Negotiating Your First Salary Seems Scary, But It Doesn't Have To Be

by Hannah Golden
John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images

"When I got my first job, I was so over the moon that I honestly didn't even care what the offer was or what it included — I just wanted to work," Kylie, age 29, tells Elite Daily. Most people know they should ask their employers for more money, but few actually do, especially the first time around. Negotiating your salary for your first job is critically important to your career. But how exactly do you do that?

To find out, I spoke to Abigail Lewis, Vice President of Leadership Programs and Campus Initiatives at the American Association of University Women (AAUW). AAUW (which also happens to be my former employer), in addition to researching the gender pay gap, conducts salary negotiation workshops for women both in the working world and those just starting their careers.

If you're underpaid in your first job, it's more likely you'll keep getting underpaid in future jobs. "When you're not paid a fair salary," Lewis says, "you're always going to be behind."

AAUW's research on the pay gap shows that women on average still make only about 80 percent of what their white male counterparts do. And this gap, data shows, affects women across occupation, major, career, education level, and race. It can hit particularly hard for new graduates, AAUW research found, who may start out their careers tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. So being underpaid might not just mean you can't afford that vacation or that dinner out — it can also mean getting behind on student loan payments or being unable to pay rent.

Not negotiating salaries is one big reason the pay gap persists. A study by recruitment website Jobvite, per CNBC, found that only 21 percent of respondents negotiated their salaries, and while 58 percent of men are comfortable negotiating their salaries, only 38 percent of women are. (However, another study by Harvard University's Kennedy School found that, when job descriptions explicitly stated that salaries were negotiable, women and men both initiated negotiations equally.) There's a stigma around women negotiating when it comes to their salaries, Lewis says.

"There's a lot of pressure on women to be liked," Lewis adds. Asking for a fair salary can lead to the idea that women are ungrateful for the fact that they have a job or that they aren't being team players.

Kylie tells Elite Daily she initially accepted a low offer and later attempted to renegotiate with her employers for more, but was unsuccessful. "Looking back, I wish I had argued for more, or better yet, had the tools to argue for what I felt I deserved. Because I was so young and because it was my first job, I felt like I just had to shut up and accept whatever they offered," she says.

This is pretty common, Lewis says. "You might be afraid that, if you try to negotiate, they'll take the job away. That's not true, but that's a fear," Lewis says. "You can negotiate; you should negotiate."

College students and young adults in particular might be on a back foot, too, as they may not have experience negotiating salaries simply because their work experience may be limited to hourly waged jobs. And colleges aren't necessarily preparing students for this aspect of the working world. "At no point do they take you aside and say, look, this is how you negotiate," Lewis says.

Lots of young people don't even know that they should be negotiating their salaries, much less how to go about it, Lewis says.

"When I got my first full-time job ... because it was my first time going through an on-boarding process, the thought of negotiating my salary didn't even cross my mind," one 25-year-old, who wished to remain anonymous, tells Elite Daily.

So even if you do know you're supposed to push for a higher salary, how do you know what to say when you're at the negotiating table? Lewis has some recommendations, following the salary negotiation workshops.

Don't go in unprepared. This should be obvious, like any other part of prepping for a job interview. Do your homework (more on that below), but also run through the scenarios and practice what you're going to say. Definitely don't wing it for your first negotiation.

Do your market-based research. You should look up what people in your field, in that position, are making, so you know what's fair. The goal is to ensure you're asking for a salary that's competitive with what's being paid in the industry, not over- or under-shooting the standard. Think of it this way: You're just asking to get paid what everyone else makes — that's not too unreasonable, right?

Focus on your qualifications. For the 25-year-old, when they were offered a lower salary than they hoped for, they replied with a counter-offer detailing their qualifications and why they deserved a higher number. This tactic apparently did the trick.

And in fact, that's exactly what Lewis recommends: Focus on why you're worth more and why your qualifications justify a higher salary.

Don't make it personal. "Your future employer doesn't care that you have student loan debt," Lewis says. "They don't need to know why you need the money." You don't need to justify why you want a higher salary. Instead, focus on the fact that the salary you're asking for is fair, and that you deserve it.

Lastly: Don't be scared of the idea of negotiating. We've all negotiated, Lewis points out, and do so throughout our lives. As children and parents, we negotiate bedtimes. As students, we negotiate extensions on our homework. So if it seems intimidating, just remember that you've done it before.

AAUW has a new app, too, that helps people practice the language that will help them in the negotiating room, so you can get a head start on practicing your lines before that job offer.

Whatever you do, the big takeaway is to realize that even if you're a college student, you can negotiate your first job salary, and fortunately, it's not rocket science.