how to research what salary you should ask for

At some point in your job search, you’re going to be asked what salary range you’re looking for.

You’ve probably read that you should try to avoid naming a number at first, but the reality is that employers are going to ask, and you’ll usually have to answer. In fact, many online applications these days won’t even let you apply without naming your salary expectations.

This is typically nerve-wracking for candidates who worry about lowballing themselves or pricing themselves out of consideration. So it’s important to research your market value ahead of time. That way, you can give an informed answered based on what comparable positions pay in your geographic area.

But how do you actually do this research?

The most obvious answer might seemingly be to consult the many websites that purport to provide salary information. However, many job seekers report that these sites aren’t very accurate, particularly since they generally don’t account for the fact that job titles frequently represent wildly different scopes of responsibility or vary significantly by field or type of company. (They’re particularly unhelpful for very specialized roles).

Here are seven more reliable ways to get salary range information:

1. First and foremost, ask other people in your field for their opinions. Most people don’t want to be directly asked what their salaries are, but you can bounce figures off them and benefit from their knowledge that way. Try asking: “What would you expect a role like this to pay?” Or: “Does a salary of around $X sound about right for a role like this, or does that seem too high or too low?”

2. Ask professional organizations in your industry. Professional associations and trade groups often do periodic salary surveys they can share with you, and even if they don’t, they can often give you general information about what range to expect. They may also be able to connect you with others in your field who you might be able to bounce numbers off of.

3. Look at similar positions on online job boards to see if salary ranges are listed. Many job postings don’t list salary information, but some do, and you can get at least some market data that way.

4. Ask agency recruiters what similar positions are paying. Recruiters are some of the best people to give you information about what jobs like the ones you’re interested in are paying, since they deal with salary negotiations every day as part of their jobs. They’ll generally have the inside scoop on the going rate for different jobs, and they may be able to advise you on which companies pay particularly well (or particularly poorly).

5. Ask around about a specific company’s reputation when it comes to compensation. Are they known for paying well? The opposite? Particularly with larger companies, you’ll probably find that people in your field have a general impression of their pay scales.

6. Look at government salaries, which are required by law to be publicly available. While they’re not always a perfect parallel to private sector jobs, they can give you additional data to factor into your research.

7. Nonprofit job seekers should consult, where they can see any nonprofit’s tax reporting. These forms contain a lot of info about the organization’s finances and will show you the salaries of key employees there. This can help you get an idea of the organization’s pay scale overall. (However, factor in that what the leaders are being paid may not tell you much about what junior staffers are earning.)

Look for patterns, not a single figure.

As you conduct your research, remember that you’re looking for patterns and trends to inform your thinking; you’re not after one single figure. That’s especially true because salaries are only one piece of a compensation package; many companies factor in other elements as well, such as benefits, bonuses, quality of life issues and so forth.

Of course, that’s precisely why it would be a lot more logical for employers to just tell job seekers what they intend to pay, rather than playing coy and pushing candidates to throw out a number first, right? But that doesn’t usually happen.

{ 3 comments… read them below }

  1. Sarah G*

    It’s interesting how much of a difference the benefits package can make when it comes to the entire offer. I learned the hard way that health insurance varies a lot, and my current job has by far the worst coverage I’ve ever had. Offers usually just state that they offer insurance, but the reality is that coverage varies a lot and can make a significant difference in how much one spends on even basic medical care — my premium and co-pays are many times what they were, and there is also a large deductible.

    I’ve also learned that insurance precedent varies for union states vs non-union states, and this partly (but not entirely) explains the discrepancies.

    Moving forward, is it appropriate to ask to speak to someone in HR about the benefits package before accepting an offer, if you think it might affect your decision? Most hiring managers wouldn’t be able to provide specifics.

      1. Anonymous*

        And do not take the companies word for it. Having insurance doesn’t mean its good insurance, and being told that the insurance is great by someone that may not be using it (on a spouses plan, or has near perfect health) is not a good indicator of anything. Get numbers, % of your contributions, prescription plans, out of pocket costs, co-pays for each level of specialist.

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