:
I’ve recently reached two significant milestones in my career, having finished my master’s degree program and reached 5 years of professional experience. With these two achievements under my belt, I want to start looking around for a new position to move my career forward (as the general consensus in my current group is it’s near impossible to move forward without leaving).
I started doing some research on salary numbers and it looks like the median numbers for 5 years of experience and a master’s are hovering at about 50% above my current salary. The median numbers for the positions that require 5 years and a BS are still about 35% above my current salary. I would like to try and bring my salary in line with my experience, but the staffing groups that I’ve talked with have so far suggested that companies would be unlikely to look at anything more than a 10% raise, despite the fact that my qualifications have changed without being recognized by my current company. How would you suggest that I go about trying to reach the salary that I feel matches my experience?
Well, first, keep in mind that the median numbers are medians; that means that there are an awful lot of people making well below that number. You need to find out what separates people making significantly less than the median from those making more. Is it geography? Differing scopes of responsibility? Some specific niche in your industry that they occupy? Large companies versus small? You shouldn’t just look at the median and think “that’s where I deserve to be”; you want to understand which workers in your field are falling where along the entire range and why. (Here are some ideas on how to figure that out.)
Now that that disclaimer is out of the way … it can indeed be hard to get a raise far above 10%, but it does happen — particularly if you’re dealing with a company that doesn’t insist on knowing what you’ve been making and instead just asks what salary you’re looking for. Those employers are out there (hell, I’m one of them, because I think your salary history is no one’s business but your own, and I think employers should determine a candidate’s value for themselves, not look to their competitors to tell them a candidate’s worth). But it’s also true that many, many employers play the salary history card.
So if you’re dealing with a company that demands to know what you’ve been making, and you don’t feel you can avoid the question, you’re going to need to make a compelling argument for the salary you’re seeking. Because the problem, of course, is that saying “I’ve been making $40,000 but I’m seeking $55,000” tells them that you’re probably willing to take something closer to $40,000 — because, after all, you’re taking it right now. So you need to come up with something that convinces them to look beyond that.
It can be done, but you’ll have to figure out how to argue that it’s warranted. For instance, I once more than doubled my salary in a single career move: Early in my career, I worked for a nonprofit that paid very low salaries. I didn’t really care at the time — I loved the organization, I loved my work, and I was grateful that they let me have a desk there, let alone that they actually paid me. But eventually I was ready to move on, and if I was going to go somewhere new, I figured it was time to start earning a normal salary.
At the interview for the job I was eventually hired for, when it came out that the salary I was asking for was more than double what I’d been making, the interviewer asked me why she should give me such a big increase. I said something like, “I’ve loved the work I’ve been doing, and I was willing to do it for well-below market rates because I was so personally invested in the organization and I was learning a huge amount that I wouldn’t have had the chance to learn somewhere else. But now I’m ready to move on from that stage, and part of the reason I’m leaving is because I want to be paid a normal market rate.” (It worked. And let me tell you how thrilling that first new paycheck was.)
Something like that is better than, “Well, $__ is the market rate.” Because the employer’s response to that can easily be (in their head, if not out loud), “Well, if that’s what you think you’re worth, why doesn’t your current salary show that?” So you need that stronger narrative.
So … first figure out if the median really applies to you or not. And then figure out what your compelling argument is going to be, because if you don’t know, the employer certainly isn’t going to take the time to come up with it themselves. Good luck!