Not Sure What You Should Be Making at Your First Job? Here’s How to Figure Out the Right Number to Aim for

Not Sure What You Should Be Making at Your First Job? Here’s How to Figure Out the Right Number to Aim for was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.

Launching your career by landing your first full-time job can be thrilling, but there might be one small thing you’re not so sure about as you wait to hear the words, “You’re hired!”: Money.

How do you know what to say if an employer asks what you’re looking for salary-wise? How much should you expect and how do you know if the offer you get is a good one? Should you—gasp—negotiate? (Spoiler alert: probably!)

You may not feel comfortable chatting about salary—especially early in your career. Don’t worry: That’s completely normal. As a career advisor, I’ve helped college students tackle their first salaries for years and I have tips that can help you.

Read on to learn how you can confidently figure out what your first salary should be and how to maximize your chances of getting the offer you deserve!

How Much Is the Average Entry-Level Salary?

The data out there on the average entry-level salary is all over the place—and with good reason. Starting salaries vary based on many factors, including the industry the job is in, the geographic location of the company, the responsibilities of the role, and the education level and type of degree the candidate has.

To show just how wide the general baselines can be: ZipRecruiter posts the average entry-level salary by state, citing a range of $25,712 to $35,793, while the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reported that the average starting salary for the Class of 2019 was $53,889.

It can be nice to look for a general average. But without considering any of the particulars, the ballpark numbers out there likely won’t be very useful. Finding information more specific to your situation will set you up for better success.

How Can You Figure Out Your Target Entry-Level Salary?

Taking the time to do your research is well worth the confidence you’ll gain knowing what you should be earning at your first job.

I recommend determining a target salary range based on averages from several different sources. As you do your research, make sure you’re being consistent when grabbing data points. Narrow down the type of job you’re looking for, and then identify a few potential titles you’d like to pursue (for example, software engineer and software developer, or marketing coordinator and marketing assistant). Next, look only at the salaries based in the geographic area where you want to work. Location plays an important role in developing a salary range due to cost of living differences. A software engineering role in San Francisco probably won’t pay the same as one in rural South Carolina. Being consistent with the types of positions and locations you look at will help you identify a more accurate average.

Once you have those basics covered, use the methods below to help figure out your ideal entry-level salary range. 

Use Online Tools

There are many free online resources to help you determine the right salary range for your first job while taking into account all the variables involved. Here are a few tools to kick-start your research:

  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) drills down into salary data by state and occupation.
  • PayScale can provide salary averages by employer, job, degree/major, certifications, relevant skills, industry, location, or even which school you attended.
  • lets you pop in a job title and location to get a salary estimate. You can also do comparisons between jobs and get additional insights into employment benefits.
  • AngelList has a salary tool for job seekers who are navigating the startup scene. Startups frequently offer different types of compensation than more established companies and AngelList can help when you’re considering packages that might include a combination of salary and equity, for example.

Talk to Your Network

Sometimes the best nuggets of life advice are gathered through people you trust—and what your salary should be is no exception! Connections who are in the same field or industry as you can be especially useful. I’ve found former internship supervisors, faculty, and friends who were in your degree program to be really helpful when it comes to compensation advice. They can fill in some of the blanks in your other research and give tips and insight that might not be readily apparent from the hard data.

Talking about salary can be sensitive, so when you reach out to your network, I recommend taking into account the nature of your relationship with each individual and approaching the conversation in a way where they won’t feel obligated to share their own salary if they’re uncomfortable with it.

For instance, if you’re catching up with your former internship supervisor over lunch, here’s how you might get the conversation started: “I’m excited to jump into my first full-time job! I’m trying to figure out what type of salary is fair for business analyst roles in the Boston area with my background. From your experience in this industry, can you share any advice about what pay range is typical for an entry-level position?” A question like this should allow them to share their broader expertise without feeling pressured to divulge personal details.

If a mentor, supervisor, friend, or family member in your field isn’t available, you might also find people you could ask through other networks. For example, your college may have an alumni mentor network you could tap into.

Check Out Professional Associations

Professional associations, which offer membership and support for people in the same career field, are a hidden gem most people don’t think of very often. These organizations usually collect relevant salary info, highlight trends, and offer other salary tools specific to that field. Their information may be public to non-members or they may offer discounted student memberships. As an example, a free student membership with the American Society of Civil Engineers grants access to entry-level salaries for civil engineers by region (score!).

If a professional association doesn’t conduct their own salary surveys, they may share relevant salary research from other reputable resources, such as this helpful article from the American Marketing Association, which describes the overall compensation landscape for marketers and gives salary ranges for specific types of roles.

Find First Destination Data

If you’re a recent or soon-to-be graduate, your college likely has something called first destination—or graduate/career outcomes—data. It usually comes from an annual survey used to capture where past students land within six months of graduating. Luckily, this includes the salaries they got, which can be a great benchmark! Some colleges may publicize an overall entry-level salary average for their graduating classes, while others may break it down by major or industry.

If it isn’t easy to find the data through your college, NACE has similar reports that are free. You can check out average starting salaries in their first destination data by class year, degree level, regions, and academic discipline.

Anticipate Your Budget

If this is your first full-time job and you’re making other first-time life moves, there will be a lot of new things to consider! Take time to project what your expected cost of living could be and how it might line up with your future salary. This way, when you hear a salary number, you not only know it’s in a good range for your experience and background, but you can also feel confident you’ll be able to cover rent.

You may want to consider questions including:

  • How much is the average rent in the area?
  • How much will you have to pay toward a car, insurance, or public transportation fees?
  • How about monthly student loan payments and other debt?
  • How much do you expect you’ll need to spend every month on food? What about other basics like cleaning supplies or toilet paper?
  • Will you be moving from a family health insurance plan to your own (which means paycheck deductions)?
  • What will your take-home pay be after taxes? (You can use this tool to estimate!)
  • What would you like to save?
  • How much do you want to spend on leisure activities or hobbies?
  • Have you factored in some wiggle room for miscellaneous one-time expenses? (You’ll need furniture for your new apartment!)
  • Do you have an emergency fund or will you be working to save one up?

Although this is the not-so-fun side of picturing what you’ll do with your future pay, estimating expenses ahead of time can give you a sense of what your budget might look like and will help you know what you’d like to (or need to) make in your first job. (Need some more help? Check out our tips to start your budget and try our budget tool to make it as easy as possible!)

5 Tips to Achieve Your Target Salary

Knowing the compensation landscape is key to understanding how your time and expertise might be valued, but you’ll also have to find and land a job that will actually pay you that much. Here are some quick tips to help you out:

  1. When possible, filter by experience level and salary when searching for jobs. You can leverage job search engines that offer experience-level and salary filters (so you can search for entry-level accounting roles making over $45,000, for instance). If you have a target salary in mind, you can prioritize your application efforts on entry-level roles that match your salary expectations and skip investing time in those that don’t. One cautionary note: Not all postings include salary so this type of filter may leave out opportunities that could be a fit.
  2. Show you’re an ideal match. Throughout the hiring process, demonstrate that you’re a strong match for the role. That way, employers will be more likely to see you merit a solid offer on the higher end of the range they’re able to pay. So how can you do this from the start? Take the time to tailor your resume and personalize your cover letter to make it clear to anyone reading that you have the qualifications they’re looking for. Once you land an interview, prepare to show the hiring manager you’re the right fit for their job (and make sure you’re ready to answer common interview questions with that in mind).
  3. Showcase your additional strengths. Evaluate whether there’s an extra, highly desirable skill, qualification, or experience you bring to the role. Are there particular accomplishments that set you apart? Do you have advanced knowledge of a piece of software or tool that is needed or could add value? If there is something you bring beyond the basic job requirements—for instance, you know Tableau and can significantly improve their data analytics—that’s important to highlight.
  4. Prepare for salary-related questions and discussions. Do this before you expect to receive an offer. Read up on how to answer salary expectations and (possibly illegal) salary history questions in interviews and respond to common salary lines that can catch you off guard and put you at a disadvantage. Be ready in advance!
  5. Learn about negotiation. Sometimes when you receive an offer, the salary won’t be in the range that you expected based on your research. This is where negotiation discussions are incredibly useful. Negotiation can be a bit mysterious and intimidating. Take some of the guesswork out of it by reviewing salary negotiation tips to learn what it’s all about and how to do it well.

How Do You Decide Whether or Not to Negotiate Your Offer? What About Whether or Not to Accept It?

Speaking of negotiation, unless the employer tells you up front there’s a hard salary cap, or you know all new graduates start at one base salary at this organization, I definitely recommend negotiating (yes, even with an entry-level job).

I know you might be nervous about this. I find it can help people feel more comfortable when they see what the company is thinking from their side of things and know that most employers expect candidates to negotiate. You might be leaving money or other benefits on the table simply because you didn’t ask for more. So you should generally try negotiating—especially if your research is telling you the range should be higher.

Make sure you take into account the entire compensation package, including any benefits the company offers. For example, do they offer good health insurance with low employee costs, 401(k) matching, or a company car? Is there a big annual bonus or the ability to make significant commissions? Here are a few things to look at (and potentially negotiate) beyond salary that could increase the attractiveness of your overall offer:

  • Start date
  • Relocation and/or moving expenses
  • Signing bonus
  • Work schedule (hours or days of the week)
  • Remote, hybrid, or flexible work
  • Position location (if they have multiple offices)

An offer with a lower salary could be more valuable when examined as a total package. However, keep in mind what a signing or other one-time bonus would mean down the line and remember that raises are often calculated as a percentage of your base salary, so a lower base could mean slower long-term compensation growth even if the first-year pay is higher.

Be prepared that sometimes even when you negotiate it won’t be possible to get your target salary or improve your overall compensation package. Before you decide to turn any offer down, consider how this position may match other goals—like if it’s your ideal job or in a location close to family and friends.

And what if your research says your salary offer is very competitive—even generous—and it has everything you want? Wonderful (and congrats)! You certainly don’t need to negotiate before accepting the offer.

Gearing up for your first job is exciting, and hopefully these tips will take some of the worry and guesswork out of figuring out the salary part of it all. Try some—or all—of the above strategies to establish a solid understanding of your value, your needs, and potential areas to maximize your offer. I promise, you’ll feel much more confident saying yes to your first full-time job.