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Should I negotiate my starting salary? If so, how?
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A short primer on when and how to negotiate your starting salary.

The question

Should I negotiate my starting salary? If so, how?

I am a female student studying computer science at Virginia Tech. I have an offer from a company but it was about 10k lower than the national average for entry level software developers. However, it is my only offer so far so I don’t want to risk it. Should I try to negotiate or just leave it? Any tips or articles/books you guys think would be good for me to read if I decide to negotiate? Honestly, negotiating scares me … but at the same time I don’t want to get screwed over when all my male counterparts don’t mind negotiating and therefore get higher salaries.

My answer

Should you negotiate your starting salary?

Yes, you should negotiate. There are three main reasons:

  1. You can probably improve upon the offer by negotiating.
  2. It’s extremely unlikely your offer is at risk if you negotiate.
  3. If not now, when?

Before I jump into my answer, you also asked about books you can read. My book Fearless Salary Negotiation is coming out before the end of the year, and pre-orders will start very soon. You can get a free chapter on “How to ace your next interview” here: How to ace your next interview That chapter can help you maximize the initial offers you get as you continue interviewing and working to get more offers to consider.

Ok, back to your questions!

1. You can probably improve upon the offer by negotiating

You know this because you’ve done research that indicates your offer is below the market value for an entry-level software engineer. It’s not unusual for companies to offer below market because they’re hoping to end up around market value after they’ve negotiated.

Also, they probably didn’t offer the absolute maximum salary they’re willing to pay, and you can get closer to that absolute maximum by negotiating.

2. It’s extremely unlikely your offer is at risk if you negotiate

You’re right that the worst case scenario is the firm pulling the offer if you negotiate. But, I have never seen a job offer pulled due to the candidate negotiating. In reality, the worst case scenario is likely that they simply don’t budge on their offer if you negotiate. This probably won’t happen (see above), but this is still good information if it does happen: you’ll know their offer represents the maximum they will pay for your skill set and experience in your industry.

3. If not now, when?

Negotiating scares most people, so you’re in good company. (After all, that’s why my book is called Fearless Salary Negotiation.) The bottom line is maximizing your salary almost certainly requires overcoming that fear.

This isn’t the only offer you’re going to get—you’re getting a degree from Virginia Tech! If your negotiation goes well, you could improve your salary significantly (your research indicates your skill set could be worth as much as $10k more than their offer0; if it goes poorly, the offer will likely stay the same.

So don’t look at this one offer as your only offer—look at it as your first opportunity to get comfortable negotiating your salary and as an opportunity maximize your salary if you accept this offer.

How should you negotiate your salary?

You’ve already done two of the trickier parts of the negotiation process: you’ve done research to determine the market value of your skill set and experience, and you’ve gotten an offer. Now you just need to maximize the opportunity by negotiating your salary.

Determine your minimum acceptable salary

Before you counter, you should determine your minimum acceptable salary to do the job. What is the salary that the company must meet to prevent you from walking away from the opportunity? Pre-deciding this number will help you navigate the negotiation with confidence. It’s possible this number is already met with their offer, and that’s good to know as well.

Once you have that number, you’re ready to negotiate.

Then you should counter

It seems like you have already bought some time to consider their offer, so use that time to determine your counter offer and consider your strengths that justify your counter. You should counter 10% or so above their offer. The more they need you to do the job, the higher you can counter. The more you need the job, the lower you should counter. But 10% is a safe counter regardless. (I know you mentioned $10k as the difference between your offer and your estimated market value, but you didn’t mention the actual salary, so I don’t know how close to market value 10% will get you. If you’re confident that your $10k estimate is a good estimate, you could counter more than 10% above their offer, but I wouldn’t recommend countering more than 20% above their offer.)

One caveat: If your counter would be below your minimum acceptable salary (from above), then just counter with your minimum acceptable salary and say “I’m sorry, but I can’t accept your offer below such and such salary.”

You will often deliver your counter via email, so take that opportunity to include a few sentences explaining why you’re worth your counter. “I will be a great asset to your team because I have a lot of experience with your methodology and I can contribute from day one.” or something similar.

Haggle to get to your final salary

They will usually counter your counter, so prepare ahead of time by deciding how you’ll respond to any salary between their initial offer and your first counter. It will usually be a small window that you can break into reasonable increments (like $500 or $1,000), so you only need to plan for five or six possibilities.

So, if they offered $50k and you counter at $55k, then you should prepare for them to respond at every increment in between. Here’s a quick example:

$50k (they don’t budget) – “Ok, so you can’t move on the base salary. Are you open to offering a $5k signing bonus to get me to $55k for this year while I work to increase my base to $55k in the future?”

$51k – “If you can do $52k, then I’m on board!”

$52k – “If you can meet me at $53k, then I’m on board!”

$53k – “If you can meet me at $54k, then I’m on board!”

$54k – “Ok, sounds good!”

$55k (they accept your counter) – “Ok, sounds good!”

The final discussion where you come to your final salary will often be a quick verbal discussion on a phone call. Use the script you prepared in the previous paragraph as your guide in case you get nervous during this discussion. (I did this and my script made me $1,500 because it kept me from making a mistake when I was nervous.)

That’s a pretty brief overview, but that’s my method in a nutshell.

You can get “How to ace your next interview”—a free chapter from my upcoming book Fearless Salary Negotiation—here: How to ace your next interview. Or you can get the full here: Fearless Salary Negotiation: Get it here . Good luck!