Negotiating salary for your graduate job
Discover how to negotiate a salary for a graduate job or entry-level role – and whether you should negotiate salary at all.
Many graduate training schemes have set starting salaries but there are some jobs where you’ll need to exercise your negotiating skills. This will be a unique opportunity to position yourself as a valuable asset in the organisation and to set your level of remuneration accordingly. To achieve this, you need to establish an appropriate asking price – and it is wise to think about this early in case it should come up during your interview or even in the application.
When you are going for a job, you are effectively a salesperson promoting a product and it is up to you to demonstrate that the ‘product’ is valuable, high quality and superior to anything a competitor could offer. Potential employers or ‘buyers’ are looking for the best value for their money, so will be driving the deal in the opposite direction: they want to offer enough to attract you to the job and make you want to stay, but not more than they have to. However, if you have positioned yourself well and made a good impression at interview, they won't want to risk losing you and will be prepared to settle at the top of the market rather than at the bottom. If you know what the employer can afford and typical salaries for the sector, you will gain an advantage.
Usually, salaries for entry-level and graduate jobs are fixed and there is less room for negotiation than for a more senior role where candidates may have varying levels of experience and expertise to offer the employer. It is normal for everyone starting the same graduate scheme to be paid the same. The salary will either be clearly shown on the job advert or labelled ‘competitive’, meaning it should be in line with what similar organisations offer graduates in the same location and you will be told what it is at job offer stage. Read our salaries article to get a sense of what you can expect in different sectors and with your degree subject.
However, some graduate employers will state that the salary is ‘negotiable’ or will ask about your salary expectations, either in the application, at interview or when offering you the job. Job adverts sometimes carry salary ranges to give applicants an idea of the boundaries of the negotiation. The rest of this article explains how to prepare for and handle the negotiation.
What if the salary is DOE (depends on experience)?
Sometimes employers use the phrase ‘salary DOE’ meaning ‘depends on experience’ alongside ‘negotiable’/‘competitive’ or a salary range (see our salaries and benefits jargon buster for more definitions). It’s more common for roles where the employer hasn’t decided what level of experience they want to fill a vacancy with as they want to wait and see who best fits the role from the pool of candidates who apply. You're less likely to see it for graduate programmes or entry-level jobs aimed specifically at recent graduates. It’s also more likely to be used for smaller employers advertising individual roles than large employers with big intakes.
If you are a recent graduate applying for a role with a DOE salary, you might assume that you’ll automatically be bottom of the pay range the employer has in mind – but ‘experience’ doesn’t necessarily mean a full-time job. It can also mean knowledge and expertise that would be of use to the organisation. Thinking back to the idea of employers seeking value for money, they are willing to pay more for a candidate who will make the biggest or best contribution to their business, which might be something that hadn’t occurred to them when they wrote the job description.
So, it’s worth thinking more broadly about what distinguishes you. This could include something you’ve done on a work placement or as part of your degree, as well as independently directed learning such as learning to use specific platforms, software or apps. For example, if you are going for a marketing role and have a high level of familiarity with social media such as Instagram, Twitter and TikTok, this could potentially give you an advantage.
If you are not given the opportunity to negotiate salary, it is generally best to accept what is offered; you probably don’t have enough experience at this stage in your career to persuade the employer to change their mind if they have not already specified that it depends on experience, and you don’t want to start your job on the wrong foot. You might decide to try negotiating for a higher salary despite it not being initiated by the employer if you have some exceptional experience that you believe would make you a more valuable hire than other fresh graduates, for example if you worked full time before going to university. If you choose to do this, be sure to leave this until you have a job offer and, if they say no, leave it there.
It’s best to leave salary discussions until the point at which you are offered the job – unless the employer asks you about it sooner. Many recruiters ask for salary expectations and details of current salary early in the process. If this is the case, you may need to spend some time researching the question of salary (see the section below ) at the application stage or before the first interview. Alternatively, when asked on the application form about your current salary or salary expectations you could put either TBD (to be discussed) or NA (non-applicable), but you should still be prepared to discuss salary expectations later in the process.
If the question of pay comes up during an interview, our article on how to answer ‘What are your salary expectations?’ gives advice on how you can approach this in a way that’s likely to lead to the best outcome for you. Don’t be afraid to start out by asking them for a ballpark figure, so that you can pitch the discussions appropriately.
Time invested in research will enable you to argue your case logically and professionally. You'll need to think carefully about your aspirations in terms of salary, balance these with your experience or training needs for your future career and consider what the employer could realistically offer. Familiarise yourself with the employer itself, as well as the range of salary and benefit options.
Four tips for researching salaries:
- Look at the range of packages offered for similar positions in the adverts online or in the jobs pages.
- Ask for advice from people in your professional and personal network.
- Ask a contact in the industry to advise you – or use their network to access the information.
- If you are a member of a union, it will have information on acceptable salary ranges for your profession.
You can put off a prospective employer by pitching too high or too low, so it is important to get your level right. Get a feel for the market rate by drawing information from the above sources. You will also find listings on the internet that can help you.
There are no hard and fast rules about how and when to conduct your negotiation. Every situation is different and each employer will have their own set of thresholds. Understanding the context in which your negotiation is going to take place and being sensitive to the culture of the organisation is therefore essential. Having said that, there are some practical steps you can take to position yourself sensibly.
- Be calm and assertive in your arguments.
- Be prepared to compromise – but plan beforehand what you will do if they say no: do you still want to work for the employer?
- Ask for the agreed terms and conditions to be confirmed in writing as soon as possible if you are successful in your negotiations.
- Discuss the benefits package and negotiate for an early pay review instead, if the salary offered is less than you had hoped for. For instance, if you demonstrate your worth against certain criteria in the first six months of your employment, they will agree to a particular salary increase. Ensure that the criteria are clearly set, though, and that they are included in your contract of employment.
- Appear too eager or too laid back. Either approach can portray overconfidence or a lack of professionalism and damage your case.
- Avoid doing your research. It is a common, misguided belief that requesting a high salary will convey a greater sense of your worth. The prospective employer will naturally ask you why you think you are worth so much. If you don’t have a rational argument, you will look ill-prepared and unprofessional.
- Bluff in your negotiation and try to play off fictitious job offers against the real one you’re hoping to get. Employers generally don’t respond well to this kind of pressure, and instead of receiving a speedy offer, you’re likely to be left with nothing. However, if you do genuinely have another offer, be candid about what you are being offered (without giving away the other organisation's name).
- Seem more interested in the package than in the role you are being recruited for. Every employer knows that you will want a fair deal, but you need to demonstrate that your financial concerns are balanced by a genuine desire for the job.