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First job fears: how to know you’re making the right wage

It’s finally happening! You’ve finished school, you’re looking for your first big career opportunity, and you have a job offer (or you hope to have one soon). Big things are in the works! But as you get ready to take that first job step on your career path, it’s important to make sure you’re earning the right salary.

Know your (job’s) worth

You’re awesome–that’s a given. But in order to put a dollar amount on that awesomeness, it’s time to find out what you can reasonably expect to be paid for the work you’ll do. The starting point for this is always research. The more info you have going into this process, the more realistic and solid your expectations will be.

If you already have a specific position in mind (or a field and a general level, like entry-level), start by going online. When you’re looking, don’t just look at one or two sources and call it a day. To get the clearest picture, you’ll need info from as many sources as you can find. Many sites collect job and salary data to help job seekers like you figure out what you can expect, salary-wise.

Payscale and Salary.com are focused on gathering real data from people currently or formerly in positions. You can find ranges, sample salaries from particular companies or positions, variations for location and experience level, and (anonymous) feedback from employees that can give you a sense of what the real-time market is.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics can help you find wage information by occupation and state, plus information about projected job growth in a particular field.

Ask around

Chances are, you’re starting to build a professional network. LinkedIn connections, for example, can be a great source if info for you if you’re looking at a particular company or industry. Doing research on your own online is a good first step, but you should always get advice from people too about what you can expect.

If you’re a recent grad, your school might have a career office or other resources for people looking for jobs. They might be able to put you in touch with people in the field, people who can help you start building that network of valuable insight and information. If you’ve had internships, volunteer work, or part-time jobs in the field you’re about to enter full-time, don’t be shy about going back to your contacts there to get advice. A cup of coffee or a “how are you?” Zoom can be just as useful as the info you find online.

Be realistic

If this is your first job, you might need to modify your expectations a bit. Some industries have generous starting salaries, bonuses, etc. Others might be more modest. That’s why having the general industry data at your fingertips is helpful in creating realistic expectations. If you’re expecting champagne but the reality is more like seltzer, that can set your career off on a disappointing note–and that’s not the best way to start. If you understand the reality of your industry and your experience level, you’re prepared to get started with the best salary you can.

Don’t be afraid to negotiate

When you’re taking your first job, you may be eager to just grab the opportunity, and not rock the boat by angling for more money. And for an entry-level job, you might not have much room to negotiate–many companies have a set number. But there might be a range, and if you come prepared with data about what people are making in similar positions in your area, you might be able to get to the top of that range.

Also, be sure to take any benefits into account. After all, your compensation isn’t just your base salary. It’s also vacation time, flex time, insurance, potential bonuses, and the like. If those are part of your entry-level salary package, take them into account. If the number seems lower than other places, but you get solid perks, you should consider that as part of your salary as well.

If you know what your position and experience are worth, and you do everything you can to advocate for yourself during these early stages, you can start your career knowing you’ve done your due diligence, and you’re ready to get started.

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