Negotiating Salary and Evaluating An Offer

When you are in the job search process, sooner or later you will need to prepare yourself to have the money discussion with an employer.    You may be asked to add “Salary Requirements” in an online application before even starting the interview process. or to provide a range of desired salaries early on in the process.  Doing this research well in advance will ensure that your expectations are realistic so that you don’t over-price yourself and lose out on an opportunity – and just as importantly, that you don’t under-value yourself in the job market.

As you start this process, take the time to understand your “salary range.”  Your desired salary range starts with the absolute minimum this role may offer that you could accept, up to the high end of the salaries you’re able to find for such a position.  Your ideal number falls typically somewhere in between, allowing for adjustments based on the specific role for which you’re interviewing for and the location(s) in which you hope to be.  How do you do this?  Research.

Begin by identifying your minimum requirements – how much money you will need to support yourself.  Estimate rent, food, commuting and clothing costs for the cities or areas you are considering (again, NerdWallet is especially helpful here). Add in your student loan or other debt payments, if you will have them, and always try to factor in some amount for savings.  Make sure you factor in incidental or miscellaneous expenses, such as any costs associated with your social and entertainment activities. Then total everything up to identify your minimum number.

Next, learn about salaries typical for your industry of interest and for new graduates – a great place to start is with the Career Survey reports produced by Penn Career Services for each graduating class.  You can also check out reputable online resources (Glassdoor, Nerdwallet, Salary.com, etc.), paying attention to regional and national averages and cost-of-living differences as well as salaries of your target organization’s closest competitors, and perhaps even by talking with people currently working in the field.   This will give you an idea of the median or higher end of the range of salaries you may wish to seek.

Note that once you’re interviewing, know that salary negotiation should be one of the last steps in the job search process, when the employer is ready to make you an offer.  It is a best practice as the candidate to wait for the employer to introduce the subject.    

Armed with a knowledge of the standard salary range, and your financial needs, you will be more than ready to respond to any requests for salary requirements, as well as negotiate successfully once you’ve received an offer.  Note that in some instances, your negotiating power may be limited – for example, if you are being offered a job in a training program or as part of a cohort of new grads starting together,  you will be quoted a salary that all the members of your “class” will be receiving.  Slight salary increases may be offered (i.e. $1,000 – $2,000 more per year) to reward a candidate with prior summer experience in the industry, an outstanding academic record, or other special qualifications.  If you have a competing offer at a higher salary, you may also be able to negotiate a matching number with your preferred employer – as long as the positions, industries and geographic cost of living are comparable.  This can be a delicate process and very unique to your individual situation; your advisors in Career Services would be more than happy to help you at any step of this process.

Remember too that salary is not the whole compensation story. Your total compensation package includes base salary as well as benefits that can have a significant impact on that base -sometimes adding 30-40% of actual value by including stock options, large subsidies to your contributions to health, vision, dental, prescription, life or other insurance plans, contributions to your retirement accounts, tuition benefits for continued studies related to your work, and other such perks.  In addition, there may be non-monetary benefits that are of value to you – vacation or paid-time-off, on-site child care, flexible scheduling, telecommuting options, etc.

What if you have just been offered your dream job, but at a disappointingly low salary? Express your enthusiasm for the job, but ask the employer whether or not he or she has any flexibility in determining the salary. Listen carefully to the response, because it will give you an idea of whether or not it’s worthwhile to pursue the issue. If the salary itself cannot be increased, you might try to negotiate for an early salary review at, say, three or six months, when you could expect a raise. Remember, a high salary won’t make you happy if you’re in the wrong job. Don’t make your decision on financial grounds alone.

Please take time to make your decision in an informed way, and be empowered to ask for the time you think you need.  Once you have an official offer, you should be given sufficient time to decide whether to accept. If you are still waiting to hear from other employers, ask for more time before you make your decision. Whether you ask for another few days, a week or another month, stress your continuing interest in the position, but state that you want to make a careful decision based on full information.  Your advisors in Career Services can help talk you through what you may wish to say in such a conversation.

If you find yourself under a tight deadline with one offer while waiting to complete other interview processes, reach out to all the other organizations from whom you’re waiting to hear, and see whether they are close to making a decision. If they seem unconcerned and inflexible, they may not be very interested in you.  Some organizations have a very measured process and are not able to accelerate their process, even for the best possible candidate.  Never accept one offer and then later renege if a more attractive one materializes. To do this is unethical, and reflects badly on you and the University. If you have any questions about the timing of a response, ask your career advisor.

And while it may go without saying, be courteous and professional in all your negotiations. You are dealing with your future boss or colleagues, and you want to make sure you’re creating a good impression.  Also remember to be objective and calm – salary and offer negotiations are “business” conversations, and ones that employers have often; if this is your first time negotiating, practice in advance!  Some candidates find it especially helpful to craft decision trees, or talk through the possibilities of how the conversation may go with a trusted friend, family member or advisor – and we in Career Services can help you add a broad perspective on new graduate salaries as well as be a sounding board for any and all of your offer-related questions.

If you have completed your negotiations and accepted an offer – congratulations!!  Be sure to quickly notify any and all other employers who have offered you positions or with whom you are in interview processes,  so that those opportunities can then be offered to other candidates.  Be sure to thank everyone who was helpful to you in your job search and share your good news!  Please also complete Penn’s Career Plans Survey, so that we can share our congratulations and aggregate data on your experience to help next year’s graduates as they negotiate!

This article was adapted from text written by Patricia Rose, Director of Career Services

By Jamie Grant
Jamie Grant Senior Associate Director, School of Engineering & Applied Science Jamie Grant