Whether you are thinking of your next job search or looking for more at your current employer, it pays to be prepared (pun intended.) First, what is important to you in your work? What are your career goals? What trade-offs and compromises are you willing to make?

Depending on your career goals, your compensation will be very different from others with different goals. Your chosen field plays a big role since those fields where there is high demand but limited supply generally pay well. The reverse is also true which is why so many actors and musicians hold other jobs to support themselves. Your personal interests and lifestyle play a role. One person might be very interested in a high salary and incentives, while another does not want the long hours and travel that often accompany such jobs. Another example: medical insurance might be critical in your evaluation of potential jobs if you are single or you provide the coverage for your family while someone else may get that through a spouse.

  • Second, do your homework. How realistic are your expectations?
  • What do your target type of organizations pay for this work?
  • What options are most available to meet your desires?

Bottom line: you need to decide what total compensation you are seeking and how you will consider breaking that up among base salary, bonus, commission, overtime pay, benefits, and/or services.

Researching compensation

  • What are current salaries for the jobs which interest you? Ask the people you know well who are in the field for pay ranges, incentives, and other pay data that they might know.
  • Take a look at the salary ranges posted on jobboards. These need to be for the same or VERY similar jobs at the type of organization which interests you and in your geographic area.
  • Many professional organizations do salary surveys for their members. Check yours out – many are online. Or, if you are not a member, ask more senior folks in your profession if they have access. Often these surveys also have some information on common benefits, so check for this too.
  • You can ask these questions when you are networking: “What is the typical current pay range for X position?” and “What do you currently see happening to pay rates for Z?” And ask headhunters for their take on the current market.
  • Metro DC, like many metro areas, has a very wide range of salaries for almost any job because we have such a wide range of options. Typically, one job can pay very differently depending on: Type of organization: non-profit, major national company, government contractor, service business, federal or state agency, health care organization, association, law firm, etc.
  • Size of organization: In general, small organizations usually pay less, larger pay somewhat more than the small ones, but midsize organizations often pay more than other sizes do, if the job is in their core competency.
  • Function within the organization: a web designer in a web design/development firm will generally make more money than one in a company for which the web function is not seen as critical to the business.
  • Location: While most of us realize that pay rates differ significantly across the United States, it is also true that many jobs have noticeable differences depending on whether they are in the city proper, in inner or outer suburbs, etc.
  • The state of the market: Locally, for example, adjunct professors consistently make less than in many smaller cities—we have a lot of PhDs and others who want to teach college courses. On the other hand, since there are many government contractors here, there is almost always high demand for people with advanced security clearances and their pay reflects the low supply versus the demand.

If you looked at a good local salary survey, like the one done in Metro DC by HRA-NCA each year, you would find that a 25-40% range in average salaries exists in many positions depending on how the data is cut (for example: by the categories above.)

There is plenty of pay data available on the web. But most of it is quite generic and often rather old. Even Salary.com provides limited data. It uses national salary survey data and the government’s salary data surveys. While the data is adjusted over time, it represents rolling, large-scale averages of averages. When you put in a specific location, you get national average data multiplied by a standard factor for your location relative to the U.S. average. It does not represent actual local data. Note that many sites are just repackaging Salary.com, so don’t think you are getting lots of data when you are getting one set via different sources.

Useful sources you may want to look at include:

Some employment agencies also provide basic salary surveys for their core markets on their websites although you may have to register to access it.

Benefits are also quite variable. Historically, government jobs have paid average salaries but offered richer benefits. Non-profits often paid low to average salaries but also offered richer benefits. Larger companies offered more benefits than smaller ones. In looking at benefits, you also need to know that some benefits are legally restricted so a company that offers a 401(k) retirement plan, for example, cannot change the terms of the plan for you.

Your focus on benefits is also a combination of what is important to you in your career and what is reasonable in the market.

Many organizations showcase their benefits on their websites. You should look at these for all the organizations which interest you – and for others in these markets to develop a sense of what is common and what is not.

Salary Discussions in Job Search

You will remember that I advised you in other columns to put these off as long as possible. You may want to ask for a range for a position if asked about salary in an early screening interview. And with increasing concerns about privacy and identity theft, you can state these concerns.

You do NOT want to provide a salary history. Check this link for more ideas: www.asktheheadhunter.com/faqsalary1.htm

Online applications sometimes force you to fill in salary although most have no checking mechanism so any series of numbers allows you to proceed.

But at some point in the interview process, you are likely to have a discussion about salary.

You want to talk about your pay expectations in terms of the position you are seeking. Your numbers should be reasonable and based on the market as well as your value. Generally you want to express them in terms of a range of salary depending on the other compensation available.

If you do find a job that really interests you and the pay seems low, check to be sure that you really understand what they want first. Second, make the case that your quality of work and knowledge will help them succeed.