How to Determine What Salary to Ask For

If you have to answer this question, make sure you have an informed response.

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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 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 low-balling 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.

[See 10 Tips for Negotiating a Raise.]

But how do you actually do this research?

The most obvious answer might seem to 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.

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

1. First and foremost, ask other people in your field for their opinion. Most people don’t want to be directly asked what their salary is, but you can bounce figures off them and see how they respond. Do they think the number you mention is about right, or does it seem too high or too low to them?

2. Ask professional organizations in your industry. They 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.

[See Treat Your Career Like a Smartphone.]

3. Look at similar positions on online job boards to see if salary ranges are listed.

4. Ask agency recruiters what similar positions are paying.

5. Ask around about a specific company’s reputation when it comes to compensation. Are they known for paying well? The opposite?

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 www.guidestar.com, where you 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.)

[See 10 Things Your Boss Isn't Telling You.]

As you conduct your research, remember that you’re looking for patterns and trends to inform your thinking; you’re not after one specific 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.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.

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